The Madness of Epic: Reading Insanity from Homer to Statius

By Debra Hershkowitz | Go to book overview
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It would be impossible to bring the various aspects of epic madness which have been examined throughout this book neatly together, and this book has been, in large part, about that very impossibility. Nevertheless, a few points have repeatedly arisen which I will now try to summarize by way of conclusion.

First and most basically, as a concept, madness is difficult, if not impossible, to define. It eludes any attempt to restrict it within a stable set of boundaries. Each epic poem sets the parameters of its madness in response to a variety of literary and non-literary factors (i.e. contemporary medical, philosophical, or religious thought). Loosely, in each case madness might be said to represent everything which is not comprehensible, although comprehensibility, like madness, is a subjective, not an absolute, quality.

One of the things which makes defining madness so difficult is its multi-dimensional nature. Epic exploits this variable nature to great effect. Madness is presented in many different guises and in many different ways. For this reason also, each individual study in this book has looked at epic madness from a different angle. Partially this was the result of a wide range of modern and ancient approaches to madness which I applied to the ancient texts, but more importantly, it also resulted from the fact that epic madness itself has a wide range of aspects.

The fluidity and multi-dimensional nature of madness is often self-reflectively thematized in the epics I have discussed. The opposition between madness and sanity is central to the structure of works like the Aeneid or the Bellum Ciuile, which range around mad/sane pairs like Turnus and Aeneas or Caesar and Cato. At the same time, however, the problematizing or breaking down of this opposition is equally central, and also exerts an often profound influence on the epics' structure as well as their meaning. When the madman Turnus suddenly appears to be sane, even if only for a moment, or the eminently sane Cato suddenly appears to be mad, for more than a moment, the reader is forced to rethink both the


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