World and Novel
Had I given this lecture a subtitle it would have been something like Theory of the Novel at 100, for a part of my intent is to commemorate this centenary of Georg Lukács’s The Theory of the Novel, the work which inaugurated literary theory as we still understand that endeavor today and specifically the field of novel theory.1 A legacy all the more fascinating and ironic for the fact that, as is well known, no sooner had Lukács written this work in 1914-1915 and seen its publication in a literary journal in 1916 than he began to repudiate it. Even before it appeared in book form in 1920, the very sense of the world and Europe that underlay his understanding of the novel had undergone a profound change. Despite the unreliability of his many retrospective denunciations of his own works, there is no reason to doubt the sincerity of his reflection a half century later on the origin of The Theory of the Novel: “it was written in a mood of permanent despair over the state of the world. It was not until 1917 that I found an answer to the problems which, until then, had seemed to me insoluble” (12).2
As the centenary of the Bolshevik revolution too now approaches it is no longer plausible to believe that the events of 1917 were the answer to problems Lukács previously thought insoluble. What were those problems? How did a theory of the novel take account of their insolubility? Does it remain the task of novel theory to think or rethink the novel in its relation to today’s insoluble problems, be they the old ones or new ones?
With this cluster of questions in mind, I want to explore some of the novelistic and philosophical ramifications of the concept of world. Or, to turn that a bit, I want to explore via the concept of world the relation of philosophy and the novel.
The early Lukács is most readily paired with Hegel, from whose thought he drew a great deal of his own premises and lexicon, but I think it fruitful to revisit, perhaps even revive the Lukácsian problematic from the perspective and idiom of Nietzsche and Heidegger. The most familiar, still thought-provoking pronouncement in The Theory of the Novel defines the novel as “the epic of a world that has been abandoned by God” (88). Such a world faces, in Nietzsche’s terms, the advent of nihilism. Heidegger glosses Nietzsche as follows: “One of the essential formulations that designate the event of nihilism says, ‘God is dead.’ The phrase ‘God is dead’ is not an atheistic proclamation: it is a formula for the fundamental experience of an event in Occidental history. … By nihilism Nietzsche means the historical development, i.e., event that the uppermost values devalue themselves, that all goals are annihilated, and that all estimates of value collide against one another” (156-57). That modern life does not cohere around a shared set of uppermost values, and that the collision of values throws individuals back on their own devices in choosing among conflicting values in order to give their life aim, goal, or moral principle—such was the lesson Max Weber took from his reading of Nietzsche to characterize modernity. And what Lukács himself took from Weber is reflected in his formulation of problematic individual and contingent world to define the situation of the novel: “The contingent world and the problematic individual are realities which mutually determine one another” (78). They in effect also oscillatingly negate one another. The world is contingent in that it does not furnish the individual with immediate aims, so the individual’s “ideas become subjective facts—ideals—in his soul” and hence “unreal” in relation to the empirical world. Lacking objective support, the inner ideal supplies the individual with autonomy but only as “an object of search.” Conversely, “in the outside world the gap between reality and the ideal becomes apparent only by the absence of the ideal” (78-9). Since the individual is not a positivistic machine registering only what is, he or she encounters in the world “the self-revelation of the nothingness of mere reality without an immanent ideal” (ibid.). Problematic individual and contingent world.
Nihilism is not merely a feature of the modern world. It determines what is meant by world. Nietzsche and Lukács both touch on this question without completely clarifying it. Consider first an enigmatic remark in Beyond Good and Evil (§150): “Around the hero everything turns into a tragedy; around the demi-god, into a satyr-play; and around God—what?—perhaps into ‘world’?—” (90). A plausible way to interpret this comment is that reality takes the form of a world only under a watchful monotheistic eye. If that is Nietzsche’s meaning, then the death of God might imply not just the problematization and contingency of the world but its disintegration. Nietzsche’s texts do not yield a direct answer.
