[KB] Courting Danger

brud0025@umn.edu brud0025 at umn.edu
Wed May 21 18:04:37 EDT 2008

Thank you Ed, Greg and Herb for a series of very interesting posts. You 
have helped me to more clearly formulate where I am going in my own 
investigations. Please consider the following contribution to be unfinished 
and open. It simply cannot be helped.

I should preface with the Sir Thomas Browne epigraph which Edgar Allen Poe 
uses in “The Murders in the Rue Morgue.” I may have done this before so I 
beg your pardon, since it bears upon my thought:

“What song the syrens sang, or what name Achilles assumed when he hid 
himself among women, although puzzling questions, are not beyond all 

The arrows of these questions point backward. What I want to consider here 
and in future is “What song will the sirens sing? Etc

I found what Greg said right at the beginning of this very interesting 
discussion of the premises of conflict very interesting (Desilet, Moby 
Dick, and Melodrama):

 I’d say that the “essayistic” and “comic” threads in the novel contribute 
to its “epic” quality such that I’d like to call it a reflexive melodrama 
in epic proportion where reflexive melodrama is seen as a close cousin of 
tragic drama.

Here “epic” is introduced by Greg with the qualification that all the 
various threads in Moby Dick contribute to the sheer extensiveness of the 
work. One can see Melville reliving his whaling rite of passage, pitting 
his altar ego against the whole of nature and the universe and making a 
rather valiant attempt at cracking its code, yet not really flinching from 
the certainty of his own dissolution. Call this then an adult rehearsal of 
the universal rending that is to come, two rites of passage really, the boy 
Ishmael becoming a man and the man Ahab becoming 
nought, or whatever is 
next, substituting the ocean’s deep for the winding sheets in his "birth." 
This then is the cyclical structure of the novel, modeled perhaps loosely 
upon Genesis and Revelations, the beginning and the end of all things, but 
also modeled upon other epics with their monsters, (Satans, Grendels, 
Krakens, Leviathans), their Tyrants, Titans and other gods (Ra, Prometheus, 
Jove), and their underworlds. As "epic," here is a profound celebratory 
lament for lost youth (the “from what”), an embrace of adulthood (the “now 
what?”), and the acceptance of the inevitable (the “what now?”-- and 
perhaps an acceptance of the unanswerability of that ultimate question, 
“What did it mean?”).

What I read from this is that society, at least significant portions of it, 
those that have banded together with the vague purpose of formulating a new 
purpose, lacks or is in need of a collective rite of passage. The question 
is how to get from here to there. In ATH Burke of course considers that a 
full understanding of the curve of history also involves a thorough 
understanding of where we have been. It seems that only when this is done, 
can we descend from the meta-realm into the real, step from the nightmare 
of the past into the simulator, which is both the classroom and the 
theater, where we work out our dramas and discover our purpose and our 
story, and then hit the pavement with an implementation of those purposes 
and stories decided upon. That is how I understand “equipment for living.” 
I think the big question Burke poses in ATH is, can we get around the 
bureaucratic destruction of the imaginative? If not, then all we have to 
look forward to is “more of the same.”

Herb’s anecdote (Warrantable Outrage) shows Burke transforming rage into a 
methodology for transforming rage. Were he a dramatist I feel sure we’d 
have had something more than a tragedy or comedy. I would like to think 
that these two categories would have been merged into the epic romance 
(thank you Herb), for the scale of the transformation of society Burke 
imagined is much more sweeping than the soap operas which feature tragic 
and comic catharsis. Call these mere episodes in the epic that is to become 
America (“becoming” as in “that mantle is quite becoming”). Bards have been 
in search of a “Song of American” for perhaps two centuries. Hawthorne 
despaired of finding his idea and could only give us Marble Fauns, Scarlet 
Letters and Puritan Sin. Poe mastered the short story and formulated 
several new genres, horror, fantasy, analytic detective, the treasure hunt, 
and he explored in his longest work a form of metaphysical sea going 
adventure which was admired by Melville. Then he dropped off the end of the 
world. Frank Norris advanced the Melvillian epic, though somewhat less 
poetically, renaming the aborted “Kraken” “The Octopus.” This Norris also 
called his "Song of the West." Thomas Wolfe attempted such in "Of Time and 
the River, A Legend of Youth.” There have been other assays, Gaddis 
"Recognitions" and Kerouac "On the Road." The list goes on. I see Entelechy 
writ large in all these large gestures. But are they “to the end of the 
line?” Rather, following Whitman, they are all “Songs of the Open Road.”

It seems that Burke thought comedy a cure for tragedy. (What was Burke’s 
folk criticism but a bit of reflexive melodrama, following Greg Desilet’s 
terminology?). Greg was leary in that this solution degenerates into 
melodrama, or poor tragedy, a bureaucratization of the imaginative that 
infects the theoretical and dilutes the aesthetic. In the discussion of the 
poetic categories in ATH Burke noticed a split between the aesthetic and 
the practical: with some people rejecting the aesthetic and accepting the 
practical. Here are two kinds of person. The one doesn’t want to do 
anything with literature. He wants a fishing pole and a portfolio. He will 
have reality, even if it is only a weekend fishing trip on the Knicknick 
river. I won't grudge him his trip. I hope it is enough and that he never 
becomes disgruntled by the nagging thought that the world looks and feels a 
little bit like a museum, with a pretty steep admission fee at every 

Here let me quote Melville, Chapter 13, in Moby Dick. It contains a lament 
concerning industry, but perhaps also a celebration. (If there must be 
industry, let’s have then a romantic industry). Of the necessity of 
back-to-back voyages Ishmael narrates, as he and Queequeg are being carted 
to Nantucket in “the Moss”:

“Such is the endlessness, ya! the intolerableness of all earthly effort. 
Gaining the more open water, the bracing breeze waxed fresh, the little 
Moss tossed the quick foam from her bows as a young colt his snortings. How 
I snuffed that Tartar air; how I spurned that turnpike earth, that common 
highway all over dented with the marks of slavish heels and hoofs, and turn 
me to admire the sea which will permit no record.”
Frank Norris, in search of his epic, saw in “The Octopus,” he says, an idea 
“as big as all outdoors.” Consider the collective imagination here in the 
process of formulating its future epic. Taking up Melville’s unmet 
challenge to write about the Kraken, in this case, the epic “clash of 
frontier and trust,” Norris writes at the end of Chapter One:

“Then, faint and prolonged, across the levels of the ranch, he heard the 
engine whistling for Bonneville. Again and again, at rapid intervals in its 
flying course, it whistled for road crossings, for sharp curves, for 
trestles; ominous notes, hoarse, bellowing, ringing with the accents of 
menace and defiance; and abruptly Presley saw again, in his imagination, 
the galloping monster, the terror of steel and steam, with its single eye, 
cyclopean, red, shooting from horizon to horizon; but saw it now as the 
symbol of a vast power, huge, terrible, flinging the echo of its thunder 
over all the reaches of the valley, leaving blood and destruction in its 
path; the leviathan, with tentacles of steel clutching into the soil, the 
soulless Force, the iron-hearted Power, the monster, the Colossus, the 

Quite a song the male sirens sing. 

Following Herb’s suggestion about the Romantic as an as yet unimagined or 
un-theorized frame of acceptance, I would like to argue that epic romance 
provides an orientation large enough to contextualize, organize and filter 
through all the separate comedies and tragedies, with the potential (one 
day) of making us feel “at home in the world.” (Burke’s definition of the 
epic, ATH, p. 35).


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