For information on my political novella about Israel plus “eight stories of the eighties,” please take a look at the page describing my new book Acts of Terror and Contrition – A Nuclear Fable. It’s available from Amazon.com (here's the link: Acts of Terror and Contrition: A Nuclear Fable) or from the publisher (click on the cover image to the left).
In some of my first notes on the modern period, I tried to show that Romanticism’s idea of the self has deeply influenced the modern. From 1807 on, Hegel's concept of self-consciousness - as a force which can upend the stability of master-servant relations - resonated in much of the literature and thought of the Romantic period (and of course for later writers, too). Jane Austen’s heroines (as carefully controlled and "ironical" as their presentation is) exemplify the power of self-consciousness as a tool, sensibly utilized it was hoped, to modify rigid class behavior and social assumptions. Emma’s “self,” for example, grows in ambition and self-empowerment to the point that she does harm to others, all as part of her experience of learning to control the force of her character. By the 1850s and 60s, however, the range and force of novelistic self-consciousness and the behavior it stirs threaten to break the deepest social and human bonds, and the “self” of the protagonist grows monstrous in Madame Bovary and in Crime and Punishment.
From its origins, the novel form focuses on the growth and survival of the budding self as it encounters “reality,” engages its nurturing possibilities, and struggles with its blighting forces. As the novel fabricates its fictive beings, the form reveals itself as the very font and model of self-creation, and it naturally yields characters who are themselves self-fabricating. Finally, the peculiar grandeur of this world-rendering, self-creating form reveals the special power and ambition of its social origins in the bourgeoisie, with its own enormous capacity for growth.
A burgeoning enormity of self typifies the characters generated by the great modernist experiments in the novel. And modern authors are implicated in the process, for autobiographical material seems invariably to find its way into the modern masterpieces of the form. There is Marcel Proust’s creation of the autobiographical character and narrator Marcel, crucial among In Search of Lost Time’s core characters, whom Proust terms “giants in time” as they bestride his novel’s colossal, society-encompassing structure. A similar sort of gigantism marks Joyce’s ironic transformation of himself into the autobiographical character Stephen Dedalus, whose struggles and intellect dominate A Portrait and large parts of Ulysses (above all, the novel’s aesthetic structure and ambition); this is not even to mention the degree to which Joyce gives autobiographical qualities also to Leopold Bloom. There are, of course, other powerful examples: Woolf’s autobiographical fictions in To the Lighthouse and The Waves, Mann’s self-implicating summa of western civilization in The Magic Mountain (let alone the autobiographical elements in Buddenbrooks), Conrad’s own Marlovian confrontation with European megalomania, Kafka’s K and Joseph K, Lawrence’s self-searching novels, etc.
For Proust and Joyce, the impulse to fabricate an autobiographical self in fiction arises from their larger ambition: to preserve, to encompass, and also to frame and judge a collapsing world - a disintegrating society and culture. These novelists create a novelistic world capable of encompassing a society grown monstrous on its fare of war, its economic expansions and collapse, and its imperial ambition to regulate human life. In the years just before and following World War One, modern society had become a murderous juggernaut, just as Joyce and Proust published their novels. The seemingly desperate audacity of the modern novel’s aims – the gigantism of its scale and characters – reflects the massive challenge of giving form to and finding signs of life in the enormity of modern life. Even a fundamentally decent figure like Joyce’s everyman Leopold Bloom must inhabit and confront the dimensions of Ulysses’ gigantism. Both modern history and modern fiction can resemble a steamroller which threatens to flatten lives into vast thinned-out representations of the human. In our new century, we participate in a similar experience of monstrosity. It is what we have as the condition of any affirmation in postmodernity. Images of self-destructive and unabated cancerous growth fill the byways and airways of all our activities, economic, political, “cultural,” and medical.
In the face of the rampant growth of self and society, the achievement of the proto-modern novels of Flaubert and Dostoyevsky, from the 1850s through the 1870s, is powerfully to engage the dilemma of remaining human – to maintain images of the human even as they undergo a radical redefinition, a simultaneous distension and flattening. The two novelists establish alternative yet equally essential strategies for modern novelists. The clinical realism of Flaubert’s sentences exactly renders characters’ lives; his realism establishes the precise nature and origin of a character’s situation, whether their self-blindnesses, their drowning in a world of things, or their yearning for vision. In Madame Bovary, for example, there is the great cinematic “country fair” scene, in which the rake Rudolf’s hackneyed phrases seducing the unappeasably needy Emma are exactingly paired with the official’s own empty conventional phrases announcing prizes for farm products: “‘Did I know I would accompany you?’ / ‘Seventy francs!’ / ‘A hundred times I tried to leave; yet I followed you and stayed.’ / ‘For manures!’” And the acid climax of this scene of self-aggrandizing public and private manipulations is the image of a final award-recipient: an old peasant woman gnarled and withered by fifty years of hard service and suffering walks forward – “Thus, a half century of servitude confronted these beaming bourgeois.”
