What is a novel for? To be read is the simple answer. But since fewer and fewer people want to read novels (as opposed to what the conglomerate-publishers call “category fiction”), it might be a good idea to take a look at what is being written, and why; at what is being read, and why.
In Ideas and the Novel Mary McCarthy notes that since the time of Henry James, the serious novel has dealt in a more and more concentrated—if not refined—way with the moral relations of characters who resemble rather closely the writer and his putative reader. It is not, she says, that people actually write Jamesian novels; rather, “The Jamesian model remains a standard, an archetype, against which contemporary impurities and laxities are measured.” In addition, for Americans, sincerity if not authenticity is all-important; and requires a minimum of invention.
During the last fifty years, the main line of the Serious American Novel has been almost exclusively concerned with the doings and feelings, often erotic, of white middle-class Americans, often schoolteachers, as they confront what they take to be life. It should be noted that these problems seldom have much or anything to do with politics, with theories of education, with the nature of the good. It should also be noted that the tone of the Serious Novel is always solemn and often vatic. Irony and wit are unknown while the preferred view of the human estate is standard American, which is to say positive. For some reason, dialogue tends to be minimal and flat.
Virginia Woolf thought that the Victorian novelists “created their characters mainly through dialogue.” Then, somehow, “the sense of an audience” was lost. “Middlemarch I should say is the transition novel: Mr. Brooke done directly by dialogue: Dorothea indirectly. Hence its great interest—the first modern novel. Henry James of course receded further and further from the spoken word, and finally I think only used dialogue when he wanted a very high light.”
Today’s Serious Novel is not well lit. The characters do, say, and think ordinary things, as they confront those problems that the serious writer must face in his everyday life. Since the serious novel is written by middle-class, middle-brow whites, political activists, intellectuals, members of the ruling classes, blacks seldom make appearances in these books, except as the odd flasher.
Predictably, despite the reflexive support of old-fashioned editors and book-reviewers, the Serious Novel is of no actual interest to anyone, including the sort of people who write them: they are apt to read Agatha Christie, if they read at all. But then this is an old story. In 1859, Nathaniel Hawthorne, having just perpetrated that “moonshiny Romance” (his own phrase) The Marble Faun, wrote to his publisher: “It is odd enough, moreover, that my own individual taste is for quite another class of works than those which I myself am able to write.” Sensible man, he preferred Trollope to himself. Nevertheless, in a sort of void, Serious Novels continue to be published and praised, but they are not much read.
What is a novel for, if it is not to be read? Since the rise of modernism a century ago—is there anything quite as old or as little changed as modern literature? The notion of the artist as saint and martyr, reviled and ignored in his own time, has had a powerful appeal to many writers and teachers. Echoing Stendhal, the ambitious artist will write not for the people of his own day but for the residents of the next century—on the peculiar ground that the sort of reader who preferred Paul de Kock to Stendhal in the nineteenth century and Barbara Cartland to Iris Murdoch in our own will have developed an exquisite sensibility by the year 2080. These innocents seem not to understand that posterity is a permanent darkness where no whistle sounds. It is reasonable to assume that, by and large, what is not read now will not be read, ever. It is also reasonable to assume that practically nothing that is read now will be read later. Finally, it is not too farfetched to imagine a future in which novels are not read at all. But, for the present, if a Serious Novel is not going to be read, it can always be taught—if it is so made as to be more teacherly than readerly. Further, if the serious student keeps on going to school and acquiring degrees, he will find that not only is his life enhanced by the possession of tools with which to crack the code of rich arcane texts but he will also be able to earn a living by teaching others to teach books written to be taught. Admittedly, none of this has much to do with literature but, as a way of life, it is a lot easier than many other—phrase? Service-orientated Fields.
Although there is no reason why the universities should not take over the Serious Novel and manufacture it right on campus, there are signs that the magistri ludi of Academe are now after more glorious game. Suddenly, simultaneously, on many campuses and in many states, a terrible truth has become self-evident. The true study of English studies in English studies. If this truth is true, then the novel can be dispensed with. As our teachers begin to compose their so-called “charters,” setting forth powerful new theories of English studies, complete with graphs and startling neologisms, the dream of the truly ambitious schoolteacher will be fulfilled and the interpreter-theorist will replace the creator as culture hero.