Lukács’s handling of the term world hinges on his understanding of the difference between Greek antiquity and European modernity. The novel is the epic of a world that has been abandoned by Godsummarizes this difference as he lays it out in the opening chapter’s philosophico-poetic evocation of the Homeric world: it is “rounded”; “it is the adequacy of the deeds to the soul’s inner demand for greatness”; its secret is “its perfection”; it is “where knowledge is virtue and virtue is happiness, where beauty is the meaning of the world made visible”; it is the “absolute immanence of life” (30-35). “The world of epic,” Lukács concludes, “answers the question: how can life become essential?” (35). In the modern world the question itself is shredded before it can be asked, as the individual’s ideals lack a sure purchase on reality and reality reveals itself to be devoid of ideals. The novel as a literary form inherits epic’s scope and task and so must tell the story of the individual’s inner demands and deeds in relation to the “extensive totality of life” (46). However, whereas the ancients’ “rounded world” lent immediate meaning to protagonists’ deeds and character, so that world and individuality were mutually affirming, the modern world is unable “to achieve real completeness” because it “is a stranger to ideals and an enemy of interiority.” At this point, Lukács draws the conclusion which his later work on realism will utterly reject: “in other words,” he writes in 1915, “the outside world cannot be represented.” (79). So, what initially looks like a comparison of the world of the ancient Greeks and ours in fact brings out that a rounded world and an unrepresentable world differ as to the very meaning of world. Just as sharply as the Nietzschean death of God calls into question whether reality is a “world” when no longer looked upon and looked over by the One God, the unrepresentability of the world puts into question the epicimperative of the novel.
The novel is the artistic form that seems least likely to illuminate, or be illuminated by, Hegel, Nietzsche, or Heidegger. So much so that my desire to bring the novel to bear on philosophy risks being quixotic. The novel may speak truth to philosophy, but philosophy doesn’t really listen. Poetry, painting and sculpture, tragedy, and architecture figure prominently in modern philosophy’s aesthetic theories. Not the novel. Too bourgeois, too empirical, too accidental, too market-bound, too mundane. Hegel takes the very phrase that would aptly describe the novel, the prose of the world, and uses it to demarcate what stands over against art itself. In countering this dichotomy, Michal Peled Ginsburg and Lorri G. Nandrea suggest that the Hegelian vision of the prose of the world describes, precisely, the world of the novel: “a world of finitude and mutability, of entanglement in the relative, of the pressure of necessity from which the individual is in no position to withdraw” (Hegel 150). How do novelists make art out of that? Ginsburg and Nandrea have the insight that novelistic narrative and prose are animated by the prosaic-poetic conflict itself. Whereas René Girard’s classic formulation proposes a structural dynamic according to which the novel postulates the romantic lie that propels the questing hero and then shatters it with the negative force of novelistic truth, they discern a more varied clash of the poetic and prosaic, since the prose of the world can itself become what the novel unmasks, and they find a far broader range of novelistic practices and structures.3 For example, George Eliot in Middlemarch “waver[s] between different views of the prose of the world,” criticizing “the perception that the web of everyday relations hampers the aspirations of the individual and prevents greatness” and yet, conversely, doubting the alternative “that the realm of tiny everyday interactions might carry its own ‘incalculably diffusive’ significance,” whereas Flaubert coldly skewers the philistine world that Madame Bovary finds herself in and, just as forcefully, discloses “that the ‘poetic’ or ‘romantic’ aspirations of the self caught in this prosaic reality are fundamentally part of that world” (Ginsburg and Nandrea 250, 254, 259). The poetic and the prosaic are not two separate realms—art and non-art—so much as the conflictual field in which novelistic prose is produced.
The novel poses a further challenge to Hegel’s Aesthetics when it comes to the place he accords art in the modern world. He introduces the 1200-some pages of lectures on fine art with an unlikely teaser: “Art, considered in its highest vocation, is and remains for us a thing of the past.” “The peculiar nature of artistic production and of works of art no longer fills our highest need” (11, 10). With his eye on the ancient Greeks, whom German scholarship and thought half perceived and half created, he defines the highest vocation of art as bringing forth truth in a sensuous representation, indeed as sensuous representation: “such truth must in virtue of its own specific character be able to go forth into [the sphere of] sense and remain adequate to itself there. This is the case, for example with the gods of Greece” (9). Christianity replaced the Greek possibility with “a deeper comprehension of truth,” and now “the spirit of our world today, or, more particularly, of our religion and the development of our reason, appears as beyond the stage at which art is the supreme mode of our knowledge of the Absolute” (10). Hence—and in this sense—the end of art. Knowledge of the Absolute has passed from ancient art to medieval religion and on to the Hegelian balancing of Christianity and modern reason. The premise of Hegel’s Aesthetics is utterly altered if the Absolute has been lost, a loss that Nietzsche figures as the death of God and Lukács as the world’s pure contingency. The Hegelian end of art in that case marks, instead, the origin of modern art, the explosion of restless creativity and unprecedentedness as art is finally liberated from its role as the glue of an age and the expression of absolute truth, whether in the supposedly direct mode of the Greeks or the subservient mode of the cathedrals and paintings and sculptures that sheltered, depicted, and commemorated the sacred for Christendom. Thus liberated, art discovers its power to criticize, revolt, subvert.
