[“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.