Meanwhile, in the real world—you take the elevator to the mezzanine, and turn left; you can’t miss it—what sort of novels are still read, voluntarily, by people who will not be graded on what they have read?
Conglomerate-publishers are a good consumer guide, catering, as they do, to a number of different, not always contiguous publics: Gothic stories, spy thrillers, Harlequin romances…each genre has its measurable public. Occasionally, books are written which appear to fit a genre but transcend it because they are works of the imagination, dealing with the past or the future; with alternative worlds. Although these books cannot be truly serious because they are not, literally, true, there is no serious American novelist who can write as well or as originally (not a recommendation, perhaps) as John Fowles or William Golding, two English writers whose works are often read outside institutions. Yet neither Fowles nor Golding is taken with any great seriousness by American schoolteachers. Fowles is regarded as a sort of Daphne du Maurier with grammar while Golding is known as the author of a book that the young once fancied—and so was taught in the lower grades. For reasons that have to do with the origins of the United States, Americans will never accept any literature that does not plainly support the prejudices and aspirations of a powerful and bigoted middle class which is now supplementing its powerful churches with equally powerful universities where what is said and thought and imagined is homogenized to a degree that teachers and students do not begin to suspect because they have never set foot outside the cage that they were born in. Like the gorilla who was taught to draw, they keep drawing the bars of their cage; and think it the world.
Historical novels and political novels can never be taken seriously because true history and disturbing politics are not acceptable subjects. Works of high imagination cause unease: if it didn’t really happen, how can your story be really sincere…? The imaginative writer can never be serious unless, like Mr. Thomas Pynchon, he makes it clear that he is writing about Entropy and the Second Law of Thermodynamics and a number of other subjects that he picked up in his freshman year at Cornell. English teachers without science like this sort of thing while physicists are tempted to write excited letters to literary journals. Thus, the Snow-called gap between the two cultures looks to be bridged, while nothing at all has been disturbed in the way that the society obliges us to see ourselves.
One of the great losses to world literature has been the novel of ideas. Or the symposium-novel. Or the dialogue-novel. Or the…. One has to search for some sort of hyphenate even to describe what one has in mind. Mary McCarthy calls it the “conversation novel.”
From Aristophanes to Petronius to Lucian to Rabelais to Swift to Voltaire to Thomas Love Peacock, there has been a brilliant line of satirical narratives and had it not been for certain events at the beginning of the nineteenth century in England, this useful form might still be with us, assuming that those who have been brought up on sincere simple Serious Novels would appreciate—or even recognize—any play of wit at the expense of dearly held serious superstitions. Where the True is worshipped, truth is alien. But then to be middle class is to be, by definition, frightened of losing one’s place. Traditionally, the virtuous member of the middle class is encouraged to cultivate sincerity and its twin, hypocrisy. The sort of harsh truth-telling that one gets in Aristophanes, say, is not possible in a highly organized zoo like the United States where the best cuts are flung to those who never question the zoo’s management. The satirist breaks with his origins; looks at things with a cold eye; says what he means, and mocks those who do not know what they mean.
It is significant that the only American writer who might have taken his place in the glittering line was, finally, scared off. Since Mark Twain was not about to lose his audience, he told dumb jokes in public while writing, in private, all sorts of earth-shattering notions. Twain thought that if there was a God, He was evil. Twain’s poignant invention, Huck, is a boy who wants to get his ass out of the serious, simple, sincere, bigoted world on whose fringe he was born. He is a lovely, true evocation. But he is in flight; can’t cope; knows something is wrong. There is a world elsewhere, he suspects; but there are practically no people in it—it is the territory.
Every quarter century, like clock-work, there is a Peacock revival. The great tail feathers unfurl in all their Pavonian splendor, and like-minded folk delight in the display; and that’s the end of that for the next twenty-five years. Although it is now too late in history to revive either Peacock or the conversation novel, Marilyn Butler in Peacock Displayed has written an admirable book about a valuable writer.