It is not possible in my view to grasp this modernity of art without grasping the aesthetics of the novel. Lukács initiates that project by tacitly departing from Hegel. He clearly adopts Hegel’s historical scheme, his understanding of the Greek world, and especially his notion of art as “sensuous knowing” or “sensuous intuition” (Hegel 101); thus, when he claims that “the outside world cannot be represented,” he explains: “Both the parts and the whole of such an outside world defy any forms of directly sensuous representation” (Lukács 79). The world’s sensuous-artistic unrepresentability is not, though, the result of knowledge of the Absolute having moved on to religion and philosophy; it is, rather, the result of the loss of the Absolute. The Lukácsian aesthetic of the novel is centered on his extraordinary understanding of irony. Novelistic irony has nothing to do with a narrator’s or author’s superior understanding of the protagonist. Irony’s “double vision” at once sees “where God is to be found in a world abandoned by God”—that’s the semblance of superiority—and sees that the protagonist’s purely individualized interior ideal—his romantic lie—is the ideal’s “only possible form of existence” (92). Stated differently, the ironic viewpoint achieves a perspective on the protagonist that could not be lived in the protagonist’s world and so nullifies its own superiority. The novelist is helpless to step into and rescue the protagonist’s existence. I quote Lukács’s summary to give a flavor of the “permanent despair” that underlay his great insight into the art of the novel:
Irony gives form to the malicious satisfaction of God the creator at the failure of man’s weak rebellions against his mighty, yet worthless creation and, at the same time, to the inexpressible suffering of God the redeemer at his inability to re-enter that world. Irony, the self-surmounting of a subjectivity [that is, the novelist’s] that has gone as far as it is possible to go, is the highest freedom that can be achieved in a world without God. That is why it is not only the sole possible a priori condition for a true, totality-creating objectivity but also why it makes that totality—the novel—the representative artform of our age: because the structural categories of the novel constitutively coincide with the world as it is today. (92–93)
Where Hegel sees art’s highest vocation coming to an end Lukács discovers the emergence of the novel as modernity’s “representative art-form.” In my terms, it is the art form with the greatest intimacy with the death of God and nihilism.
Nihilism is a pesky and misleading yet necessary term. Several meanings spill from this word for nothing. It is most commonly used—not surprisingly—negatively: nihilism is destruction without a purpose, hatred of what others value, rage against what is; the nihilist is epitomized by the anarchist, the terrorist, and the sociopath. Nietzsche, by contrast, castigates Christianity and its prevailing morality as nihilism in the sense of promoting values that deny life; the very positing of another world higher and truer than this world is life-negating. I began via Nietzsche and Heidegger with another sense of nihilism, namely, the condition in which no commonly held supreme value holds sway over society and individuals. In that interpretation, which I largely share, nihilism defines modernity. From that perspective, the anarchist or terrorist is not simply someone without values or purpose but rather someone enraged by their very absence, by the world’s failure to have furnished sure values and effective purpose; nihilistic violence is a reaction against nihilism. Another reaction to nihilism is the sort of “permanent despair over the state of the world” that Lukács recalls as the mood in which he wrote The Theory of the Novel. And, finally, Nietzsche occasionally evokes, usually in figurative, enigmatic, or prophetic language, an accomplished or completed nihilism in which the lack of objective or transcendental values is affirmed as the precondition for creating values.
