The Middle of Our Epic
During my Ph. D. studies (no, I didn’t finish) I studied the origins of the English novel. My advisor, a brilliant man, published a book while I worked with him. It showed how the structure of the great epics –The Iliad, The Odyssey, Paradise Lost, for example – just about invariably took the epic hero out of his world and stripped him of everything he had depended upon. At the exact center of the poem or the story, the hero was bereft of fortune, family, friends and protection of any kind. His choice was to die or to rise, completely renewed, toward wisdom, the whole point of the exercise.
The English novel had its beginnings in the 18th century. Some consider Samuel Richardson’s Pamela (1740) to be the first novel of note, while others argue that Oroonoko, or The Royal Slave (1688), by the remarkable 17th century woman Aphra Behn, preceded Pamela as the first novel. The argument about precedence persists, though many critics feel strongly that Oroonoko is more a sort of roman à clef, a “mixture of theatrical drama, reportage, and biography,” as one writer puts it.
Be all of that as it may, the apotheosis of the 18th century English novel is Joseph Fielding’s Tom Jones (1749). In it, Tom, a foundling, has been adopted into wealth and privilege but through his own rash actions loses everything: his family, his position, his means, and most especially his great love, Sophia (not accidentally named: “sophia” is a Greek word meaning wisdom, particularly divine wisdom; it also denotes perfect beauty). His nadir occurs in the exact middle of the novel; he is without everything, even clothing, and is imprisoned. To regain his great love and his life he must attain wisdom, and, therefore, sophia and Sophia.
These great works – the epics, the epic novels – are stories, first of all, and lessons, also first of all. They are about coming into liminal* space at its most extreme and, if one is to survive, coming to understand that past behaviors and associations must either be rejected or completely reconstituted. As a people we love such stories because they are full of both peril and hope. The greatest storytellers, playwrights and movie makers have known this and have told their stories using such structures. We see it constantly in the best narratives of the reluctant heroine or hero who must come to terms with the importance of their own existence. Sometimes the central figure does not or cannot come to such terms, usually because of fatal hubris; such is the nature of tragedy.
We are not exactly heroines or heroes in our current state of being at Unity Temple. But events have driven us into a most important liminal space, one from which we can, if we take advantage of it in the best ways, emerge far stronger as a congregation and as an organization. We still have our clothes and our wherewithal, mostly. But lots of things and conditions that existed before are gone, and we’re in the place where we can – in fact, must – create a new reality. I could not have expected such excitement at my stage of life, and it’s wonderful to contemplate.