St. Thomas Aquinas

For Maureen Drdak,

If she will accept it as part of our good conversation.

Devon, PA. I shall be returning to the following subject frequently in the next few weeks: the need in our age for a restoration in the arts and for a renewed attention to beauty for which real art is the best training.  The interested reader may wish to consult my recent First Principles essay, “Art and Beauty against the Politicized Aesthetic.”

Lev Grossman, in the Wall Street Journal, tells us the truth about the contemporary novel: the modernist eschewal of plot is going to disappear with the inevitability that only a constellation of causes can ensure:  cultural transformations; the marketplace; the inherent story-form of human life, the base gossipy craving to learn, which provides the inchoate foundation of Aristotle’s observation that “All men by nature desire to know”; the intuition that reality is a cosmos or a creation, that is, something intelligible because of an antecedent Intellect; the epistemological necessity of narrative founded on and extending the aforementioned ontological one.  In “Good Novels Don’t Have to Be Hard” he gives us a smart first assessment of how the contemporary novel should look, how it will look, and why.  Good stories are coming back, whether on the kiddy train that brought us Harry Potter or on the A-train that will bring us more intellectually mature and satisfying plots.

Let me make two points — one practical, the other theoretical — by way of commentary on Grossman’s analysis, which — however counter-intuitive it may appear to some — is almost certainly correct.

1. I have spent most of my adult life around novelists and aspirant novelists.  If there is anything on which we have all agreed it was that the natural and halcyon form of the novel was that perfected by the Victorians.  If the novel is to survive as an attractive and vital art, it will always gravitate back to that form; apparent evidence to the contrary (such as the modernist novel) proves this insofar as one can only read a modern novel properly (take Joyce’s Ulysses or any novel by Woolf here) if one reads it with the Victorians in mind.  If one does not feel, while yawning through To the Lighthouse, the tension of Victorian convention being bucked by modernist insouciance, Victorian mores being at once embraced, gutted, and tweaked, one simply has not read the book.

In personal support of the inevitability of the Victorian novel with its dense, winding plots and thick, well etched, and morally significant characters, I also note that my own group of writers from my early years had a philosophy about fiction: the Intelligent Bar.  The test of a work of fiction was this: if you cannot imagine going into the most intelligent of bars in the most intelligent of cities and sitting down with the most intelligent of drunks and telling him a given story over a pint, then that story should not be told.  Since we lived in Ann Arbor, Michigan, we were all convinced that the environment was conducive to testing this theory. (And since those years, I believe I am the only one who has not published a considerable amount of fiction; but that is only because I came to hate writing it.  I prefer to write poems and nothing but nothing thrills me like the prospect of a good iamb).

2. His fundamental insight granted, Grossman’s historiography confuses matters just a bit.  The story he tells us is of a Victorian age flush and confident in inevitable material and moral progress and, thus, an age that saw the neat, ingenious, and edifying plots of, say, the novels of Charles Dickens as condign to its lived experience.  With the First World War, the robust moral imagination and confidence in human progress of the Victorians came crashing down.  In the aftermath of the Somme, the only art form that could adequately express reality was one that bore the lineaments of bombed-out landscapes, senseless furies of trench warfare, and empty jingoistic rhetoric.  The modern arts, of which T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land” is the great example, represented a real chaos by means of a chaotic art.

Let me revise this claim, much though I agree with its proposition that distinctly modern cultural change provoked changes in the arts.  The Nineteenth Century was the great age of the novel not only because its practitioners discovered at that time the natural and ineluctable conventions necessary for the kind of beast the novel, by its nature, wanted to become.  During that century, political revolution, urbanization, intellectual specialization, and industrialization put all received traditions and truths into question.  Life in the Victorian world can better be characterized as traumatic and vertiginous than as complacent and graced with equipoise.  Its apparently easy pieties were hard won, its real banalities sugared unprecedented historical turns.  Philosophy and Theology had fallen into decline two centuries earlier and continued their precipitation into abstraction, incoherence, partiality, and irrelevance at an ever faster pace while the lived reality of the average person continued to spin all things like a centrifuge.  In a word, the Victorians were a very anxious people who were ill equipped to grapple with the sources of that anxiety, in part because the great intellectual tools first chiseled out by the Greeks and wielded with authority by the Schoolmen had fallen into decay, and in part because the sheer rate of change in material conditions in that society would have drowned all but the brightest of souls.  Indeed, it did.  Even the great mind of John Henry Newman was limited in its achievement by the necessity of attending to the flux and confusion of his day.  One may read his work with edification, but one must always read it as a historian first.

The combination of spiraling social change, inadequate traditional rational resources, and — last of all — cheap print made the times auspicious for a kind of intellectual revolution.  The novelist became the conscience, the moral inquisitor, of his age.  The pious abstractions of Protestant Christianity, the wild eschatons of philosophical Idealism, and the anemic, bloodless abstractions of modern empiricism were evidently too removed from any kind of human life to offer it sound guidance; but Victorian life was changing from day to day with each new Latin-named invention and each new biological or geological theory (also, inevitably, named in Latin).  But novels tell stories, and even the most remote story (think of Scott’s Ivanhoe) is more concrete than the bromides of laissez-faire, inevitable material progress, and Evangelical moral uplift.

Moreover, the dynamism of a novel’s plot reassures us that historical change may be radical, but permanent moral truths endure as a context by which to observe and evaluate it.  If the world were pure flux, one could not piece together something so complex yet steady as the form of a plot; but if the truth were as static as the eternal plane of abstractions, one would not have the continuous movement necessary for plot either.  Because a novel consists above all of plot and character — of persons and temporal events — it does not take a great leap of faith or bland optimism to believe in it as a reflection of reality.  For the Victorians, plot in the novel provisionally closed the aporia between Truth and experience, while character (the beautiful, the admirable, the dastardly, the fallen) closed another between experience and the Good.  And, because the novel requires so few other a priori beliefs, one does not have to have a firm grasp of the real world or any fixed structure of philosophy or theology to accept the truths  — above all, the moral truths — that a novel might try to convey.