The prophetic tone is struck, for example, in the Preface to The Will to Power: “What I relate is the history of the next two centuries. I describe what is coming … the advent of nihilism.” Nietzsche continues self-aggrandizingly to designate “He that speaks here … as a spirit of daring and experiment that has already lost its way once in every labyrinth of the future; as a soothsayer-bird spirit who looks back when relating what will come; as the first perfect nihilist of Europe who, however, has even now lived through the whole of nihilism, to the end, leaving it behind, outside himself” (3).4 I am struck by the fact that in making these ever bolder claims Nietzsche drops the first-person with which he began, replacing it with He that speaks here. Such an elliptical self-reference suggests that the speaking which constitutes the text is and is not his. He is and is not the speaker. Not a splitting of the subject, so much as a kind of venturing of subjectivity. Throughout Nietzsche’s writings I see rhetorical instances where he advances an utterance that he aspires to inhabit, that is, to put it the other way around, an utterance which calls upon him to fully subjectivize or intentionalize it. Affirmative nihilism, including the pathos of the sage and prophet who is but intermittently understood, is truly embodied in Nietzsche’s writings only in the figure of Zarathustra. Depending on how you cock your ear, Thus Spoke Zarathustra is a powerful philosophical fabulation or an ill-conceived, often silly botched novel. In any case, it is fiction but not novel. What makes the difference? Extrapolating once again from Lukács, the novel’s “inner form” distinguishes itself from other fictions with regard to its protagonist and its voice.
Regarding the protagonist, the novel gives form to the mutually negating, mutually determining relation of problematic individual and contingent reality. I have recast this relation and the contingency of the outer world as nihilism in the sense of the condition of modern experience. The other meanings of nihilism are in effect various responses to that condition. At opposite poles are the image of the violent nihilist and the fable of the perfect nihilist. Neither is a problematic individual. The rich and inexhaustible array of novelistic protagonists might be said to lie along the wide spectrum of possibility between terrorist and Zarathustra.
Novelistic voice—a fuller and more nuanced account of which would have to engage Bakhtin5—is broached by Lukács through the concept of irony already cited. Its importance I believe lies in the fact that the question of subjectivity, which Lukács puts forth regarding the protagonist as problematic individual and the narrative as an “adventure of interiority,” bears on the writer as well. An aesthetics of the novel has in effect to account for the act of writing as the novelist’s own adventure of interiority engaged with contingent reality. Lukács postulates that the novelist’s subjectivity forks in the process of writing; along one prong is the protagonist testing his or her ideals in and against the world devoid of ideals, and along the other prong is the observer as described in the passage on irony. The novelist’s own activity, that is, the practice of writing the novel, creating protagonist and observer, does not escape or transcend the tensions of the adventure of interiority: “the antagonistic nature of the inner and outer worlds is not abolished but only recognised as necessary; the subject which recognises it as such is just as empirical—just as much part of the outside world, confined in its own interiority—as the characters which have become its objects” (75, my emphasis).
In other words, the creative subject cannot overcome the mutual negationdetermination of world and subjectivity but rather ratchets it up reflexively to its furthest reach, which is what Lukács called the “highest freedom” possible in the face of nihilism. Perhaps that is as close to Nietzsche’s affirmative nihilism as can be achieved. In any case, this understanding leads Lukács to characterize the “inner form” of the novel as follows: “The composition of the novel is the paradoxical fusion of heterogeneous and discrete components into an organic whole which is then abolished over and over again” (84). This formulation is striking because it anticipates the conception of artistic form that T. W. Adorno—another philosopher largely deaf to the novel—will develop in his Aesthetic Theory, primarily with reference to modern music, painting, and poetry. All the more striking that Lukács characterizes the novel from Cervantes to Flaubert and Tolstoy in these terms. It amounts to a modernist aesthetic of realism, bringing out, if you will, the modernism of the realist novel.
Not only will Lukács himself soon abandon his theory of the novel, but he will be instrumental in introducing into modern criticism the categorizing terminology of realism and modernism and their supposed opposition. The protagonist as problematic individual gives way to characters’ social typicality; contingent reality is replaced by social totality and class struggle; and artistic processes that fuse heterogeneous elements into an organic whole abolishing itself over and over is dubbed modernism and reification. The later Lukács exercises the greater influence over modern criticism, whether his views are embraced or disputed and whether the embrace or dispute is within Marxism or outside it. Typicality has a lineage, even when rejected, as it mutates into concepts like “the construction of bourgeois subjectivity,” the “liberal subject,” or “bourgeois individualism” in a hermeneutic that often distills or reduces the plurality of novelistic protagonists to a model, structure, ideologeme. So, too, the world of the novel in such a hermeneutic is read either as a mirror of social reality or the distorting mirror of a totality that the interpreter somehow already grasps.6
To keep the early Lukács in focus over against the influences of the later requires elaborating on, perhaps revamping the concepts of problematic individual and contingent reality.
