The Early History of Metafiction

Was there metafiction in The Epic of Gilgamesh, the oldest known epic, an encounter of a real king of Sumeria and a wild man, Enkidu? Well, the first writers were writing about their own experience of being civilized, a rather painful process we must all go through, but it wasn’t necessarily metafiction because it doesn’t highlight its own fictionality.

The symbols of the Indus Valley cannot be read, but Hinduism preserves some of these tales, at least in the image of the multi-faced god, Brahma, who I am sure looks into himself as well as outward in all directions. Is Brahma metafictional? Well, at least as much as the ourobouros, the snake swallowing his own tail.

What about the Egyptians? Well, maybe if they had been more self-conscious about what they were writing, their writing would have been more interesting. As great as Egyptians civilization was, they are not remembered for their literature. Egyptians did believe that a word could preserve a life. Any time you say or write Tutankhamen you extend his life. Well, one candidate would be the story of Thoth and the invention of writing, but we know that mostly through Plato’s Phaedrus, which is certainly self-reflexive. (More on this below.)

I don’t know much about early Chinese literature, but the story I told of the invention of writing in Hunters, the First Readers to Write a Story could be called metafictional, since it is a story about the invention of writing itself. The Tao Te Ching is metafictional, when Lao Tzu proclaims, “The Tao that can be spoken of is not the Tao,”  meaning the universe that can be spoken of is not the universe, or the god that can be spoken of is not God. Language cannot capture the spiritual realm, and yet there is a reason for writing, however doomed to fail, because writing can help people become aware of that which is beyond writing.

Abraham, borrowed many stories from his homeland of Mesopotamia, the story of the tree of life and of the flood, for example. In fact everything in the bible before Abraham was more or less adapted from Sumerian mythology. Abraham broke with that religious tradition and called his goddess, Inanna, “the whore of Babylon.” Well, we can just as easily call him “the bastard of Babylon.” In any case the Torah contains a good deal of metafiction. The first candidate is “I am that I am.” In Hebrew, it is–

Well, I will have to reprint the Hebrew at the end of my post. For some reason I can’t write anything after the metafictional declaration of God. It’s important to see it in Hebrew, because every letter in Hebrew is metafictional, since the letters are mystically connected to the things they describe. Words in fact precede and create reality. God created himself by declaring his existence, “I am that I am,” and created everything else with language: “Let there be light.” He spoke and it came into being. That is why saying God’s name is considered blasphemy. (I am not talking about “God,” but “Jehovah,” which  if anyone could pronounce correctly would end the world.)

The new testament continues this connection of word and God: “In the beginning was the word and the word was with God and the word was God” (John 1:1).

In Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, we have scenes when bards sing their works, a metafictional presentation of how the work was presented within itself, much as Homer must have done. Scholars are not sure if Homer even existed. If he did, and I allow that he did, he certainly collected the oral traditions of many bards like himself and compiled the work, giving it his own distinct shape and stamp. Scholars have analyzed different styles within the epics which suggest different voices.

Plato criticizes writing in Phaedrus, but he does it through writing. He also bans poets from his utopian Republic even though his own writing is quite poetic. We cannot simply say that Plato dismisses writing altogether when he spends so much effort producing some of the most beautiful philosophical prose in world history. We have to take this self-reflexivity as paradoxical and ironic.

Ovid included many stories in Metamorphoses of the power of stories to transform gods and people (although I haven’t read the Metamorphoses yet and can’t tell you what they are, nevertheless, I am sure they are there and I look forward to finding them out during the summer extension).

I think that brings us, at long last, all the way up to the middle ages, represented in my reading list which you can find on the Silly-Bus) with The Arabian Nights, The Decameron, and Canterbury Tales.  Whew! I am almost up to the point I was when I began this metaclass. As soon as I describe the texts just mentioned, I will be caught up to myself. I can almost see my own back, hurrying away from me almost as quickly as I am pursuing him. He is saying something. Listen. He is saying:

I am that I am.

אהיה אשר אהיה

8 thoughts on “The Early History of Metafiction”

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