Tuesday, February 24, 2009

From Franco Moretti, "The Novel: History and Theory"

I don't know how many of you have access to the New Left Review, but this essay by Franco Moretti (from July-Aug 2008) is teeming with really productive lines of potential inquiry. It is also a highly succinct (and I think charismatic) introduction-by-example to the kinds of literary work he thinks scholars should undertake.

Moretti tosses out three questions which he will consider briefly in the essay: "Why are novels in prose; Why are they so often stories of adventures; and, Why was there a European, but not a Chinese rise of the novel in the course of the eighteenth century." The first question is dispatched creatively: unlike verse, which renders a persistent sense of symmetry, prose's asymmetry produces a sense of irreversibility which allows for (or restricts the form to) narrativity: "the text has an orientation, it leans forwards" and thus it relies on what comes next—in the order of the sentence as well as the plot. (This is a curiously syntactically non-specific assumption—does Moretti assume it is equally true for SOV languages or other syntaxes?) At any rate, Moretti adds another, more ingenious observation:
But there is a second possible starting point, which leads, not towards narrativity, but towards complexity. It’s a point often made by studies of dérimage, the thirteenth-century prosification of courtly romances which was one of the great moments of decision, so to speak, between verse and prose, and where one thing that kept happening, in the transfer from one into the other, was that the number of subordinate clauses—increased. Which makes sense, a line of verse can to a certain extent stand alone, and so it encourages independent clauses; prose is continuous, it’s more of a construction, I don’t think it’s an accident that the myth of ‘inspiration’ is so seldom evoked for prose: inspiration is too instantaneous to make sense there, too much like a gift; and prose is not a gift; it’s work: ‘productivity of the spirit’, Lukács called it in the Theory of the Novel, and it’s the right expression: hypotaxis is not only laborious—it requires foresight, memory, adequation of means to ends—but truly productive: the outcome is more than the sum of its parts, because subordination establishes a hierarchy among clauses, meaning becomes articulated, aspects emerge that didn’t exist before… That’s how complexity comes into being.
Moretti goes on to describe the history of the (European) novel as a conflict of these two properties of prose—its orientation to narrativity, its capaciousness for complexity. The two roads have diverged progressively, but the critical valuation of the latter term has produced a sort of parallax of understanding whereby it appears that the developments and reinventions of complexity are the historical markers of the novel's development. No, Moretti says, if the novel is a "form divided between narrativity and complexity, [it is a form] with narrativity dominating its history, and complexity its theory."

He goes on, "I understand why someone would rather study sentence structure in The Ambassadors than in its contemporary Dashing Diamond Dick. The problem is not the value judgment, it’s that when a value judgment becomes the basis for concepts, then it doesn’t just determine what is valued or not, but what is thinkable or not, and in this case, what becomes unthinkable is, first, the vast majority of the novelistic field, and, second, its very shape… Taking the style of dime novels as the basic object of study, and explaining James’s as an unlikely by-product: that’s how a theory of prose should proceed—because that’s how history has proceeded." There is an interesting slippage here between "history of the novel" or "theory of the novel" (or their combination), formulations which Moretti hews pretty consistently to, and "theory of prose." Many critics of James Wood have underlined his casual inconsistencies in using "fiction" and "novel" as opportunistic synonyms (I tend to think the slippage is due to Wood's colossal disappointment that Chekhov never wrote a novel), and I hope this is not the seed of a similarly damaging lack of rigor in Moretti. A more precise formulation would have been "theory of prose in the novel," but maybe I'm just being pedantic and everyone understands that Moretti naturally implied that delimiter.

Moretti's ideas of what should constitute literary study are, as any cultural materialist would be quick to point out, enabled, produced, and governed by a change in the means of scholarly production: we now have massive digitized databanks of novels which can be queried to produce all kinds of quantitative answers, to resolve chronological issues (primacy of a construction or neologism, for instance), or to create models of the morphologies of various stylistic elements. Moretti charmingly calls this approach "too interesting not to give it a try." (Could the same be said about another generic monograph on Henry James?)

Moretti toys a little with the other two questions before closing with an extremely provocative thought which provides both an offhand answer to the second question he asked (why are so many novels about adventures) and a glimpse of what he's working on:
I have been often surprised by how limited the diffusion of bourgeois values seems to have actually been. Capitalism has spread everywhere, no doubt about that, but the values which—according to Marx, Weber, Simmel, Sombart, Freud, Schumpeter, Hirschmann . . . —are supposed to be most congruous with it have not, and this has made me look at the novel with different eyes: no longer as the ‘natural’ form of bourgeois modernity, but rather as that through which the pre-modern imaginary continues to pervade the capitalist world. Whence, adventure. The anti-type of the spirit of modern capitalism, for The Protestant Ethic; a slap in the face of realism, as Auerbach saw so clearly in Mimesis. What is adventure doing in the modern world? Margaret Cohen, from whom I have learned a lot on this, sees it as a trope of expansion: capitalism on the offensive, planetary, crossing the oceans. I think she is right, and would only add that the reason adventure works so well within this context is that it’s so good at imagining war. Enamoured of physical strength, which it moralizes as the rescue of the weak from all sorts of abuses, adventure is the perfect blend of might and right to accompany capitalist expansions… In finding distortion after distortion of core bourgeois values [including those created by adventure narratives], my first reaction was always to wonder at the loss of class identity that this entailed; which is true, but, from another perspective, completely irrelevant, because hegemony doesn’t need purity—it needs plasticity, camouflage, collusion between the old and the new. Under this different constellation, the novel returns to be central to our understanding of modernity: not despite, but because of its pre-modern traits, which are not archaic residues, but functional articulations of ideological needs. To decipher the geological strata of consensus in the capitalist world—here is a worthy challenge, for the history and the theory of the novel.
The articulation of hegemony is particularly interesting to me, although it seems that Moretti has dropped the "complexity" strand of the novel and is here quarrying simply the narrativity line. How does the complexity allowed by prose act as a vector of "pre-modern traits [which serve as] functional articulations of ideological needs" in later societies? The article is quite brief, so it's not like Moretti was going to address all concerns, but I hope this question does get answered in his eventual book.

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