Is prizing the individuality of the novelistic protagonist merely, or necessarily, an affirmation of bourgeois individualism? Emphatic individuality comes into the modern world by too many varied routes to be reduced in this way. Protestantism tore the salvation of the soul away from the priestly mediation of the Church and endowed the individual with access to biblical truth and with the terror of a naked relation to salvation and damnation. Capitalism cast work into the market economy and isolated the individual, demanding at once self-interestedness and subjection to impersonal imperatives. The liberal state constituted the individual as the point where state power fractures and opens the space that Isaiah Berlin calls negative freedom. The dissolution of paternalism, primogeniture, and arranged marriages gave rise to increased individual freedom and risk in love. The democratic state gave the individual the power and the responsibility to participate in the polity as he—and then she—saw fit. Where democratic and liberal institutions held sufficient sway, expression in words and artworks became the individual’s unguided self-assertion. Enlightenment transformed maturity into, in Kant’s words, the injunction, “Have the courage to use your ownunderstanding!” (54). And Freud invented a procedure of healing the disorders of the soul based on the radical individuality of an “analysand” unsupervised by, and without a priori obligations to, family, church, or state.
The plurality of novelistic protagonists arises from every imaginable combination of these modern forms of individuality. A metaphysical or ontological reflection on radical individuality, of the individual “as subject, as distinct and unique person,” comes from Hannah Arendt (183). Her reflections on human plurality unfold from the notion that the “infinite improbability” of every person’s very birth and existence establishes that human beings are intrinsically capable of initiating something unprecedented in the world into which they are born—“thrown,” in Heidegger’s vocabulary (178). Personhood results from “the unique life story of the newcomer.” In Arendt’s thought the manifestation of individuality requires risking one’s words and deeds in the world shared with others, and it is others who ultimately determine the meaning of those words or deeds, for even as the newcomer has a unique life story, “nobody is the author or producer of his own life story” (184).
To capture this sense of individuality as given but apparent only when risked and enacted, only to yield the meaning of one’s actions to others requires a seemingly paradoxical formulation. I propose the essence of singularity, the phrase Philip Roth deploys in The Human Stain to name Coleman Silk’s act of stepping across the color line, an act whose meaning begins to take shape when he declines his boxing coach’s advice to pass for white and get a scholarship to the University of Pittsburgh and tries, instead, to pursue his father’s wish that he attend Howard University only to be called a nigger for the first time in his life on his visit to Washington, D.C., and to find the clubbiness of Howard students nearly as grating: “Overnight the raw I was part of a we with all of the we’s overbearing solidity, and he didn’t want anything to do with it or the next oppressive we that came along either. … Neither the they of Woolworth’s nor the we of Howard. Instead the raw I with all its agility. Self-discovery—that was the punch to the labonz. Singularity. The passionate struggle for singularity. The singular animal” (108). The raw I is never pristine, for it has to be enacted, and Coleman enacts it by passing as a Jew on the way to becoming a classics professor at the cost of abandoning his mother, betraying his father’s hopes in the guise of avenging the father’s humiliations, and deceiving his own future wife who undoubtedly would have accepted him as black and perhaps even accepted his passing. The share of secrets that any I must harbor are burdened for Coleman Silk by this bundle of cruelties and subterfuges. Roth is a great novelist, and all this is but the premise of the story; it does not sum up a moral judgment but sets in motion a novelistic exploration of moral experience. Essence of singularity can serve as a synonym of problematic individual, but while problematic individual suggests the individual’s loss of what he or she as an individual never had, essence of singularity stresses the pathos of agency that cannot control or master its own meaning.
