Unity and Multiplicity. Epic Poetics in Late Humanism and Early Enlightenment

Along with the rise of the novel in the 18th century arises a debate on its sister genre, the epic. Here, the epic serves as a backdrop against which the novel can be described: As a form of objective totality (Hegel), the epic opposes the novel which claims formlessness as its principle, a relict of a time »when the starry sky is the map of all possible paths« (Lukács). At the same time, though, the epic attracts new attention as an old genre that was able to bring the opulence of the world into poetic unity. In the wake of F.A. Wolff’s discussion of the Homeric question, the epic is being stylized into an authorless, native narrative originating directly in a national spirit. The modern view on the epic is thus informed by suppositions that were not yet valid for the ancient, or the medieval epic.

To better understand the evolution of the modern discourse on the epic, but also to find possible alternate histories of its genealogy, this project traces the topoi of epic totality and epic opulence emerging around 1800 back to the period from 1550–1750. Epic poetics of late humanism and early enlightenment depict the epic as a genre aiming to represent cosmic unity while simultaneously revealing the opulence of worldly phenomena. The emergence of rationalist thinking by Leibniz and his successors that consider reality as the realization of one of a plethora of possibilities, however, relativizes the worldview underlying the epic genre so far. It also leads to a new understanding of literary functions and significance. Epic poetics of this period, based on this new philosophical understanding of literature, explore the opportunities that lie in adapting the new worldview to the epic’s representation of the world as a cosmic whole. The project thus reconstructs the influences of rationalist philosophy on epic poetics and examines how poetic works themselves influence and reflect upon the understanding of reality.

Program funding through the Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF) 2018–2019
Head researcher(s): Maria Kuberg