epigone

I do not want to be an epigone.

I do not want to devote my life to explicating someone else’s epic after they’re gone. I do not want to be one of the little piggies trotting along chasing the big one. I do not want simply to imitate some idol. I don’t even understand people who would rather argue about, for instance, exactly what Kant did or didn’t say rather than about the viability of this or that idea Kant might have said – people for whom the world of facts and information is just a world of warring planets, and they have chosen one to be an asteroid of, hoping perhaps for a promotion to minor moon by the end. I simply don’t understand people who just want to devote their lives to the work of some other person. It doesn’t matter even if that other person is really just the hydrant they’re peeing on; while they’re peeing on it, someone’s peeing on them.

To be perfectly honest, even if someone tells me I’m just like this or that other person, or have said or done something that is so [person X], I try to be nice about it but it drives me crazy.

Maybe this is partly because I have a brother who is three years older than me who always preceded me to the next level of schooling. I hit high school wanting to establish myself among new potential friends (after my previous disasters) and I’m instantly “little Harbeck,” judged by what my brother has done and measured against him. I move on to university and I’m “little Harbeck” again, the anticipated duplicate nerd who turns out to be a loudmouth spazz with a temper and a deathly fear of saying actual nice things to people.

I’m sure it’s also partly because I have always had an unassailable belief in my own potential. Does that sound obnoxious? I won’t say it’s not. See above. I’m not so obnoxious now. But I still have an abiding desire to do things that are in some way singularly new.

It’s also because I’m built to follow and handle ideas, not people. I’m still learning about people. The one thing I can say for sure is that the truth value of a universal proposition does not depend on who states it. (The perceived truth value does.)

This all may seem a bit funny if you know that my doctoral thesis focused entirely on the life’s work of one person, Richard Schechner. I have an excuse: my advisor told me that would be the best topic to pursue. I was pragmatic enough to know I should do what would get me the degree efficiently. Plus it came with a five-week sojourn in Princeton. It was really fascinating learning about this guy. But mainly it taught me some things I would need to do and be if I wanted to be someone, not just an epigone of someone.

Well, no one else is doing word tastings. Ha. Speaking of which: epigone.

Nice word, uses all three stop locations in English – lips, tongue back tongue tip – and all three kinds – voiceless, voiced, nasal. I want to pronounce this word “e pig a nee,” /ɛˈpɪgəni/, because it’s evidently Greek and Greek words and names usually get that treatment in English – it would rhyme with Antigone, for instance. But this word is actually said /ˈɛpɪɡoʊn/, stress on the first syllable, the last syllable rhyming with cone. Why? Because it’s not actually a Greek word unchanged.

We got it as the plural epigones from French épigones, from Latin epigoni, from Greek ἐπίγονοι epigonoi, which was the plural of ἐπίγονος epigonos. Which meant ‘born afterward’ (the epi in this case meant ‘after’; in some other instances in English it means ‘around’). There were seven heroes who led the war against Thebes, you see, and their sons were the epigones – the less-distinguished inheritors. Nowadays in English it means, as dictionary.com puts it, “an undistinguished imitator, follower, or successor of an important writer, painter, etc.”

So not only are those scholars who dedicate their careers to some author epigones, and not only are those no-lifer fanboys who spend all their money aping this or that sci-fi show or movie epigones, but so are all the lesser abstract expressionists, all the splash painters after Pollock, all the uninventive atonalists of the later 20th century, all the movie scorers who set Glass-like scales, all the fanfic authors… for that matter, so was I in my late teens, trying to produce something like Finnegans Wake (the results were vomitrocious and soporific). I think one goes through excusable phases of epigonism in one’s youth; ideally, at length one learns to be “inspired by” and “drawing on” rather than slavishly imitating.

Unless one builds one’s entire career on being an epigone of some greater light, of course. Many comfortable, even “distinguished,” careers have been built on such. But do I want my mark in history to come after e.g. or i.e.? Nope.

2 responses to “epigone

  1. Pingback: rare | Sesquiotica

  2. I wonder if there has ever been a “good” or at least somewhat recognized epigone of FW. I never encountered such a beast. It would definitely be interesting to look into it for a while, if only to see what went wrong.

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