Tuesday, 20 April 2021

How the novel lost Homer


In the 1960s they were high on origins and oblivions. Panic swamped the decade with Marshall McLuhan’s The Gutenberg Galaxy (1962), which many misinterpreted as a technocrat’s gleeful farewell to the outmoded book in the wake of television. Ironically, for such a revered technology, the history of the book still remained an intense incognita. But as if sensing its impending doom, some paladins rushed to tell its history while some still remained who knew what books were and cared. Lucien Febvre and Henri-Jean Martin’s The Coming of the Book: The Impact of Printing 1450–1800 (1958) is credited with turning the history of the book into a rigorous, academic field of study. As far as precedents go, William Ivins Jr’s Prints and Visual Communication (1953) had already delved into the history of printmaking. And Américo Cortez Pinto’s Da Famosa Arte da Imprimissão: Da imprensa em Portugal às cruzadas d’além-mar (1947) traced the history of the introduction of the printing process in Portugal and its colonies in Africa, Asia and the Americas. It’s in fact hard to isolate the history of the book as its own thing since it spreads into so many tangential topics: paper, printmaking, printing, the invention of the alphabet, punctuation, footnotes, modes of reading, the history of education. For instance, I’d say Walter J. Ong’s Ramus, Method, and the Decay of Dialogue (1958) constitutes part of its history since it helps explain how changes in Europe’s educational curriculum helped changed conceptions of what a book was in the 17th century. Nowadays, in retrospect we could see say that these historians were each one shaping the pieces of a puzzle they didn’t perhaps realize was a puzzle at all.

McLuhan had not in fact announced the death of the book; he was an encyclopedic reader of the history of Western literature. His 1942 doctoral thesis, The Classical Trivium, showed his proficiency in the literature since the Greeks well into the Renaissance. His topic, reportedly Thomas Nashe, was in fact the making of the trivium, the medieval curriculum that taught Europeans for more than a thousand years, which means he had to understand Greek, Latin, Medieval, and Renaissance thought. He had to study rhetoric, grammar and dialectics, the three branches of the trivium, and how each gained upper hand at certain times, and what that entailed for the mind.

McLuhan, however, was primarily interested in how new media shaped consciousness, intelligence, cognition, thinking. The Gutenberg Galaxy smoothly follows The Classical Trivium by replacing the effect of the curriculum with the more ambitious impact of printing technology on human consciousness, an investigation he continued and updated in Understanding Media (1964).

However, before the printing press, another bit of technology had already caused irrevocable changes (some would say damage) to the mind well: the alphabet.

It was up to another thinker to consider what happened to the mind when it learned to write, what happened when it transitioned from an oral society to a chirographic one. That thinker was Eric A. Havelock, who a year after The Gutenberg Galaxy brought out another origins book: Preface to Plato. Havelock was a Cambridge-educated British scholar who taught at the University of Toronto between 1929 and 1947 before he moved on to Harvard. In Toronto he helped lay the groundwork for the “Toronto School of Communications” that became a hub of media studies thanks to McLuhan, who was hired as a teacher there in 1946. Ironically, McLuhan’s thesis was submitted at Cambridge. What’s remarkable is that back then media studies had very little to do with media as we understand them now: digital gadgets, computers, tv, radio, computers. Back then it was mostly about good old-fashioned words.

In 1938, Havelock submitted a seven-page essay to The School magazine, “The Significance of the Greek Sophist”, an early foray into his life-long devotion to understanding the impact of writing on the 5th-century b. c. Greek mind. He realized that around that time mark writing was beginning to destabilize previous pedagogical schemes. The Greeks, being mostly illiterate, cohered around the ritual of poetry; such a culture, lest it disintegrates, will enforce stagnation and kinship, what was called synousia, “family group association”. The Sophists, who were already updating to literacy, offered their listeners an education that propped them for public life while bypassing tradition, which implied loosening family ties, drifting apart from community, disrespecting rituals, developing an individual mindset apart from and against the city state. Seen in this light, proposed Havelock, the trial and execution of Socrates for “demoralizing young men” grew from the need to find for a scapegoat against pernicious changes being inflicted upon society by chirographically-minded thinkers. This means that the Sophists and Plato/Socrates, instead of representing two opposing attitudes, were equally social radicals for the typical 5th-century b. c. Athenian, harbingers of a dangerous new culture.[1]

Havelock wasn’t in a hurry to publicize his views. Neither was he after fame nor did he get it; he’s not a household name like McLuhan. He published in specialized magazines and put out a book occasionally. After Preface to Plato, he continued to plumb into what the chirographic mind meant for mankind. The Literate Revolution in Greece and its Cultural Consequences (1981) and The Muse Learns to Write: Reflections on Orality and Literacy from Antiquity to the Present (1986) completed his trilogy about the rise of literacy in Antiquity. His driving question was why did Plato cast out the poets from his utopian Republic; all of poetry, both good and bad, lyrical and epic, and even drama. “That is, Plato attacks the very form and substance of the poetised statement, its images, its rhythm, its choice of poetic language. Nor is he any less hostile to the range of experience which the poet thus makes available to us,” he wrote. Why did no one, not even Homer, survive his censorious census? It had always been a thorny subject amongst classicists because it’s hard to accept that a genius could so brazenly dismiss poetry. Then, after World War II it gained sinister undertones. Karl Popper’s The Open Society and its Names (1945) put Plato on par with Fascism and Marxism. Nabokov mocked that he wouldn’t “survive very long under his Germanic regime of militarism and music”. Plato’s defenders either turned a blind eye or downplayed his amusia: it was just a thought experiment! they said, he wasn’t serious about it! Havelock was the first scholar to try to understand the implications of Plato being very serious about it. “He pleads, he argues, he denounces, he cajoles. He is a David confronting some Goliath. And he speaks as though he had no choice but to fight the battle to a finish.” A man so desperately attacking poetry couldn’t be just doing a philosophical thought experiments like the Ship of Theseus or the trolley problem.

Havelock’s insight was that we need to look at poetry from Plato’s perspective. What was poetry for a 5th-century b. c. Athenian? For us reading poetry is a leisurely activity. But for the Greeks it was an education program for young men; the reason it was unacceptable to Plato is because it was providing a lousy education. “Why on earth, we wish to ask, should he attempt to judge poetry as though it were science or philosophy or mathematics or technology?” asked Havelock. “Why demand that the poet ‘know’, in the sense that the carpenter knows about a bed? Surely this is to degrade the standards of poetic creation by submitting them to criteria which are unworthy or at least improper and irrelevant. Need the poet be an expert in the matter that he sings of? Such a presupposition does not make sense.” We go to a bookstore or we order a book online and read it for our delectation; perhaps we appreciate the emotions, or the surreal imagery; or, if we’re historically minded, the subversions to tradition; or we like to catch allusions, April is the cruelest month, etc. But for allusions to even exist you need a history of poetry, you need people brought up on reading poetry with the scrutiny to “get it”, who value the concept of “originality”, “authorship”, and “anxiety of influence”, notions that proceed from the invention of writing. Besides, few of us dare contest nowadays the most pervasive belief about poetry: that poetry makes nothing happen, that it is useless, that it simply is.

Well, no, Homer’s poetry did do many things; most importantly it kept a community glued together. It occupied this position so it seems in contemporary society, and it was a position held apparently not on the grounds that we would offer, namely poetry's inspirational and imaginative effects, but on the ground that it provided a massive repository of useful knowledge, a sort of encyclopedia of ethics, politics, history and technology which the effective citizen was required to learn as the core of his educational equipment. Poetry represented not something we call by that name, but an indoctrination which today would be comprised in a shelf of text books and works of reference.” In an oral culture, learning is done through the ear and by rote, by the listener and performer identifying with the subject through recital and performance. An audience member doesn’t just listen, he reenacts; when he’s singing Achilles’ feats, he becomes Achilles. The whole body is used to bring forth the drama, rhythm helps the lines of verse to flow from the memory to the mouth. It’s such an intense ritual that a person dissolves into the subject matter, he’s so busy getting it right that he can’t waste intellectual energy analyzing himself.

Plato’s contention with this was that it doesn’t lead to what we now call objective knowledge. For a rationalist like him poetry was lacking in objectivity when contrasted with his newfound Theory of Forms. “The Theory is epistemological; it seeks to define the character of that knowledge which we would call universal, exact and final.” An objective mind does not meld nor fuse with the subject, it stands outside, scrutinizes it from all sides, it analyses it. Instead of personalized ideas, they’re detached, like things that have always existed, timeless, beyond time and space, certainly beyond the dramas of Homer’s heroes so committed to a concrete, historical event like the Trojan War. They are “universal”. No wonder that Plato, besides being the father of the Academy, was also a proponent of mathematics.

Havelock is quick to point out that writing was not a novelty in Plato’s time, but its daily usage was still reserved for a select few. “Books of course there were, and the alphabet had been in use for over three centuries, but the question is: used by how many? and used for what purposes?” Writing was still victim of prejudice and suspicion. Old Comedy, “if it introduces the use of written documents into some stage situation, tends to treat them as something novel and either comic or suspicious, and there are passages in tragedy which betray the same overtones.” Plato, himself an apologist of writing and a thinker about to uproot Athens’ whole traditional educational system, characterized Socrates in Phaedrus as being afraid that writing would erase memory – which is indeed the effect of writing upon an oral culture – but Havelock allows us to suspect that Plato was not on his teacher’s side on this point. Plato and Socrates couldn’t be more different. Socrates’ path to knowledge is dialectal, it implies battering his adversaries with a Q-&-A that deduces a conclusion from a series of syllogisms. For all of Socrates’ fame, Havelock was not persuaded that this was yet the beginning of reasoning as we know it; he’s still an oral-minded thinker, a remnant of “residual orality”, to use a concept invented by Ong to denote the lingering habits of orality that survived after the introduction of printing. “That is,” wrote Havelock, “the original function of the dialectical question was simply to force the speaker to repeat a statement already made, with the underlying assumption that there was something unsatisfactory about the statement, and it had better be rephrased.” Plato wanted to ground knowledge on something firmer than dialectics, since modern debate culture, with its omnipresent “X demolished Z” and “B shuts up Z” Youtube vids, has proven that there’s nothing sillier than assuming that “truth” can be arrived at through “debate”. We all know that people don’t change their minds at the end of a debate after listening to an opponent’s “better arguments”. The purpose of debate is not to arrive at truth or to generate knowledge, it’s to win a debate. As Schopenhauer stated up front in The Art of Being Right (1896):

   Controversial Dialectic is the art of disputing, and of disputing in such a way as to hold one's own, whether one is in the right or the wrong – per fas et nefas. A man may be objectively in the right, and nevertheless in the eyes of bystanders, and sometimes in his own, he may come off worst. For example, I may advance a proof of some assertion, and my adversary may refute the proof, and thus appear to have refuted the assertion, for which there may, nevertheless, be other proofs. In this case, of course, my adversary and I change places: he comes off best, although, as a matter of fact, he is in the wrong.

   If the reader asks how this is, I reply that it is simply the natural baseness of human nature. If human nature were not base, but thoroughly honourable, we should in every debate have no other aim than the discovery of truth; we should not in the least care whether the truth proved to be in favour of the opinion which we had begun by expressing, or of the opinion of our adversary. That we should regard as a matter of no moment, or, at any rate, of very secondary consequence; but, as things are, it is the main concern. Our innate vanity, which is particularly sensitive in reference to our intellectual powers, will not suffer us to allow that our first position was wrong and our adversary's right. The way out of this difficulty would be simply to take the trouble always to form a correct judgment. For this a man would have to think before he spoke. But, with most men, innate vanity is accompanied by loquacity and innate dishonesty. They speak before they think; and even though they may afterwards perceive that they are wrong, and that what they assert is false, they want it to seem the contrary. The interest in truth, which may be presumed to have been their only motive when they stated the proposition alleged to be true, now gives way to the interests of vanity: and so, for the sake of vanity, what is true must seem false, and what is false must seem true.

Although Plato popularized Socratism as a dialectical compass that through the right questions orients the opponent’s minds in the right direction, the truth is that Plato was in full control of the script: he could make Socrates look invincible and give his opponent the dumbest replies and eventually script them into agreement in the same way an action movie can make Stallone virtually indestructible. That’s easy when you’re doing fiction, and we can only speculate how different history would have been if people had treated Plato’s dialogues as the works of fiction that they inherently are.

Havelock suggests that Plato wanted a method grounded on something sturdier than clever comebacks. That is why the first subject on his Academy’s curriculum is arithmetic, as impersonal a science as it gets that does not deal with language or dialectics, that supposedly produces autonomous knowledge without the interference of human consciousness; it’s a sort of timeless film just out there covering the surface of reality, we just tread on it. “This takes the place of the Socratic interrupting question,” wrote Havelock. It disembodies knowledge; it’s something fully formed, a set of lines, angles, degrees, solids; we just have to apprehend them. In order for this worldview to work Plato had to assume that the universe is rational and intelligible, that we can understand it. He seemed unaware that his rationalism and Socratism were aimed at different things. Plato was dealing with science, he was concerned with understanding natural laws, and unbeknownst to him was paving the way for the scientific method; whereas Socrates often deals with moral, social, political values which cannot be reduced to axioms and rules. So Plato was also the inventor of scientism, the belief that science can explain and solve everything, a misguided proposition very much in vogue in the 19th century thanks to Auguste Comte, but misguided.

Still, it was a remarkable breakthrough. It meant creating a new vocabulary; whereas Homer speaks of passions and actions, of motivations, of personal reasons and tribal affairs, Plato speaks of “Goodness and rightness (with evil and unrighteousness), proportion and size, dimension and weight and shape, odd and even, the square and the diagonal, solidity, motion, velocity, and volume”, abstractions that in time became the language of philosophy: “they are moral values; they are also axioms; they are physical properties; and also relations. In combination with each other they furnish the terms in which we state both moral principles and physical formulas, both equations and laws.” And this is how Plato arrives, in contrast with the personalism of epic, at the idea of Forms. “For the Forms, in order to be such, have to enjoy a kind of independent existence; they are permanent shapes imposed upon the flux of action, and shapes which, while they can be viewed and understood by my psyche, cannot be invented by it.”

