I don’t usually post two days in a row, but it’s my viva tomorrow and then things get pretty hectic, so just in case it’s a few days before I get another chance, I’ll post now. Also, I really love this!
OK, we’re descending deep into geekery with this one, so all you “normal” people, you may need to look away. This was passed on to me yesterday (thanks Gideon!) and it’s totally awesome but also so embroiled in levels of post-modernist… something… that the geek universe might just implode.
Dr Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog, for those who haven’t heard of it, was an internet production put together by Joss Whedon during the writer’s strike the year before last. I saw it at the time and it’s fab, with almost annoyingly catchy tunes, but I found the ending a bit too… Whedon. I won’t say more in case you haven’t seen it – watch it, it’s great. Also, I love the horse.
I hadn’t heard this before, but it appears to be a musical commentary on the blog. So this is a fictional musical commentary on a fictional musical blog of a fictional character. Whew.
The link is above, but these are the relevant lyrics:
Homer's Odyssey was swell,
A bunch of guys that went through hell,
He told the tale but didn't tell,
the audience why.
He didn't say, "Here's what it means"
And "Here's a few deleted scenes"
"Charybdis tested well with teens"
He's not the story,
He's just a door we open if,
our lives need liftin'...
But now we pick - pick - pick - pick - pick it apart,
Open it up to find the tick - tick - tick - of a heart,
The point Joss is making here, obviously (and I suspect only half-ironically) is that, in this age of DVD commentary and wall-to-wall media coverage and internet crazyness, we’ve lost something – the true appreciation of narrative, pure and simple. (Of course, some people don’t get into all that and do just enjoy the simple narrative, but I suspect the people listening to the fictional musical commentary on the fictional blog of the fictional character are not those people). JRR Tolkien would have thoroughly agreed (I told you we were deep into geekland). In his paper ‘Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics’ Tolkien told a little story about how someone took apart a tower to see how it was made and, in doing so, destroyed the original tower, from which it was possible to see the sea. Tolkien meant to criticize people like me, who analyse literary works to try to discover something about their history, but it could equally apply to the modern obsession with knowing as much as humanly possible about the process behind the stories we tell.
In a way, Whedon has a point. There is something wonderful about how little we know about Homer. He is a complete mystery – perhaps not even one person, perhaps not even two people, with dozens if not hundreds of anonymous oral poets behind him, we don’t know where he was from, we don’t know where he went, we don’t know when he lived. (Yes, I realise I will get a bunch of comments about how he was a blind poet from Ionia and probably ten different opinions on exactly how many poets worked on the Iliad and the Odyssey. The point is, it’s all guesses and theory – we don’t know anything). All we have are two poems which tell wonderful stories (with the occasional really dull, if useful, digression about ships).
On the other hand, we should be wary of over-romanticising. Homer may not have explained what he meant (more’s the pity) or included deleted scenes (though, given the length of the Iliad and the Odyssey, there might be a few in there) but you can be sure he wouldn’t have included Charybdis if it didn’t go down well with audiences, teen or otherwise. Homer may not have had access to the internet, or Sky+, or polled his listeners every week, but he still had to deal with people, and he still had an audience to please.
Homer is also one of the most (over-)analysed writers in history. The lack of deleted scenes and commentary doesn’t stop people from analyzing every word of every sentence of those two poems, it just means there’s a greater chance of them being wrong. Homer isn’t here to tell us that actually, Dumbledore is gay, Spike was originally supposed to die in season 2 and the Ring was written long before the emergence of nuclear weapons. And wouldn’t it be wonderful if he was?!
Information from the author isn’t, as is widely believed, infallible. Firstly, they sometimes lie – apparently, Animal Farm is about animals. Even more importantly, there may be things that influence an author – world events, personal circumstances, things they’ve read or seen but forgotten – that do so subconsciously, so they can’t tell you where something came from or what it means because they’re not sure themselves. But they can put their readers, or viewers, right on the really big mistakes. They can answer the big questions, like why on earth does Aeneas leave the underworld via the gate of false dreams? Just what on earth was Virgil getting at – or is it the world’s most irritating manuscript error?!
So overall, I think the commentaries and dissections and interviews are a good thing, and if anything we do survives us, it may be better understood by the historians and literary analysts of the future. On the other hand, the point still stands. I imagine Whedon picked Homer – along with the caveman’s bison – because he stands at the very edge of history, where it borders on myth. It is possible, if you let yourself, to be swept away by Homer and to let yourself get completely swept up in the grandeur of something we don’t fully understand, which is wonderful for precisely that reason. As Tolkien said, from the top of the tower, we can see the sea.
Although it would be nice if he’d explained the point of the catalogue of ships…