Thomas Love Peacock was born in 1785; he died in 1866. He was well read in Greek, Latin, French, and Italian literature; he was an early and knowledgeable devotee of opera, particularly Mozart, Rossini, Bellini. Since he did not go to school after the age of twelve, he was able to teach himself what he wanted to know, which was a lot. In 1819, he was taken on by the East India Company where he worked until his retirement in 1856. He associated at India House with James and John Stuart Mill; he was a lifelong friend of Jeremy Bentham and of Byron’s friend John Cam Hobhouse. For three years, he was close to Shelley; and got him to read the classics. Peacock’s wife went mad while his daughter Mary Ellen married a bearded, dyspeptic, cigarette-smoker—three demerits in Peacock’s eyes. George Meredith was less than an ideal son-in-law, particularly at table. Some of Mary Ellen’s recipes survive.* Ingredients for Athenian Eel and Sauce: “Half a pint of good Stock. One tablespoon of Mushroom Ketchup. One mustard-spoonful of Mustard. One dessert spoonful of Shalot Vinegar. One desert spoonful of Anchovy Sauce. One dessert spoonful of Worcester Sauce. Marjoram and Parsley.” That was just the sauce. Meanwhile, cut the eels in pieces…. When Mary Ellen deserted Meredith for the painter Henry Wallis, Meredith’s digestive tract must have known a certain relief. Later he memorialized his father-in-law as Dr. Middleton in The Egoist. Mary Ellen died young. Despite the deaths of children and a wife’s madness, one has the sense that Peacock’s long life was happy; but then he was a true Epicurean.
Peacock began as a poet in the didactic Augustan style. He was much interested in politics, as were most of the English writers of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Butler is particularly good in setting Peacock firmly in a world of political faction and theorizing. By the time Peacock was of age, the American and French revolutions had happened. The ideas of Rousseau and Paine were everywhere talked of, and writers wrote in order to change society. As a result, what was written was considered more important than who wrote it—or even read it. The writer as his own text was unknown because it was unthinkable, while the writer as sacred monster was not to emerge until mid-century. Ironically, Peacock’s idealistic friend Shelley was to be Sacred Monster Number Two. Number One was Byron (who figures as Mr. Cypress in Peacock’s Nightmare Abbey).
In the first quarter of the century, British intellectual life was mostly Scottish. The Edinburgh Review’s chief critic was Francis Jeffrey, a liberal Whig who tended to utilitarianism: to what social end does the work in question contribute? Will it or won’t it do? This was Jeffrey’s narrow but, obviously, useful approach to literature. Peacock was also a utilitarian; and subscribed to his friend Bentham’s dictum: “the greatest good of the greatest number.” But Peacock regarded the Edinburgh Review (“that shallow and dishonest publication”) as much too Whiggish and class-bound. Peacock seems always to have known that in England the Whig-versus-Tory debate was essentially hollow because “though there is no censorship of the press, there is an influence widely diffused and mighty in its operation that is almost equivalent to it. The whole scheme of our government is based on influence, and the immense number of genteel persons, who are maintained by the taxes, gives this influence an extent and complication from which few persons are free. They shrink from truth, for it shews those dangers which they dare not face.” Thus, in our own day, The New York Times reflects the will of the administration at Washington which in turn reflects the will of the moneyed interests. Should a contemporary American writer point out this connection, he will either be ignored or, worse, found guilty of Bad Taste, something that middle-class people are taught at birth forever to eschew.
The debate that helped to shape Peacock (and the century) was between Shelley’s father-in-law William Godwin and the Reverend Thomas Malthus. The anarchist Godwin believed in progress; thought human nature perfectible. He believed society could be so ordered that the need for any man to work might be reduced to an hour or two a day. Godwin’s Political Justice and The Enquirer inspired Malthus to write An Essay on the Principle of Population, published in 1798. Everyone knows Malthus’s great proposition: “Population, when unchecked, increases in a geometrical ratio. Subsistence increases only in an arithmetical ratio. A slight acquaintance with numbers will show the immensity of the first power in comparison with the second.” This proposition is still being argued, as it was for at least two millennia before Malthus. At the time of Confucius, China was underpopulated; yet all ills were ascribed to overpopulation: “When men were few and things were many,” went an already ancient saying, “there was a golden age; but now men are many and things are few and misery is man’s lot.”