Havelock is extraordinary at explaining how an oral culture manages to preserve a coherent heritage without writing aids:

In short, Plato is describing a total technology of the preserved word which has since his day in Europe ceased to exist. Nor have we yet exhausted all the facets of that technology which were peculiar to an oral culture. There remains to consider the personal situation of an individual boy or man who is urgently required to memorise and to keep green in his memory the verbal tradition on which his culture depends. He originally listens and then repeats and goes on repeating, adding to his repertoire to the limits of his mental capacity which naturally will vary from boy to boy and man to man. How is such a feat of memory to be placed within the reach not only of the gifted but of the average member of the group, for all have to retain a minimal grasp of the tradition? Only, we suggest, by exploiting psychological resources latent and available in the consciousness of every individual, but which today are no longer necessary. The pattern of this psychological mechanism will be examined more closely in a later chapter. But its character can be summed up if we describe it as a state of total personal involvement and therefore of emotional identification with the substance of the poetised statement that you are required to retain. A modem student thinks he does well if he diverts a tiny fraction of his psychic powers to memorise a single sonnet of Shakespeare. He is not more lazy than his Greek counterpart. He simply pours his energy into book reading and book learning through the use of his eyes instead of his ears. His Greek counterpart had to mobilise the psychic resources necessary to memorise Homer and the poets, or enough of them to achieve the necessary educational effect. To identify with the performance as an actor does with his lines was the only way it could be done. You threw yourself into the situation of Achilles, you identified with his grief or his anger. You yourself became Achilles and so did the reciter to whom you listened. Thirty years later you could automatically quote what Achilles had said or what the poet had said about him. Such enormous powers of poetic memorisation could be purchased only at the cost of total loss of objectivity. Plato's target was indeed an educational procedure and a whole way of life.

This means that the oral man’s mind was mimetic by necessity. Society was optimized to make people recite preexisting words and to imitate common lore; there was no incentive to be original, to generate new ways of thinking, to add knowledge. Rhapsodes sang epics, actors recited and dramatized them, teachers taught them, students memorized them. In that case the poet, although the source of knowledge, was also a powerless router without much input. “It focuses initially not on the artist's creative act but on his power to make his audience identify almost pathologically and certainly sympathetically with the content of what he is saying.” How far we are from the Romantic poetic genius, that individual who forsakes all past models and seeks out to compete with God at creation. “Bold invention is the prerogative of writers, in a book culture.”

Since every aspect of culture had to be subordinated to memorization, the Greek tragedies – and the tragedies alone – so often look like footnotes to Homer’s epics, add-ons to Hesiod’s mythology. That’s because they had to rely on familiar subjects to aid memory. So Aeschylu’s The Oresteia starts right after Agamemnon returns from Troy; his murder also fuels Sophocles’ Electra, whose plot is similar to The Libation Bearers. Sophocles’ Ajax and Philoctetes expand upon characters from The Iliad. Euripides, in turn, wrote a whole trilogy about the Trojan War: Alexandros, Palamedes and The Trojan Women. Like Sophocles, he wrote an Electra, plus an Iphigenia in Aulis, dealing with Agamemnon’s sacrifice of his daughter in favor of good luck against the Trojans, and a Helen that follows Helen and Menelaus after the Trojan War. It’s worth noting that the theatre business boomed thanks to state support since it needed regular rituals to drill tradition into people’s heads. This began during the reign of Pisistratus, whom legend has it was also responsible for ordering that The Iliad be written down. “The Athenian stage plays, composed closer to the native vernacular, became the Attic supplement to Homer as a vehicle of preserved experience, of moral teaching and of historical memory. They were memorised, taught, quoted and consulted. You went to see a new play, but it was at the same time an old play full of the familiar cliches rearranged in new settings, with much aphorism and proverb and prescriptive example of how to behave, and warning examples of how not to behave; with continual recapitulation of bits of tribal and civic history, of ancestral memories for which the artist serves as the unconscious vehicle of repetition and record. The situations were always typical, not invented; they repeated endlessly the precedents and judgments, the learning and wisdom, which the Hellenic culture had accumulated and hoarded.” This is what helped give tragedy its familiar gravitas. “This both restricted their range to the main stream of the Greek tradition and immensely strengthened what might be called the high seriousness of their compositions.” Knowing this, it becomes clearer why it was comedy which invented characters and new plots, instead of reusing myths or dramatizing real historical events. The tragedy became a source of tradition, whereas comedy was free to become vanguardist, if you will. This is worth keeping in mind for amateur historians of the novel since in my view the comic novel has been at the forefront of every leap the genre has taken forward: Satyricon, Gargantua and Pantagruel, Don Quixote, Tom Jones, Tristram Shandy, The Posthumous Memoirs of Brás Cubas, Ulysses, Lolita, The Sot-Weed Factor are ostentatiously comical.

But, remarkable as these epic poems and tragic plays are, poetry for Plato, “as long as it reigned supreme, constituted the chief obstacle to the achievement of effective prose, so there was a state of mind which we shall conveniently label the ‘poetic’ or ‘Homeric’ or ‘oral’ state of mind, which constituted the chief obstacle to scientific rationalism, to the use of analysis, to the classification of experience, to its rearrangement in sequence of cause and effect. That is why the poetic state of mind is for Plato the arch-enemy and it is easy to see why he considered this enemy so formidable. He is entering the lists against centuries of habituation in rhythmic memorized experience. He asks of men that instead they should examine this experience and rearrange it, that they should think about what they say, instead of just saying it. And they should separate themselves from it instead of identifying with it; they themselves should become the 'subject' who stands apart from the 'object' and reconsiders it and analyses it and evaluates it, instead of just ‘imitating’ it.”

Havelock is rigorous at explaining how orality constrains and shapes knowledge, and why this would upset a thinker like Plato born under a different mental paradigm. Talking about Homer’s poems, he states: “Hence the descriptions are always typical rather than detailed. It was no doubt part of Plato's objection that this was so: the poet was not an expert.” Content must not change, it must be drilled into the listener’s mind through the ears. The rhapsode cannot cope with abstract ideas for long, he cannot hold complex concepts, he cannot break them down into smaller components in order to analyze them separately; he must instead introduce larger-than-life characters, characters never in a state of repose, but acting, fighting, or reciting themselves – Homer’s heroes are as renowned for their courage on the battlefield as for their eloquence, a quality evidently praised in oral cultures. Said characters will not have interiority or psychology. Modes of thinking like deduction and induction are out of place, syllogistic logic is untenable, the ear cannot retain the multiple components of a complex argument; the speaker cannot leave them suspended while drifting off on digression only to come back to them later on; instead he must narrate mostly linearly, chronologically. He must also use stock sentences, repetitions, commonplaces, what we now call disparagingly “clichés”, an essential mnemonic aid to the rhapsode.

Havelock is compassionate of Homer when he explains how a rhapsode could not break free from his responsibilities: “Homer did not personally invent these ways of recollecting custom and usage. His report of his society must have been shared by all bards, though no doubt at different levels of virtuosity. He did not create this code, nor can he alter its general colour by imposing upon it a personal vision, except within narrow limits. Let us think of him therefore as a man living in a large house crowded with furniture, both necessary and elaborate. His task is to thread his way through the house, touching and feeling the furniture as he goes and reporting its shape and texture. He chooses a winding and leisurely route which shall in the course of a day's recital allow him to touch and handle most of what is in the house. The route that he picks will have its own design. This becomes his story, and represents the nearest that he can approach to sheer invention. This house, these rooms, and the furniture he did not himself fashion: he must continually and affectionately recall them to us.”

But as sympathetic as Havelock was to him, he also realized the rhapsode’s drawbacks. Each mode, oral or chirographic, has its strengths and weaknesses. How was the oral mind? “It was a life without self-examination, but as a manipulation of the resources of the unconscious in harmony with the conscious it was unsurpassed.” Writing, however, introduced the concept of individuality, the sense of a self freed from the tribe, and led to the withering of synousia. “At some time towards the end of the fifth century before Christ, it became possible for a few Greeks to talk about their ‘souls’ as though they had selves or personalities which were autonomous and not fragments of the atmosphere nor of a cosmic life force, but what we might call entities or real substances.” The Platonic Forms, or Universals, were within reach and with them the birth of what we now call rationalism. The only thing standing in Plato’s way was Homer. It is remarkable to think that rationality’s first victim was Homer, that poetry had to die in order for what we now call the normal life had to come into life. It’s even weirder to realize that it had to happen a second time.


Before McLuhan and Havelock got to studying how media and technology change and shape consciousness, Basil Willey was doing that already. Willey (1897-1978) was another Cambridge professor who in 1934 published The Seventeenth Century Background: Studies in the Thought of the Age in Relation to Poetry and Religion. I’m not sure what attracted me to this otherwise obscure book; I’m such a fan of the Baroque that a couple of years ago I was blindly buying anything that had “baroque” and/or “seventeenth century” printed on the cover. It was a fortuitous book to read after Vernon Hyde Minor’s The Death of the Baroque and the Rhetoric of Good Taste. Hyde Minor’s book starts in the late 1600s when the French are making their move to spread Cartesianism throughout Europe, after erecting an Academy to defend and purify their language against Spanish (Góngora) and Italian (Marino) influences. It’s all-out cultural war against the Italians, with Spain and Portugal next. France’s victory decided how Europe was going to think henceforth. Hyde Minor focuses on how France’s obsession with clarity affected poetry and the arts and changed notions of good taste in relation to writing that continue to influence what we nowadays automatically assume that be: short, declarative sentences, grammatically sound, devoid of imagery. However, as Havelock shows, changes in poetry affects thinking itself; Hyde Minor barely dips into why the French and Europe in general turned against baroque rhetoric. That’s what makes Willey’s book so helpful and informative.

Willey was covering ground McLuhan would later on explore – and McLuhan was aware of him, he quotes him in The Classical Trivium and The Gutenberg Galaxy. Both in turn were in debt to the historian of rhetoric Morris W. Croll (1872–1947), who fills in some gaps in Willey’s account. Willey persuasively shows how Francis Bacon’s empiricism and Descartes’ rationalism are products of changes in the Renaissance curriculum, the trivium McLuhan got interested in.

When Willey starts explaining the death of medieval scholasticism in the wake of new pedagogical methods brought about by Gutenberg’s printing, he’s explaining a change in consciousness similar to what Havelock would explain thirty years later as the triumph of the Platonic mind over the Homeric mind. “In general it may be said that the reason why scholasticism was held to be an obstacle to truth was because it seemed to discourage further enquiry along experimental lines. All explanations of the scholastic type seemed to the new school to be merely statements of ignorance masquerading in philosophical dress, equivalent, in fact, to asserting that things are such-and-such because they are.” In the same way that oral culture enforced clan authority, the obedience to ritual and unchanging tradition, the medieval mind had stagnated around a dogma that survived through ritual – prayer, mass, chant, holiday festivities, special dates throughout the year giving existence a sense of unbroken timelessness.

Historians, trying to identify what caused this mental shift, have descended it from Columbus’s travel which instilled a love for observation and experimentation, or from Copernicus and Galileo who revealed a wider world than believed, or from the invention of print which made it difficult for the Church to centralize dogma and opinion. All of these factors were really happening more or less at the same time, influencing each other.

Ong, McLuhan’s pupil, added another factor in Ramus, Method, and the Decay of Dialogue: From the Art of Discourse to the Art of Reason, namely Muret’s and Petrus Ramus’s pedagogical revolutions which dethroned Grammar in favor of Dialectics and their importance in leading to the discovery of the scientific method. Muret had been previously studied by Croll, another source for McLuhan’s future studies.

Willey sidesteps Muret and particularly Ramus, whose importance until Ong had barely been understood. Willey’s timeframe begins when the consequences of their pedagogical revolutions are making themselves felt, notably in Bacon’s and Descartes’ striving to find a method that produces objective knowledge. Medieval Church dogma was wholly Aristotelian as was medieval science, which was mostly orally transmitted without any experimental input to evaluate its validity. It was this dogma that Bacon and Descartes came to challenge. “More was demanded than mere release from traditional hauntings. Men demanded also to feel at home in this brave new world which Columbus and Copernicus and Galileo had opened up to them, and to recognize it as ‘controlled, sustained and agitated’, by laws in some way akin to those of human reason. To be no longer at the mercy of nature, no longer to be encompassed by arbitrary mystery – these benefits were to be accompanied by the great new gift of power, power to control natural forces and to turn them, in Bacon’s phrases’, to the ‘occasions and uses of life’, and ‘the relief of man’s estate’.” Curiously, Bacon and Descartes operated from opposite ends. Baconian empiricism posits that we obtain knowledge from gathering found in nature thanks to direct observation and then thinking about them; whereas Descartes, a skeptical rationalist, believed that we can arrive at truths only from reasoning since everything outside the mind is doubtful to say the least. His “clear and distinct ideas” mantra repeated in his Metaphysical Mediations meant that he could believe in very few things, starting with the “I” and God. Whatever came from sensorial input or from the imagination should be discarded. This is where Descartes starts sounding like Havelock’s Plato, for if Plato relied on arithmetic, then Descartes put all his faith on geometry as the sole producer of clear and distinct ideas that the mind could believe in: geometrical forms, triangles, lines. In short, Descartes was mathematizing knowledge like Plato before him.

The other similarity is that cartesianism had a powerful if not deleterious effect on poetry and preaching. In the middle ages, poetry was like anything else a valid pathway to truth. Since from a Christian point of view God instead of having revealed himself directly diluted His message over the texture of Creation and the Gospel, it is the believer’s duty to look for him everywhere. McLuhan was deeply interested in the patristic method of the grammarians, scholars who built gigantic syntheses since everything had to be ordered into a system that explained God. The Medieval man’s mind is encyclopedic, it deals with sums and syntheses, much the same way Homer’s poems provided the Athenians with everything they needed to know (etymologically, encyclopedia is Latin for “complete education”). Nothing is too small or insignificant since God’s presence is literally in everything. Hence the encyclopedic bent of men like Saint Isidore of Seville’s The Etymologies, an etymological encyclopedia. So-called “Baroque period” writers like Robert Burton and Thomas Urquhart were not baroque at all, theirs was really a medieval mentality. Something like The Anatomy of Melancholy would have been at home in a medieval monastery. It’s no wonder then that Descartes’ method so strongly emphasized reductionism, breaking something down into its smaller components in order to study them separately. As McLuhan said, “The grammarian is concerned with connections; the dialecticians, with divisions.”

