July 09, 2007

Scip-gefere: Paddle your own canoe (part I)

I’ve recently become interested in the relationship between science and technology on the one hand, and literature and culture on the other, and I’ve been working this into my lectures a bit. Here’s an example of a kind of neat idea I came up with for one of my classes. Since this has turned out to be a very long post, I’ve divided it up into three segments, so check back for the continuation. First a little background:

One of the courses I taught this past year was Narrative. There weren’t many stipulations for this course other than that we were to consider narrative from fairly broad terms. I was quite excited at the prospect of teaching this course, since my own research was moving in this direction, what with my work on discourse analysis and pragmatics, and having just given a paper at the Narrative Matters conference I was full of ideas. I decided to divide the course into two parts. First we would survey the major narrative genres of western literature — myth, folktale, legend, etc.; epic and saga; romance; the novel; the short story — and then we’d spend the rest of our time on thematic units. I wanted to consider narrative broadly speaking as a way human beings tend to organise information and make sense of their world. Starting off with myth was a particularly good way of introducing this idea. We compared parallel stories such as creation myths, destruction myths (like flood myths), and so forth from the Bible, Greek myth, and Norse myth. This also gave us the opportunity to do a bit of comparative mythology and consider the differences in religious beliefs and some of the different world views these reflect, for instance the very personal relationship between humans and God in the Judeo-Christian world and the relationship based on fear in the Greco-Roman world.

I also wanted to spend some time on some of the fundamental narratives of western culture, and the first thematic unit that I settled on was travel and exploration. As I was prepping my lectures on this topic it occurred to me that there was an interesting parallel pattern between the travel and exploration literature and the world views reflected by this imagery on the one hand, and the development of sailing technology on the other. I suggested to the class that the travel and exploration metaphor could be seen as reflective of cultural change from the ancient world to the modern. This narrative metaphor often describes man’s relation to the world in which he lives — the narrative is symbolic of man’s place in the universe. And the use of this narrative metaphor changes over time to reflect different beliefs about man’s place in the world.

In the Odyssey, one of the oldest recorded travel narratives in western literature, we see human beings at the mercy of the elements, and by extension the gods. Odysseus and his crew are constantly driven about against their will by the elements. And as we had already discussed in our mythology section, this reflects a common idea in Greek mythology that humans are at the mercy of capricious gods — a common Greek view of man’s place in the universe. This of course is entirely consistent with ancient sailing technology. The ancients had square sails. Here’s a picture of a square sail:


Ships with square sails are not very manoeuvrable. Essentially you go in the direction that the wind blows you. If the wind was blowing the wrong way, you were out of luck, so you’d have to wait for a favourable wind. Sure, you had oars to row, but that wouldn’t take you very fast or very far. If a storm blew up, you’d use the oars to row quickly to shore, as happens at one point in the Odyssey. Thus sailors were at the mercy of the wind, hence the sense of helplessness in the Odyssey.

As a side note, it’s interesting to compare the attitudes towards sea travel in Homer and in Virgil. While Odysseus is certainly trying to get home, he appreciates his journey and learns many things along the way. Aeneas, on the other hand, is much more focussed on the final destination. While the Greeks were a seafaring culture who lived on a peninsula with many small islands and relied on sea travel for their economy, the Romans were a much more land-based culture who hated and feared the sea, though they were practical enough to become proficient at it when required to do so.

It’s also interesting to see what later writers did with the Homeric story of Odysseus. The same story has three different meanings for Homer, Dante, and Tennyson. Homer’s Odysseus is simply at the mercy of the gods. While he does take some interest in the things he sees along the way, his journey is not his will — in fact he’s against it. His journey and his life is determined by the Fates and the prophecies about what will happen to him. In the Greek mythological world, man can’t control his own fate. In the Divine Comedy, in contrast, Dante places Ulysses in hell. For Dante, Ulysses journey was an act of will — Dante wasn’t familiar with Homer first hand. From Dante’s Christian viewpoint willfulness is sinfulness. Man shouldn’t try to control his own fate, as that was up to God. And finally, for Tennyson, in his poem “Ulysses”, the hero’s journey is also an act of will, but it is more positive. Tennyson exalts his purposefulness and striving. Man should try to control his own fate. Thus for Dante sailing out into the ocean is bad and Ulysses is placed in hell for it, but for Tennyson it is good and he is lionised for it.

(Continued tomorrow)

Posted by Mark at July 9, 2007 02:29 PM | TrackBack

I had no idea that square sails would do that. What if I’d been marooned?

The Greeks were right, by the way.

Posted by: Carrie K at July 10, 2007 01:56 PM