Thoughts on the Novel

Cross-posted from The Valve thread, “Kill One, Save Five”

I just want to add that I’m uncomfortable with the word “emotion” as it’s used in this thread. Novels are more, fundamentally more, than “emotional gyms.” (And morality may well be hardwired in our brains to be primary to emotion, to an extent, as well.) If we want to broaden the word from emotion to say “impulse,” it seems to me that novels are still far more than “impulse gyms.” They have to be if they are to reveal “the full human person,” for starters, let alone “the full human condition” (which includes not insubstantial insight into society, facts, and some concepts or ideologies, etc, healthy or decayed, useful or destructive, and all shades in between). Novels are gyms of facts and concepts in addition to being gyms of various impulses far beyond the emotional – aesthetic impulses not least, and principled moral impulses that may cause any variety of emotional impulses to conflict (with each other and other impulses, such as the aesthetic, or intellectual).

So, if we want to stick with the gym trope, it’s more accurate, I would say, to think of novels as knowledge gyms – a term which includes emotional knowledge and knowledge of impulses of all sorts, and conceptual knowledge, and factual knowledge, etc. Novels are special types of knowledge gyms of course, for the label could be applied to all sorts of texts. Novels are, I suppose, personally-based knowledge gyms, intra- and inter-personally based, and situated in narrative (as the larger body is known in all its extraordinary diversity). Or “human condition” knowledge gyms.

I don’t think the emotional component makes novels distinctive as a form any more then it makes emotionally compelling and insightful nonfiction distinctive as a form.

Rather, “the full human condition” imaginatively and aesthetically rendered — that is, the full human condition rendered as aesthetic make-believe, at narrative length (and however often fact-based and fact-filled) — is what makes novels distinct as a type and form of knowledge from any other type and form of knowledge.

Well, what of the human condition?

Just a couple quotes:

In Critical Fictions: The Politics of Imaginative Writing, edited by Philomena Mariani, “The Novel’s Next Step” is the title Maxine Hong Kingston gives to her reflections on a type of novel needed for current times. She writes:

I’m going to give you a head start on the book that somebody ought to be working on. The hands of the clock are minutes away from nuclear midnight. And I am slow, each book taking me longer to write… So let me set down what has to be done, and maybe hurry creation, which is about two steps ahead of destruction…. All the writer has to do is make Wittman [hero of her novel, Tripmaster Monkey] grow up, and Huck Finn and Holden Caulfield will grow up. We need a sequel to adolescence – and idea of the humane beings that we may become. And the world will have a sequel…. The dream of the great American novel is past. We need to write the Global novel.

Kingston further suggests, “The danger is that the Global novel has to imitate chaos: loaded guns, bombs, leaking boats, broken-down civilizations, a hole in the sky, broken English, people who refuse connections with others.” And she worries, “How to stretch the novel to comprehend our times – no guarantees of inherent or eventual order – without having it fall apart? How to integrate the surreal, society, our psyches?”

It seems to me that her concerns should be taken very seriously but that writers have exhausted trying to do something along the lines of what she suggests, “imitate chaos.” The result in part has been what James Wood aptly dissects and excoriates as “hysterical realism.” I find Rebecca West to be perceptive writing in The Strange Necessity when she notes that regarding reality, when it comes to art, “one of the damn thing is ample,” that an inclination to imitation, excessive imitation at least, is ill-advised.

And in Culture and Imperialism, Edward Said states:

It is no exaggeration to say that liberation as an intellectual [including artistic] mission, born in the resistance and opposition to the confinements and ravages of imperialism, has now shifted from the settled, established, and domesticated dynamics of culture to its unhoused, decentered, and exilic energies, energies whose incarnation today is the migrant, and whose consciousness is that of the intellectual and artist in exile, the political figure between domains, between forms, between homes, and between languages. From this perspective then all things are indeed “counter, original, spare, strange” [Gerard Manley Hopkins]. From this perspective also, one can see “the complete consort dancing together” contrapuntally…

Said adds that

Much of what was so exciting for four decades about Western modernism and its aftermath—in, say, the elaborate interpretative strategies of critical theory or the self-consciousness of literary and musical forms—seems almost quaintly abstract, desperately Eurocentric today. More reliable now are the reports from the front line where struggles are being fought between domestic tyrants and idealist oppositions, hybrid combinations of realism and fantasy, cartographic and archeological descriptions, explorations in mixed forms (essay, video or film, photograph, memoir, story, aphorism) of unhoused exilic experiences. The major task, then, is to match the new economic and socio-political dislocations and configurations of our time with the startling realities of human interdependence on a world scale…. The fact is, we are mixed in with one another in ways that most national systems of education have not dreamed of. To match knowledge in the arts and sciences with these integrative realities is, I believe, the intellectual and cultural challenge of the moment….

And so, the “imaginative, aesthetic, human condition knowledge gyms” that are novels face both ever more serious, also exciting, challenges to reveal, sustain, and further the human condition — in full, or otherwise.

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