If God was everywhere and in everything, He was also in poetry, which was as valid a means of arriving at his Truth as anything else. But this worldview was changing in Bacon and Descartes’ time, and because of them. “The distinctions were only beginning to be made which for later ages shut off poetry from science, metaphor from fact, fancy from judgement,” wrote Willey. “The point about these different worlds was not that they were divided, but that they were simultaneously available. The major interests of life had not as yet been mechanically apportioned to specialists, so that one must dedicate oneself wholly to fact, or wholly to value. Bishops and Deans could still write excellent poetry, and an essay by a provincial doctor on cinerary urns – which today would be a dull paper read to a local archaeological society – could also be, in De Quincey’s words, an ‘impassioned requiem breathing from the pomps of earth and from the sanctities of the grave’.” But much in the way Plato changed the language we use to think, which in turn changed poetry, so Descartes changed poetry after the Renaissance: “The feeling that whatever can be clearly and distinctly conceived is ‘true’ means that the very structure of things is assumed to conform with the laws of the human mind – a capital instance of the Idols of the Tribe,” Willey clarifies in a nod to Bacon.[2] “The converse of this feeling is as I have indicated, that whatever cannot be clearly and distinctly (i.e. mathematically) conceived is ‘not true’. In this way Cartesian thought reinforced the growing disposition to accept the scientific world-picture as the only ‘true’ one. The criterion of truth which it set up, according to which the only real properties of objects were the mathematical properties, implied a depreciation of all kinds of knowing other than that of the ‘philosopher’. And as both religion and poetry (whatever may be our conception of them) spring from quite other modes of knowing, the Cartesian spirit, in so far as it prevailed, was really hostile to both of them.”

The Cartesians, those who turned Descartes into a method of reasoning and, more damagingly, into a literary style, were hostile to poetry in itself much in the same way Plato was hostile to poetry’s essence, down to a contempt for imagery and metaphors. Descartes, mind you, being a man still educated by the classic trivium and trained to display eloquence, as all children were, could not conceive writing without metaphors. Discourse on the method would be nowadays rejected by science magazines on account of its reliance on metaphors, personal anecdotes – he’s really just casually sharing his life story – and parables. When he needs to make a point, he resorts to exampla and metaphors like the melting wax in Metaphyiscal Meditations. In this sense, he too was very much like Plato’s parabolic Socrates, or like Jesus Christ, another teacher through tales. Descartes is to Plato what the Cartesians are to the straight essayist Aristotle. Medieval and Renaissance students were taught eloquence; if God is the Word you better treat it dearly. Most popular Renaissance books are long speeches, since that’s what the trivium taught students to do, to give verbal performances. In Aristotle’s tripartite division of rhetoric branches, they’d be epideictic. Erasmus’ Praise to Folly is a speech, as is the tale told in More’s Utopia; Galileo instead of developing his ideas via a boring essay, wrote a Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems. The glory of Elizabethan literature were its playwrights. And speeches and dialogues are what John Lyly’s Euphues consists mainly of. Part of Camões’ The Lusiads is narrated by Vasco da Gama to the king of Melinde. In El Lazarillo de Tormes the narrator begins by addressing a listener. The examples could be multiplied. The Renaissance, like Homer’s Greece, was predominantly an oral culture which valued eloquence and rhetoric. In that sense, there was none of the current clear divide between prose and poetry, both of which in the trivium were assigned to the branch of Rhetoric. Poetry and preaching were taught from the same manuals of rhetoric as if they were one and the same thing. (Prose fiction wasn’t yet contemplated.) It was a matter of knowing how to deal with words. That’s why the prose of Lyly or of a Donne sermon can be as jewel-incrusted as a poem by Góngora, and why Thomas Browne’s treatise on cinerary urns did not have to be a dull paper, but supercharged language:

   When the funeral pyre was out, and the last valediction over, men took a lasting adieu of their interred friends, little expecting the curiosity of future ages should comment upon their ashes; and, having no old experience of the duration of their relicks, held no opinion of such after-considerations.

   But who knows the fate of his bones, or how often he is to be buried? Who hath the oracle of his ashes, or whither they are to be scattered? The relicks of many lie like the ruins of Pompey's, in all parts of the earth; and when they arrive at your hands these may seem to have wandered far, who, in a direct and meridian travel, have but few miles of known earth between yourself and the pole.

   That the bones of Theseus should be seen again in Athens was not beyond conjecture and hopeful expectation; but that these should arise so opportunely to serve yourself was an hit of fate, and honour beyond prediction.

However, Descartes’ disciples grew into influential bullying maniacs who imposed a new type of dry, dour, demotic, direct writing across Europe that we now assume by default as the “natural” style, whatever natural could possibly mean in relation to the unnatural act of writing. What Cartesianism did was put an end to this gorgeous style by conflating “good taste” with journalese. Willey once more:

“The Cartesian spirit made for the sharper separation of the spheres of prose and poetry, and thereby hastened that ‘dissociation of sensibility’ which Mr. Eliot has remarked as having set in after the time of the Metaphysical poets. The cleavage then began to appear, which has become so troublesomely familiar to us since, between ‘value’ and ‘facts’; between what you felt as a human being or as a poet, and what you thought as a man of sense, judgement and enlightenment. Instead of being able, like Donne or Browne, to think and feel simultaneously either in verse or prose, you were now expected to think prosaically and to feel poetically. Prose was for conveying what was felt to be true, and was addressed to the judgement; poetry was for conveying pleasure, and was addressed to the fancy.”

According to Morris Kline in Mathematics in Western Culture, scientists and mathematicians became the arbiters of literary good taste: “Men we have met as outstanding mathematicians in preceding chapters were set up as literary models in the eighteenth century. Descartes’ style was extolled for its clarity, neatness, readability, and perspicuity, and Cartesianism became a style as well as a philosophy. The elegance and rationality of Pascal's manner, especially in his Lettres Provinciales, were hailed as superb attributes of literary style. Writers in almost all fields began to ape as closely as their subject matter permitted the works of Descartes, Pascal, Huygens, Galileo, and Newton.” The consequences were similar to Plato’s avowal to destroy the poetic mind: “Metaphors were banished in favor of accurate language describing objective realities. Locke said, in this connection, that metaphors and symbolism are agreeable but not rational. The pedantic, florid, scholarly style with complex Latinized constructions was abandoned in favor of simple, more direct prose. Banished, also, were impetuous flights of imagination, vigorous, emotionally charged expressions, poetic exuberance, enthusiasm, and sonorous and highly suggestive phrases.”

Croll, whose essays flesh out much of the background to what Willey was talking about, summed up this change as thus: “To this mode of thought we are to trace almost all the features of modern literary education and criticism, or at least of what we should have called modern a generation ago: the study of the precise meaning of words; the reference to dictionaries as literary authorities; the study of the sentence as a logical unit alone; the careful circumspection of its limits and the gradual reduction of its length; the disappearance of semicolons and colons; the attempt to reduce grammar to an exact science; the idea that forms of speech are always either correct or incorrect; the complete subjection of the laws of motion and expression in style to the laws of logic and standardization – in short, the triumph, during two centuries, of grammatical over rhetorical ideas.”

Poetry, then, had once again to be sacrificed in order for reason to assert itself and give us the tools to build the rational world we live in and cannot conceive having ever been otherwise. Poetry was thus on the verge of unemployment since it did not speak truth anymore; it could only survive by becoming what it is nowadays, entertainment for a few, a hobby, something to while away the time, content for sentimental memes. It was degraded, as Willey put it, “reduced to catering for ‘delight’ – to providing embellishments which might be agreeable to the fancy, but which were recognized by the judgment as having no relation to ‘reality’.” The more he delves into the consequences this mental shift meant for poetry, the more he gropes Havelock’s future inquiry: “These developments could not fail to result in a lowering of the status of poetry, as an activity which by its very nature forswore the only methods by which, it was now felt, truth could be reached. ‘Philosophy’ has indeed proved itself more than once the natural enemy of poetry. It was not only from the Cartesian universe, but also from Plato’s Republic, that poetry was banished. From the Augustan world poets themselves were, of course, so far from being literally banished that they were highly honored; it was poetry itself which suffered from the intellectual climate. After Descartes, poets were inevitably writing with the sense that their constructions were not true, and this feeling robbed their work of essential seriousness. It was felt, as Locke said, that poetry offers ‘pleasant pictures and agreeable visions’, but that these consist in ‘something that is not perfectly conformable’ to truth and reason.”

France never really had a “Baroque period”, something it’s very proud of it. In the wake of Descartes, it recoiled into neo-classicism and banned Góngora and Marino, who were then Europe’s internationally major poets. As the French revived the classical values of reason, order, clarity, and modesty, eloquence and rhetoric came to mean falseness; literary language atrophied since it should be as simple and natural as nature itself was under a reductionist’s eye. It should conform to how people speak to the point that a reader should not, as Pascal disgustingly remarked, feel inferior to the author: “The best books are those, which those who read them believe they themselves could have written. Nature, which alone is good, is wholly familiar and common.” Fancy, exaggeration, excess, caprice became negative values. “Nothing is more common than good things,” approved Pascal: “the point in question is only to discriminate them; and it is certain that they are all natural and within our reach and even known to all mankind. But they know not how to distinguish them. This is universal. It is not among extraordinary and fantastic things that excellence is to be found, of whatever kind it may be. We rise to attain it and become removed from it: it is oftenest necessary to stoop for it.” With this new mindset, Rabelais fell out of grace in France and his influence since the 17th century has been felt only outside it: in the British novel, and later in the North- and Latin-American novel. His encyclopedic antics, his multilingual puns, his ostentatious erudition, became flaws instead of virtues, the epitome of verbal artificiality and obfuscation. But he wasn’t the only victim. The twilight of Góngora and Marino was accompanied by the loss of favour of the so-called Metaphysical poets, so badly treated by Samuel Johnson. By the 19th century, poor euphuism was an obscure footnote good alone for Walter Scott to parody in the form of The Monastery’s Sir Piercie Shafton:

“The English knight was, however, something daunted at finding that Mary Avenel listened with an air of indifference, and answered with wonderful brevity, to all the fine things which ought, as he conceived, to have dazzled her with their brilliancy, and puzzled her by their obscurity. But if he was disappointed in making the desired, or rather the expected impression, upon her whom he addressed, Sir Piercie Shafton's discourse was marvellous in the ears of Mysie the Miller's daughter, and not the less so that she did not comprehend the meaning of a single word which he uttered. Indeed, the gallant knight's language was far too courtly to be understood by persons of much greater acuteness than Mysie's.”

This, besides being funny, also bespeaks of class prejudice: Shafton’s speech is only impressive to miller’s daughters, to the uneducated. For the educated know that this is a gloss from Aristotle’s Rhetoric, Book 3: “Even now most uneducated people think that poetical language makes the finest discourses. That is not true: the language of prose is distinct from that of poetry.” It’s not by accident that in this passage Gorgias is identified by Aristotle as one of the culprits for oratorical prose taking a “poetical colour”. This argument, that rich prose is by itself deceitful and unintelligible, amenable only to fools, that it has no aesthetic reason or virtue, was a prejudice much in vogue in the Enlightenment, and indeed still alive nowadays. Aristotle took further than Plato the distinction between poetry and prose, but the Middle Ages and the Renaissance sort of ignored him because the Rhetoric branch of the trivium didn’t recognize such distinction. When Saint Augustine wrote Latin sermons in rhymed prose he was treating prose like Gorgias. Aristotle was not a major source of rhetorical education in the Middle Ages; Cicero was. Ah, but you see, distinctions are precisely the kind of mental operations Cartesian reductionism thrives on: pulling things apart, labelling each component, establishing its autonomous essence. So “poetry” and “prose” became two things with precise meanings, characteristics and purposes. It wasn’t until Ramus’s revolution privileged the eye instead of the ear that prose started behaving like what we call it nowadays.

Everywhere in Europe thinkers were roused with rancor at rhetoric: Boileau and Bouhours, Crescimbeni and Orsi, Dryden and Dr. Johnson, Bishop Pratt, Luís António Vernei, Francisco de la Isla, and countless others who played a role in shaping the definition of admissible prose. The best 18th-century Spanish is Isla’s Frey Gerundio de Campazas, a 900-page extravaganza about a rhetorically-gifted child who’s taken under the wing of a debauched preacher who teaches Gerundio how to use his skills to live off gullible believers. It’s the Don Quixote of Baroque sermons, an encyclopedic mockery of outdated sacred oratory.

What we think “good prose” is stems from the combined influence of these men trickling down to us; when we praise the “lucid prose” of this and the “transparent style” of that, we’re applying the taste they thought us to appreciate.

Plato invented a shape and a style for reason: it should be simple, devoid of metaphors, direct, abstract. The Cartesians and empiricists did the same. In time this style became the default style of the novel, which is the triumph of the objective narrator, a voice telling us things about people and things; a powerful voice that knows everything; disembodied, hovering outside and above nature, a piercing entity capable of getting inside heads and seeing things from all angles, that knows the characters’ past and can even predict their future in the same way we can foresee a scientific experiment: we know water will always boil at 100ºc no matter how many times we try it. In effect cartesianism invented what we nowadays call literary realism, the main mode of writing prose fiction since the 18th century. Ian Watt, in his own origins book, The Rise of the Novel (1957), even tried to prove that the “novel” and realism are essentially the same thing. He did this by ignoring a whole ancient tradition of narrative fiction which was precisely being distinguished from the “novel” around the time Watt’s heroes Daniel Defoe and Samuel Richardson were writing their books. In Clara Reeve’s The Progress of Romance (1785), allegedly the first English-language history of the novel, she made the now popular distinction between novel and “romance”:

I will attempt this distinction, and I presume if it is properly done it will be followed, - if not, you are but where you were before. The Romance is an heroic fable, which treats of fabulous persons and things. - The Novel is a picture of real life and manners, and of the times in which it is written. The Romance in lofty and elevated language, describes what ever happened nor is likely to happen - The novel gives a familiar relation of such things, as pass every day before our eyes, such as may happen to our friends, or to ourselves; and the perfection of it, is to represent every scene, in so easy and natural a manner, and to make them appear so probable, as to deceive us into a persuasion (at least while we are reading) that all is real, until we are affected by the joys distresses of the persons in the story, as if they were our own.