The novel was thus the exquisitely adapted form for the Victorian period.  In an age where everything was aswim in the flux, and where old verities seemed at best hard to connect with the present objects of experience and at worse astringent bones of abstraction, the novel provided the certitude of story with the confident, if flexible and malleable, conclusiveness of moral judgment.  The Victorians often feared they were losing everything, and so they devoured their stories as a last source of moral and emotional authority.  The characters in the novel reassured them that, in a world where material advancements were incontestable but where men, women, and children were being shoved into work houses and squalid tenements, there might still be a place for the human person.

The devastation of World War I, which Grossman rightly emphasizes, did not turn the world upside down.  It simply snatched the last life raft from beneath the clutching arms of an already uncertain, dazed, and desperate people.  The novel was exposed as the consolation, the last resort, of a bourgeoisie that was about to lose integrity and power; as T.S. Eliot wrote, discussing Joyce, the novel was not even an art form, but rather the expression of the sensibility of a particular social class during a particular historical period now buried.  Grossman clearly has the unanticipated and fragmented formal elements of modern art in mind when he describes the effects of the First World War: neat plots stitched like tea doilies were to be replaced by palimpsests and fugues, torn sheets and trauma, geometry and ruins.  But modern art did not spring merely from an even more exaggerated sense of historical chaos than that which the Victorians suffered.  It sprang also from two intuitions each of which emerged from the earlier rise of the novel.

First, the moderns understood the power of story and character as it had served their ancestors, and they understood this power to be more profound than the plot of a novel could of itself reveal.  Dickens was not superannuated because he was fiction, but because his stories did not penetrate far enough (truly speaking, he was not superannuated at all; the modernist writers devoured Victorian novels and genre fiction – especially detective stories – with relish; they just did not write them).  As such, the budding study of folklore grew into a new cultural obsession with uncovering archetypes and mythic forms.  Since the surface details of human life were typified chiefly by their evanescence and mutability, what if there were forms beneath the surface of things that gave shape to the stories we all live?  Since cultures vary radically in their sensible details, what if they nonetheless were identical at some archetypal depth?  The age of mythology was upon us, and Myth would take on an ever-more-loaded and potent cultural significance.  No longer did myth mean the superstitions of primitive and naive man; it connoted the archetypal forms that were the only possible source of meaning for human culture.  Myth and archetype was the terrain where the truth about ourselves lies, impermeable to discursive reason and most apprehensible by means of aesthetic insight.

This project had inevitably to fail because it did not go far enough.  Mythic archetypes are a compromise for those who cannot shut their abstracting faculties off entirely but who suspect anything that is not concrete.  Aristotle had critiqued the Platonic doctrine of the Forms, because that doctrine did not explain the cause of anything; the same can be said about the modern fascination with archetypes.  One may experience a certain warm satisfaction in discovering that all men share in the narrative of the quest or the “hanging god,” but how do such elegant cultural rhymes explain anything?  One thousand echoes do not make one live voice.  On a speculative level they do not, and on a practical level they have alternately inspired a resigned relativism, a ritualistic quietism, or the bloody cults of race (for examples of the first, see any book that speaks about “The Great Religions of the World” or a Unitarian with a penchant for Buddhist meditation; for the second, see Seamus Heaney’s North; for the latter, see the Nazis).  If all human cultures share certain narratives, that is because they share something more permanent and profound as well — and that commonality may be discovered only at the level of metaphysics or, to be exact, philosophical theology.

Which leads us to the second intuition.  The moderns saw the weakness of the Victorian dependence on the novel.  When the reason reflects on experience, including the experience of reading a story, it rightly and inevitably rises by means of abstraction from passing phenomena to eternal principles, if there be any.  One cannot forever short-circuit this natural action of the intellect by saying that stories appeal only to emotion and that it is in the emotions alone that man may discover truth.  The Victorians relied on such platitudes and despaired to see that it made possible unprecedented readerships for novels, poetry, and personal essays while the march of modern “reason” persisted in its efforts to dominate the world and to reduce all things — people included — to their use or monetary value.  If Victorian emotion was morally superior to “reason,” it was also trampled under “reason’s” boots.

And so, in the wake of the Great War, intellectuals frequently abandoned or denigrated the novel in their efforts to restore true philosophy — metaphysics — to the canons of thought.  The writings of T.S. Eliot and Jacques Maritain present to us a vivid and gnawing sense that unless one can grapple honestly with the question “What is real?” one may live in the Victorian dreams of Tennyson but not in any true world.  Popular manuals on Thomas Aquinas, published eventually in cheap paperback editions, took their place alongside novels in bookstores.  The quest for the real was the quest for Being, for the nature of things — and that quest required more than a good sense of dramatic form (although that was neither lacking nor unimportant).  It required an unrelenting drive to encounter existence and essence –- and their identity and source in Being Itself, which everyone calls God.  Modernist art was sometimes realist in the Victorian sense of providing unvarnished, naturalistic details; but, generally, it was realist in this manner only in order to insist upon metaphysical realism, on the meaningful reality of Being that holds everything in existence despite the superficies of chaos.  Modernism marks the Return to the Real, but not the realism of Nietzsche, Darwin, and Freud.  Rather, it strives toward a return to the Realism of Thomas Aquinas.

Although the age of popular neo-Thomism died out with the Second World War or, at the latest, with the Second Vatican Council, it prepared us for the return of the novel as Grossman describes it.  On the one hand, it was tangentially instrumental in the rise of postmodern Continental philosophy which takes Being seriously enough to declare all our statements about it an illusion; we are trapped in a “prison house” of language and cultural constructs outside of which we can know nothing.  Such postmodernism is merely a radicalization of the anxieties the Victorians knew so well and sought to overcome by means of plot, character, emotion, and moral judgment; it is “radical” because it resists the efforts of others to return to the real, to restore metaphysics even as it senses the irresistable drive to fundamental ontology St. Thomas symbolizes for our age.