The complication latent in Lukács’s notion of modernity’s contingent reality is that it refers at once to the outside world encountered by the protagonist within the narrative and to the outside world of the novelist’s existence and practice. Moreover, to adhere to his modernist aesthetic of realism we must not treat realism as a mirroring or picturing of a supposedly stable reality nor presuppose that theory itself can possess a reliable image of social totality in relation to which to interpret a novel. This double problematic can be clarified by a glance at Erich Auerbach’s thesis in his two magisterial chapters in Mimesis devoted to realism in the French novel from Balzac to Zola. He begins by exploring the tie between existential predicament and realist aesthetic in Stendhal, whose innovations in the novel came in the wake of the destruction of the successful administrative career he enjoyed in the Napoleonic period. He does not publish his first novel until age forty-three. “Stendhal’s realistic writing grew out of his discomfort in the post-Napoleonic world and his consciousness that he did not belong to it and had no place in it. … Not until success and pleasure began to slip away from him, not until practical circumstances threatened to cut the ground from under his feet, did the society of his time become a problem and a subject to him” (461, my emphasis). The inaugural theme of Auerbach’s reflection is the aesthetic challenge posed by the emergence of the masses in modern politics and society, “the great movements of modern times in which large masses of men consciously took part” and which first arose in “the French Revolution with all the consequent convulsions which spread from it over Europe,” with their unprecedented “tempo,” “mass effects,” and “changes … in practical daily life within a comparatively extensive territory” (458).
Henceforth, “he who would account to himself for his real life and his place in human society is obliged … to be continually conscious that the social base upon which he lives is not constant for a moment but is perpetually changing through convulsions of the most various kinds” (459). In embracing the artistic task of “surrendering oneself to reality as given,” Stendhal does not reduce the novel to the representation of a stable reality, as later accounts of realism so often assume. On the contrary, as Auerbach puts it, “the reality which he encountered was so constituted that, without permanent reference to the immense changes of the immediate past and without a premonitory searching after the imminent changes of the future, one could not represent it; all the human figures and all the human events in his work appear upon a ground politically and socially disturbed” (463).
For Auerbach, as for Lukács, the novelist—as a historical being and as a writer and in the writing—is participant in the world he or she strives artistically to represent. The novelist is the original participant-observer. The resulting representation affords neither a transcendent perch of observation nor a nested belonging to a securely meaningful world. In Lukács’s terms, the modern world cannot be represented except in the jagged edges of the protagonist’s thwarted desires, ideals, dreams, and plans. In Auerbach’s conception, the modern world cannot be represented except through the novelist’s internalization of temporality such that, to repeat, “all the human figures and all the human events in his work appear upon a ground politically and socially disturbed.”
The ontological nihilism that concerns Nietzsche and Heidegger has its corollary in the political realm in the convulsions Auerbach identifies with the appearance of the masses as historical actors at the moment of the French Revolution itself. Historians and political theorists have refined our understanding of the inherently unstable force of the masses in modern politics. 1789 inaugurated the role of the people insofar as the Revolution took its legitimacy from the people and acted in their name. At the same time, as François Furet argues, the “people” is a symbol, since the people never manifest themselves as a whole. The actual crowds that amassed in public during the Revolution symbolized the “people.” The inauguration of the democratic revolution, of the popular legitimation of political rule, ran so dramatically ahead of the creation of democratic institutions that the French Revolution took on its recurrently violent, self-destructive course down through the Terror and the rise of Napoleon and beyond. By the same token, however, the French Revolution created something utterly new in politics. The idea that the people alone legitimates political rule in the state defines political modernity.