At one point, Emma – herself now suffering from the consequences of her enormous appetite to consume things, both material and human – walks in the night, given over to a great aching bout of self-pity, having been rejected by one of her lovers whom she importuned for money. As she walks beneath the stars, Flaubert’s narrator – with a characteristic mix of irony and sympathy – writes as follows of her plea and, by extension, of the novel’s own exacting language in rendering her plea: “Human speech is like a cracked kettle on which we tap crude rhythms for bears to dance to, while we long to make music that will melt the stars.” Our language would fill the unfillable emptiness which is the life of the modern self, grown into a sort of enormity of nothingness, as its self-conscious, self-creating desires consume or, rather, exude extraordinary amounts of destructive energy. It is as if the bourgeois self had grown disproportionate and gigantic in its unquenchable imaginative needs and their impact on society. And the reverse is also true: the burgeoning gigantism of an increasingly destabilized modern society unleashes a distorted, alienated grasping and daring “as never before” in the self.
Emma Bovary’s night plea is only one among many examples of her alienated grasping for life, a grasping which Flaubert’s realism inevitably grounds in psychic emptiness. In contrast, Dostoyevsky renders a similar grasping and daring with quite different aims and techniques. In Crime and Punishment, the opening interior monologue emerges from the mind of Raskolnikov, a “student” character compounded of literate privilege and dire poverty. He is thinking of committing a murder, for his desperate and unmoored ego has grown to the point of contemplating an enormity, a violent breaking of the basic human ‘code;’ even his self-lacerating recriminations have the air of expansive self-dramatizations. These initial paragraphs of the novel draw us into the most dangerous ruminations of the psyche (Freud, of course, saw Dostoyevsky as a source and predecessor), and that psychological realism offers modern novelists a model for rendering the most submerged and potentially monstrous levels of the stream of consciousness.
Yet there is a still deeper point to Dostoyevsky’s explorations of his characters’ psyches. As they enter each other’s lives, these characters encounter a zone of contact, of fluid and unpredictable exchanges, which pressures and requires them to bare their feelings. In an extremity of such baring of self, each human being insinuates himself or herself into the life of the other in what is finally, for each self, a zone or process of creative freedom. In an example of such contact early in Crime and Punishment, there is Raskolnikov’s conversation with Marmeladov, who will stop at nothing in excoriating himself for his drunken exploitation of his daughter, Sonya (she later helps to succor the young protagonist). Here is Marmeladov in action, insinuating, violating boundaries, simultaneously blaspheming and crying out for human contact: “Why pity me, you say? Yes! There’s nothing to pity me for! I ought to be crucified, crucified on a cross, and not pitied! But crucify, O judge, crucify, and having crucified, pity the man!...He will pity us who pitied everyone…And when He has finished with everyone, then He will say unto us, too, ‘You, too, come forth!’ He will say, ‘Come forth, my drunk ones, my weak ones, my shameless ones!’ And we will all come forth, without being ashamed, and stand there. And He will say, ‘Swine you are! Of the image of the beast and of his seal; but come, you, too!’” In this zone of contact, Dostoyevsky locates the unrestrained eruption of his characters’ egos; this is an ultimate model for the sort of psychological gigantism which modern novels render and confront.
Here are some links to the above mentioned books: Crime and Punishment (Paperback), Madame Bovary (Penguin Classics), In Search of Lost Time: Proust 6-pack (Proust Complete), A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Ulysses.
My next post will (more briefly, I hope) attempt to explore work by a single modern novelist.
About the arts and ideas - on my novels and literature, music, and art
A new book about Beethoven gathers together (and completely rewrites and supplements) my blog posts on Beethoven into a short introduction to the composer, Ways of Hearing Beethoven, which I hope to see published. My novel The Fall of the Berlin Wall, completed a year ago, is about musicians and particularly the intense, irrepressible daughter of the legendary pianist featured in my previous novel Hungry Generations, now fifteen years after those events. Five years ago, my 2015 novel, The Ash Tree, was published by West of West Books in conjunction with the April 24, 2015 centenary of the Armenian genocide; it's about an Armenian-American family and the sweep of their history in the twentieth century - particularly from the points of view of two women in the family.
There are three other novels of mine, which I would love to see published. One is Pathological States, about a physician's family in L.A. in 1962. Another is Hungry Generations, about a young composer's friendship in L.A. with the family of a virtuoso pianist, published on demand by iUniverse, which I think would be of value to a conventional publisher. A Burnt Offering - a fable (a full rewriting and expansion of my earlier Acts of Terror and Contrition - a nuclear fable) is my political novella about Israel and its reactions to the possibility of a war with Iran (with the fear that it will be a nuclear war).
[My blog posts are, of course, copyrighted.]
[My blog posts are, of course, copyrighted.]