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.