More constructively and on the other hand, the rise of philosophical realism in the last century lay a brilliant foundation for us to conclude as a matter of reason what the Victorians could only tremulously affirm as a matter of feeling: if the world of beings is intelligible to us, it is so because it was created from nothing by Being Itself; our receptive intelligences participate in the creative intelligence of God in an analogous way to how our ears participate in the life of the person’s tongue who chats with us at the local pub.  We make sense of the world because the world is a great ontic repository of logic.  As such, our most hard-headed investigations of the world begin to arrive at the truth not when we cut through all the anthropomorphic projections of our consciousness (our sensible and ethical categories) and get to the cold gravel and hot protoplasm of geologic time and biological evolution.  Rather, we arrive at reality when we begin to sense the formal principles of the world as created, as intelligently authored by He Who is outside of it, beyond it, and eternally before it.

When we can affirm this as a philosophical point, we begin to understand why all persons like stories.  We like them because they tell us the truth about ourselves.  They show us the form of our lives.  But, also and above all, they lead us down a path toward the Form-giver of All Things.  The Victorians were right to put their faith in stories, and the Mythological-archetypalists were right that there is a foundation that makes our knowledge of stories among the most profound knowledge we may ascertain.  But we may trust in stories only because we can discern beyond them the Is Who Is; the form of a plot is one expression of the Form that constitutes a thing in being, in reality.   To put the matter in the pat paradox all great truths require: We pick up a tabloid scandal sheet or a bus station dime novel for much the same reason we go to Church; we are hoping to see God.

Local Culture
Local Culture
Local Culture
Local Culture


  1. Well, this IS why I keep my subscription current. As I’ve mentioned in the past, I’m not sure which of these gifted writers is my favorite, but this morning it’s Prof. Wilson.
    This exegetical exercise is a masterpiece, illustrating the breadth and depth of erudition not often experienced these days. My hope is that I can get a grandchild or two to his university with a message taped to their collar reading, “Here, teach this child the truth of things!”
    Prof. Wilson symbolizes those scholars who are doing the heavy lifting in their efforts to recapture the truth of reality lost as a result of the festering, pernicious ideologies spawned by the Enlightenment and it’s secular criticisms of metaphysics and theology.
    I think that in large measure the resistance to the ideological pathologies will be successful and that there will be no new ideologies, where Marxism and its epigones (Democrats, socialists, ect.) will stand in opposition to man’s ontological order. The problem, of course, as Prof. Wilson is intimately familiar, is that these ideological distortions have become institutionalized within our society and given credibility within our educational system.
    Consequently, it is Prof. Wilson and men and women like him who represent the cultural/civilizational skirmish line, in a position of constantly challenging and engaging the enemy of truth, order, reality, God.
    But the truth of things is that man must seek the ground and as Mircea Eliade implied in his work “Myth and Reality”, “..a myth is a technique of imputing a ground to an object of experience,” where everything in its first cause originates from the Transcendent Ground, that is from God!
    Thank you for this!

  2. James,

    What we think of as the Victorian novel ended its run not with the First World War, but sometime in the 1870’s or 1880’s, after which point ensued what, for me, is an era in the English-language novel more interesting than either the High Victorian or the High Modernists ones — the era of Hardy and James and Conrad and Ford, the era of the popular romance of Stevenson and Haggard and Kipling and Doyle, of Stoker and Wells and Chesterton and Buchan. Where and how does that period fit in your thoughts?

  3. I have of late been pondering the gnostic tendencies of the bulk of Protestantism, particularly how, though we Protestants profess the Incarnation, we tend to look it as a single event in time and not as the iconoclastic reality that it truly is. We tend to differentiate between spiritual realities as good and physical realities as evil, and look forward to the time when we shall be released from these physical bodies to our new spiritual bodies. Obviously this statement greatly oversimplifies and thereby distorts what is for many a much more nuanced position, but this is in my mind the reason why much of Protestantism is deeply distrustful of myth and so enamored of rational discourse as the exclusive means of discovering truth: we have forgotten how to tell stories. Our art tends to be either abstract or banal (sometimes both) and reveals an essential disconnect from the Form-giver of All Things.

    Pardon me if I gush a bit, but this thinking has been a heady brew for me. Your essay reminds me of (and I think stands in good company with) J. R. R. Tolkien’s writing about fairy-tales, C. S. Lewis’s essays on writing, Madeleine L’Engle’s Walking On Water and, perhaps most of all, Dorothy Sayer’s The Mind of The Maker, each of which tangentially, if not explicitly, tells the truth of how stories reveal reality and point toward the Storyteller. Both Tolkien and Lewis in their fantasies represented the act of creation as a story put to song sung in the darkness by the Creator, the power of which brought into existence everything in the world. A powerful metaphor, that.

    To put the matter in the pat paradox all great truths require: We pick up a tabloid scandal sheet or a bus station dime novel for much the same reason we go to Church; we are hoping to see God.

    I could swear I recently read a statement very like this, only I can’t recall where. It sounds like something Flannery O’Connor might have said.

    These comments are somewhat of a muddle. Sorry for that.

  4. James,

    In the immortal words of Slim Pickens “You use yer mouth purtier than a 20 dollar whore”.

    (And I mean that as a compliment) Jeepers you can write. Thanks for this wonderful, erudite, and well argued essay.

  5. For me the main thrust of the argument lies in these passages:
    “Modernist art was sometimes realist in the Victorian sense of providing unvarnished, naturalistic details; but, generally, it was realist in this manner only in order to insist upon metaphysical realism, on the meaningful reality of Being that holds everything in existence despite the superficies of chaos.”
    “the age of popular neo-Thomism died out with the Second World War.”
    Which lead to…
    “the rise of postmodern Continental philosophy which takes Being seriously enough to declare all our statements about it an illusion; we are trapped in a “prison house” of language and cultural constructs outside of which we can know nothing.”
    “More constructively and on the other hand, the rise of philosophical realism in the last century lay a brilliant foundation for us to conclude … the world of beings is intelligible to us, it is so because it was created from nothing by Being Itself.”

    There’s a big gap here. You still haven’t gotten out of postmodern holism to realism. You say that realism of the last century (and by this I am unsure what you mean. Positivism maybe?) provides a foundation, but that realism was rejected for reason besides WWII. There’s Quine and Wittgenstein towering over us here. Fortunately, there is a path to realism on offer now. And it does resolve reviving Aristotelian realism and teleology as you like (though not, maybe, in the way you would like).