Life is made very complicated for languages that use the same word for both concepts, like French, Italian, Portuguese. But Northrop Frye, in another origins book, The Anatomy of Criticism (1957) pretty much abides by these definitions. Just consider Reeve’s vocabulary: “distinction”, “in so easy and natural a manner”, “probable”, the scientific, experimental twang to it. More and more novels were being required to sound like scientific reports. When Jane Austen started a novel with “It is a truth universally acknowledged”, she was channeling prose’s, and by extension prose fiction’s, new obligation to behave like science writing, for what is science’s business if not the unveiling of universal truths like water boiling at 100ºc?

There was no reason for the divide between “novel” and “romance” to occur; but under the influence of Cartesianism it happened. The major consequence is that, as the novel pushed throughout the 19th century toward higher and higher realism, the possibilities offered by what was labeled “romance” became ludicrous, unbecoming, tasteless. That’s why every 19th-century novel pretty much sounds the same regardless of the country. Romance held its own up until the 1930s: Jan Potocki’s The Manuscript Found in Saragossa (1805), Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey (1818), Thomas Love Peacock’s Nightmare Abbey (1818) and Crotchet Castle (1831), E. T. A. Hoffmann’s The Life and Opinions of the Tomcat Murr (1819), James Hogg’s The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner (1824), and Thomas Carlyle’s Sartor Resartus (1833) fall in the “romance” tradition. But Stendhal, Balzac, and Austen herself were concomitantly preparing the realist outlook of the century. Curiously, Balzac’s megalomaniac “Human Comedy” project of dozens of interlinked novels portraying every realm of French society is every bit as medieval-minded as anything conceived by a medieval grammarian. But there was a difference: the grammarians were concerned with finding occult meaning in quantity, through their creative faculties they found allegory and symbolism everywhere. But when Balzac famously stated that he wanted to compete with the Civil Registry, quantifiable data became the meaning itself. The purpose of the novelist, like the scientist, was to accrete data for its own sake. Balzac wanted to portray every facet of society, every social class, every profession, much in the same way a botanist looked through the microscope at every component of a newly-found flower, an activity that would end up as an essay in the bulletin of a local Botanical Society. My problem isn’t the loss of transcendence so much as the fact that the fiction writer’s new job had to be carried out henceforth in stupefying style.

The triumph of cartesianism dictated the divorce of prose and poetry. Although atavistic souls like Shelley, Coleridge and Novalis continued to insist that there was no fundamental difference between them, the gap widened. First realism, then its dumb cousin naturalism, reinforced the dependence of the novelist on direct observation, empirical data, to the point that he gradually gave up on imagination and looked up to the scientist and the reporter as models. Zola believed that naturalism was the point to which the novel was evolving all along; the century’s infatuation with continuity was prone to produce such delusions: Darwin’s theory of evolution, Marx and Engels’ theory of social progress, Comte’s theory of the Three Stages of Man ensorcelled the century with the myth that progress is moving in a straight line toward a clear goal. To Zola the naturalistic, or as he called it experimental novel was just an inevitable stage of the novel’s progress towards its ultimate form:

We have experimental chemistry and medicine; we shall have an experimental physiology, and later on an experimental novel. It is an inevitable evolution, the goal of which it is easy to see to-day. All things hang together; it is necessary to start from the determinism of inanimate bodies in order to arrive at the determinism of living beings; and since savants like Claude Bernard demonstrate now that fixed laws govern the human body, we can easily proclaim, without fear of being mistaken, the hour in which the laws of thought and passion will be formulated in their turn. A like determinism will govern the stones of the roadway and the brain of man.

Zola didn’t just try to behave like a scientist, he spouted nonsense drawn from analogies with Comte’s formulae. Comte’s Three Stages of Man theory posits that the mind has gone through three stages: the theological age, the metaphysical age, and the positivistic age. Zola alludes to it in his essay “The Experimental Novel”:

Moreover, Claude Bernard himself has indicated the evolutions of the human mind: “The human mind,” he says, “at various periods of its progress has passed successively through feeling, reason, and experiment. First, feeling alone, dominating reason, created the truths of faith, that is to say, theology. Reason, or philosophy, becoming afterward the mistress, brought forth scholasticism. Finally, experiment, that is to say, the study of natural phenomena, taught man that the truths of the exterior world were to be found formulated, in the first place, neither in reason nor in feeling. These last are, indeed, our indispensable guides, but to obtain the truth it is necessary to descend into the objective reality of things, where they lie concealed under their phenomenal form.

In this and similar passages, Zola gives off the comic twang of all fanatics who have just discovered a new truth to live by; no one else was more overtly desperate to ground the new novel on science. His pseudo-science about hereditary traits, determinism and physiognomy have aged as badly as the once hip eugenics and phrenology. But the same lingering reliance on science as arbiter of quality is found in the much better Flaubert, in Eça de Queiroz (an awesome naturalism hype man, but thankfully for him a lousy naturalist), Leo Tolstoy and Henry James. Thanks to them, by the end of the 19th century the novel had crystallized in the efficient form we take for granted: a straightforward narrative about the lives of ordinary characters told by an omniscient narrator who remains invisible and doesn’t comment or intrude. More and more the antics of Anthony Trollope will look grotesque to James who was deadly devoted to perspective and mapping out how to efface the narrator:  

The subject-matter of fiction is stored up likewise in documents and records, and if it will not give itself away, as they say in California, it must speak with assurance, with the tone of the historian. Certain accomplished novelists have a habit of giving themselves away which must often bring tears to the eyes of people who take their fiction seriously. I was lately struck, in reading over many pages of Anthony Trollope, with his want of discretion in this particular. In a digression, a parenthesis or an aside, he concedes to the reader that he and this trusting friend are only ‘making believe.’ He admits that the events he narrates have not really happened, and that he can give his narrative any turn the reader may like best. Such a betrayal of a sacred office seems to me, I confess, a terrible crime; it is what I mean by the attitude of apology, and it shocks me every whit as much in Trollope as it would have shocked me in Gibbon or Macaulay. It implies that the novelist is less occupied in looking for the truth (the truth, of course I mean, that he assumes, the premises that we must grant him, whatever they may be) than the historian, and in doing so it deprives him at a stroke of all his standing-room.

Novelists behaved like scientists seeking the truth instead of behaving like novelist probing the possibilities of the novel form. For them the novel was analogous to a report on reality, a series of statements, and statements are either true or false, or so people believed before J. L. Austin. Art, since the 18th century, was bullied into striving to be verisimilar, natural, not to draw attention to its contrivances, to its inescapable artificiality, to simulate more and more authenticity. Writing a novel, then, meant more and more realism, an unstable concept in itself: for naturalists it meant more pornography, crudeness, bodily fluids, physiological descriptions of bowel movements; for psychological novelists it meant reflecting inner states and conscience’s formlessness. A pissed off Woolf came to caricaturize naturalism as insanely long descriptions of houses without human presence. For her, as for Joyce, Proust, and Faulkner, true realism meant inner realism, a simulation of the human mind. Instead of mimicking reports and news articles, the novel should mimic the formless human consciousness with its unpunctuated stream of thoughts, word associations, abrupt temporal shifts, the consciousness zipping and flitting around as supposedly the unchecked mind does. Still, for their contemporary John dos Passos more realism meant again turning the novel into a series of documents, clippings, the eye of the camera, news reels, as if the novel were not a novel but something else, something outside it. Or being realistic meant, after the 1929 Crash, adding the struggle of lower classes, a fauna 19th-century bourgeois realist writers had kept out, but which came to populate the fiction of Steinbeck and Caldwell, of Jorge Amado and Allan Sillitoe. Wherever in James and Eça and Proust do you see the plight of the downtrodden? In some countries this new trend was called social realism, or socialist realism, or neo-realism; a Portuguese critic in the 1940s derisively called it “neo-Zolaism”.

Everyone knows Flaubert’s famous 9 December, 1852 letter to Louise Colet wherein he stated his idea of that “the artist in his work should be like God in the universe, present everywhere and visible nowhere.” This intrinsically Cartesian approach to the novel’s narrator continued to be developed and refined by his successors, notably Henry James. When James complained about Trollope’s crimes above, he had Flaubert’s injunction in mind. And yet Trollope had not done anything that hadn’t been done countless times in fiction before Flaubert. In 1961, yet another origins book came out, Wayne C. Booth’s The Rhetoric of Fiction, which, misleading title aside, is an overview of the making of the realistic narrator since Flaubert’s time up to the publication of his book. It’s a brilliant book, but the aspect that struck me the most when I first read it a couple of weeks ago was Booth’s hostility against post-war novelists who were too Trollopian for his Jamesian tastes. Booth too believed that realism was the ultimate goal of the novel, and I can understand why people brought up in a time that worshipped Flaubert, James and the like sincerely believe that to be so. A few years before yet another origins book, Erich Auerbach’s Mimesis, was equally contemptuous of non-realistic fiction. The absent narrator was taken up, this time for philosophical reasons, by Sartre, whose adherence to existentialism implied characters who could not be treated like Trollopian toys. Realism is paradoxically a sort of self-delusion; in an essay, “Francois Mauriac and Freedom” (1939), Sartre laid out his theory that fictional characters should be thrown into the world and the author should exempt himself from making any commentaries; this was congruous with his existentialist view that man is intrinsically free to make decisions and not constrained by anyone or anything else. That’s funny because fictional characters are puppets created by a god, the author, who decides what they do and say and who can keep rewriting them until they kowtow to his whims. Nabokov, who had no patience for Sartre’s claptrap, famously said, “My characters are galley slaves.” Gilbert Sorrentino poked fun at the “the puppeteer school of novelists” who receive orders from their characters as if they weren’t in command all along.

Realism’s rule continued, the two trends vying for supremacy: empirical realism versus psychological realism. The scientific and philosophical framework underlying the mimetic theory could change over time, but not the ultimate objective. Sartre derided pre-realistic novelists who reminded the reader of “the existence of an author”. Ideally, a novel should “exist in the manner of things, of plants, of events, ant not at first like products of man.” The more Sartre tried to run away from science, the more he returned to it; for the scientist too believes he’s dealing with non-man-made things, that he’s neutrally measuring, weighing and describing things that have existed all along in nature, “things” indeed, devoid of any transcendental meaning, whether under the microscope or over the telescope, when in fact they only exist because he meaningfully directed his attention at them.

All the while the novel withered into an empty husk as the exigencies of realism continued to erode its two most important characteristics: the imagination and the style. After so many attempts at being more realistic, the novelist was just walking in tedious circles of failure: you could be more “realistic” like Henry Miller and just add more fucking to the novel than D. H. Lawrence had, but how does that make a novel aesthetically better? Or your narrator could be even more objective, absent and detached than Flaubert’s narrator-god, but that only led to Robbe-Grillet’s second-rate novels. Or your narrator could amble about in his head, randomly jumping in time, really straining the whole stream of consciousness thing, demanding from the reader active participation in organizing the bits into a whole, like in a Sarraute novel, but never giving any reason why the reader should even bother to make that extra effort after the second pedestrian sentence. Realism, whether empirical or psychological, seeks to turn the novel into something other than narrative fiction, it tries to turn it into a mirror to reality, a slice of life, a portrayal of reality, a channel into consciousness. At this point one could sensibly ask, Why bother reading novels then? If I can get the authentic models outside the novel, what do I need the novel for? Leopold Bloom’s stream of consciousness isn’t more realistic than my own mind, so why waste my time with Ulysses? A bedroom described by Zola isn’t more realistic than my own, so why not replace reading his novels with just staring at my bedroom for a couple of minutes with my own eyes?

People who were asking themselves these questions understandably started believing in a “crisis of the novel” and even predicting its “death”, and it would hardly be a tearful death if all that died were Sartre’s novels (not many since he thankfully abandoned novel writing) and Jamesian imitators and more peddlers of easy-to-write sub-Joycian stream-of-consciousness unpunctuated gibberish. But then something happened around 1945. The long-lost, embarrassing current of the “romance” suddenly and sneakily made a comeback. A set of post-war novelists figured that after imitating society and the psyche for so long, it was time for them to self-consciously imitate other novelists. They had to go back to doing things with the novel that only the novel could do. In so doing, novelists were unknowingly returning to the Homeric mode. It was the best of times for the novel; but like in Dickens, it had its share of the worst of times too. For a third attempt at killing poetry and rhetoric was looming in the horizon.

(To be continued)

Friday, 27 November 2020

Ascent with Pan-American Accent

"Was the success of One Hundred Years of Solitude inevitable?” asks Álvaro Santana-Acuña towards the end of his remarkable anatomy. “Of course not. The shelves of national libraries have scores of literary works that are written in astounding language, narrate masterful plots, and describe unforgettable characters. And yet these works did not become classics. The question of inevitability in the success of classics is connected to the issues of contingency, causality and counterfactuals.” Well, talk about holding a mirror to reality! Fifteen years ago I would have read Ascent to Glory: how “One Hundred Years of Solitude” was written and became a global classic as a teenaged fan of Gabriel García Márquez’s legendary novel. However, while I was reading it in the early days of November 2020 I was also finishing the third draft of a four-volume biography of Tomaz de Figueiredo, a Portuguese novelist no one in Portugal reads anymore, read just barely in his lifetime, utterly unknown abroad, whose novels were out of print for almost half a century and who is generally unknown to both public and an academic world that has never claimed that he’s an important, pioneering, or simply good novelist. For me Tomaz is the greatest post-war Portuguese novelist, but this is literally just my opinion. I’ve been holding on to it since I discovered him in 2015, which was also around the time I started the biography.  