In a series of dialogue-novels, Peacock enlarged upon the debate. Headlong Hall appeared in 1816. As Butler notes: “Peacock’s satires are all centered on a recent controversy large in its ideological implications but also amusingly rich in personality and detail. For its full effect, the satire requires the reader to be in the know.” This explains why the form is not apt to be very popular. At any given moment too few people are in the know about much of anything. As time passes, the urgencies of how best to landscape a park—a debate in Headlong Hall—quite fades even though the various points of view from romantic to utilitarian are eternal.
Aristophanes made jokes about people who were sitting in the audience at the theater of Dionysos. When we do know what’s being sent up—Socrates’ style, say—the bright savagery is exciting. But who is Glaucon? And what did he steal? Happily, most of Peacock’s characters (based on Shelley, Byron, Coleridge, Malthus, et al.) are still well enough known to some readers for the jokes to work. More important, the tone of Peacock’s sentences is highly pleasing. He writes a stately, balanced prose that moves, always, toward unexpected judgment or revelation.
Peacock begins a review of Thomas Moore’s novel The Epicurean with: “This volume will, no doubt, be infinitely acceptable to the ladies ‘who make the fortune of new books.’ Love, very intense; mystery, somewhat recondite; piety, very profound; and philosophy, sufficiently shallow…. In the reign of the emperor Valerian, a young Epicurean philosopher is elected chief of that school in the beginning of his twenty-fourth year, a circumstance, the author says, without precedent, and we conceive without probability.”
Melincourt was published in 1817, starring a truly noble savage, a monkey called Sir Oran Haut-ton. Malthus makes an appearance as Mr. Fax. Sir Oran, though he cannot speak, is elected to Parliament. Nightmare Abbey (1818) is a take-off on the cult of melancholy affected, in one way, by Byron (Mr. Cypress) and, in another, by Coleridge (Mr. Flosky). Shelley appears as Scythrop, though Butler makes the point that neither Shelley nor Peacock ever admitted to the likeness. Mr. Cypress has quarreled with his wife; he sees only darkness and misery as man’s estate. Peacock works in actual lines from Childe Harold to mock if not Byron Byronism, while Mr. Flosky’s dialogue is filled with metaphysical conceits that even he cannot unravel. Scythrop is not practical.
Peacock’s next two works, Maid Marian (1818) and The Misfortunes of Elphin (1829), are set, respectively, in the late twelfth century and the sixth century. But Robin Hood’s England is used to illuminate Peacock’s dim view of the Holy Alliance of his own day while sixth-century Wales is used to savage Wellington’s current Tory administration. Crotchet Castle (1831) is like the early books in form: culture is the theme. One of the characters is Dr. Folliott, a philistine Tory who mocks those who would improve man’s lot. Since Dr. Folliott has been thought to be a voice for his creator, serious critics have tended to dismiss Peacock as a crotchety, unserious hedonist whose tastes are antiquarian and whose political views are irrelevant. Butler takes exception to this; she thinks that Folliott’s likeness to his creator “cannot in fact survive a close reading.” On education, Folliott advances opinions that were not Peacock’s:
I hold that there is every variety of natural capacity from the idiot to Newton and Shakespeare; the mass of mankind, midway between these extremes, being blockheads of different degrees; education leaving them pretty nearly as it found them, with this single difference, that it gives a fixed direction to their stupidity, a sort of incurable wry neck to the thing they call their understanding.