    At the end of Language, Thought, and Other Biological Categories, Millikan writes:

    “Descartes and then Locke, it is said, opened an era in which philosophers sought vainly to reach the world through a “veil of ideas” (or, alternatively, to pull the world in behind the veil). They placed themselves behind this veil by beginning with a vision or theory of mind as a realm in which ideas lived but which was outside the world these philosophers wished to reach with their ideas–the world, at least, of nature. Today, influenced especially by Wittgenstein and Quine, there is a new school of philosophers who live behind a veil of “theories,” entangled in “language games” or in the “logical order.” They too have placed themselves behind a veil by beginning with a certain vision or theory, this time a theory about language; a theory about theories–a theory entailing that theories can be meaningful theories while (like old-fashioned “ideas” and “minds”) floating loose from the rest of the world. (P. 332)”

    In it’s place Millikan offers a realist theory of truth grounded as a natural phenomenon in the world while giving up the quest for Cartesian foundations of a priori knowledge. But the way forward is through embracing Darwinism as the source of our realism. This is the only serious realism currently on offer.

  6. …”the anemic, bloodless abstractions of modern empiricism”…ahhh yes, modernity all dressed up with no place to go, hence the side-trip into primitivism as a means to pin-prick the sluggard automaton awake. A weeping Homunculus rusting his all-seeing eyes shut. Wilson, I second the Slimism of Thomas G. and Cheeks, if I was half as cheerfully enthusiastic as you I might like me more.

    But, and there is always a but…as to Empedocles and his assertion that Darwinism… its “ism”ish incarnation….a concept I think the former berth-holder on the Beagle would have found a bit troublesome to abide …but at any rate …that we might consider “Darwinism the only serious realism currently on offer” would seem to place the body of Man on the Gurney next to God in the morgue at the Nietzsche Memorial Hospital. Darwin, in my less than relaible estimation , did not set about to abolish myth or mystery so much as luxuriate within it and bask in the great poetry of our existence. A true Victorian in the best sense of the word, He sailed to the ends of the World to add further decoration to the house that is our concept of life.
    Perhaps I misunderstand you.

  7. “In it’s place Millikan offers a realist theory of truth grounded as a natural phenomenon in the world while giving up the quest for Cartesian foundations of a priori knowledge. But the way forward is through embracing Darwinism as the source of our realism. This is the only serious realism currently on offer.”

    Empedocles, assuming I understand your rather brilliant argument and at the risk of embarrassing myself, the above defines the hypostatizing of the transcendent pole of the tension of human existence, if not the deliberate destruction of the transcendent and therefore, the destruction of reality and devolves to an activist dreamer’s truth claims as second realities.
    (Dr.) Millikan appears to be following Aristotle in his efforts to “aition” and has derailed by selecting the scholastic “causae” rather than the Nous where I would define it as Reason acknowledging a ground of existence that is Divine.

  8. There’s much to chew on in these comments, and the more challenging bits are hard to tear off because, in my vanity, I’m so pleased with the warm reception this essay has received from the FPR reg’lers. Thanks to all y’all for the kind words and provoked meditations. Here are just a few quick responses to the substantive queries and criticisms.

    “Arthur,” the short answer to your good question is that I used Nineteenth Century Novel and Victorian Novel interchangably in the essay; for obvious literary historical reasons, that’s not entirely just, but it’s not a practice that I’m married to, either. If we could just presume I mean “Nineteenth Century novel” in every instance, we might proceed content. While writing this, it’s worth noting, I found myself primarily thinking of Jane Austen — not a Victorian in any historical sense, but a 19th Century “Romantic. In terms of plot, isn’t she the unsurpassed master? My point, however, is that, if I include her, I’m speaking with a broad chronological block in mind when I praise the high point of the novel.

    But you introduce distinctions worthy of pursuit. My old teacher and, I think it fair to say, mentor, Nicholas Delbanco (the novelist and brother of Andrew Delbanco the well known literary critic), wrote a book on the generation of Conrad and James et al., and while it has been too long since I read it to say for sure, I recall that he made something of a case for that interlude between the Victorians and the modernists as a particularly distinguished one. I would group them in with the Victorians and insist that I was thinking of some of them as I was singing the praises of the 19th Century. I’m a great admirer of James and think of him first when I think of the great novelists, actually. That said, I think one could make a counter-argument (against me!) that these writers are signs of the age’s dissolution rather than examples of its highest achievement. Certainly the subordination of plot to character in James is a formal weakness that exasperates the casual reader; early James tends to be more pure of this.

    Dan mentions William Faulkner. I’m a scholar of modernism, so I hope he didn’t expect an objection from me. And yet, Faulkner is uneven at best; “As I Lay Dying” is clever and important but a bad novel beholden to its own gimmick. “Absalom! Absalom!” is, I understand, the uncontoverted masterpiece and I have nothing to object to there, but would hasten to suggest that, as with Woolf in England, Faulkner’s best books — with their epic grandeur, their sense of the historical stage looming — rely upon at least some familiarity of the old southern melodramatic novels that were written prior to his birth (including two, I believe, by his grandfather). Without that assumed drama of the Southern Tragedy, one loses something, something crucial, in reading him. Thus he too takes a bow backward.

    W.P., I had wanted to hold off writing this essay until I could write it by addressing the very writers you mention. Thanks for introducing their names; I hope to come back to them in the future. In the meantime, I apologize for not discussing them in the essay and plead only that I was writing in response to Grossman and so didn’t feel obliged to repair to my library before blurting forth.

    Finally, Empedocles, I haven’t reinspected my essay, but I think you misread my claim and so see a chasm where there is a continuity. The realism of which I speak is the neo-Thomism mentioned in the essay. If Thomist realism was abandoned, I did not intend to suggest it was defeated. It is the foundation I meant.