Literary biographies are usually written to explain why great authors are great, or to lambast previous epochs for not having had the sagacity to intuit the greatness of a great author. It is taken for granted that greatness is an inherent quality, present since birth. It is relatively easy to explain why a book loved on its publication has become even more beloved half a century later. But it’s sort of egocentric to presume to lecture people about the unseen greatness of a writer no one spotted before. It is superstitiously believed that quality always comes to the top; and since only “great” books are studied it’s a self-fulfilling fantasy that will not admit ruptures, for if a book isn’t studied it isn’t great. Santana-Acuña also discusses canonical works versus classics: books that, being important, depend on other institutions for their survival, basically the Dalkey Archvie Press catalogue; versus those perennial sellers which never go out of print because they keep finding readers in every new generation. In my case, as what I hoped would be a simple essay for a book blog ballooned into 1000 pages and a few months of work into five years and going, I realized that what was interesting was explaining why Tomaz was never considered great, what social, political, literary, economical, personal factors meshed into a hood of invisibility and hostility that rendered him something below a minor writer. I had to recreate what it meant to be a novelist in Portugal. This is more or less what Santana-Acuña did, an endeavor that took him ten years. The result is an intelligent, appealing, instructive book.

Ascent to Glory is divided in two parts: my enthusiasm stems mainly from the first part, which painstakingly paints the background against which One Hundred Years of Solitude was imagined, executed and launched into the world. It is crisp, nitid, precise.

The second part, an attempt to chart its growth since the launch into a “global classic”, seems more arbitrary: it’s composed of snippets of reviews across decades, which means that he could keep adding, subtracting, swapping and it wouldn’t make much of an impact on the overall foretold result. Transcribing different Amazon stellar reviews or using some other negative dude from Goodreads instead of one Nathan ‘N. R.’ Gaddis wouldn’t affect the point that a classic is destined to have fans and detractors, it’s this ongoing conversation that keeps it alive and under discussion. Instead of the anonymous, why not, say, Portugal’s preeminent living novelist, António Lobo Antunes, who’s regularly badmouthed García Márquez and claims that Solitude has aged badly? It’s arbitrary because there’s no end of other examples he could have used to make the same point.

Not so with the first part, which is a thorough recreation of a period in Latin American fiction. It’s so well-researched that it has completely humbled my delusion that I was well-read on the history of the “New Latin American Novel”, the alternative name to the “boom”, which writers tended to dislike because of its commercial and mercenary overtones. I’ve read or am more or less familiar with the important sources, José Donoso’s rancorous memoirs, Luis Harss’ panegyric disguised as book of interviews, Carlos Fuentes’s string of essays culminating in La Nueva Novela Hispanoamericana (1969), the Paris-based Mundo Nuevo magazine, the campaigning the influential critic Emir Rodríguez Monegal carried out in USA – but I’m just an amateur in his presence. It’s a pleasure being led by such competent hands. The book’s novelty rests on its going beyond publicly available sources; it delves often into material prior to 1967 that was left in magazines and newspapers, for instance interviews; apropos of that, the University Press of Mississippi’s Conversations with Gabriel García Márquez is a paltry, clumsy resource, it contains only interviews with an already global best-selling author. Santana-Acuña shows, by turn, shows a struggling writer very obsessed with achieving glory.

Most stories about obsession are not pretty, and this is no exception; it’s not a mafia story, but it involves a group self-named the “Mafia”, operating from Mexico, whose members, young, up-and-coming novelists, decided to take over the world by storm devising marketing campaigns to convince it that Latin American literature has achieved a level of complexity as good as the European or the US novel. Its mastermind is Fuentes, his associates are Donoso, Fuentes’ childhood friend, Vargas Llosa, Cortázar, and García Márquez. Santana-Acuña displays a battery of numbers and facts to explain why they so badly wanted commercial success; obviously it’s all about economics. Before the 1960s, in spite of the shared language, books barely circulated from nation to nation; as such Latin America, for all its size, had a meager book market: readers were scarce, print runs small, publishers paid little to no royalties, and sometimes there was no option but self-publishing. Jorge Luis Borges’ debut book, Fervor de Buenos Aires (1923), had a print run of 300 copies: it was self-published; Julio Cortázar’s debut book, Bestiary (1951), took a decade to sell its print run of 200 copies. Because of this there was not a lot of incentive to write long novels; the poem, novella, short-story were better acclimatized to society. If the general press was anything like the Portuguese at the same time, any decent diary or weekly carried poems, short-stories form the local consecrated names, which means not only that people didn’t have to buy books to get literature, but that writers didn’t feel compelled to write beyond the newspaper reader, with all the constraints that entails.

The writer, given these obstacles, was always a weekend writer, he kept a day job, like the journalism that García Márquez subsisted on for a long time, and wrote in his free time. That’s one of the reason why the Mafia was so obsessed with exporting and internationalizing Latin American literature, that was the only way they could become full-time professional writers. They certainly succeeded: Vargas Llosa’s The Leaders (1959) had a print run of 1 300 copies; The time of the hero (1963), 4 000; Conversation in the Cathedral (1969), 10 000; and Captain Pantojas and the Secret Service (1973), 100 000. Santana-Acuña indicates that this was a 7,600 percent increase in just over a decade.

For a while Vargas Llosa had more commercial clout than García Márquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude had only a first print run of 8 000 copies. Vargas Llosa benefited from the editorial boom in Barcelona: Spanish publishers, especially Seix-Barral, for several reasons found it profitable to promote Latin Americans and also created mechanisms to increase their international sex-appeal. Seix-Barral, carrying out this objective, was instrumental in creating a series of prizes in the early 1960s that ended many times in the hands of Latin Americans, taking their reputations ahead of them, ushering them into other countries. First there was the Formentor Prize and its smarter sister, the International Literature Prize, which under the regulation translated the winners in thirteen different countries simultaneously. The Formentor winners are mostly nobodies nowadays, but the first International Literature Prize was shared by Borges and Samuel Beckett. Seix-Barral also created the Biblioteca Breve Prize, which Vargas Llosa won in 1962; because of this he was next year’s frontrunner to the Formentor, but lost to Jorge Semprún. It didn’t matter, the success of that one prize brought him the aforementioned print runs. García Márquez, by contrast, by 1962 was the author of four books that had not left South America nor travelled well within the region, not to mention that he was far from being a promising talent: one anonymous reviewer even called Leaf Storm a “shitty novella”, which is scientific according to my remembrance of it. When Solitude came out, he expected it’d be a moderate hit, but even so guessed that he’d need to publish a novel a year to live on writing. Nothing told him that he’d the world’s 49th most translated author.

Thanks to networking, before One Hundred Years of Solitude was even published, García Márquez’s friends spread across the world had touted his name in twenty countries in three continents, meaning his name had been read by hundreds of thousands, creating expectations. They published work in progress, granted interviews before releasing novels, went on book tours. García Marquéz was so finnicky over controlling the means of communication with the readers that his opponents nicknamed him “García Marketing”.

Whether or not the Boom came out of a fierce marketing campaign has been under debate for decades now. Donoso thought so; Monegal likewise. It was also an idiom-bound club since in the long run it excluded non-Spanish-speaking authors, namely Brazilians. Although João Guimarães Rosa wrote the continent’s best novel, Grande Sertão: Veredas, it has never achieved the worldwide fame of Terra Nostra, Conversation in the Cathedral, Hopscotch, The Lost Steps. Of course a famously awful translation into English didn’t help. But Rosa also led a sheltered life, away from the spotlight, he took decades to write books, never planned to become a professional writer if that entailed having to rush one book per year as García Márquez planned at one point. Although he was respect by his peers Vargas Llosa, Rulfo, Monegal, Sarduy, he was never fit for the Mafia’s maneuvers. He died in 1967 right when the Boom was reaching its apotheosis. The Brazilians never got over not getting aboard the Boom Boeing to world stardom; since then they’ve been bemoaning their missed chance. In 1962, around the time the Mafia was planning to export the New Latin American Novel, Jorge Amado’s Gabriela, Clove and Cinnamon (1958) had become the first novel from that region to enter The New York Times’ bestsellers list; the next Latin-American novel to achieve this feat was One Hundred Years of Solitude. But nothing came of it. Santana-Acuña’s random second part could have incorporated Dalton Trevisan’s alleged reaction at finishing One Hundred Years of Solitude: “Brazil deserved a novelist like this.” Doesn’t every country? Because of this bad luck they’ve been very sensitive to the Boom’s business backstage. I was first introduced to this matter when João Cezar de Castro Rocha, a Brazilian scholar connected with Stanford, published in 2015 an article in the Folha de São Paulo newspaper. Castro Rocha, apropos of Xavi Ayén’s book Aquellos años del Boom: García Márquez, Vargas Llosa y el grupo de amigos que lo cambiaron todo (2014), an 800-page history of the Boom, remarked that the Mafia’s correspondence, some of it held at American universities, told very clearly the day-to-day history of how the Boom was planned. I always wanted to learn more but never actually expected to.

Nevertheless, greed and personal affirmation doesn’t explain the obsession. There was also a mission to bring Latin American literature to the world’s attention. Before the 1960s it was still a minor, local literature that no one took seriously. However, first of all Latin Americans had to create a sense of union, a transnational, collective identity. And that took a century to build. Santana-Acuña informs that the term “Latin America” was coined in France in the 1850s by two expats, Chilean Francisco Bilbao and Colombian José María Torres. Torres also coined “Latin American literature” in 1879 in order to argue that the region did not have a literature of its own, one imbued with inherent characteristics, but instead only imitated Europe; I find this fascinating since this is exactly the debate that was going on in Portugal at the exact same time.

Throughout the 20th century Latin Americans had ample opportunities to tighten their views of a shared history. They were very good at organizing themselves. They had the Instituto Internacional de Literatura Iberoamericana, Centro de Estudios Latinoamericanos Rómulo Gallegos. There was a 1962 Congress of Intellectuals in Chile. São Paulo organized in 1954 a Congress of Writers which was attended by William Faulkner. (Santana-Acuña doesn’t allude to this in spite of the importance he attributes to him). In those international congresses and symposia they debated and discussed what “Latin-Americaness” was.

What was a “Latin American literature”? How was such a chimera achieved? First of all, its proponents had to defeat a group of thinkers who believed that each nation should develop, explore its own characteristics; thinking like this had grown into regionalism and realist subsets like: costumbrismo, from costumbre, customs, as in “novel of customs”, about everyday life, habits, behavior, rituals; and indigenismo, about the lives of the indigenous people, idealized in a very Romantic, very folklorish way as the soul of the continent, the authentic culture, never mind the fact most had been exterminated by then and the remaining were dying away in reservations or hiding away in jungles. Other thinkers, however, wanted the novel rising above its localism and embracing cosmopolitanism while at the same time applying “Latin-Americanism”, the belief that all those different nations shared a common history that goes beyond minor differences. They wanted a tricky balancing act, a merging of the local with the universal, novels that demonstrated Latin American reality while at the same time speaking to all readers about “universal” themes.

In order to achieve this they had to trick themselves in several ways: not only did they have to believe those regional differences were minor, but they also had to pretend a good deal of their history didn’t even exist, or if it existed was mediocre and embarrassing. Santana-Acuña here and there reminds readers that Latin-American Literature before 1960 was really just like any other literature in the world (he then makes the mistake of agreeing that the New Latin-American Novel was somehow different from contemporary novels, but we’ll get there); the region in fact went through the same phases as European literature since the 18th century: neo-classicism, Romanticism, Realism/Naturalism, Symbolism, Modernism. This is an important reminder because people still live under the impression that the major tendency of Latin American literature is a mirage called “the marvelous real” or “magical realism”, which sounds a lot like a literal translation of “real meravilloso” into English by someone not very fluent in it. The fact is that Latin American literature is composed exactly of what most European literature is composed of: boring realism. Fuentes, Vargas Llosa, Alejo Carpentier went to tremendous lengths to erase this from history or to downplay it, or to simply besmirch its results, because they believed that this insistence in localism and indigenismo had held their literature back from exportation, although it’s what held thousands of European novels from ever being translated too. Localism is the default mode of most national literatures because most writers tend to believe they’re supposed to write about the reality they experience; up until the 1960s writers were expected to write for a community, and only a few crossed frontiers; some weren’t even known outside a region. This situation changed when UNESCO started promoting translations in the post-war.

The Mafia’s marketing campaign, then, went to great measures to imbue the New Latin American Novel with a cosmopolitan identity, whatever that may be. For them apparently it was nothing more than writing like European modernists while adding social commentary about cartoonish dictatorships and banana massacres to the mix. It was this pursuit of a cosmopolitan-but-also-local style that made them play up the exoticism of things like “magical realism” and “neobaroque”. They needed to create a new identity for themselves, their own, but at the same time infuse it with modernist techniques that proved Europeans their disciplines had learned their lessons and were their equals. It’s miraculous it yielded such amazing results!

Santana-Acuña concisely and clearly explains the rise of “magical realism”, originally a term from European painting from the 1920s that entered the vocabulary of tertulias presided over by Latin American intellectuals living in Europe, namely Miguel Angel Asturias, Arturo Uslar Pietri, and Carpentier, allegedly the coiner of the “marvellous real”, at least he used this expression in the prologue to The Kingdom of this world (1949). They were living in Paris at the heigh of Surrealism and so were vulnerable to being influenced by an art form that eschewed rationality and order and value dreaming, fantasy. For them, those characteristics could better represent Latin American reality than old-fashioned realism; bizarrely they believed that Latin America’s reality was by nature anti-realistic and also mentally adverse to the Enlightenment. It had never struck them that Surrealism was invented in Europe precisely because Europeans were also fed up with reality in literature being represented by old-fashioned realism. The whole point of Modernism was precisely to replaced Realism/Naturalism with a new art form that showed reality more directly. We can extrapolate, based on Kafka, Bruno Schulz, Woolf’s Orlando, Volter Kilpi’s Gulliver’s Voyage to Phantomimia, Sándor Szathmári’s Gulliver's Return: A Sequel to Voyage to Kazohinia, Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margherita, the remarkable oddity that was James Branch Cabell, that if Modernism’s growth hadn’t been hampered by Marxist-imposed return to realism in the 1930s, serious literature would have taken a massive turn to the fantastic. Instead it went undercover and surfaced only at times.

