In 1935, three years before his death, Edmund Husserl gave his celebrated lectures in Vienna and Prague on the crisis of European humanity. For Husserl, “European” was not so much a term of geography (it could include America, for example) as a spiritual identity deriving from the philosophy of classical Greece. It was there that man first conceived of the world (the world as a whole) as a question to answer. The Greeks questioned the world not in order to satisfy this or that practical need, but because “the passion of knowing had seized mankind.”
The crisis Husserl spoke of seemed to him so profound that he wondered whether Europe was in a position to survive it. The roots of the crisis lay for him at the beginning of the Modern Era, in Galileo and Descartes, in the onesidedness of European science, which, in reducing the world to an object of technical and mathematical investigation, had put die Lebenswelt, the world of concrete living, beyond its pale.
The rise of science propelled man into the tunnels of specialized knowledge. With every step forward in scientific knowledge, the less clearly he could see either the world as a whole or his own self, and he plunged further into what Husserl’s pupil Heidegger called in a beautiful and almost magical phrase “the forgetting of being.”
Brought up by Descartes to be the “master and possessor of nature,” man becomes a mere thing before those forces (technology, politics, history) which pass his understanding, exceed his grasp, and grasp him. For those forces, man’s concrete being, his “living world” (Lebenswelt) has no value and no interest: it is eclipsed and forgotten.
This critical view of the Modern Era is reminiscent of Solzhenitsyn’s notion that the European crisis began with the Renaissance, and that all subsequent history is but a process of decay.
But I don’t think the two great phenomenologists rejected the Modern Era. It would be fairer to say that they unveiled the ambiguity of this epoch which—like all that is human—contains in its birth the seed of its demise. Such ambiguity in no way diminishes the last four centuries of European culture, to which I feel all the more attached since I am not a philosopher but a novelist. And for me, the founder of the Modern Era is not just Descartes, but also Cervantes.
If one accepts as a hypothesis that philosophy and science have ignored man’s being, then it is even clearer that Cervantes gave birth to a great European art which is nothing other than the perpetual investigation of the being ignored by science.
You have only to open Being and Time to realize that all the existential themes analyzed by Heidegger had already been uncovered, demonstrated, studied by four centuries of novel-writing. The novel discovered the different dimensions of existence one by one: with Cervantes and his contemporaries, it questioned the nature of adventure; with Richardson, it began to examine “what happens inside” and to unmask the secret life of feelings; with Balzac, it discovered man’s rootedness in history; with Flaubert, it explored the terra previously incognita of the everyday; with Tolstoy, it focused on the role of the irrational in human behavior and decisions. It measured time: the evanescent past with Proust, the evanescent present with Joyce. With Thomas Mann, it queried the role of the myths that control our movements from the remote past of man. And so on, and so on.
The novel has accompanied man uninterruptedly and faithfully since the beginning of the Modern Era. It was then that the “passion of knowing,” which Husserl considered to be the essence of European spirituality, seized the novel and led it to observe man’s concrete life closely, and to protect him from “the forgetting of being.” That is the sense in which I understand and share Hermann Broch’s obstinately repeated point that the only raison d’être of a novel is to discover what can only be discovered by a novel. A novel that does not uncover a hitherto unknown segment of existence is immoral. Knowledge is the novel’s only morality.
I would also add: the novel is Europe’s creation; its discoveries, though made in different languages, belong to the whole continent. The sequence of discoveries (not the sum of what was written) is what constitutes the history of the European novel. It is only in its context that the value of a work (that is to say, the import of its discovery) can be fully seen and understood.
As God slowly departed from the seat whence he had controlled the universe and its order of values, told good from evil, and given a sense to each thing, then Don Quixote came out of his mansion and was no longer able to recognize the world. In the absence of the supreme arbiter, the world suddenly acquired a fearsome ambiguity. The single divine truth decomposed into myriad relative truths shared among men. Thus was born the world of the Modern Era, and with it the novel—the image and model of that world—sprang to life.
To take Descartes’s “thinking self” as the basis of everything and to be alone before the universe is to adopt an attitude which Hegel was right to call heroic.