    MacIntyre, when he first tried to revive the Aristotelian tradition in ethics, thought he could do so without worrying over Aristotle’s natural philosophy (his “metaphysical biology” as he dirisively called it). But he learned better. Not only did he come to see the importance of Aristotelian natural philosophy, but he came to see that need for something Aristotle could not give us — not modern biology (though we did need that too, of course) but revealed Theology. Hence, the naturalist foundation for reintroducing teleology may be fruitful and interesting, but I do not see how it is necessary to “legitimate” and make viable what the Thomists teach. In another context, I would want to make serious objections to the particular kind of claim you and Millikin make about Darwin as a “foundation” for realism; at the very least, we would have to establish the distinction between what is prior in knowledge and what is prior in reality. But the proper response to your objection is that there is no hole in the story I tell, because I am insisting that the Thomism of the early twentieth century is continuous with that of the present, and that it alone provides us the kind of realism — moderate or conceptual realism founded in the doctrine of the divine ideas — we need if we wish to know the truth.

  9. James,

    Thanks for the reply. It’s always good to know someone who appreciates James. That said, I have to disagree with your estimate of *As Lay Dying* specifically and with your sense that Faulkner in general is diminished by such debt as he owes by virtue of such allusions as he makes toward earlier stages of fiction, including Southern melodrama of the sort that you describe. I don’t know anyone who’s read the sort of Southern melodrama you describe (and I’m not convinced that Faulkner himself ever did to any great degree). But I do know many people — myself included — who have no trouble reading Faulkner’s work with enjoyment and edification nonetheless. In any case, are Faulkner’s or Woolf’s debts to earlier stages of fiction really any greater than, say, Dickens’s. Can’t one see Dickens as, in part, a 19th century pastiche of 18th century English novelists like Smollett, just as one can see Faulkner and Woolf as, in part different sorts of 20th century pastiche of different sorts of 19th century novels and novelists? And I suspect that something similar could be said of Jane Austen as could be said of Dickens, though I am less familiar with her specific antecedents than I am with his. In any case, I think you’re overstating the belatedness of 20th cetury fiction, or at least your overstating the uniqueness of its belatedness. Different novelists at different stages of the novel have managed their relations to the novelistic past in different ways. But I don’t think it’s fair to say that 20th century fiction is any more just a footnote to 19th century fiction than it would be to say that 19th century fiction is just a footnote to 18th century fiction, or that the whole genre of the novel is just a footnote to the genre of chivalric romance — which, of course, in some *limited* sense it *is,* if one takes the start of the novel and the end of chivalric romance to be *Don Quixote.* But, of course, that’s not *all* that it is.

  10. Yes, I think it sounded as if I was pushing my point beyond where I intended. I do think the belatedness of modernist writers calls us to read us in light of their antecedents; my argument — in some bit of academic writing somewhere — is that reading modernism as a belated gloss is part of reading those books properly in a way that is distinct from, say, sensing antecendents and sources in Auden or the Brontes, or Dickens.

    For Faulkner, I wasn’t saying — or intending to say — one needed to know his grandpa’s melodramas to read him, but it is clear that the sense of the South as itself a high tragedy — a reading of the region that Sir Walter Scott’s books helped bring about — as an assumed context deeply informs Faulkner’s books (or Absalom! at any rate). That doesn’t diminish his accomplishment, but its reflexivity is akin to the reflexivity in Joyce that sends us back to Victorian conventions of the novel for one necessary point of reference.

    In any case, it is clear that a certain formal perfection in the novel of authorial elegance, plot structure, and character representation was glimpsed in myriad places in the Nineteenth Century and that the modernist novel critiqued those conventions without making possible a new convention of the novel that could continue without those things. And so, Grossman’s good point that we now should return to them.

  11. James,

    There is nothing you said about Faulkner that couldn’t be said about Dickens and “A Tale of Two Cities”. Your argument is interesting but essentially beside the point.

    I think your analysis has your ideology forming your aesthetics. The novel is the great artistic expression of modernism (Beginning with Cervantes). The novel is, itself, modern by its very nature.

  12. Well, I hear you, James, but — at the same time — wasn’t a great deal of the modernist impulse in fiction born out a very defensible desire precisely to *perfect* what the modernist novelists saw — again in a very defensible way — as the formal *imperfection* of the 19th century novel, or rather, and specifically, the 19th century novel in English, as opposed to, say, Russian and French? The whole stream of modernist fiction I alluded to before, the one that runs from James to Conrad to Ford — and that, incidentally, branches off from Conrad to Faulkner, among others — that whole stream of fiction was really motivated by the sense that the novel in English had never really realized itself, had never really realized the kind of elegance of authorial style and architectonic construction of plot, and etc, that you seem to see — contrary to them — as the hallmark of those Victorian novels that James criticized both rightly and wrongly as “loose, baggy monsters.” Much of the hyper-self-consciousness of writers like James and Conrad and Ford and Faulkner comes precisely from their effort to achieve what you seem to suggest that the Victorians already had achieved. I’m more sympathetic to your case where Joyce and Woolf are concerned. I think their respective projects were in each case something other than what these earlier figures were trying to do. They were tying to “transcend” the novel, to invent that extended prose-form “beyond” the novel, and *not* trying to perfect the novel the way the others were — especially the way, say, James and Ford very self-consciously were. Conrad and Faulkner took more chances and were more innovative than James and Ford. But, even then, they were extended the range of the novel as it came down to them, and not trying to reinvent the wheel the way that Joyce and Woolf sometimes, maybe even often, were. Anyway …

    On a different but related note, if you haven’t already, you should go back and check out what MacIntyre has to say in *After Virtue* on Austen and James and on the novel in general. It has a great deal of bearing on your argument here. There’s also an interview somewhere where he lists some favorite novels and novelists in addition to Conrad and James. As I remember it, his favorites run the gamut from Joyce and Lawrence and Woolf to science fiction like Philip K. Dick — though I could be remembering wrong.

  13. Since Dan’s accusation would be devastating, if I understood what it meant, I think I should recall us to what the essay says and leave the less interesting dilations upon Faulkner to flap on their own.