I rather suspect that Peacock, in a certain mood, felt exactly as Dr. Folliott did. He also possessed negative capability to a high degree. In this instance, he may well be saying what he thinks at the moment, perfectly aware that he will think its opposite in relation to a different formulation on the order, say, of certain observations in Jefferson’s memoirs which he reviewed in 1830. Peacock was absolutely bowled over by the mellifluous old faker’s announcement that between “a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government” he would choose the latter. This is, surely, one of the silliest statements ever made by a politician; yet it is perennially attractive to—yes, journalists. In any case, Jefferson was sufficiently sly to add, immediately, a line that is seldom quoted by those who love the sentiment: “But I should mean that every man should receive those papers, and be capable of reading them.” The last phrase nicely cancels all that has gone before. Jefferson was no leveler.
In any case, the endlessly interesting controversy of who should be taught what and how and why is joined in this bright set of dialogues and every position is advanced. We get the Tory view, as published by the Rev. E.W. Grinfield; he thought that the masses need nothing more than to have religion and morals instilled in them: “We inculcate a strong attachment to the constitution, such as it now is; we teach them to love and revere our establishments in Church and State, even with all their real or supposed imperfections; and we are far more anxious to make them good and contented citizens, than to fit them for noisy patriots, who would perhaps destroy the constitution whilst pretending to correct it.” There, in one sentence, is the principle on which American public education is based (vide Frances Fitzgerald’s America Revised).
In opposition to Grinfield is John Stuart Mill:
I thought, that while the higher and richer classes held the power of government, the instruction and improvement of the mass of the people were contrary to the self-interest of those classes, because tending to render the people more powerful for throwing off the yoke; but if the democracy obtained a large, and perhaps the principal share, in the governing power, it would become the interest of the opulent classes to promote their education, in order to ward off really mischievous errors, and especially those which would lead to unjust violations of property.
This has proven to be idealistic. Neither Washington nor Moscow thinks it worthwhile to teach their citizens to address themselves to “real or supposed imperfections” in the system. Rather, to keep the citizens “good and contented” is the perennial aim of powerful governing classes or, as one of Peacock’s Tory characters puts it: “Discontent increases with the increase of information.”
Five years before Peacock’s death at eighty-one, he published the most satisfying of his works (I still don’t know what to call them: they are not novels as novels were written then or now, and they are not theater pieces even though many pages are set up like a playscript), Gryll Grange. The subject is everything in general, the uses of the classics in particular. The form is resolutely Pavonian. Each character represents a viewpoint; each makes his argument.
Here is an example of Peacock when he slips into dialogue.
LORD CURRYFIN: Well, then, what say you to the electric telegraph, by which you converse at the distance of thousands of miles? Even across the Atlantic, as no doubt we shall do yet.
MR. GRYLL: Some of us have already heard the Doctor’s opinion on that subject.
THE REVEREND DOCTOR OPIMIAN: I have no wish to expedite communication with the Americans. If we could apply the power of electrical repulsion to preserve us from ever hearing anything more of them, I should think that we had for once derived a benefit from science.
MR. GRYLL: Your love for the Americans, Doctor, seems something like that of Cicero’s friend Marius for the Greeks. He would not take the nearest road to his villa, because it was called the Greek-road. Perhaps if your nearest way home were called the American-road, you would make a circuit to avoid it.
THE REVEREND DOCTOR OPIMIAN: I am happy to say that I am not put to the test. Magnetism, galvanism, electricity, are “one form of many names.” Without magnetism, we should never have discovered America; to which we are indebted for nothing but evil; diseases in the worst form that can afflict humanity, and slavery in the worst form in which slavery can exist. The Old World had the sugarcane and the cotton-plant, though it did not so misuse them. Then, what good have we got from America? What good of any kind, from the whole continent and its islands, from the Esquimaux to Patagonia?
MR. GRYLL: Newfoundland salt fish, Doctor.
THE REVEREND DOCTOR OPIMIAN: That is something, but it does not turn the scale.
MR. GRYLL: If they have given us no good, we have given them none.
THE REVEREND DOCTOR OPIMIAN: We have given them wine and classical literature; but I am afraid Bacchus and Minerva have equally “Scattered their bounty upon barren ground.” On the other hand, we have given the red men rum, which has been the chief instrument of their perdition. On the whole, our intercourse with America has been little else than interchange of vices and diseases.