The fun part is that magical realism was partially inspired by Franz Kafka, which every writer in his twenties including García Márquez was reading and emulating badly in the 1940s and 1950s. Asturias, Carpentier, Uslar Pietri introduced the “marvellous real” and wrote fiction based on its premises, but magical realism was never a main tendency until One Hundred Years of Solitude invented thousands of copycats quick to cash in on its formula. Up to the ‘60s Latin Americans debated the same things their European cousins did: whether or not to give up literary realism.  The Realism War was heating up in the 1940s, European Communist Parties everywhere held sway over writers who kowtowed to the tenets of Zhdanovism and chastised deviations from the 19th-century model. The famous Hungarian critic Georg Lukacs was a watchdog keeping Modernism under check and fighting everywhere against radicals: he had famously upheld the 19th-century novel as the model for engaged novelist against the bourgeois, the vehicle of the revolution, and his disciples everywhere applied his doctrines. Brazil, for instance, was by the 1930s one of the major centers of the realist novel in South America: Jorge Amado, Graciliano Ramos, José Lins do Rego were all committed realists, Amado even kept close connections with international communism and travelled to Russia. In Argentina Héctor P. Agosti’s Defensa del Realismo (1945) spread the Gospel According to Saint Lukacs. I’m no expert on the continent, but I presume more examples can be found in Chile, Cuba, Colombia.

Magical realism, then, was a blasphemy that slowly insinuated itself in the novel, much in the same way the European and US novels were being corrupted by a few anti-realists like John Hawkes and Italo Calvino. The expression “anti-novel” was precisely invented in Europe around this time, by Sartre, in part to identify and gripe about certain post-war novelists who were destroying the conventions of a proper novel, namely the 19th-century novel as practiced by Balzac. Sartre wasn’t thinking about Latin Americans yet, but was already fretting about Nabokov. Around the same Juan Rulfo published Pedro Páramo (1955), Calvino published The Cloven Viscount (1952) and Günther Grass The Tin Drum (1959). Nabokov had already written the dystopia Laughter in the Dark (1947). To anyone observing from a panopticon, it would be obvious that, magical realist or not, a slowly growing current of the post-war novel was doing everything in its power to push past realism. The New Latin American Novel was hardly special in that regard.

Then there’s my beloved “neobaroque”, which if I understood Santana-Acuña correctly was at first the distinguishing element of the New Latin American Novel, ahead of “magical realism”, which only upstaged it in the 1960s thanks to García Márquez’s floating ladies and growing bank accounts. The Latin Americans, in their anxiety to emancipate themselves from Spain, devised a new aesthetics of language which involved affronting the Spaniards by rejecting modern Spanish spoken in Spain and cultivating the style of the 17th century, the style that went to America with the conquerors and civilization builders, the style of Cervantes and Góngora, which isn’t a style at all because Cervantes wrote colloquial prose and Góngora labyrinthine poetry. What they were looking for was an affected archaic flavor, out-of-touch vocabulary, a free-flowing syntax. García Márquez, trained in journalism and thus sparse and concise like his master Hemingway, wasn’t originally too fond of this style which he dubbed “rhetorical leafiness”. In 1963 he told an interviewer that in his fiction he sought to solve this “most salient vice in Latin American fiction”. His goal was to tell stories “in a direct, clear and concise way.” Two years later he started a novel now famous for its non-linear structure, using a vocabulary that seemed antiquated to Spaniards. In this he was inspired by Carpentier, who told him that in Explosion in the Cathedral he didn’t use words invented after the 18th century.

By consciously distinguishing themselves from Spanish novelists via this deliberate outdated Spanish, the matter of Realism once again comes into equation. Franco’s Spain was a hotbed of social realism because it was considered inappropriate to indulge in formalism and modernist experiments in the dictatorship: Spain needed no-nonsense realism, sparse language, sobriety, realistic stories of workers, strikes, the downtrodden and their struggles towards freedom and dignity. Because of that, noble as the Spanish novel was, it was also dull, badly written and badly evaluated abroad; curiously, although Barcelona’s editors could export Latin Americans, they couldn’t export their own novelists; since Franco had risen to power practically not a single Spanish novel had achieved global success, with the exception of Camilo José Cela’s The Family of Pascual Duarte (1942). Carlos Barral, at Seix-Barral, was fed up with social realism’s straightforward style and very much in love with Spain’s baroque language, its adjectives, long sentences, metaphors. So evidently he gave preference to those Latin Americans who were reviving this beloved past.

Santana-Acuña is sloppier when it comes to the history of the “neobaroque”, probably because he knows readers are only familiar with magical realism. However, I still learned a few new things. He shows convincingly that they inherited their concept of baroque from Faulkner, whom they considered an honorary Latin American writer. This is interesting because it refutes the idea that their continent is inherently baroque: they actually needed to import their “identity” from abroad; the idea of the baroque wasn’t naturally in their minds, which is understandable since it wasn’t in anyone’s mind that that possessed “good taste” at the time. Mind you, this wasn’t the first time: Rubén Darío also got his Góngora from the French symbolists, and then he passed him onto the Spanish poets of the Generation of ’27. In 1927, when they celebrated 300 hundred years since Góngora’s death, the Academy was virulently against them bringing back such execrated peddler of obscurity. The young poets persisted and set in motion a revolution in appraisal. In 1961 Gerardo Diego, the main organized of the celebration, was invited to attend the 400 years of Góngora’s birth in South America. Góngora had finally been rehabilitated after 200 years of darkness. Mind you, Faulkner himself was called a “a Dixie Gongorist” by a North American critic; Fuentes, who was instrumental in converting Faulkner into a baroque precursor, was still miffed about this in a 1983 interview to The Kenyon Review.

Ironically, the word “neobaroque” was coined in 1955 by a Brazilian poet, Haroldo de Campos, from the part of Latin America least associated with the Boom. Campos was hardly into “Latin-Americanism”, he was a full-blown cosmopolitan, a modernist whose complex and challenging essays mentioned avant-garde musician Pierre Boulez and whose tastes veered toward even headier things. For him “neobaroque” was not a singular feature of Latin America, it was a common feature of modern fiction; it becomes obvious from his description of it that had written his article twenty years later he would have simply called it “post-modernist”. Since he didn’t have jargon within reach he had to improvise. One of the features of post-war fiction is precisely the profusion of terms to express a shift away from conventional realism: neobaroque, nouveau roman, magical realism, the fabulators, terms that sought to express an ongoing process that no one quite understood yet what it was and where it was going, but which was undeniably going on.

A few years later, Cuban poet José Lezama Lima was worrying about how to imbue Latin America with its own identity; being an expert on Góngora, he came up with a creole identity for the continent: here was a people born from the mixed blood of Europeans, African slaves and indigenous people. Such a messy mixture seemed baroque, after all the baroque wallows in the free play between heteroclite elements, impurity, waste, deformity, excess, it has no patience for rounded, complete, classic perfection. He explained all this in La expresión americana (1959): he didn’t use the word “neobaroque”. In fact, although Santana-Acuña keeps repeating it throughout the book, he never quotes anyone from the Mafia actually using it. That makes sense because Campos’s neologism passed unnoticed in the pages of a Brazilian newspaper and was published in book form only in a 1965 anthology of concrete poetry-related texts and manifestos. By then, the main texts of the Mafia had been written and García Márquez was away in Macondo. Fuentes, Carpentier, Lima simply called it “baroque”. The word “neobaroque” was rediscovered only after the boom was over; in 1972 Severo Sarduy, unaware of Campos’ earlier usage, used it in an essay for América Latina en su Literatura. Sarduy went further than Lima, his master, and extended “neobaroque” into one of the defining features of Latin American literature since its origins, which is utter nonsense, but they needed these myths to create a sense of identity. Carpentier didn’t use it in his 1975 conference “Lo barroco y lo real meravilloso”, and I think it was never a popular term. I guess that makes sense, they couldn’t be neo- because they were claiming that their identity had always been baroque. Sure, there were thousands of realist novels they had to get rid off to convinces themselves of that, but they were baroque, don’t you doubt it, and Europeans and Americans were thankfully illiterate about those thousands of novels anyway, so it was really easy for everyone to take their word for it.

Mind you, they didn’t just reclaim 17th-century baroque, they appropriated everything from Spain’s that modern-minded Spaniards had thrown in the garbage bin: Don Quixote, picaresque novellas, chivalric romances, which is exactly where the Latin Americans went for inspiration; all the parts of their literary history that they deemed in “bad taste” was precisely what the Latin Americans built their literary identity on. Vargas Llosa once said that The Green House was based on the structure of chivalric romances, and since it’s as boring and unreadable as they are, it’s probably true. Reinaldo Arena’s lovely Hallucinations has all the elements of the picaro, but mixed with surrealist flights of fantasy, it’s one of the best-kept secrets of the Boom. García Márquez also claimed to have been inspired by chivalric romances and Don Quixote. This at a time when Gonzalo Torrente Ballester bemoaned that Spanish novelists were embarrassed about Don Quixote; GTB was already writing “magical realist” novels before they were money magnets – his came out too soon to attract money – and went on to write a seminal study of Don Quixote as a literary “game”.

If you want success, Ascent to Glory suggests, first invent a label for yourself, join a group, promote a brand. The Mafia did just that and so did their main adversaries. Here Santana-Acuña follows the textbooks when he pits the New Latin American Novel against the nouveau roman. He quotes several Mafia members disparaging it; inevitably García Márquez’s interview with Harss pops up.

The nouveau roman in fact shares many characteristics with the Mafia, but at a national scale: it was a tightknit group of novelists connected by a language, French. It was born from post-war aspirations to halt the “death of the novel” by doing away with realism which was causing the doing-in. Its members met each other, defended, praised each other, traveled together, formed a front against detractors. They were loud enough to give the impression that they were a powerful movement with international appeal. Robbe-Grillet, Butor, Sarraute were sweeping awards in France, scandals with disgusted jurymen were making them martyrs and also bestsellers. Although many Frenchmen couldn’t stand the nouveau roman, there was something prestigious about post-war France, in spite of the invasion and the destruction, still having the power to launch an avant-garde movement. Whereas Latin America was struggling to get inside the international arena, France was struggling not to lose its power as global tastemaker. The nouveaux romanciers attracted attention quickly, went to international symposia together. In the I Coloquio Internacional sobre Novela (1959), held at Formentor, Robbe-Grillet was invited to a panel to debate whether or not it was necessary to get rid of realism to save the novel. Obviously he thought it necessary. In order to spread their Gospel, they did just what the Mafia did: they published in international magazines, toured the world giving lectures about the “new novel”, published landmark essays like The Age of Suspicion (1956) and Towards a New Novel (1963). Monegal criticized Robbe-Grillet “for the tenacity with which the author manages his propaganda”, which is comical coming from one of the most diligent cheerleaders the New Latin American Novel then had. In no time nouveau romanciers seemed like the hottest thing from Europe and signaled the future; Portugal and Spain, trying to modernize their novels hampered by social realism, looked up to them and tirelessly imitated them. However, in Italy, the UK, the USA and even France they weren’t beloved by peers and public.

Nevertheless, history isn’t shaped by facts but by perception. In August 1963, the Soviet Writer’s Unions invited Western novelists to attend a symposium in Leningrad to discuss “the novel and realism”: the invitees were mostly proponents of the nouveau roman: Robbe-Grillet, Sarraute, and Butor, who unable to attend ended up replaced by Bernard Pingaud, author of the “The School of Refusal” (1959), one of the earliest essays on the nouveau roman. That means that by 1963 even the Russians equated “Western novel” with “nouveau roman”. Think about the implications of that for a moment. For the Latin Americans, there was no European novel outside the nouveau roman. Never mind the simultaneous activity of Raymond Queneau, Torrente Ballester, Tomaz de Figueiredo, Anthony Burgess, Carlo Emilio Gadda, Calvino, Giorgio Manganelli, just to name those that for me mixed modernism, anti-realism, excellence and fun. Likewise they knew nothing about John Barth, John Hawkes, William H. Gass, Robert Coover, Stanley Elkin, Nabokov obviously. Fuentes in his interviews only acknowledges the likes of William Styron and Norman Mailer, respectable second rates. But as Santana-Acuña inadvertently shows, the Mafia, for all their cosmopolitanism, were comically ignorant of newer names, they had not progressed past the idolatry of Joyce and Kafka, Hemingway and Faulkner. These two happened to die in 1961 and 1962 respectively, which gave their fans the impression that American literature had gone to the grave with them, and even the Americans thought so: Hugh Kenner once called Faulkner “the last novelist”, he also didn’t cotton much to Nabokov and Pynchon. These recent deaths helped strengthen the gloomy presentiment that the novel was dead. Let’s not judge Latin Americans too harshly; even most Americans, being as mathematically dumb as they can always be trusted to be, have nowadays no idea who Gass, Hawkes, Coover, Elkin are.

If the Mafia looked at Europe, they didn’t see A Clockwork Orange, better written than most Boom novels, or GTB’s Don Juan (1962), or Tomaz de Figueiredo’s Dom Tanas de Barbatanas (1962-64), more baroque than anything that ever came out of the Boom, or even the Cosmicomics, Zazie in the Metro (which influenced Three Trapped Tigers, Cabrera Infante dixit), The Magic Toyshop. What the Latin Americans saw, and they were mainly looking at Europe since although their entrance into the big wide world was via Barcelona, the destination was always Paris, still the world’s cultural capital and the tastemaker; what they say was the nouveau roman, a well-organized group with a clear program for the novel, editorial muscle, international renown, disciples in multiple countries – a minuscule output of the European novel, but awfully vociferous; one of the benefits of living in the age of social networks is that now we understand better how a handful of nobodies can shout loud enough to make it look like they’re legion. So the nouveau roman had a label; and the Latin Americans had a label too. Thus the history of the novel in the 1960s is framed as the battle between two labels for control of the novel. Those who didn’t belong to a label, Burgess, Calvino, Queneau, Tomaz, stayed in the outskirts of the war, crafting excellent novels without applying cockamamie theories, but being left out of this confrontation of international proportions. I’m belaboring this point because Santana-Acuña pays lip service to the inane legend that the global novel was slowly bleeding to death, losing vitality, sort of stagnated in realism, until the super-duper Latin Americans showed up and showed everyone how to save it from some specter thanks to galleons rotting in the jungle, sleep diseases and never-ending rain. It’s a funny fantasy.