    The argument was this: the Nineteenth Century novel, for a number of historical reasons, fulfilled the particular formal aptitudes of the genre, which I identify primarily with the achievement of a density and complexity of plot and character. The modernists critiqued all this and deconstructed it, chiefly by accentuating character while leveling and contorting plot. Grossman says this was a short lived transformation and novels must return to story; I agree. And, I provide an account of intellectual history that at once justifies the procedures of the Victorians and of the modernists while also suggesting that the concern with metaphysical realism in modernism prepares the way for a “return” of the Victorian conception of good plot and character. As an aesthetic claim, this says primarily that modernism was good, and, indeed, makes it possible for the supposedly exhausted form of the novel to revive by returning to conventions that were themselves once thought to be exhausted. That’s no small claim, but it has been blurred by the subsequent discussions in the comments. It is also not incidentally but directly tied to MacIntyre’s thought; I could as well be explaining why MacIntyre, the admirer of Austen, felt compelled to become a Thomist. That would require a different essay, but the rhymes would be obvious.

    There are other matters here worth considering, i.e. the act of confusing the novel as inherent modern (a claim with which I entirely agree, despite Margaret Doody’s claims in “The Real Story of the Novel”) with the discrete literary period now called the modernist. But I would hesitate to address any such matters in this context, since I am actually having difficulty discerning of what exactly I’m being accused — and so had best rest with the above clarification.

    That said, I note that here and elsewhere I promised Dan some kind of more thorough answer to objections he had made. Since responding to his plaints has generated some of my best FPR pieces, I’d happy to be reminded of any debts I need to pay in a future essay.

  14. A gauntlet for you, James. What do you make of George Eliot — the epitome of 19th century English fiction, but also the epitome of 19th century English liberalism? Is it possible to be a MacIntyrean Thomistic Aristotelean as a novelist, while being as far from MacIntyre and Aquinas and Aristotle as anyone could possibly be, in terms of one’s view of the world?

    And no, Dickens is not the epitome of 19th century English fiction. Instead, he’s the great and singular exception to George Eliot’s norm. There’s no one else like him, except for those who imitated him and were tutored by him, like Wilkie Collins. Part of the reason for Dickens’s difference is, as I’ve said before, that he — like Thackeray — looked back to the 18th century, in much the way that the modernists would look back to the 19th century in their successive turn.

  15. James,

    Glad to hear my plaints can be of service!

    My original interjection of Faulkner was a somewhat open ended invitation to re-examine the central thesis that the Victorian’s perfected the story (plot) and the modernists abandoned it. I will defend till my dying day that the what makes the novel is its synthesis of comedy and tragedy which is to my mind uniquely modern (And perhaps modernity’s greatest contribution to the human race).

    The idea that the modernist’s “destroyed plot” or “deconstructed story” is in and of itself a strong current in the conservative narrative of what happened in the last hundred years. Such a story reinforces their claims that modernity and liberalism are ultimately dehumanizing and in turn monstrous (In their ability to produce monsters and monstrous actions of all kinds). The problem with this story is that it is simply not true.

    While Joyce and Woolf were certainly experimenting with new ways of writing (They are of course also two of the most extreme examples) they were conducting, how shall I say, plot and story by another means. Ulysses, as unpopular as it might be to say within earshot of those who buy into the conservative reading of history, is a really tight narrative (Not to be confused by a tightly structured series of events).

    But what happens to the conservative narrative if we look at The Great Gatsby? A Farewell to Arms? Sons and Lovers?

    This is what I mean with my accusation.

    To return to my more cryptic and question asking form:

    Are complex and dense stories (Such as the Victorian’s) really more successfully told over drinks than rambling and obscene ones (Such as told by the modernists)?

  16. As one who’s a great fan of Victorian literature and who’s not averse to giving current ‘literary’ fiction the occasional go, I must say that the one contemporary writer I’ve read who captures the Victorian concern for story and “morality,” with a definite nod to myth and romance (in the old sense), is Mark Helprin. He manages to be both old-fashioned (in his themes) and modern (in his style and literary approach) at the same time.

    I was positively gobsmacked by his short story collection called “The Pacific,” then went on to read more of his work. His novel A Soldier of the Great War is astoundingly good, and is my favorite novel of the 2nd half of the 20th century. It is the only novel I’ve ever read which, upon finishing, I immediately wanted to begin re-reading. I’m convinced that if he were a liberal, he’d have won all the major prizes by now.

  17. Rob,

    I’ve met Helprin and I can tell you that my impression is that his lack of recognition stems from his abrasive personality more than his politics. Which in its own way is political but not a right or left sort of thing.

  18. You may be right, Dan, but I still can’t help believing that if he were an abrasive liberal he’d be cut more slack, if you know what I mean.

    What do you think of him as a fiction writer?

  19. Dan,

    Sometimes I do feel our disputes boil down to a mere shifting of and picking over categories.

    Since I’ve argued in several places (see Reasoning about Stories here, and the article to which I link in that essay, which appeared in American Arts Quarterly) that there is no art work that lacks narrative, but that narratives vary radically, I would suggest that you confuse plot and narrative.

    I’m too indifferent to the novel as a form, frankly, to want to push these distinction much further in the comment boxes, but it seems the objections to my argument from you and AM boil down to your desire to see continuities where you think I insist upon disruptions and discontinuities. In fact, my claims have been, in some respects, the opposite: I argued that the modernist novels takes the Victorian plot form as not just a point of reference, but as an object for critique; I did not argue that there was some unique “influence” of the Victorians on the modernists that was somehow lacking between the Victorians and their own antecedents. I argued not that Dickens had the 18th Century in mind, but that one must keep the Victorians in mind when reading Woolf; if anyone disputes this, go read “Between the Acts” and get back to me.

    To your particular point, Dan, again I am not denying the presence of narrative but the attempt to eschew or critique plot. And that practice in the modernists was part of a larger project to get beneath the apparent foundations of reality in plot to more profound places — places or truths that require a metaphysics rather than a narratology to be rightly explored.

    Fitzgerald is a good test case. As the most popular modernist novelist — insofar as he can be included among the modernists as a movement — his books obviously bear a great deal of resemblance to the thick but nicely crafted plots of a generation or more earlier. And yet, during the last twenty years, the chief effort of the scholars on Fitzgerald I’ve read has been to highlight how craftily disjointed and disjunctive he was, even to the point of undermining plot. Off the top of my head, I would sight merely that strange elipsis during Nick’s night out on the town with Gatsby, where Nick finds himself in the bedroom of one of his drinking partners. It’s a strange scene — one that many scholars take to be a crucial formal moment in the book in terms of disrupting the intelligiblity of the plot.