LORD CURRYFIN: Do you count it nothing to have substituted civilized for savage men?
THE REVEREND DOCTOR OPIMIAN: Civilized. The word requires definition. But looking into futurity, it seems to me that the ultimate tendency of the change is to substitute the worse for the better race; the Negro for the Red Indian. The Red Indian will not work for a master. No ill-usage will make him. Herein, he is the noblest specimen of humanity that ever walked the earth. Therefore, the white men exterminate his race. But the time will come, when, by mere force of numbers, the black race will predominate, and exterminate the white.
Mr. Falconer remonstrates that “the white slavery of our [English] factories is not worse than the black slavery of America. We have done much to amend it, and shall do more. Still much remains to be done.” Opimian responds: “And will be done, I hope and believe. The Americans do nothing to amend their system.” When Lord Curryfin remarks that he has met many good Americans who think as Doctor Opimian does, the response is serene: “Of that I have no doubt. But I look to public acts and public men.”
In the half century between Peacock’s first work and his last, the novel was transformed by Dickens and the comedy of character replaced the comedy of ideas. In fact, character—the more prodigious the better—was the novel. In the year of Gryll Grange (1860), the novel was about to undergo yet another change with the publication of The Mill on the Floss. In the everyday world of George Eliot’s characters the play of intelligence is quite unlike that of Peacock since the only vivid intelligence in an Eliot novel is that of the author or, as Mary McCarthy writes: “…the kind of questions her characters put to themselves and to each other, though sometimes lofty, never question basic principles such as the notion of betterment or the inviolability of the moral law.”
Elsewhere in Ideas and the Novel, McCarthy contrasts Peacock with James. Where James managed to exclude almost everything in the way of ideas from the novel in order to concentrate on getting all the way ’round, as it were (oh, as it were!), his made-up characters, “Consider Thomas Love Peacock,” she writes. “There the ordinary stuff of life is swept away to make room for abstract speculation. That, and just that, is the joke:… In hearty, plain-man style (which is partly a simulation), Peacock treats the brain’s sickly products as the end-result of the general disease of modishness for which the remedy would be prolonged exposure to common, garden reality.” But that was written of Nightmare Abbey: common, garden reality flourishes during the debates in Gryll Grange, a book which Butler believes “occupies the same position in Peacock’s oeuvre as The Clouds in that of Aristophanes: both seem less directly political than usual because the author’s approach is oblique and fantastic, almost surreal.”
It is fitting that in Gryll Grange the characters are composing a comedy in the Aristophanic manner while the book itself is a variation on Old Comedy. Although the tone of this old man’s work is highly genial, he still strikes with youthful vigor the negative. He still says no to Romanticism which had, by then, entirely triumphed, and which, not much changed, continues to dominate our own culture.
In a review of C.O. Müller’s A History of the Literature of Ancient Greece, Peacock explains the value of the negative: “there is much justice in the comparison of Lucian and Voltaire. The view is not only just, it is also eminently liberal. That ‘the results of the efforts of both against false religion and false philosophy were merely negative’; that they had ‘nothing tangible to substitute for what they destroyed,’ is open to observation.” Indeed it is. After all, this is the constant complaint of those who support the crimes and injustices of the status quo. Peacock proceeds to observe, “To clear the ground of falsehood is to leave room for the introduction of truth. Lucian decidedly held that moral certainty, a complete code of duty founded on reason, existed in the writings of Epicurus; and Voltaire’s theism, the belief in a pervading spirit of good, was clear and consistent throughout. The main object of both was, by sweeping away false dogmas, to teach toleration. Voltaire warred against opinions which sustained themselves by persecution.”
Needless to say, there is no more certain way of achieving perfect unpopularity in any society than to speak against the reigning pieties and agreed-upon mendacities. The official line never varies: To be negative is to be bad; to be positive is to be good. In fact, that is even more the rule in our society than it was in Peacock’s smaller world where the means to destroy dissent through censorship or ridicule or silence were not as institutionalized as they are now.