I’m not drifting away from Santana-Acuña’s study; sadly he didn’t tell this part of the story very well. Why was One Hundred Years of Solitude so well received? Because he’s a sociologist he mostly provides materialistic explanations: shameless networking, chronic cronyism, mind-melting mass marketing, fabricated glowing reviews in advance. That explains part of it. But he ignores a simpler, less quantifiable, more ethereal explanation: readers were fed up with dull nouveau roman novels in which nothing happens and wanted passports to fantasy again. It’s not hard to wrap your head around the fact that between the paper-gizmos churned out by Robbe-Grillet, Sarraute, Claude Simon, Butor, or the straightforward, dreamy, dumb rollercoaster fun that is One Hundred Years of Solitude, anyone will prefer the latter. The growing ebullience over the New Latin American Novel which culminated in the hysterical, hyperbolic canonization of an entertaining but ordinary novel mostly stemmed from the relief people felt at having decent things to read again. It’s hard to ascertain who needed it the most: One Hundred Years of Solitude provided a layman with the same pulpy thrills as sci-fi or a fantasy novel without the social stigma then attached to these genres; but it also allowed sophisticates to indulge in pleasures forbidden in avant-garde circles without looking like they were betraying their class. In fact, I’d wager that One Hundred Years of Solitude did more for those sophisticates than for the layman who doesn’t care what people think of his reading habits. It was the intellectual who needed it; it was he who had pushed the novel so far into elitism for a few, who forced the divergence between art and trash. Decades before they had smeared plot as a childish remnant of a barbaric past that the novel needed to get rid of in order to achieve adulthood. Well, when they got what they craved and fathomed a possible where they’d have nothing to read but what Ulysseses, they recoiled in fear. It’s not surprising that France had a major role in promoting the New Latin American Novel, that several of its intellectuals were behind it. By the 1980s they were relieved at the “retour du récit”, the return of plot. They were the ones who had more to lose.

Nowadays it’s hard to reconstruct what I’m getting at, so many barriers and hierarchies have tumbled down since then that it’s not easy to appreciate what was the mindscape of people who wanted to belong to the avant-garde. Trying to explain the weird beliefs that propelled thinkers like Roland Barthes is a bit like trying to communicate with an alien life form. Many sophisticated Frenchmen truly believed that in the future, now, we would all be reading nouveau roman novels, they were genuinely convinced that human beings had evolved to such a point of intellectual maturity that they were anxious to get past the infantility of reading for the “story”, to know “what’s going to happen next”, that have “characters” who want to “achieve things”. I’m not making this up. We just need to peruse Lucien Goldmann, a Marxist sociologist who was a big deal in the 1960s. Goldmann believed that the modern novel in that current phase of capitalism had to abolish character because capitalism itself had abolished individuality. The nouveau roman was just a better representation of reality than those outdated novels that insisted in that bourgeois ideologically-charged social construct called the “individual”. Let me quote a lengthy but lucent passage from Cultural Creation in Modern Society (1971):

   One of the best-known studies of Robbe-Grillet has been published by an American professor. In this extremely intelligent, penetrating study he has demonstrated that each of this author’s narratives contains a narrated story which, with some ability to follow the text very closely, can be extracted; and that in certain respects this story ultimately resembles those narrated in the novels of the liberal capitalist era. From this he concludes that Robbe-Grillet’s originality lies primarily in the fact that his way of narrating the story is different from that of earlier writers.

   In the course of a long discussion with this critic I tried to maintain that if a writer narrates things differently it is because things themselves have become essentially different, and therefore he can no longer say them in the accepted way. The discussion ended with the analysis of a passage from Jealousy: “The light, rubber-soled shoes make no sound on the hallway tiles.”  The critic says, “Clearly, this involves a jealous man who walks very softly so as not to make noise and surprise his wife.” I replied, “Perhaps what is essential is simply that Robbe-Grillet wrote not ‘a man walks very softly’ but instead ‘the light… shoes… make no sound,’ probably because what was essential was the fact that in today’s world the shoes carry the man: the motor of events is no longer man but inert objects.”

   The reply, of course, was, “This is no doubt an amusing, ingenious witticism, but nevertheless a witticism.” Then I asked my interlocutor to choose between two statements which I would present and tell me which he found more accurate, understanding that the answer to the problem at issue would depend on this choice. One could say that every year between July and August some millions-of people in advanced industrial countries take vacations, carrying cameras and taking photographs which they then show to their friends and family. Or one could say that every year, in rarely explicit, usually implicit accord with certain travel agencies, the boards of directors of Kodak and the major camera firms decide to produce a certain number of cameras which will travel around the world, while a certain number of other cameras sold in previous years will remain in circulation. These decisions once made, the cameras set out on their travels with a corresponding number of people to operate them. Which of these formulations gives the best account of the phenomenon’s essential reality?

   Any serious sociologist, I think, will choose the second.


I could just as easily have quoted equally inhuman passages from Barthes, Robbe-Grillet, Foucault, Pingaud. Since we still read about people and not shoes, since most popular and best novels of the last decades have been about men and women, their hopes and dreams and ambitions, and what they do to achieve them and the obstacles in their way, like most novels since Chariton, it’s pretty obvious that this was just galimatias, gibberish, gobbledygook. Nowadays I stare and gape at such nonsense and wonder how intelligent people ever truly believed that humans would one day want to read novels about shoes instead of themselves. Thankfully we are immature, infantile little creatures who just want to read about a beauty flying up to the sky, and a young baron living in trees, and little Alex doing the ultra-violence, and Indian kids who get magical powers, and murders committed in a 14th-century Benedictine monastery. The real mystery isn’t why One Hundred Years of Solitude was a big hit, it’s what went wrong with the minds of perceptive cultural critics (“any serious sociologist”) that they strongly believed that we could raise about this wonderful imperfection and attain such a level of abstract dullness to the point of finding emotional and intellectual succor in shoe stories.

The nouveau roman program has long since faded into oblivion, but it was very popular in the 1960s. The funniest thing is that Robbe-Grillet engineered his human-less novels precisely to countermand the tendency to reduce novels to political readings, in order to stress his autonomy from most French novelists affiliated with the French Communist Party. But you can always trust wily communists to find a way to sneak ideology into anything that pretends to remain pure of worldly affairs. It didn’t take long for culture critics to saturate theories of the novel with Marxist jargon about superstructures, commodification, production. Many defenders of the nouveau roman were associated with some form of communism: Barthes, Goldmann, Jean Ricardou, Phillipe Sollers and the other Maoists from the Tel Quel magazine. French Marxists desperately wanted to believe that bourgeois society was on the verge of collapse and nothing reassured them as much as the novel’s signs of putrescence: if novels were an invention of bourgeois society to admire itself, these changes in the human behavior and representation meant something profound beyond mere aesthetics – it portended that the bourgeoisie was itself in crisis. Not really, it just meant that a handful of novelists didn’t like to use characters.

Communists had a change of heart in the 1950s regarding the avant-garde: previously they had hounded modernists, but suddenly they realized that using the 19th-century bourgeois novel to destroy the bourgeoisie was a contresens. Obviously, if you wanted to affront the bourgeoisie you had to assault its certainties about the novel, stall the plot, eviscerate the character, etc., until you were left with a soulless shell of shit. I’m not into the “death of the novel” nonsense that was going on in the 1960s, I’m too well read to believe in that moronic fairy-tale, but I have no doubts that the French novel gleefully committed suicide when other nations were helping create the greatest age of the novel ever. More than half a century later, it still hasn’t recovered from the damage. Its best living novelist is just Michel Houellebecq.

The Latin Americans triumphed because their overall project refuted the nouveau roman. “Magical realism” and “neobaroque” are like custom-made inversions. Robbe-Grillet and Sarraute were no less realists than the conventional realists they opposed; they abhorred fantasy the same way they abhorred anything that gave novel life and movement. John Barth, mocking the French in 1965, got that very clearly: “From what I know of Robbe-Grillet and his pals, their aesthetic is finally a more up-to-date kind of psychological realism: a higher fi to human consciousness and unconsciousness. Well, that's nice. A different way to come to terms with the discrepancy between art and the Real Thing is to affirm the artificial element in art (you can't get rid of it anyhow), and make the artifice part of your point instead of working for higher and higher fi with a lot of literary woofers and tweeters. That would be my way. Scheherazade's my avant-gardiste.” In the same way the Latin Americans were looking back to Don Quixote, chivalric romances, Barth was looking back at Scheherazade, storyteller supreme. As for the neobaroque, anyone who has read a nouveau roman will notice that the language is invisible; even Hemingway seems Melvillian by comparison. Sarraute denigrated “formalists” in The Age of Suspicion, whereas Robbe-Grillet preached the excision of metaphors, precisely one of the main components of 17th-century Spanish baroque. His buddy Barthes concocted and preached a silly theory of minimalism called “writing degree zero”. Once again, the label-less were not oblivious to this: Burgess, Nabokov, Gass, Tomaz crafted prose rich in metaphors, neologisms, alliteration, archaisms, palindromes, paronomasias, inner rhymes, puns.

García Márquez, while he was busy with his new novel, stated in a 1965 interview that he was going to eschew the realism he had used up to then. “For me, this is a liberation, after four books repressed by the chastity belt of rigor and the poor reality of notaries.” In this new novel, he promised, everything was going to be “Pantagruelic”. Here’s a synchronicity for you apophenics out there: Barth also gave an interview in 1965: “The people who get upset, I think, by the fact that so many of the writers and poets teach school nowadays, are people from the '30s, when you were supposed to go around the country and get dusty and sleep in haystacks. You couldn't write Kafka's novels that way. A man who spends his time hoping physical freighters - never mind spiritual ones - may write The Grapes of Wrath, but he isn't going to write The Castle, and he's not going to write The Magic Mountain, and he is not likely to write Finnegans Wake. I'll take those over U.S.A. or Tropic of Capricorn. A university-type might not write The Naked Lunch, and I'm glad there are people like Burroughs to take the dope and all so I don't have to do it; on the other hand, I might write Gargantua and Pantagruel, and I'd settle for that.” The difference between them is that Barth by 1965 had already written a Pantagruelic novel: The Sot-Weed Factor. He wasn’t exceptional for that, many were doing riffs on Rabelais and Cervantes. Opposing “refusal” was what Barth later called “replenishment”. Whereas the nouveaux romanciers manufactured novels that divested themselves of character, space, time, dialogue, plot, life, fun, style, and fanatically militated against the genre’s rich history, others wanted to put everything back in the novel. Calvino said that The Baron in the Trees was a Don Quixote of the Enlightenment. GTB brought an immortal Don Juan to 20th-century Paris. Burgess was mixing science fiction with literary ambitions and social commentary in a remarkable way. Dom Tanas de Barbatanas is a Rabelaisian novel full of that grotesque realism that Bakhtin would only write about three years later.

Not all Frenchmen were elated at this mass suicide; Aragon and Céline despised the nouveau roman. Sartre, who had given up novels, thought that it alienated novelists from their duties toward the Revolution. But its most important opponent was a figure Santana-Acuña mentions here and there: Roger Caillois. Caillois worked for the UNESCO at its Latin American cultural section, had lived in Latin America. He was a fan of Borges, knew the region and its literature well. He worked at Gallimard where he created an important collection, “La Croix du Sud”, which since 1952 had been translating Latin Americans into French. Since Borges was part of this collection and Gallimard was one of the publishers that subsidized the International Literature Prize, Caillois probably had a hand in maneuvering the French delegation into proposing him for the prize that he shared with Beckett in 1961. Legend has it he tried to get Guimarães Rosa this prize too. So he was obviously a man of exquisite taste. Caillois had attended the 1963 Leningrad symposium, and he was no fan of the nouveau roman. Caillois’ famous prediction is quoted in the book: “Latin American literature will be the great literature of tomorrow, as Russian literature was the great literature at the end of the last century, the literature of North America that of the years 25-40, now it is the time for Latin American literature. It is the one called to give us the masterpieces that we expect.”

What was expected, though, Santana-Acuña doesn’t quite explain. In Portugal the Latin Americans arrived via France. In 1971 a Portuguese student living in Paris, interested in this new trend, interviewed Caillois for the Diário de Lisboa. Caillois didn’t mince words: the nouveau roman was dead, there was an excess of realism, fantasy was necessary to restore balance and rejuvenate the novel; the novel was evidently in crisis in Europe and the USA, and they had much to learn from the Latin Americans. For him the problem with European avant-garde is that it had degenerated into inhuman formalism, whereas those who didn't abide by the avant-garde stuck to outdated social realism, again equating avant-garde with nouveau roman: “Why, in Latin America happened precisely the opposite: social problems provoked an aesthetic explosion in which realism and magic seem the same.” The Latin Americans, he argued, could make readers look at the world with awe again. The Latin American continent itself, its gigantic mass, seemed like an invitation to think above everyday drab reality: “It fills us with a sort of feeling of cosmic generosity.” This is what was expected: novels that reconnected readers with the world, that used fantasy and myth, that weren’t realist but maintained a responsibility toward society, that had a point of view, that transmitted joy over life. The European reader, in his view, had long suffered from being denied fantasy and was fumbling in the dark back toward imagination, not quite knowing how to get there. The guide, of course, would the Latin Americans. They themselves popularized the imagine of poor Europeans amputated from imagination. Vargas Llosa stated in “Primitives and Creators” (The Times Literary Supplement, November 14, 1968) that the North American and European novel “agonizes between hermetic formalist acrobatics and a monotonous conformity to tradition”, bold words from the novelist who had written the decent but nothing special realist novel The Time of the Hero. This, by the way, is utter nonsense. Spanish censors thought Three Trapped Tigers was a Latin American version of the nouveau roman, which kind of makes sense now that I think about it. The Italian press called Sarduy’s Gestes a mixture of nouveau roman and cha-cha-cha, which sounds groovy. Fuentes’ awful A Change of Skin, with its multiple narrators, temporal shifts, and stream of consciousness, remembers Sarraute’s Planetarium and Claude Mauriac’s Le Dîner en ville (1959), an odious, obstreperous new low for the nouveau roman. Cortázar’s dull Hopscotch, with its multiple order of chapters, was just a less radical variation of an experiment Frenchman Marc Saporta had done with Composition No.1 (1961), a spineless book in which leaves can be rearranged in whatever order the reader wants. This kind of stuff was popular after 1945. Campos tried to do it in a book called Galáxias, but was talked out of it by Guimarães Rosa; B.S. Johnson wrote a “book in a box”, The Unfortunates (1969). It’s simplistic to split both sides as if they didn’t overlap. After all, they were all self-conscious modernists first and foremost at odds with 19th-century realism, and there are only so many ways of rejecting it without looking like one of the other 100 guys around you rejecting it too. What mattered were the results of those techniques.