    George Eliot I can’t address here. Obviously Lord Acton thought she was a quintessential “Catholic” moral novelist. Had it been possible for him to conceive a society whose conscience was entirely formed on Eliot, Acton might have abandoned his Catholic faith. His admiration would make a great subject for an essay; unfortunately, whenever I propose it the would-be dissertator turns me down.

  20. James,

    If, by your own admission, you’re “too indifferent to the novel as a form” to make the effort that your readers require you to make to defend your very sweeping statements about said form and its history and meaning, then why make those statements at all? And why ask your readers to accept them with no further a-do? This argument — and others you have made here from time to time — would be more persuasive if they were less sweeping, or, if they must remain as sweeping as they are, made with more humility and more acknowledgement that others may disagree. The mandarin tone, which implies that “of course” the reader agrees — “doesn’t everyone?” — is half the problem here.

  21. I suppose that by the mere mention of the name “Ann Arbor” without any populist spittle upon it, I naturally invite accusations of mandarin pronouncements and elitist and unaccomodating dismissals.

    I don’t think there is any problem here — does anyone? — much less half of one lodged in my craw.

    But to reply directly to the challenge: I think I have answered as well as I could the objections that have been posed to my essay. So far as I have been able to deduce (and a direct response to the argument of my previous comment would have clarified things if I duced the deduction), I have insisted that the objections posed to my claims are not objections to the claims I made but to misinterpretations of the claims I made. Your own much appreciated (previous) comments, for instance, mention some very worthy distinctions in the body of work to which I refer most generally as “the Nineteenth Century novel,” and my response was that I not only included but was even especially thinking of the authors you mentioned when writing (for the record, in my own aspirant novelist days back in Ann Arbor James and Faulkner were my chief influences, after I escaped the minimalist magnet of Raymond Carver; if you want to know why I failed to become a published novelist you may be sure, given the influences, that it was not for lack of bulky manuscripts but for lack of quality in them).

    Clearly, Dan does make claims that controvert my own, but I think the distinction I make between plot and narrative resolves them.

    Finally, if my essay was completely reducible in significance to a claim about the history of the novel, I would not have written it. But having appreciated Lev Grossman’s essay, and having long meditated on my own disenchantment with the reading and writing of novels along with my persistent interest in them in the broader context of art and modernism, I felt it hardly a presumption or an insincerity to put an oar in. Swept.

  22. Rob,

    Mailer comes to mind as a possible example on the left. But I think Mailer was a better novelist. Also, he had a sense of humor. This I think helps, along with the alcoholism, for people to let his sheer meanness slide.

    I’m conflicted about Helprin. Winter’s Tale is a fascinating read but I am reminded of what they said about Mendelssohn in that he was born a genius but died a talent. Helprin is a very disciplined writer (in both the best and the worst ways) and possesses genuine talent but I feel he is always struggling to find a story worthy of it. In the end I think his grasp escapes his reach.

  23. James,

    “Sometimes I do feel our disputes boil down to a mere shifting of and picking over categories.”

    This is true but most of our disagreements over arguments that are very much dependent on categories.

    “I would suggest that you confuse plot and narrative.”

    I see the distinction you are trying to make but fail to see its import to the argument. I would suggest the modernists exemplify a larger vision of plot one beyond the conversation and events that played such a prominent role in Victorian novels. The modernists aren’t the first to do this, they are merely both very good at it and consistent in its application. I think the seeds of this are found in Cervantes and Fielding, in other words, since the very beginning of the form. I believe the conviction that the modernists represent a radical repudiation or turn for the novel is the product of a combination of an ideological reading and taking the modernists own self aggrandizement to seriously.

    Your Fitzgerald example is one you can routinely see in much earlier works by Dickens and Fielding. But then again I don’t think your completely willing to concede Fitzgerald as a modernist.

  24. In responce to Arthur point an Jame’s question:

    What is underlying everything written at FPR is an ideological project. It is a venue for the exposition of that project and engagement with its critics which requires grand sweeping statements. This is a good thing. It is also a blog which also requires grand sweeping statements. This is a bad thing (I believe the folks at FPR realize this and take steps to try to mitigate this tenancy).

    As a result there is a tendency to to dismiss criticism as either a misunderstanding (charitably) or a misrepresentation (uncharitably).

    Given this all should take the council of Erasmus seriously,

    “But I forget myself and run beyond my bounds. Though yet, if I shall seem to have spoken anything more boldly or impertinently than I ought, be pleased to consider that not only Folly but a woman said it; remembering in the meantime that Greek proverb, “Sometimes a fool may speak a word in season,” unless perhaps you expect an epilogue, but give me leave to tell you you are mistaken if you think I remember anything of what I have said, having foolishly bolted out such a hodgepodge of words. ‘Tis an old proverb, “I hate one that remembers what’s done over the cup.” This is a new one of my own making: I hate a man that remembers what he hears. Wherefore farewell, clap your hands, live and drink lustily, my most
    excellent disciples of Folly.”

  25. Dan, I’ve tried to read “Winter’s Tale” a couple times but didn’t care for it much. On the other hand, I was totally engrossed by the stories in “The Pacific,” and by “A Soldier…” — no ‘struggling for a story’ there that I could detect!

