Madison Morrison's Web / Literary Correspondence / Alexandra: Everyman

On the Question of Everyman

Dear Madison,

Would you say that you are interested in Everyman and who is that?

All best,

Dear Alexandra,

The Everyman figure is perhaps more central to English literature, as the Adamic figure is to American literature, than either is to German literature, though Faust of course is both an Adam and an Everyman. An important work of late medieval English literature (it may be derived from a Dutch original) is the morality play called Everyman, a play that you can read in about an hour. (When I arrived in Taiwan, I found that the livelier undergraduates at the national university had decided by themselves to stage this rather wooden piece, probably because of its universal moral appeal, but who knows why? Maybe they thought it fun to do so.)

The place to begin, with regard to my own interest in Everyman, is Particular and Universal, where the essay most specifically concerned with the topic is Chapter 6, “The Universal in English Literature.” (Chapter 5 is also concerned with the way in which a particular hero, such as Odysseus or Aeneas or Dante the Pilgrim, through a process of allegorization, becomes universal [see especially the paragraph beginning at the bottom of p.113]; the chapter that you have translated, Chapter 7, as you know, is also concerned with this problem, here with how the universal gets embodied in the particular, a question introduced at the end of Chapter 6 [in the second paragraph beginning on p.142, which illustrates and discusses one of Charles Dickens’ procedures].) The paragraphs that might be most helpful to you in Chapter 6 are the two that begin on p.133.

In the Preface to Every Second I say, with regard to my in situ project in Israel, Istanbul and the Eastern Mediterranean, “All this travel in search of Everyman was intended to locate him in his Biblical and Homeric habitat.” The word “locate” is a pun, meaning (1) “to find” Everyman where he had originated and (2) “to place” him where he belongs, not in medieval Germany, Holland or England but in these earlier Mediterranean venues. The Egyptian Osiris is a yet more seminal figure, and I chose him for my autobiographical model in Magic (along with another charismatic figure, Hermes Trismegistus). What this is all leading to of course is the assertion that MM is Everyman. My claim to originality, as argued again in the Preface to Every Second, is that I have actually gone to the places (Israel, Istanbul, the Greek islands; India, China, and so on), that most writers, especially the great epic poets, have only read about (though Homer probably traveled widely, Vergil may have, and later figures such as Byron undoubtedly did, all with this very purpose in mind, i. e., of particularizing the universal by bringing the known Everyman figures into focus within the context of their own adventures).

It is for others to decide whether I have overgone Homer, Vergil, Milton, Byron and later figures in this regard, and in a sense there is nothing original here, since Dante makes of himself the hero of his own epic, Goethe makes of his Everyman figure a German like himself, Whitman takes the Upanishadic Self as his ideal hero (he also planned a poem to be called “I, Osiris”). Nonetheless, it seems to me that I have at least attempted something that no other epic writer has fully accomplished. Every and Second are the two books in Sentence of the Gods where this process of universalizing the particular and particularizing the universal is made most explicit.