To take the world as relative, as Cervantes did, to be obliged to face not a single absolute truth but a heap of contradictory truths (truths embodied in imaginary thinking selves called characters), to have as one’s only certainty the wisdom of uncertainty, requires no less courage.
Who’s right and who’s wrong? Don Quixote, or the others? Much has been written on the question. Some see in Cervantes’s novel a rationalist critique of Don Quixote’s woolly idealism. Others see the novel as a celebration of the same idealism. Both interpretations are mistaken because they both try to find at the novel’s source not a question but a moral judgment.
Man desires a world where good and evil are clearly distinguished. He has an innate and inextinguishable tendency to make judgments before he understands. Religions and ideologies are founded on this desire. But they can cope with the novel only by translating its language of relativity and ambiguity into their own apodictic and dogmatic tongue. They require someone to be right: either Anna Karenina is the victim of a blinkered tyrant, or Karenin is the victim of an immoral woman; either K., crushed by an unjust court, is innocent, or the court stands for divine justice and K. is guilty.
This “either–or” encapsulates an inability to bear the essential relativity of human affairs, an inability to come face to face with the absence of a supreme arbiter. This inability means that the novel’s wisdom (the wisdom of uncertainty) is hard to accept or to grasp.
Don Quixote set off on his adventures into a wide-open world: he could go out and come home as he pleased. All novels of this first period are journeys into an apparently unbounded universe. The opening of Diderot’s Jacques le fataliste, for example, finds Jacques and his master in the middle of a journey; we don’t know where they’ve come from or where they’re going. The two characters exist in a time without beginning or end, in a space devoid of boundaries, in the middle of a Europe that will go on forever.
Half a century later, in Balzac, the distant horizons of Diderot disappear like a landscape disappearing behind the modern buildings of social institutions—the police, the law, the world of money and crime the army and the State. Time, in Balzac’s world, no longer idles happily by as it does for Cervantes and Diderot: it is propelled along the rails of History. It’s easy to get onto the track, hard to disengage. But the railroad isn’t at all frightening yet, it even has its appeal; all passengers are guaranteed an adventure, and a medal at the end.
Later still, the horizon closes in yet further for Flaubert’s Emma Bovary, and comes to seem like a cage. Adventures lie on the other side and the longing becomes unbearable. Dreams and daydreams surge into the monotony of the quotidian. The lost infinitude of the outside world is replaced by the infinite expansion of the soul. The great illusion of the irreplaceable uniqueness of the individual—one of the sweetest of European illusions—blossoms forth.
But the dream of the infinite expansion of the soul loses its magic when man is grasped by History (or what remains of it: the suprahuman force of an omnipotent society). History no longer beckons with the promise of a medal, but barely offers a surveyor’s job. What can K. do faced with the court or castle? Not a lot. Can’t he dream, at least, as Madame Bovary did before? No, the trap is too terrible and it sucks up all his thoughts and feelings—all he can think of is his trial, his surveying job. The infinite soul—if it ever existed—has become a more or less useless appendix.
The path of the novel, over the last four centuries, has run parallel to the history of the Modern Era. Looked at in retrospect, it seems strangely short and limited. Isn’t that Don Quixote himself, disguised as a surveyor, returning to the village four hundred years later? He left long ago in search of adventures of his own choosing, but now in the village beneath the castle he has no choice. The adventure is laid down for him, it’s a petty squabble with the administration over a mistake in his dossier. So what has happened through four centuries to adventure, the first great subject of the novel? Has it become its own parody? Meaning what? That the path of the novel comes full circle to end in paradox?
So it would seem. And that is by no means the only paradox. The Good Soldier Schweik is perhaps the last great comic novel. Isn’t it extraordinary that it is also a war story, with its action set in the army and on the front? What has happened to war and its horrors, when they become the subject of laughter?
In Homer and in Tolstoy, war has a perfectly comprehensible meaning—Helen, or Russia, is what is being fought for. But Schweik and comrades go to the front without knowing why and—even more shockingly—without being interested in the reason why.