Even so, Peacock himself was forced to play a very sly game when he dealt with the Christian dictatorship of England. After giving an admiring account of Epicurus’s “favorite dogma of the mortality of the soul,” he remarks, “In England, we all believe in the immortality of the soul” because “the truth of the Christian Religion is too clearly established amongst us to admit of dispute.” In his novels, he treated Christianity with great caution. What he really thought of a religion that was the negation of all that he held positive only came to light posthumously.
In 1862, a year after Mary Ellen’s death, he sent to the printers a poem he had written in Greek on Jesus’ exuberantly vicious tirade (Matthew 10:34): “Think not that I am come to send peace on earth: I came not to send peace, but a sword.” The executors of Peacock’s estate suppressed the poem; and only the last lines survive in translation. A pagan appears to be exhorting a crowd to “come now in a body and dash in pieces” this armed enemy, Jesus. “Break in pieces, hurl down him who is a seller of marvels, him who is hostile to the Graces, and him who is abominable to Aphrodite, the hater of the marriage bed, this mischievous wonder-worker, this destroyer of the world, CHRIST.” There are times when positive capability must masquerade as negative.
Butler is at her most interesting when she relates Peacock to our own time where “students of literature are taught to think more highly of introspection than of objectivity, to isolate works of art from their social context, and to give them a high and special kind of value.” She ascribes this to “the early nineteenth century irrationalist reaction—Romanticism—[which] is a current movement still…. In England at the close of the Napoleonic Wars, Romanticism was perceived to encourage indifference to contemporary politics, or to offer outright aid to illiberal governments. A literature that is concerned with style, and with feeling, rather than with intellect and reason, may be merely decorative; in relation to practical affairs, it will almost certainly be passive.”
One can understand the emphasis that our universities continue to place on the necessary separation of literature from ideas. “We are stunned,” writes Butler, “by reiteration into believing that what the world wants is positive thinking. Peacock makes out a case, illustrated by Voltaire, for negative thinking, and its attendant virtues of challenge, selfdoubt, mutual acceptance, and toleration.” Finally, “Since Coleridge we have been fond of the artist-prophet, and the art-work which is monologue, or confession, or even opium dream. Peacock, whose art is based on the dialogue, has waited a long time for his turn to be heard.”
I don’t know how these things are being arranged in Butler’s England but the passive yea-sayer who has no ideas at all about politics, religion, ethics, history is absolutely central to our syllabus and his only competition is the artist as advertiser of sweet self alone. The culture would not have it otherwise and so, as McCarthy puts it, “in the place of ideas, images still rule the roost, and Balzac’s distinction between the roman idée and the roman imagé appears to have been prophetic, though his order of preference is reversed.”
In Ideas and the Novel, McCarthy joins in the battle (assuming that this is not just a skirmish in a byway where the mirror lies shattered). Although McCarthy takes the Pavonian side, she moves beyond Peacock’s satiric dialogue-novels to those formidable nineteenth-century novelists to whom ideas are essential and, for her, it is James not Coleridge who is terminus to this line. “When you think of James in the light of his predecessors,” she writes, “you are suddenly conscious of what is not there: battles, riots, tempests, sunrises, the sewers of Paris, crime, hunger, the plague, the scaffold, the clergy, but also minute particulars such as you find in Jane Austen—poor Miss Bates’s twice-baked apples.”
McCarthy is particularly interesting when she examines Victor Hugo, a great novelist doomed to be forever unknown to Americans. She examines Hugo’s curious way of staying outside his characters whose “emotions are inferred for us by Victor Hugo and reported in summary form.” Hugo deals with ideas on every subject from capital punishment to argot. He is also possessed by an Idea: “The manifest destiny of France to lead and inspire was identified by Hugo with his own mission to the nation as seer and epic novelist.” McCarthy’s survey of this sort of, admittedly, rare master (Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Manzoni, Balzac, Stendhal, George Eliot) is illuminating, particularly when she discusses “the ambition to get everything in, to make this book the Book,” a passion still to be found post-James in Proust and Joyce “Though public spirit as an animating force was no longer evident (in fact the reverse)…the ambition to produce a single compendious sacred writing survived, and we may even find it today in an author like Pynchon (Gravity’s Rainbow).”
