I am currently reading the Mwindo Epic, a tale from the Banyange people in Congo. I really enjoy this book. This story was recorded in writing by Daniel Bebuyck, Amato Buuni and Stephano Tubi during a performance in 12 sessions on 12 days, performed by the Nyanga bard Candi Rureke sometime in the mid-1950s. It was then published in print, alongside with an introduction and a commented English translation, prepared by Biebuyck together with Kahombo C. Mateene, in 1969. A paperback re-edition came out in 1989 and is today available as a book on demand.
I am generally not very interested in fiction – with a few exceptions, however. As I was “weeding” out my bookshelf from time to time, most novels have gone, while essays, letters, autobiographies and similar types of non-fiction have become more. One of the exceptions are epics and mythological stories. I find on my bookshelf the Illiad and the Odyssee, the Tibetan Gesar epic, the Gilgamesh epic, the Edda and several other similar books, and the Mwindo epic is just the most recent addition in this section. Why do I like such books, with their sometimes strange and bizarre stories?
One reason might be that reading old epics and poetry, on one hand, has a dimension of scholarship in it. There is history, language studies and cultural anthropology involved. I belong to the people who find such stuff interesting. In the Mwindo book for example, I enjoy reading the introduction and the footnotes just as well as the main text.
Secondly, such texts, coming from a cultural context very unlike my own, are often somehow strange both in their content – sometimes quite bizarre from our point of view – and in their style, form and structure. This has an aesthetic effect of “defamiliarization” that I like. I have written about such effects in my article Verfremdung.
And I think there is a third reason why I feel attracted to this kind of texts. Typically, such texts come from oral (non-writing) cultures or from early stages of writing cultures that still have strong oral residues. In his book “Orality and Literacy”, Walter J. Ong writes (p. 68):
Oral memory works effectively with ‘heavy’ characters, persons whose deeds are monumental…Colorless personalities cannot survive oral mnemonics. To assure weight and memorability, heroic figures tend to be type figures: wise Nestor, furious Achilles, clever Odysseus, omnicompetent Mwindo (‘Little-One-Just-Born-He-Walked’, Kábútwa-kénda, his common epithet).
On the other hand, in modern written literature, more realistic “round” characters with a subtle, realistic psychologies develop. Ong writes (p. 149):
…the flat, ‘heavy’ or type character yields to characters that grow more and more ‘round’, that is, that perform in ways at first blush unpredictable but ultimately consistent in terms of the complex character structure and complex motivation with which the round character is endowed. Complexity of motivation and internal psychological growth with the passage of time make the round character like a ‘real person’.
In the development of western literature during the 19th and 20th century, “round” characters with more subtle psychologies appear and moreover, the psychology of the characters and their interactions becomes a central topic of the literature in this period. Many modern readers might find old-style epics less interesting exactly because their characters are “flat”. For me, it is the other way around.
In a previous article, I had already noted that – probably due to my personality structure – I seem to lack some of the sense for such psychological subtleties and, as a result, such books “don’t talk to me”. This kind of psychology, however, is lacking from the traditional epic and some other comparable types of stories.
These stories have different topics. Mwindo kábútwa-kénda and polú-tropos Odysseus (Odysseus of many ways) might be flat characters lacking realism, and these stories might not contain much of everyday, realistic psychology. But in a sense, while they are not yet philosophy, such stories are on the same dimension as some types of philosophy, capturing, within the horizon of their respective cultures, some basic aspects and experiences of human life and existence. And that is probably the 4th reason I am interested with them.
Besides that, they are just entertaining, at least for me.
(The picture, showing an episode from the Odyssee, is from http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:NAMA_Ulysse_%26_sir%C3%A8ne_1.jpg.)