Agonistic Storytelling

More evidence that the statues, cathedrals, fossils, and transcriptions that we are left with deny us the color, behavior, and flavor of the monuments, animals, and storytelling media as they lived.

Believe it or not, our engagement with the plays of William Shakespeare may have gone this increasingly, if accidentally “literized” direction. Historian Lawrence Levine’s meticulously researched Highbrow/ Lowbrow details how Shakespeare’s plays were both performed and responded to in nineteenth-century America. While Levine asserts that he is most certainly not nostalgic for the “disorderly crowds” of that time, since, were he in front of them, they might “shout [him] down” when they disagreed or make him repeat sentences they found “particularly stirring,” such were the conditions of performance that prevailed. Even an English visitor to America in 1832, novelist Frances Trollope, bemoaned the Shakespearean audience’s “perpetual” noises and the fact that “when a patriotic fit seized them, and ‘Yankee Doodle’ was called for, every man seemed to think his reputation as a citizen depended on the noise he made.”

We need wonder if pejoratives like “rubes” or “yokels,” long intended in the USA to demean individuals considered unsophisticated, were to some extent used against individuals who were more orally inclined and who, when they visited the theaters were accustomed— as Levine himself advises— to acting and interacting as participants. They could enter into the action, “feel a sense of immediacy and even of control” of the performance, and un self- consciously “articulate their opinions and feelings vocally and unmistakably.” One thing they obviously weren’t was tight- lipped! 

In Before Literature: The Nature of Narrative Without the Written Word, author Sheila Nayar outlines the idea of Orality as a mode in visual media. She highlights the “the agon of the audiences- but, even more, of the audiences.”

The use of “Agon” tickles me, as at one point I meant to expand upon this and related terms to the study of play that I planted a flag upon on Ribbonfarm a few years ago.

In fact, in the ancient theatrical context, the agon was the contest or rhetorical debate that occurred precisely between these two characters: the protos (first) and the anti (against). Even more, actors were quite literally agonistes, in the sense of their being actors or competitors (hence the derivation of protagonist from protos + agonistes, meaning the first of those who, as an actor, engages in the contest). 

These audiences were agonistic, engaged in and responding to the struggle playing out ahead of them as if they were observing a sport. As the author describes, one could imagine the hooting and spitting as Oedipus accuses Creon in one stichomythia for “sinning against his own kind” as the audience already knows the deep dramatic irony that it is Oedipus himself who has sinned against his own kind. It was not subtle, and the audience is in on the joke from the beginning.

Silent film may have drawn heavily from the oral episteme. It’s commonly asserted that the exaggerated movement is influenced from vaudeville, but also note that as movies were catching on, the moviegoers themselves were an increasingly polyglot proletariat. Visual epithets like mustache-twirling, exaggerated action to increase behavior intelligibility, and archetypal plot elements helped to communicate to audiences who may not have had the tools to respond to subtler approaches. Likewise with Bollywood “Masala” films from the 1980s, US Soap Operas, and Mexican telenovelas- all of which found audiences across language and cultural barriers.

In fact, the Hindi- film industry cleverly determined ways to visualize verbomotor speech. While likely unaware that they were appealing to oral ways of knowing, masala filmmakers nonetheless developed a technical agonism— by way of rapid zooms- in on a protagonist as he verbalizes his pledge, for example, or via a camera circling him with vertiginous speed. Like the sound-effectual wind that might recall a deity’s sanction of a hero’s planned vengeance, or screeching violins to preordain doom, such technical cues function much like those formulary expressions out of which oral epic’s architecture is built. And how swiftly they are able to connote fear, or yearning, or escalating rage, or Get away now!— or, just as ably, to project love at first sight. 

This is also something I enjoyed about the War Nerd’s Iliad, which I read around the same time as Before Literature. I noticed minor mythological errors, but the story was fundamentally a campfire story instead of poetry. It was present-tense and plot-driven. In order for the totems to make sense, he had to reintroduce aspects of warfare that would be foreign to modern audiences: looting bodies is a key and important mechanic of war, fights are brawls, the fighting is brutal and absurd, the people involved are often dumb and vulgar and absurd, with brief moments of brutal glory and cleverness. He also makes the neat decision to visualize the Gods as science fiction beings, bringing back a sense of sacred otherness that it sometimes hard to feel through the archaic mythological inferences of the more academic translations. This is pulp, it’s not subtle. It’s meant as vulgar entertainment.

I was also going to cite some Hindi-language mythic shows I watched idly on Hotstar while in Mumbai, but I might wade into depths I should rather steer clear of.

Spectacle Sells

Brutal absurdity is another thing that makes sense to bring up in the oral episteme. I don’t see why it is exclusive to Orality, but does seem to be omnipresent.

Some time ago (in the historical sense), Lawrence Levine argued that the discipline of history generally safeguarded culture in line with how historians had already elected to exhume, define, and interpret it. To make his case— this was in his book Highbrow/ Lowbrow— he provided an illustrative example from the study of Shakespeare. Levine drew attention to one historian in particular, who, while happily conceding to the Bard’s tremendous popularity in nineteenth- century America, attached to that acclamation a painfully propositional but: “but,” so this author said, Shakespeare’s plays in that historical circumstance had been “either produced as vehicles for a popular star … or treated as blood- and- thunder spectacles ….” And so Levine wondered: “What was the purpose of this curious ‘but’? Did it really negate, or qualify, or explain the fact of Shakespeare’s popularity in any meaningful way? The more I stumbled into these inescapable qualifiers,” Levine continues, “the more I concluded that their effective— though not necessarily deliberate— function was to protect the historian and the historian’s culture.”

Before Literature

Nayar points to spectacular violence in pre-literary stories and reminds us that their visceral nature is part of what makes them memorable- surely, a lot of the epics that have survived are war stories, but even non-war stories have moments like these:

[And, so, upon that she- wolf reaching him]: She licked his face all over with her tongue and then reached her tongue into his mouth. He did not lose his composure and bit into the wolf ’s tongue. She jerked and pulled back hard, thrusting her feet against the trunk [of the stocks] so that it split apart. But Sigmund held on so tightly that the wolf ’s tongue was torn out by the roots, and that was her death.

Saga of the Volsungs

We also see it in fairy tales, but I think the Grimm stories are normie shit y’all already know. The wartime ones have some dope moments Nayar cites as well, for fun:

Drawing his keen- edged sword, and trembling with rage, [the Pandava prince Bhima] placed his foot upon the throat of [the Kaurava prince] Dushasana and, ripping open the breast of his enemy, drank his warm lifeblood little by little. Then, looking at him with wrathful eyes, he said, “I consider the taste of this blood superior to that of my mother’s milk.”

The Mahabharata

Idomeneus skewered Erymas straight through the mouth.
the merciless brazen spearpoint raking through,
up under the brain to split his glistening skull—

The Iliad

More tomorrow.