What then is the motor of war if not Helen or the homeland? The will to power? That, surely, has lain behind all wars since the beginning of time. In Hasek’s book, though, the will to power is devoid of any serious argument. Nobody, not even the people who manufacture it, believes in the drivel put out by propaganda. The will to power, here, is naked, it is as naked as in Kafka’s novels where it shows itself in the incomprehensible machinations of the court and the castle. The court has no reason to hunt down K., just as the castle can draw no benefit from persecuting the surveyor K. Why did Germany, why does Russia today want to dominate the world? To be richer and happier, to have more wine, to have more sex? Not at all. The will to power is quite disinterested; it is unmotivated; it wills only its own will; it is pure irrationality.
Kafka and Hasek thus bring us face to face with this enormous paradox: in the course of the Modern Era, Cartesian rationality has eaten away at all the values inherited from the Middle Ages. But at the very moment of the total victory of reason, pure irrationality (the will to power) suddenly dominates the world scene, because there is no longer any generally accepted value system that could block its path.
This is what I should call a terminal paradox; it is the subject of one of the greatest European novels, Hermann Broch’s masterful Sleepwalkers.* But there are other such terminal paradoxes: for example, the Modern Era has cherished a dream of humanity finding one day unity and everlasting peace out of the diversity of its separate civilizations. Today, at last, the history of the planet has become an indivisible whole, but unity is assured by everlasting, circulating war. World unity means: no escape, for anyone, anywhere.
Husserl’s lectures on the European crisis and the possibility of the disappearance of European humanity were the philosopher’s last testament. He gave those lectures in the two capitals of central Europe. This coincidence has a deep meaning—for it was in that selfsame central part of Europe that the West first saw the death of the West, or, more exactly, the amputation of a part of itself, when Warsaw, Budapest, and Prague were swallowed up by the Russian empire. This catastrophe had a forerunner in the First World War, set in motion by the Hapsburg Empire, which led to the end of that empire and to a permanently unbalanced and weakened Europe.
The time was past when man had only the monster of his own soul to grapple with—the peaceful time of Joyce and Proust. In the novels of Kafka, Hasek, Musil, Broch, the monster comes from outside and is called History, but it no longer has the aspect of the adventurer: it is inhuman, ungovernable, incalculable, unintelligible; and it is inescapable. That was the time (just after the First World War) when a constellation of great Central European novelists saw, felt, and grasped the terminal paradoxes of the Modern Era.
But it would be wrong to read these novels as social and political prophecies, as if they were Orwellian anticipations. What Orwell has to tell us could have been said just as well (or rather, could be much better said) in an essay or pamphlet. The Central European novelists do the opposite and uncover (if I may again quote Broch) “what only the novel can uncover”: they demonstrate how, in the conditions of the terminal paradoxes, all existential categories suddenly change their meaning. What is future if the intellectuals of The Man Without Qualities have not the slightest suspicion that their lives will be swept away the next day by the Great War? What is crime if Broch’s Hugenau not only does not regret, but actually forgets the murder he has committed? And if the only great comic novel of the period, Hasek’s Schweik, has war as its subject, what then has happened to the comic? Where is the difference between public and private if K. is never without the two emissaries of the castle, even when making love? And in that case what is solitude?—a burden, an anxiety, a curse (as some would have us believe) or, on the contrary, the most precious value being suppressed by the ubiquitous collectivity?
The periods of the novel’s history are very long (they have nothing to do with the feverish gyrations of fashion) and are identified by the particular aspect of being on which the novel concentrates. Thus the full potential of Flaubert’s discovery of the quotidian was only realized seventy years later, in James Joyce’s gigantic work. The period inaugurated fifty years ago by the constellation of Central European novelists (the period of terminal paradoxes) seems to me far from being ended.
The end of the novel has been much discussed for a long time, notably by futurists, surrealists, the avant-garde generally. They saw the novel falling by the wayside of progress, on the road to a radically new future with an art bearing no resemblance to what had existed before. The novel was to be buried in the name of historical justice—like poverty, the ruling classes, obsolete automobiles, and top hats.