It is usual in discussion of the novel (what is it for? what is it?) to point to the displacement that occurred when the film took the novel’s place at the center of our culture. What James had removed from the novel in the way of vulgar life, film seized upon: “It was not until the invention of the moving-picture,” writes McCarthy, “that the novel lost its supremacy as purveyor of irreality to a multitude composed of solitary units.” McCarthy goes on to make the point that “unlike the novel, the moving-picture, at least in my belief, cannot be an idea-spreader; its images are too enigmatic, e.g., Eisenstein’s baby carriage bouncing down those stairs in Potemkin. A film cannot have a spokesman or chorus character to point the moral as in a stage play; that function is assumed by the camera, which is inarticulate. And the absence of spokesmen in the films we remember shows rather eerily that with the cinema, for the first time, humanity has found a narrative medium that is incapable of thought.”
If McCarthy’s startling insight is true (I think it is), the curious invention by the French of the auteur-theory begins to make a degree of sense. Aware that something was missing in films (a unifying intelligence), M. Bazin and his friends decided that the camera’s lens was nothing but a surrogate for the director who held it or guided it or aimed it, just as the painter deploys his brush. For M. Bazin et cie., the director is the unifying intelligence who controls the image and makes sense of the piece: he is The Creator. Needless to say, this perfect misapprehension of the way movies were made in Hollywood’s Golden Age has been a source of mirth to those who were there.
The movie-goer is passive, unlike the reader; and one does not hear a creator’s voice while watching a movie. Yet, curiously enough, the kind of satire that was practiced by Aristophanes might just find its way onto the screen. As I watched Airplane, I kept hoping that its three auteurs (bright show-biz kids) would open up the farce. Include President Carter and his dread family; show how each would respond to the near-disaster. Add Reagan, Cronkite, the Polish Pope. But the auteurs stuck to the only thing that show-biz people ever know about—other movies and television commercials. Although the result is highly enjoyable, a chance was missed to send up a whole society in a satire of the Old Comedy sort.
At the end of McCarthy’s notes on the novel, she looks about for new ways of salvaging a form that has lost its traditional content. She thinks that it might be possible, simply, to go back in time: “If because of ideas and other unfashionable components your novel is going to seem dated, don’t be alarmed—date it.” She mentions several recent examples of quasi-historical novels; she also notes that “in the USA, a special license has always been granted to the Jewish novel, which is free to juggle ideas in full public; Bellow, Malamud, Philip Roth still avail themselves of the right, which is never conceded to us goys.” With all due respect to three interesting writers, they don’t use their “concession” with any more skill than we mindless goys. The reason that they sometimes appear to be dealing in ideas is that they arrived post-James. Jewish writers over forty do—or did—comprise a new, not quite American class, more closely connected with ideological, argumentative Europe (and Talmudic studies) than with those of us whose ancestors killed Indians, pursued the white whale, suffered, in varying degrees, etiolation as a result of overexposure to the Master’s lesson. In any case, today’s young Jewish writers are every bit as lacking in ideas as the goyim.
McCarthy admires Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, “an American story of a cross-country trip with philosophical interludes.” She believes that “if the novel is to be revitalized, maybe more such emergency strategies will have to be employed to disarm and disorient reviewers and teachers of literature, who, as always, are the reader’s main foe.” They are not the writer’s ally either—unless he conforms to their kitsch romantic notions of what writing ought to be or, more to the point, what it must never be.
Although I suspect that it is far too late for emergency strategies, one final tactic that might work is to infiltrate the genre forms. To fill them up, stealthily, with ideas, wit, subversive notions: an Agatha Christie plot with well-cut cardboard characters that demonstrated, among other bright subjects, the rise and fall of monetarism in England would be attractive to all sorts of readers and highly useful.
In any case, write what you know will always be excellent advice for those who ought not to write at all. Write what you think, what you imagine, what you suspect: that is the only way out of the dead end of the Serious Novel which so many ambitious people want to write and no one on earth—or even on campus—wants to read.
December 4, 1980