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.
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. “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)