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differences: A Journal of Feminist Cultural Studies 12.2 (2001) 86-97

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"An Especially Peculiar Undertaking": Alice Notley's Epic

Page DuBois

The old has refuge only at the van-
guard of the new:
in the gaps, not in continuity.

(Adorno, Aesthetic Theory 22)

What could be more arrière-garde, trailing behind, looking backward, than an epic poem written at the end of the twentieth century? We all know that the epic is dead. That Homer and Virgil and Dante and Ariosto and Tasso and Spenser and Milton, in a great patriarchal lineage, wrote their works attending to one another, and that this great line came to an end, perhaps with the beginnings of capitalism and the end of the old forms of monarchy, in which the king stood for his people, or in which a hero, even an everyman, could found his genealogical line in an adventure, a series of ordeals, a long progression from elsewhere toward the beginnings of his people, toward salvation, toward a promised land, often represented as a virgin land, as a bride, as a blooming rose (duBois, History).

If the goal of the epic quest is a feminized telos, we might think of the opposition between the epic and lyric genres as marked by gender, as well. The first female poet in the Western tradition, Sappho, composed lyrics set deliberately, contradictorily within the received matrix of Homeric epic. In fragment sixteen, for example, she sings: "Some say an army of horsemen, some of foot-soldiers, some a fleet of ships to be [End Page 86] the most beautiful thing on the dark earth, but I say it is whatever one desires . . ." (duBois, Sappho). The use of the first person singular in this very early lyric fragment positions a critical female self and establishes a perspective on war and its beauties and pleasures that is rejected for other pleasures, especially eros and the sight of the beloved. This is a defining moment for a feminine self, set against militarism and the plural in the name of a general definition that procedes to the specific object of eros, a particular individual who excites a particular desire.

Barbara Johnson, in "Gender and Poetry," connects the lyric with a secret history of male hysteria and masochism, enfolding the disavowed feminine within a masculinist practice of objectification and predation. Of course, Sappho presents problems for such a characterization of a masculine lyric tradition, in that poems like her fragment one depict the poet herself, in league with the goddess Aphrodite, in pursuit of an elusive female prey. Nonetheless, all such practices--those of Baudelaire as well as of Sappho--are resolutely anti-epic.

How is it, then, that the writing of epic poetry once again seems possible, this time by women poets, in postmodernity?1 Is there a sense in which this arrièriste gesture can represent a paradoxically avant-garde move? I want to look here at Alice Notley's The Descent of Alette, an epic poem if ever there was one, first published in 1992. Notley's poem resembles the great epics of the tradition: it is a journey, a descent into an underworld, a quest that takes the central figure, Alette, underground, deeper and deeper into a space of manifold metamorphoses, seeking to find and expose and destroy a tyrant and to heal the world.

Notley's is an explicitly feminist project whose echoes of an earlier period in feminism recall the question of the epic as it emerged in theoretical and literary debates. In Psyche as Hero, Lee Edwards discussed the myth of Cupid and Psyche as an important exemplar for the novel. Psyche, or "Soul," the heroine of that tale, originally enfolded within the text of Apuleius' Golden Ass, is the exceptional female who suffers a great loss, undergoes multiple trials and ordeals, and finally, in a conclusion taken up later by the fairy tale "Beauty and the Beast," wins her lover Cupid, or Eros, back.2 To imitate this epic journey is to take a very different tack on...


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pp. 86-97
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Archived 2004
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