(Click for Part I) In Austen’s novels, we find something ‘unheroic’ in that they are concerned with the search of upper class women, bound by codes of gentility, for both a satisfying place in the world and emotional authenticity through marriage. Though there is none of the religious fervour of Pilgrim’s Progress, the message is sent that an ideal community is a small rural community guided by sincerely godly priest, concerned with the daily lives of his congregation.
There is none of the extremism of Quixote’s fantasies and adventures, but the simultaneous process of triumph over illusion and the growth of inner authenticity, is there in Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility, Mansfield Park, Emma, Persuasion, and Northanger Abbey, as the characters find marriages worthy of their growing ethical capacities in self-judgement and judgement of others.
Ethical growth means confirming a place in the landowning classes and taking a decidedly ambiguous attitude to making new money in trade. Landed property and religion are the starting points of an ethically tolerable community for Austen. We can see the growth there of what we might now think of as social and political values based on self-ownership and individual responsibility though somewhat constrained by respect for earlier aristocratic expression of these values.
We can see a version of Lukács’ split between heroic progressive bourgeoise and backward looking conformist bourgeoise there. Though it is absurdly crude to take 1848 as the line of of separation between the two tendencies, it is useful to think about the distinction as it evolved over time, including the events of 1848. Over time the basic bourgeois goals of rule of law, individual rights, representative government, and free trade tend to be achieved. The word radical is used less and less for the advocate of bourgeois individualism and more and more for advocates of a socialist state.
In literature the themes of the individual triumphing over circumstances, enduring disaster, awaking from illusions, developing individual moral strength, and finding some moment of authenticity continues. The novel keeps developing as a form, but in many people’s opinion, including my own, it reaches a peak in the early twentieth century (James Joyce, Franz Kafka, Marcel Proust, Virginia Woolf, Thomas Mann) which it has never matched, though ambitious and admirable novels continue to be written.
The more straight forward kinds of heroism are not so prevalent as in earlier novels, but the irony and ambiguity about heroism develops what was already in the genre and intensifies individualism, even while questioning it. Some of these writers were sympathetic to socialism though born into a largely bourgeois liberal world, at least compared with developments after World War One.
Coincidentally or not, this coincides with the transitions from a limited-state individualist nineteenth century liberal politics to the welfarist-administrative state we now know and which is stronger than ever, despite all the cries of ‘neoliberalism’ and ‘market fundamentalism’ that arise in reaction to any attempt to limit the statist drift.
There is a danger of rivaling Lukács’ tendency towards a moralising tendentious Marxism from a pro-liberty point of view, but I am anyway tempted to say that the reduction of the significance of the novel is a symptom of societies which aim to remove individual responsibility in the struggle with circumstances. Or I can put it in terms more amenable to those who welcome the welfarist-administrative tendency. The novel has lost some part of its significance as individualist ways of thinking are less influential in politics.
In fact I can wholly agree with this stereotypical imaginary progressive that Ayn Rand’s attempts to revive the grand individualist heroic aspects of the earlier novel are rather embarrassing. The Peruvian novelist Mario Vargas Llosa (Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter, The War of the End of the World, The Feast of the Goat, etc), who is an eloquent liberty advocate, is a far better novelist, and is as good as anyone currently active, so still not rising to the level of the Modernist greats of about one hundred years ago. Liberty advocates are also part of this cultural shift or loss, however you prefer to see it.
(crossposted at Stockerblog)
I’ve been working on Jane Austen and ethics recently. These ethical investigations have overlapped with considerations of politics and liberty, with regard to the progress of such ideas in the early nineteenth century when Austen was writing, along with the immediately preceding and following periods.
There is a well known Marxist view of the history of literature, which is that the novel (and other literary genres, but mostly the novel) can be seen as developing along with the development of the bourgeoisie, so that is progressive and emancipatory until the turning point year of 1848 when the bourgeois class at least in part turns against the progressive-democratic, working class, and national revolutions of the European Springtime of the Nations.
At this point the capitalist class flees from democracy, allying with the royalist and aristocratic forces to prevent a revolution that might overturn property relations as well as pre-democratic political forms. After 1848, the novel largely becomes inward looking and alienated from social reality, because of the ties of writers and readers to a bourgeois class trying to hold back socialist working class politics, or at least fears to ally with it.
The classic exponent of this view is the Hungarian philosopher Georg Lukács who was born into the Habsburg Empire and so wrote in German, very much continuing themes from German language philosophy, literary studies, and social science. The relevant texts include The Historical Novel and Studies in European Realism.
I do not write to advocate Lukács’ literary history and of course even less do I advocate his Leninist politics. However, he undoubtedly makes an important contribution. Not many people now, Marxist or otherwise, would advocate the more schematic elements of his literary history. Nevertheless he was continuing ideas he had before his turn to Marxism, as expressed in Theory of the Novel and Soul and Form and he was onto something with regard to the heroic and less heroic phases of literature.
The novel itself has non-heroic and even anti-heroic aspects. If we take Miguel de Cervantes’ Don Quixote (1605 and 1615) as the starting point of the modern novel, a debatable proposition but not outrageously so, then the novel is something that starts with the mockery of the heroes of medieval knightly romance through a character trying to imitate them in real life Castile. It is a crude piece of social history to say this, but nevertheless it is roughly true that Don Quixote coincides with the growth of commercial Europe, trading across the Mediterranean and the Atlantic, as there is a growth of cities along with the increase in membership of the merchant and financial classes.
This is the sweet commerce rightly advocated by Charles-Louis de Secondat, Baron Montesquieu, but also the violent consolidation of European states and the growth of their overseas empires. This is not all pleasant, but then that makes it to some degree ‘heroic’, as heroism refers to struggle and triumph with limited regard for other concerns. The ‘heroism’ of Quixote is to observe the Spain of his time in his bizarre adventures, learning from experience and awakening from his illusions, if only on the point of death. He becomes disillusioned by experience so achieving a more inner awareness freed from the illusions of romances in an idea of authenticity which has its own romance. A romance that is very visible in the subsequent development of the novel.
Other inputs into the development of the novel include John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress (1678), a religious story from England of salvation in an allegory focused on a hero called Christian. There was nothing new about texts of salvation, but this is a novel length narrative devoted to individual struggles with externalised representations of distractions from faith. It was read very widely in the English speaking Protestant world, turning theological concerns into a popular heroic narrative of release of the self from ungodly illusions, and references to it abound in later literature of a kind less guided by strict Reformation Protestantism. (to be continued)