Then Miguel Angel Asturias wrote in Latinoamérica y otros ensayos (1968) stuff like: “Europeans go to the library, to the anthropological or sociological study, to the movies, but that lessens their imagination. The Europeans have lost their capacity for fabulation, however the novel is, above all, fable.” This is funny because the previous year Robert Scholes had written a book called The Fabulators in which he analyzed a trend in European and American novelists who emphasized pleasure in storytelling and applied myths: his list included John Barth, Lawrence Durrell, John Hawkes, Kurt Vonnegut, Terry Southern, Iris Murdoch. It’s a very American- and Anglo-centric list; he conceded he could have added William Golding (who wrote a novel from the POV of Neanderthals; show me a Latin American that did that), Burgess, Amis Kingsley, and Nabokov. “There are, in fact, too many to deal with in a single book.” He could of course have added other North Americans and Europeans. His book is interesting because Scholes also sets up the Fabulators against the nouveau roman, particularly Robbe-Grillet’s attempt to “dehumanize” language “by eliminating his metaphors, which he sees as the most pervasive and insidious way that language insists on humanizing everything that it represents. But this cannot solve the problem, because all language is a human product and thus must humanize all it touches.” The writer “willing to accept the word as his medium” must then “move away from the pseudo-objectivity of realism toward a romance or an irony which will exploit language’s distinctively human perspective on life.” Scholes keeps coming back to this: life, humanism, imagination. He’s like a child giddy at the unwrapping of Christmas gifts: “My love for fabulation has its roots in the reading I first learned to like. The reading I liked best as a boy was the most imaginative I could find.” Those were Greek myths, fables, then historical novels, detective novels, all trashy genres by the 1960s. Then he grew up and realized that pursuing a teaching job while admitting to such pablum was a bad idea if he wanted to keep his job. “From then until now I have been reading, finding writers like Conrad and Faulkner to revere and others like Joyce and Proust to admire. But it seems to me now that all these years I have been waiting for something for my own kind of writer to come along. Now, I recognize in the writers I have called fabulators the proper grown-up fare for such a boy as I was. And I am most grateful.”

When we take into consideration this strain of fiction, the words of Fuentes that their literature was “truly revolutionary” because it put myths at the center of their works, is just one more dumb statement I a long time got used to expecting from him. What it proves is that they were not very good at paying attention at the best fiction being done in Europe and North America. The first reviewers of The Sot-Weed Factor wondered if Barth was familiar with Lord Raglan’s “The Hero” archetype; he wasn’t. The poor Latin Americans spent so much energy loathing the nouveau roman they missed out on the joy of Nothing like the Sun and Pale Fire. What a masochistic way of wasting your time.

Curiously, one of the fabulators was Durrell, who was then popular because of The Alexandria Quartet, a novel very much like One Hundred Years of Solitude, mixing softened modernist techniques of multiple POV and temporal disruptions with a melodramatic love story written in overwrought prose. Burgess comically said that it “melts into a romantic wash a little too close to the old lending-library sadistic- sentimental exotic escapism beloved of the dreaming shop-girl.” Likewise he wasn’t impressed with García Márquez, arguing that the “imputation of greatness has more to do with content--especially when it is social or political-- than with aesthetic values. One Hundred Years of Solitude, a book which impressed me rather less than it seems to have impressed others, has undoubted power, but its power is nothing compared with the genuinely literary explorations of men like Borges and Nabokov.” The thing is that people were sick of literary explorations; they wanted precisely populist, easy-going, enjoyable humanist fiction.

The Latin Americans were operating in South America, North America (Donoso advised a US publisher to publish Hopscotch), Vargas Llosa’s London, Barcelona, home of the Spanish publishers and agent Carmen Balcells, and Paris, the destination of most political exiles, expats, and the where the Mundo Nuevo’s officers were. They were united by a language, Spanish, spoken in a whole continent and beyond. The French could only replicate the structure within tiny France; unfortunately the linguistic variety in Europe could never allow Grass, Burgess, Calvino, Queneau, Tomaz, GTB to come together to promote the “New European Novel”. But what would the New European Novel be if nothing but the Expected European Novel? The civilized world expects Europeans and North Americans to deliver nothing but excellent novels, that’s what they’ve been doing for centuries now. A Clockwork Orange is a great novel, but it’s just one more great novel next to Great Expectations, Tristram Shandy, Ulysses, Mrs. Dalloway. Santana-Acuña sort of misses that it was also exoticism that lit the fuse that went Boom. In the 1960s left-wing intellectuals deposited their hopes for a socialist utopia in the periphery. The Cuban Revolution had just happened, which put the continent under a romanticism-tinged spotlight, an aura of rebellion that appealed to intellectuals anxious to see the bourgeoisie replaced by socialist utopias. Latin America became a major player in geopolitics between the Americans and Russians. The world wanted to understand it, and the easiest and quickest way was to read its fiction. The Ford Foundation and the Rockefeller Foundation supported it with grants, fellowships, aid to translators. The timing was perfect because from the periphery good novels were coming out by Chinua Achebe and V. S. Naipaul, perplexing the Metropolis with their sophistication. Latin America was no exception: Pedro Páramo, Conversation in the Cathedral, One Hundred Years of Solitude, Baroque Concert, are as good as anything from the center, and actually better than many overrated Western “classics”. Thus readers of the New Latin American Novel were also involved in a historic event, a transcendental moment in history when a region of the planet known mostly for tangos, parrots and caudillos suddenly achieved maturity.

Santana-Acuña shows, more than how a novel becomes a global classic, that if you want to conquer the world you must first of all invent a label, join a group. If you invent a label, then you can fill it up with lots of claims, it’s irrelevant if true or false; then you keep foisting them on others until they’ve been brainwashed past any resistance and kind of just uncritically accept the message inside the label. I couldn’t help noticing that Santana-Acuña shies away from qualitative judgements; as a sociologist he doesn’t dare emit an opinion about whether the books he’s talking are good or not. It’s even likely that he accepts at face value the spiel that’s been drilled into his head by the admirable bibliography he had to read. That’s the impression I had when he discusses one of the “counterfactuals”, the five books he thinks could have occupied One Hundred Years of Solitude’s spot but didn’t for several vicissitudes. I’ve only read one of them, but I was left wondering if we had read the same novel at all. According to him José Lezama Lima’s Paradiso (1966) is one of the many fabulous neobaroque novels growing across Latin America as ostentatiously as ceiba trees. He praises its “innovative language and narrative style”. Its glory, however, is what prevented it from being “consumed by mass readers”. To illustrate his point he quotes the following passage: “The Colonel’s worktables: he was also an engineer, a fact which bred in his soldiers – as they raptly watched him cover blackboards with coastal-artillery problems – the same devotion that might have been shown a Coptic priest or an Assyrian huntsman-king.” If this isn’t brainwashing, I don’t know what to call it. This morsel of journalese hostile to mass readers? A simple, orderly sentence? Mind you, the rest of the novel is just as journalistic. And yet perceptive reviewers read it at the time and saw something else. A jubilant Edmund White wrote for The New York Times: “There is scarcely a line in the entire narrative that could be mistaken for anyone else's writing—or for prose in any familiar sense of that word.” Really? Well, let me have a shot at it, I’ll stick just to the first pages of the English edition:

“Baldovina's hand separated the edges of the mosquito netting and felt around, squeezing softly as if a sponge were there and not a five-year-old boy.”

“Baldovina was desperate, disheveled.”

“To assuage her terrified urge to run away, she pretended to search for the servant couple at the other end of the house.”

“Very slowly, they advised her to rub him with alcohol, since he must have been bitten by an ant lion while playing in the garden.”

“After those rooms, the toilets, followed by two other side rooms.”

This one could have come from Hemingway, and given their obsession with him, who knows if Lima didn't nick it from him: “The manservant and his wife greeted her arrival with carefree surprise.” Here's one that's genuinely good: “The house, in spite of its sumptuousness, had been built with the linear unimaginativeness of a fisherman’s shanty.” “Linear unimaginativeness” is a lovely finding of a phrase; sadly it’s the novel’s main problem too. If this garbage is innovative and daring, I wonder what they’d make of Paul West’s first paragraph of Bela Lugosi’s White Christmas (1972):


‘Upchuck,’ yells AJ. ‘What speed I couldn’t tell, except it’s like how Satan would be after two thousand million years of going without his greens, misering his sperms, and then one day out with his weapon big as a spaceship with a pearly warhead and working himself off both-handed. Floom, swoosh, it pours out, red-white-hot big flying rocks of come from out his balls underground and up the chute with a roar like that bomb at Hiroshima. Except it isn’t just one weapon, it’s millions of them jabbing up above ground wherever you look and shooting high into the newly manufactured sky as if millions of jets have written con trails in milk, all curling and twining into one another, and then down it comes, the debris heavy as the world itself, the sperms big as elephants and buses, denting terra firma, blasting its chin and cheekbones off and melting everything in sight. The land’s bubbling, there’s steam everywhere, and those who don’t get their heads smashed in by what’s falling out of the sky will have their feet burned off by what’s flooding the ground. Except there’s nobody here to see it at all. Just as well. If I’d been that Lord Byron, I’d have had a private jet full of king-size beds, and then at six hundred miles an hour I’d be going at it night and day back and forth across the Atlantic, nonstop, or just from London to Baghdad and back, with a special stock of vitamin spills in the bomb bay and oysters by the million… Nonstop forever. That’s how to keep the roses in your cheeks. It’s a doddle once you’ve learned how.”


The syntax is more serpentine, the vocabulary is more varied. Just the phrase “misering his sperms” alone provides a more surprising combination of words than Lima's whole dull novel does. West doesn’t bother to set scene or explain what’s going on. Who is AJ? Where is he? Why is he so verbose? Why is he cunt-crazier than Alex Portnoy? If the reader can put up with this outrageous wall of words, he can begin to learn the answers. Paradiso, by turn, opens like any traditional novel, setting a scene, introducing the cast of characters, describing them physically, showing them going about their routines. Is there a novel set in the tropics that doesn’t show someone putting a hand through a mosquito net? That’s Lima’s gift, whatever he touches turns into cliché. Ah, look, Baldovina’s disheveled and desperate! By golly, who remembered to use those two epithets in a row to describe a character before him?! Can’t you just feel she’s a deep, rounded character with a teeming inner life? How could this sand grain of a novel pose any threat to mass readers? I’m still looking for Mr. White’s glowing review to Bela Lugosi’s White Christmas, him being such a degustador of refined prose and all. Ah, but you see, that’s the moral of the book: be label-less at your own peril! Lezama Lima can’t complain, his status inside and outside Cuba is pretty solid. Most American readers have never even read a Paul West novel, let alone heard of him.

Now that we have a good exposé of how One Hundred Years of Solitude became a global classic thanks to astute cronyism and shameless marketing, perhaps one day we can have a book explaining what went spastic with people like White, what MKUltra program made reviewers transform ordinary novels into otherworldly objects. At one point I started getting the same vibes I got from Frances Stonor Saunders’s The Cultural Cold War: The CIA and the World of Arts and Letters, about how the CIA interfered with popular tastes in order to promote painting, music, literature with a pro-American-way-of-life slant, that promoted liberal, capitalist values, or simply avoided political meaning at all in a real-art-shouldn’t-debase-itself-with-such-petty-things sort of way. I don’t see any difference between Fuentes’ Mafia and the CIA. It’ll be decades before anyone can undo the mess the Mafia’s marketing did, hyperinflating the quality of novels that ranged from so-so to pretty good, with one or two exceptional masterpieces. Most of the Boom, at the end of day, doesn’t live up to its hype. I don’t contest it has good novels, it’s just that all the hype has not yet convinced me that its exponents surpassed what most Europeans and North Americans were doing at the same time. Believing that is essential to maintaining the Boom’s mythical status; that’s nice, but I never did like Kool-Aid.

Besides Santana-Acuña’s fear of stepping outside popular opinion, his sociology hits the same metaphysical wall all sociology sooner or later hits. He can explain the forces of marketing really well, but he can’t explain how García Márquez went from that “shitty novella” to such an inventive, human, comical, poetic novel. He tries to demonstrate that he received feedback from readers, writers, critics, who helped him hone his skills and turn him into the writer we love; but the Mafia was providing similar help to all its members and no one else but García Márquez wrote a novel of this magnitude. As much as sociologists try to do away with the muse, the unconscious, “talent”, “inspiration”, “creativity”, “Jesus the imagination” or the atheistic “imagination”, the truth is that the creative process can’t be reduced to an outcome of social networking. He can explain why a novel becomes better known than others; and I’m glad he doesn’t deliver the usual palaver that quality always comes to the top if you just wait long enough. Even better, he doesn’t believe in that sham category “universality” to explain why books have mass appeal. However, he can’t explain why I consider Ada or Ardor vastly superior to One Hundred Years of Solitude. All the Mafia’s marketing can’t override my personal aesthetic beliefs. Something at the core of our being can always sense the bullshit and refuse to play. I’m reminded of Wendel Potter’s uplifting message at the end of Deadly Spin: marketing companies spend billions to make us do or buy things against our will; that is a testament to human resistance, since so much money spent means we’re not easily pushed around. What a gloomy world it would be if people couldn’t build mental defenses against the loudspeaker shouting that Cortázar, Fuentes and Lezama Lima are actually amazing novelists.