Claude Lefort develops the full implications of this event in his notion that all the political forms of modern society—democratic, fascist, and communist—derive their conception (and need) of legitimation from the volatile appearance of the “people” in 1789. This conception at once grounds and ungrounds the modern political realm. The Bolsheviks claimed legitimacy by symbolizing the proletariat as the people. In Nazi Germany the “people” was resymbolized in nationalistic, racial, biological terms and its public manifestation was carefully orchestrated, organizationally and aesthetically, by the Nazi party. In Lefort’s terms, the modern state is called upon to represent the whole of society, society as a whole; however, this political representation of the social can never coincide with the real of the social. For three reasons. First, the social is a relentless, open-ended division among social groups and classes. Second, the plurality of economic and cultural initiatives within society continually transforms and volatilizes the “real” that the state ostensibly represents. And, third, the various social discourses (“economic, legal, educational, scientific, aesthetic,” and so on) that produce knowledge of society from within society and so organize power over society can never know society as a whole, first, because each of these discourses, in aspiring to universal validity, is susceptible to criticism when exposed as the instrument of some particular interest and, second, because its knowledge is at a certain limit incommensurate with the knowledge embodied in the other discourses. There can be, Lefort concludes, “no general knowledge of the order of the world” or “of the social order in conjunction with the power of the state” (188). Communism and fascism attempt to obliterate this disjunction between the state and civil society. “The mass party is the instrument par excellence of totalitarianism, through which the consubstantiality of the state and civil society is manifested” (216). The vitality and fragility of democracy, by contrast, stem from the way in which it actively sustains the contradiction in the modern form of legitimation: “The legitimacy of power is based on the people; but the image of popular sovereignty is linked to the image of an empty place, impossible to occupy, such that those who exercise public authority can never claim to appropriate it.” That is, those in power do not coincide with the people. “Democracy thrives on this contradiction” (279).
Looking back from 1962, Lukács faults The Theory of the Novel on two grounds. “Youthful enthusiasm for the work of Dilthey, Simmel and Max Weber” led him to an ahistorical “method of abstract synthesis,” which he says is evident in the dichotomies by which he categorized novels according to a typology of problematic heroes: abstract idealism, romantic disillusion, bildungsroman humanism (12, 13). The second fault stemmed from the influence of Kierkegaard especially, whose work would shortly also inspire the “philosophy of existence” of Heidegger, Karl Jaspers, and Karl Löwith; Kierkegaard led them and Lukács himself to distort the dissatisfactions they felt toward the world they found themselves in: “The socio-philosophical basis of such theories is the philosophically as well as politically uncertain attitude of romantic anti-capitalism” (19).7
Two faults, then: romantic anti-capitalism and ahistorical abstraction. To snatch Lukács 1915 from the accusatory jaws of Lukács 1962 requires a shift in perspective regarding both anti-capitalism and the novel’s historical situatedness.
Although the utopianism that the later Lukács imputes to his early work may well have been part of his own sensibility in 1914–1915, it is not conceptually integral to The Theory of the Novel. Such utopianism does not disappear in the later Lukács’s thought, and there it does become an integral supposition, though disguised and denied. Anti-capitalism is romantic insofar as it entails the belief, as it did for Lukács after 1917, that capitalism is the ultimate source of injustice and misery in modern society and that its overthrow is the path to well-being and justice. Such a view is “romantic” in the sense that a genuine sensitivity to social injustices and inequalities is expressed—and gratified—through the indistinct, indeed illusory image of a society without classes, without private property, and without concentrations of wealth and power. Mature Marxism is romantic anti-capitalism.
As for ahistorical abstraction in The Theory of the Novel, this accusation arises from the particular way in which Lukács, early and then late, scanned European history since the French Revolution. The young Lukács, along with countless others of his generation, saw and felt in the outbreak of the First World War the end of European possibility that the Revolution had inaugurated, whether the universal claims of European civilization or the promise of its democratic experiments and socialist movements. The October Revolution reversed this despair for Lukács as the Bolshevik victory and the Leninist Party’s claim to embody the proletariat’s universalizing grasp of class society as a whole—that sense of totality which had been lost since the ancient Greeks!—gave him the hope and vision of the path leading definitively beyond the ills of capitalism and the deficiencies and hypocrisies of the bourgeois lifeworld. Almost immediately he began to reassess this hope, not on account of the actual course of Bolshevism but rather because of the failure of working-class revolution to materialize in industrial Europe. The essays collected in 1923 as History and Class Consciousness have provided Western Marxism ever since with its most innovative twist and enduring raison d’être: since it is objectively in the interest of the workingclass to seek the revolutionary overthrow of capitalism, the fact that the working-class does not in actuality want revolution is evidence that the most insidious aspect of capitalism lies in its capacity—via commodification and reification—to distort workers’ consciousness and understanding of social reality and adduce their acquiescence in their own oppression. The paradigm that would emerge in Lukács’s literary criticism as the separation of realism and modernism followed from this “dialectical”maneuver: realism in the novel discloses actual social relations and dynamics from angles through which the true totality can at least be inferred; modernism is the instrument of reification rendering a distortion of social reality through an increasingly solipsistic consciousness.