But if Cervantes is the founder of the Modern Era, then the end of his inheritance ought to signify more than a mere stage in the history of literary forms: it should mean the end of the Modern Era. That is why those glibly pious obituaries of the novel seem frivolous to me—frivolous because I have seen and lived through the death of the novel, a violent death inflicted by bans, censorship, and ideological pressures in the world where I have spent much of my life and which is usually called totalitarian. It is then absolutely clear that the novel is mortal, as mortal as the Modern Era of the West. As a model of this Western world in the Modern Era, founded on the relativity and ambiguity of human affairs, the novel is incompatible with a totalitarian universe. This is a deeper incompatibility than that which separates a dissident from an apparatchik, or a civil rights campaigner from a torturer, because it is not just a matter of politics or morality, but an ontological difference. That means: a world based on a unique Truth is molded from a quite different substance from that of the relative and ambiguous world of the novel. Totalitarian Truth excludes relativity, doubt, questioning; it can never accommodate what I would call the wisdom of the novel.
But aren’t there hundreds and thousands of novels published in huge editions and widely read in Communist Russia? Certainly; but these novels add nothing to the conquest of being. They uncover no new segment of existence; they only confirm what has already been said. And further: in confirming what has been said (by saying what has to be said) they fulfill their purpose, achieve their status, perform a useful service in the society that is theirs. By uncovering nothing, they fail to participate in the sequence of discoveries that for me constitutes the history of the novel. They place themselves beyond this history or, if you like, they are novels from after the end of the history of the novel.
The history of the novel in Russia came to an end about fifty years ago. That was an event of huge importance, since the Russian novel had fascinated Europe for an entire century. Thus the death of the novel is not just an idea. It has already happened. And we now know how the novel dies. It doesn’t disappear; it falls outside its history. The novel dies quietly, unremarked, and no one gives so much as a whimper.
Perhaps, though, the novel has been brought to the end of its road by the internal logic of its own development. Hasn’t it already exhausted all its possible fields of knowledge, all its possible forms?
I’ve heard people compare the history of the novel to a seam of coal long since exhausted. But for me, it’s more like a mausoleum of missed opportunities and of misunderstood challenges. There are four challenges to which I respond especially:
The challenge of play: Sterne’s Tristram Shandy and Diderot’s Jacques le fataliste are for me the two greatest novelistic works of the eighteenth century. These two novels are playful on a grandiose scale and reach pinnacles of unseriousness never scaled before, or since. After Sterne and Diderot, the novel tied itself down to obligations of verisimilitude, realistic setting, and chronological order, and abandoned the seam opened up by these two masterpieces, which could have led to a different development of the novel (yes, an alternative history of the European novel can be imagined…).
The challenge of dream: The slumber of the imagination in the nineteenth-century novel was suddenly interrupted by Franz Kafka, who achieved what the surrealists subsequently called for but never themselves brought into being: the fusion of dream and reality. This was in fact a long-standing aesthetic ambition of the novel, intimated even as early as in Novalis, but its fulfillment required that special alchemy which only Kafka discovered. His enormous contribution should be understood less as the final step of a historical development than as an unexpected breach through which it can be seen that the novel is a place where the imagination can explode as in a dream, and that the novel can become “an other thing.”
The challenge of thought: Since Cervantes, the novel has tried to embody philosophical reflection. This tendency opens out completely in Musil and in Broch. If the novel is considered to be an “investigation of existence,” then the sense of this embodiment of philosophical reflection becomes clearer: it’s not a matter of supplementing science, of writing “polyhistory,” or of dealing with material not specific to the novel, but of mobilizing at the base of the narrative all the means that serve to illuminate man’s concrete being. It’s an enormous task to transform the novel into novelistic phenomenology and to find the artistic means of doing so. From that point of view the achievement of the two Viennese novelists—remarkable as it was—is but the first leg of a long journey.
The challenge of time: The period of terminal paradoxes incites the novelist to abandon the Proustian limits to the question of time (restricted to personal memory), and to broaden the problem to include the enigma of collective time, of European time: the enigma of a Europe looking back on its own past, weighing up its history like an old man seeing his whole past life in the glance of a single moment. Thus the strong temptation (which Günter Grass and Carlos Fuentes know well) to overstep the traditional restriction of the novel to the time-scale of a single life and to include several historical periods within a single work—which involves, of course, great changes in the novel’s form.
