Thursday, August 9, 2018

Bardic Tradition Meets the Written Word

As I write this, it is exactly a week since I was in surgery at San Francisco General Hospital to pin a fracture in my upper right femur. The paramedics had taken me there because my “first contact” would be with the Trauma Center; and I was informed that Trauma Center operations were much more advanced than anything I would encounter at any other hospital. Looking back, I have no reason to dispute that claim. I was admitted early on Wednesday afternoon, and my surgery would have taken place on the same day had the surgery schedule not been fully booked.

I have had only a few hospital experiences, all of which have helped me cultivate a certain degree of patience for the fact that most of the time there is spent waiting for one thing or another. From that point of view, I was impressed at how San Francisco General helped me through a lot of that wait time. After I came through the surgery, my wife was there with my MacBook Pro; and even the act of catching up on mail and feeds did much to stave off the onset of tedium. (I still do not like the laptop’s keyboard, which turned out to be another lesson in exercising patience!) My guess is that Mark Zuckerberg had something to do with the high-quality wireless signal in my room; and, for me at least, that was money well spent.

From a more passive point of view, however, my best diversion came from a television box that provided a rather rich library of movies, all free, as well as the “standard cable” channels. This gave me a chance to indulge heavily in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), taking the advantage of seeing films that had not yet emerged from pay status on my xfinity service. It also allowed me to revisit films I had previously seen but for which I had only the roughest of memories.

As a result, by the time I was discharged I had a rich appreciation of the interleaving of narratives across the different MCU films. I was reminded of those impressions this morning while reading a SYFY Wire article about the role that Venom will play in that interleaving process. Further reflection resurrected memories of The Role of the Reader, a collection of English translations of essays by Umberto Eco that I was reading when I was doing research on the impact of hypertext and hypermedia on our practices of reading and writing.

That collection included an essay on the concept of the “open work.” This was proposed as the opposite of the sorts of “closed” texts that we are used to encountering in most of the novels and short stories that we read. Unfortunately, I found Eco’s approach to “open” to be little more than fumbling around with relatively arcane concepts, almost as if he was thumbing his nose at the novice reader to say, “I know more about this than you will ever know.”

Ironically, Eco was so preoccupied with his own navel as to overlook the American Nobel laureate who, through practice, understood the concept in practice better than Eco could express through theory. That author was William Faulkner, whose novels and short stories were almost entirely embedded in the history of a fictional county in Mississippi and a few of the families living in that county. The interleaving of Faulkner’s narratives was so rich that, when Malcolm Cowley compiled The Portable Faulkner for Viking, he opted for a chronological ordering of the Faulkner texts he had selected for the volume, rather than one based on when those texts were written or published.

This is not to suggest that either Stan Lee or the key developers of the MCU were big on Faulkner (although there are any number of gestures dropped in just about every film that suggest that those developers are very well-read). On the other hand it strikes me that MCU projects are following in the footsteps of pre-literate bardic practices, whether they involve those “singers of tales” whose accounts eventually found their way into the more epic accounts of Iliad and Odyssey, or those further north, who sang of the Volsungs and the Nibelungs. Such bards were part of a rich “open” social structure, in which listeners were often as active as singers.

Source of the phrase “singers of tales” (from

That social structure was one in which familiarity was the mother of invention. The bard might begin singing about Achilles and Hector, only to have a listener pipe up:
We all know what caused Achilles to leave his tent and enter the battle; but why was he waiting so long in his tent in the first place?
Every tale raises questions, and those questions are answered by other tales. So it is with MCU narratives, particularly when one encounters a character in one film before another film pursues that character’s “origin story.”

Of course any single film takes on far more content that one would probably have encountered in a single bardic tale. On the other hand the MCU was never conceived as an oral tradition. Bringing writing in the picture leads to new rules, and Faulkner himself was probably experimenting with which of those rules worked and which did not. At the same time, however, the shift from printed text to cinema also necessitates a change in rules; and it is probably not out of the question to view the MCU as a sort of workshop for testing those rules. After all, any truly inventive act of creation must, of necessity, be experimental; and, if you are too locked into the results you want to get, you have no business experimenting in the first place!

The good news is that MCU has a vigorously supportive fan base. My guess is that such support is more tolerant of experiments that go off in unexpected directions than one tends to encounter in other fan bases. This makes for a producer-consumer relationship that can be called “productively healthy.” These days it is hard to find other instances of that relationship. I just hope that those who steer the MCU “ship of state” realize what a good thing they have and continue to foster its virtues!

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