  26. Dan,

    Since you appreciate my charity, let’s see if by means of it we might not draw a few conclusions. Here, so far as I can tell, are the relevant facts of our disagreement:

    a) We both agree that the novel is a distinct genre, the definition of whose form must include a particular kind of complex elaboration of Plot and Character.

    b) The modernist novel is visibly distinct in its attributes from earlier forms of the novel, but whether this distinction constitutes a discontinuity is another matter.

    c) I have argued that the modernists sought to subordinate plot to character, in many cases even to the point of trying to eliminate plot in favor of character. We are agreed that this does not mean the elimination of some kind of narrative, but only the subordination of or elimination of Plot as it was conceived in the Nineteenth Century novel.

    d) You have claimed, to the contrary, that what I view as subordination or elimination is in fact just a new elaboration or extension.

    e) I’m not sure the difference between these claims cannot become trivial very quickly, but here’s a brief go at how they might matter. Because several modernists thought what they were doing was killing the novel in favor of a new art form, and because they did this by the subordination or destruction of Plot, while focusing more than ever on the ellaboration of Character; because they argued they were going beyond the novel and even that the novel was a historical rather than a literary form soon to lie in the grave; because modernists expressly contrasted their work from their Victorian antecedents, suggesting that their contortions were “glosses” on or critiques of the novel form; and because some modernists labeled their own contemporaries as in some sense non-modern (e.g. Willa Cather) — because of all this, one may be tempted to suggest that the modernist novel is not a novel, but a new form, and that the reason for this is its subordination of plot without sacrificing (as no art form can) narrative.

    f) Dan, you contend that Plot remains more or less continuous in the novel in all its stages, acknowledging only the distinction of the novel as a modern form from other literary forms. Plot may be distinct in the modernist novel, but not in a way that is without precedent even in the earliest stages of the novel’s existence. In support of this claim, one has to ignore the statements of the more prominent modernists (which you have no trouble doing), and to refuse the possibility that, whatever continuities are to be found in the novel, a modernist novel is verifiably distinct in anything but incidentals.

    g) To part of what you claim, my essay gives immediate support. Whatever the aspriations of the modernists, we call even Joyce’s Finnegans Wake a novel; if there was hope of creating a new artistic form that would know the grandeur of the epic, perhaps, and would transcend the “bourgeois” character of the novel — it either did not come into being, or at the least we continue to call it a novel. A test case for this would be David Jones’ “In Parenthesis.” Here we have a book that resembles Ulysses in a number of ways; Jones referred to it as “a writing” rather than a novel. When scholars categorize it (and, by this I include those who produce anthologies), they include it as poetry. Having spied its many broken lines, that seems an intuitive choice in the age of free verse. A relatively late modernist work, Jones’ case for “In Parenthesis” as a post-novel art form merely got him lumped in with the poets. This was a reasonable practical “lumping” indeed, since Jones’ other writings at first glance resemble nothing so much as Ezra Pound’s Cantoes. In any case, we necessarily affirm some kind of connection between Woolf and Co., when we persist in speaking of the “modernist novel.”

    h) On the above, we are basically agreed: whatever the distinctions of the modernist novel, they are not so grand as to constitute a new species. But I account for the modernist novel as having sacrificed many of the elements, certainly the prominence, of plot. Try reading “The Sun Also Rises” in comparison with Henry James’ “The American.” Although both give more attention to character development and scene-setting than plot, and while both involved almost non-events as climaxes (a leave taking or disappearance), Hemingway’s book just sort of peters out, it gradually comes to a halt or a stop. James’ Newman, however, experiences a definitive realization consequent to the story’s events. His story ends. Why are there similiarities? Because no art form, including the novel, can exist without narrative. Why are there differences? While James was the great precedent for the modernists on the subordination of plot to character, Hemingway goes considerably farther; one could well imagine someone saying, Hemingway has not plot; he just has characters moving through a chronicle, a space, and then we stop watching them. Are earlier novels ever so uninflected in their narrative arc, their plotting? As James, perhaps; as Hemingway? I cannot think of any narrative before the modernists that flattens itself out as deliberately as those of Hemingway.

    i) Not incidentally, it would be worth considering the rise of the “epiphany” in Joyce and Hemingway, and in the modernists generally, to substitute concluding revelation for the kinds of conclusive and climactic events that are proper to plot in either drama or the novel. Contemporary novelist Charles Baxter’s great essay “Against Epiphanies” suggests that it is in the promiscuous proliferation of the epiphany that we see the unique attributes, and the unique weakness, of modern prose fiction narrative in contradistinction from the integrated Plots of earlier ages. It would also be worth considering what to do with Thomas Hardy’s use of coincidence to determine his plots, but frankly I haven’t any idea.

    j) As I said — to much opprobrium — previously, I do not see how any of this touches on the central argument of my essay. I think it is less interesting than what I wrote about — which perhaps explains why I wrote the essay I did and not some other essay. Unless one seeks to crumble and atomize the novel in every instance to a kind of bland gruel, one must be sensitive to the differences of reading a modern novel from the reading of a Nineteenth Century one. That difference is most obvious at the level of plot and narrative. However, my essay was concerned most explicitly with the kind of moral function plot played in the Nineteenth Century as, indeed, a central form of ethical discourse in a period strained for loss of philosophy and theology (a point I take in part from MacIntyre). Insofar as it was “just” an evaluation of literary form, it proposed that the Nineteenth Century, from Austen even perhaps to James, gave us a certain perfection of the novel as story-telling-thing; that this perfection was set aside for good reasons; and that conditions are now propitious for a return to the novel as story-telling-thing precisely because the modernists engaged in archetypal and ontological explorations that drove beyond the uneasy dependence on moral narrative of the Victorians.

  27. Dan, One last point in response to your objections. You refer back to my “intelligent bar” thesis. I should have been clearer that the “intelligent bar” as criterion of story was conceived originally not in response to the modernists; we were all reading Hemingway and Joyce at that time. Rather, we were responding to what had resulted from the example of the modernists, i.e. a continued and radicalized attempt to flatten narrative until plot no longer seemed a possibility. Think, as I mentioned, of Raymond Carver’s radical development on Hemingway, of Richard Ford’s, of Charles Baxter’s (for that matter). We were trying to reconceive of fiction writing as the composition of stories worth telling rather than as an artform indifferent to its narrative content and perhaps even existing in spite of the absence of worthy narrative content.

    Helprin is worth mentioning here. I only know his book of stories, “Ellis Island,” but that was a great inspiration because it applied some of the fantastic quirks of Latin American magical realism to American stories. It was one possible path in the regeneration of story or plot. But I think others less beholden to fantasy and more beholden to compelling story — one, that is, that keeps faith with Victorian conventions — might be a more promising way forward.

    Happily, I do not have to find a way forward for the novel, but only to understand its conceptual significance.

Comments are closed.