But I don’t want to predict the future path of the novel, which I cannot know. I want only to arrive at this general conclusion: the disappearance of the novel, if it does happen, will not be due to exhaustion, but to its being in a world that is alien to it.
The unification of world history, that humanitarian dream which a wry God has allowed to be fulfilled, has been accompanied by a process of dizzying reduction. True, the beetle of reduction has always gnawed away at the fabric of life—even the greatest love affair ends up as a hollowed lump of dead memories. But the character of modern society multiplies to a monstrous degree the effect of this curse: it reduces man’s life to its social function, the history of a people to a small set of events that are then themselves reduced to a tendentious interpretation; social life is reduced to political struggle, and that in turn is reduced to the confrontation of just two great global power blocs. Man is caught in a veritable whirlpool of reduction where Husserl’s “world of concrete living” is fatally obscured and where being is progressively forgotten.
Now if the novel’s raison d’être is to keep the world of concrete living constantly before our eyes and to protect us from “the forgetting of being,” is it not necessary today more than ever that the novel should exist?
That is how it seems to me. But alas, the novel too is eaten by the beetles of reduction, which diminish not only the sense of the world but also the meaning of works of art. Like all of culture, the novel is more and more in the hands of the mass media. As agents of the unification of world history, the media amplify and concentrate the process of reduction. They broadcast identical simplifications and stereotypes across the globe designed to be accepted by the greatest number, by everyone, by the whole of humanity. It doesn’t matter very much if different political interests are made evident by different organs of the media. Behind these surface differences reigns a common spirit. You have only to glance at American or European political weeklies of the left or right, from Time to Der Spiegel, to see that they all have the same view of life, reflected in the same ordering of the contents under the same headings, in identical forms of journalistic writing using the same vocabulary and the same style, in common artistic preferences, and in the identical ranking of things they find important or insignificant. The common spirit of the mass media, camouflaged by political diversity, is the spirit of our time. And this spirit seems to me to be contrary to the wisdom of the novel.
The novel’s essence is complexity. Every novel says to the reader: “Things are not as simple as you think.” That is the novel’s eternal truth, but its voice grows ever fainter in a world based on easy, quick answers that come before and rule out the question. In this world, it’s either Anna or Karenin who is right, and the ancient wisdom of Cervantes, which speaks of the difficulty of knowing and of a truth that eludes the grasp, seems cumbersome and useless.
The novel’s essence is continuity. Each work is an answer to preceding ones, each work contains all the anterior experience of the novel. But the spirit of our time is firmly focused on a present that is so expansive and full that it pushes the past over the horizon and reduces time to the present minute alone. Within this system the novel is no longer work (a thing made to last, to connect the past with the future) but an event among other current events, an inconsequential act, a mere gesture.
Does this mean that the novel will disappear in a world “that is alien to it”? That it will abandon Europe in “the forgetting of being”? That only the endless verbiage of scribblers writing novels after the end of the history of the novel will remain? I’ve no idea. All I think I know is that the novel cannot live in peace with the spirit of our times: if it is to carry on uncovering the undiscovered, to continue “progressing” as novel, it can only do so against the “progress” of the world.
The avant-garde saw things differently, for it was possessed by an ambition to be in harmony with the future. Avant-garde artists did indeed create courageous, difficult, provocative works that were condemned by the public, but they did so in the conviction that the Zeitgeist was with them, and would very soon accept them.
Once upon a time I too thought that the future was the only competent judge of our actions. Later on I understood that running after the future is the worst conformism of all, a cowardly flattery of greater strength. For the future is always stronger than the present. It will judge us, to be sure—but without the slightest competence.
But if the idea of progress arouses my suspicion, what are the values to which I feel attached? God? Fatherland? People? The Individual?
My answer is as sincere as it is ridiculous: I am attached to nothing apart from the European novel, that unrecognized inheritance that comes to us from Cervantes.
—Translated from the French by David Bellos
July 19, 1984