in lieu of an Ossian post . . . .


[“Ossian Receiving the Ghosts of French Heroes”
1802 by Anne-Louis Girodet de Roussy-Trioson; image from Bits of News]

I suppose I’m one of the few people who could spend a week researching eighteenth-century writers in Scotland, and come home and feel fired up to write a series of posts about Hans Gumbrecht’s book on 1926.  But that’s how it worked out.  I actually have a few more thoughts about Gumbrecht and temporality that I might try out at some point, but more on that some other time.

I’ve been thinking about Ossian for a while, though, and have been trying to come to terms with teaching “him,” since I’m beginning to feel that Ossianic epic is the third leg of the stool, when we’re talking about literary culture in late 18c Scotland (the other two legs being Mackenzie-style anglophilia in prose, and the emerging scots vernacular in Fergusson’s poetry).  (And if others have additional legs, er, suggestions, I’d welcome hearing about them)

In fact, I’d had some weird moments teaching Ossian last term, because my students picked up on the fact that at some level the whole Ossian phenomenon embarasses me, probably because I respond to it all too easily.

The fraudulence and bluster of Macpherson, the overcompensation in the Scots’ martial fantasies, the funny names, the entire package makes me uncomfortably aware of, uh, the hours I spent in junior high and high school, listening to dreamy-sounding prog-rock bands, looking at Roger Dean posters,  and reading Tolkein.  To me, the whole thing is an amusement-park ride of vulnerable teenage guy  melancholic fantasy.  Except that historically  it wasn’t:  it captivated and persisted in Scottish and European literary culture for decades, traveled all over the world, inspired writers on the order of Blake and Goethe. In the meantime, its “translator”  Macpherson was left behind to enjoy a splendid lifestyle and an annihilated public reputation.

So Ossian represents a series of texts whose value has fluctuated widely over the years, while I myself have never been able to make up my mind about its actual quality.  What’s more, the whole pathetic story of Macpherson’s truncated career, told very well in Buchan’s Crowded with Genius, gives me a bad case of Imposter-syndrome anxiety, and puts me in mind of the relation of parasite to host: Ossian simply incubated in the body of James Macpherson, and flew away when it was done.

For me, the whole story of Ossian’s origins in authorial fraud, its uncritical reception by the most authoritative  Scots critics (Blair etc.), and then its abandonment of its creator, seems to summon up a worst-case scenario of literature and all its institutions and instruments of validation, so that author, critic, and audience all seem to be equally discredited by the tale.  And yet something of it persists, ghostlike, to continue embarassing the pretensions of literary critics and literary history, for some time to come.


7 responses to “in lieu of an Ossian post . . . .

  1. Marvelous entry David, I actually loved the Ossianic texts from the first moment I read them (in my M.A. program), but most of my classmates had the reaction you did. I wanted to read them out loud, linger over the language, and they wanted to close the book. I know the language is somewhat overblown, but there was something beautiful about it, and rather original. The content is repetitive and overly melancholy – the joy of grief, falling warriors and women, beams of light, mossy towers and all that, but for a wannabe epic, the poetry is remarkably beautiful, gentle, and deeply engaged with nature.

    As for the blustery Macpherson, I rather admired his bombast on behalf of Scotland, and was sorry it seemed to be redirected towards empire for much of the rest of his career. I’m sorry I haven’t had much chance to teach the Ossianic works, and hope I can work it into future courses (maybe I could teach it alongside Burns as an early form of Scottish Romanticism).

    I have been greatly enjoying your explorations of Scottish literature over the last weeks.

  2. Dave Mazella

    Thanks, Sharon. I can’t say that my initial reaction to the Ossian texts was loving them. It was more like feeling honestly puzzled by them: who wrote this and why?

    What my students last term really responded to was the difference in poetic diction and syntax from the polite modes they’d seen. The fragmentariness, too, seems important, too, and is part of the historicizing impulse of capturing as far as possible lost worlds and vanished states of mind.

    I always find myself responding to and resisting it at the same time, but I shouldn’t give the impression that I hate it: it’s just that something in it makes me want to edit out all the stuff that kills my buzz (the goofiness) and keep in the parts I like (the ghosts, the nostalgia, the melancholy). Maybe the fragmentariness invites those kinds of desires to project and rewrite those texts in keeping with one’s own fantasies.

    It’s interesting to think about where Ossian belongs in an undergrad or even grad course, whatever the topic. I’ve had similar issues teaching Mackenzie, too, at both levels. But let us know at some point what you’re doing with these figures, in- and outside the classroom.

  3. Yes, it was the different poetic diction I liked, different from anything I had ever read and the oral sort of repetitiveness. I’ll let you know if I do teach it again when I teach Romantic poetry this Spring.

    Actually when I taught Mackenzie in a year long study of the English novel, my students found him hilarious (especially the Bedlam scene) and thought he was being satirical.

  4. Or should I say “British” novel:)

  5. Dave Mazella

    A yearlong course? Did you have the same students all the way through?

    And yes, my students, if they have any reaction at all to Mackenzie, it’s to find him hilarious.

  6. Yes, it was when I was a postdoc at the University of Toronto. A marvelous experience it was, teaching a year-long course. Did they ever know the 18th-century novel when I was finished. It let me teach all the canonical works as well as some intriguing but non-conventional ones – Wild Irish Girl, The Recess, Adventures of Eoveii, and, of course, Mackenzie.

  7. Dave Mazella

    It always seems that the time pressures of teaching novels (they take longer to read than most other genres, and are therefore harder to compare in the conventional one semester course) makes it hard to do anything but a kind of “coverage” teaching: traversing the whole length, which admittedly does have its satisfactions. But that makes it harder to include all the other stuff one wants to put into play: literary and social history, genre theory, cross-generic comparisons, and so forth. A year long course solves that problem, though I admit I’m not sure I’d want every class or every student to stick with me for that length of time. And there is something to be said for the editing necessitated by a 14 week semester.