I have stressed, on the contrary, how The Theory of the Novel, beginning with its juxtaposition of ancient Greek epic and modern European novel, places the novel within the broad historical provenance of modernity. When modernity is viewed in light of the question of nihilism the novel is understood to emanate from modernity and respond to it insofar as, in Lukács’s terms, it gives form to the problematic individual’s “adventure of interiority” in relation to a contingent reality. I have redefined the problematic of the problematic individual through the forthrightly paradoxical concept of the essence of singularity: in the absence of socially binding, subjectively orienting values the individual is at once radically free to assert the values by which he or she chooses to live and unable to master the meaning of the expressions and acts by which that freedom is exerted. The essence of singularity hinges on this paradox of the pathos of agency, and it is the dramas of activity/passivity, affecting/affected, acting/suffering, that the novel uniquely realizes in the modern age—often tapping the resources of ancient tragedy as well as ancient epic.
The Theory of the Novel introduces into novel theory at the very moment of its invention a question that has seldom been addressed since: How to account for the novelist’s own entanglement in the same historico-existential dynamic as the novelistic protagonist? As an empirical individual living in modern society and in a particular historical context, the novelist encounters contingent reality as a world unrepresentable and devoid of ideals. Such is the focus of Auerbach’s reflection on Stendhal. Following Lefort, the unrepresentability of social reality can be recast as the incommensurabilty of the “economic, legal, educational, scientific, aesthetic,” and other discourses that construct knowledge of society and power within it (187). As a writer, the novelist participates in this problematic in his or her act of composing the novel. A transposition of Lukács’s notion of contingent reality, comparable to reconceptualizing the problematic individual as the essence of singularity, is required to get at the exact nature of the novelist’s encounter with the contingency and reality of novelistic practice itself. The novelist as a writer encounters contingent reality in the form of the public realm, the Arendtian notion that encompasses the two overlapping domains of the body politic and the public sphere. Restating the issue raised in Auerbach, nineteenth-century novelists participated in an essential dimension of civil society, namely, the public sphere as that space where information, opinion, and criticism form and circulate. The question the early Lukács poses concerning the novelist’s entanglement in the empirical world of contingent reality can thus be reconceptualized as participation in the public sphere.
It is necessary, though, to take into account the distinction between the public and the people. The writers and intellectuals of the last decades of the Ancien Régime—those creators of the public sphere who were advancing the very ideas and developing the intellectual sociality that the Revolution would incorporate—drew a sharp contrast, according to Roger Chartier, between the public and the people: “Condorcet contrasted ‘opinion’ with ‘populace’; Marmontel opposed ‘the opinion of men of letters’ and the ‘opinion of the multitude’; d’Alembert spoke of ‘the truly enlightened public’ and ‘the blind and noisy multitude’” (27). What the Revolution inaugurated in modern politics was the legitimation of power on the basis of the people, but this democratic revolution did not overcome the difference between the people and the public. Rather, it reinscribed and volatilized the difference. Since the “people” is never manifest except as symbol, it cannot coincide with the public, and yet this symbol is implanted in the public sphere as its horizon, its justification and its impossibility, the meaning of its potential universality and the mark of its actual divisions.
In this volatile difference between the people and the public the political realm in liberal societies confronts the issue of universalism. For just as the people can never be made manifest even as it legitimizes the state, the universal has no tangible presence because it is in the possession of no one. Nor does it suffice to treat the universal as purely the procedures of the body politic or norms of the public sphere. Democracy is, rather, an ordeal of universalism. The plurality of individuals, the plurality of communities, in modern society “negates the expectation of universal agreement, but this same plurality also negates [any individual’s or] any community’s claim to possess, solely within the boundaries of its own sensus communis, a universally valid judgment. Universalism in our time is the work of the negative, of this two-pronged negation” (Brenkman 2007, 77).8 I will close this provisional foray into the bearing of the novel on philosophy by suggesting that the novelist—that is, the problematic individual who writes—encounters modernity’s contingent reality in the form of this ordeal of universalism, in his or her relentless striving to convey the essence of singularity in a story that reaches as far across the variegated and plural public as possible without losing the integrity of thought and language. That is why, I believe, the novel remains essential to our lives and our politics.∞