The Unbearable Lightness of Being Nothing
In his Theory of the Novel, the pre-Marxist Lukács defines the epic (in terms of genre, enabling synthetic analysis and comparison with ‘the novel’ and ‘the drama’), following on Hegel and Schiller’s understanding of Homeric Greece as essentially “naive,” “childish,” etc., as the terrain of absolute empiricism, an ontologically and politically heterogeneous totality complete in itself, without need for a transcendent Other. “In the epic, totality can only truly manifest itself in the contents of the object: it is metasubjective, transcendent, it is a revelation and grace. Living, empirical man is always the subject of the epic, but his creative, life-mastering arrogance is transformed in the great epics into humility, contemplation, speechless wonder at the luminous meaning which, so unexpectedly, so naturally, has become visible to him, an ordinary human being in the midst of ordinary life.” As he will say over and over, the sphere of the epic is the sphere of life, the consistency of subject-object relations, the balance between man and nature, guaranteed by the positing of humanlike gods, arbiters of destiny from whom the heroes derive meaning through endless struggle against their decrees.
The novel by contrast, the “bourgeois epic,” operates in a different historical situation, one in which man has estranged himself from nature through the accumulated residue of his own subjective will. The world has been overtaken by the “second nature” of reification, the “charnel-house of long-dead interiorities.” Against this alienation, the novelist opposes form: “The epic gives form to a totality of life that is rounded from within; the novel seeks, by giving form, to uncover and construct the concealed totality of life.” Or, more forcefully: “The abstract basis of the novel assumes form as a result of the abstraction seeing through itself; the immanence of meaning required by the form is attained precisely when the author goes all the way, ruthlessly, toward exposing its absence.”
This is of course the original quixotic quest, doomed to a whole typology of failures. The novelistic hero, “problematic individual,” invariably reveals him or herself to be nothing but the function of a formal principle that exceeds any given subject, the novelist’s development or pushing to limits of a “certain problematic of life.” Like the epic orator, the novelist abandons his characters to their fates, but where the suffering of epic heroes fulfills their role within the vital totality, the suffering of novel heroes is an impossible dilemma: the destitution of the world of false meanings by negative, formal Truth not only leaves them no place to stand, but no given terms in which to understand their fall. “The novel is the epic of a world that has been abandoned by God,” writes Lukacs the secular utopian, and in so doing he reconstructs the dialectic perhaps most favored by intellectuals for defining modern European culture, Greeks vs. Judeo-Christians.
Fully in the manner of the Lukácsian novelistic hero, a role no philosopher or critic can shake (as it is basically the job description), Auerbach carries this opposition to its formal conclusions in Mimesis:
“The Bible’s claim to truth is not only far more urgent than Homer’s, it is tyrannical — it excludes all other claims. The world of Scripture stories is not satisfied with claiming to be a historically true reality — it insists that it is the only real world, is destined for autocracy. All other scenes, issues, and ordinances have no right to appear independently of it, and it is promised that all of them, the history of all mankind, will be given their due place within its frame, will be subordinated to it. The Scripture stories do not, like Homer’s, court our favor, they do not flatter us that they might please us and enchant us — they seek to subject us, and if we refuse to be subjected we are rebels.”
And in summation:
“We have compared these two texts [Odyssey and the Old Testament], and, with them, the two kinds of style they embody, in order to reach a starting point for an investigation into the literary representation of reality in European culture. The two styles, in their opposition, represent basic types: on the one hand fully externalized description, uniform illumination, uninterrupted connection, free expression, all events in the foreground, displaying unmistakable meanings, few elements of historical development and of psychological perspective; on the other hand, certain parts brought into high relief, others left obscure, abruptness, suggestive influence of the unexpressed, ‘background’ quality, multiplicity of meanings and the need for interpretation, universal-historical claims, development of the concept of the historically becoming, and preoccupation with the problematic.”
We first have to set aside any qualms we may have about historical accuracy in these schematic characterizations and understand them as the creations of philosopher-critics. Two figures are raised up as ideal types, twin extremes the modern subject is understood to define itself by rejecting, the child and the tyrant. Against these theoretical demiurges, undisciplined naiveté and arbitrary power, we come into the “maturity” and “virility” of alienation, the passage from Dante to Quixote and on to all that follows. Child and tyrant are thus linked in their immaturity, their being not-yet-modern. The idealism of pure, immediate sensuousness, and the tyranny (and mystery) of Truth become the stuff of Utopia.
Lukács writes of the modern novel: “The inner importance of the individual has reached its historical apogee: the individual is no longer significant as the carrier of transcendent worlds, as he was in abstract idealism, he now carries his value exclusively within himself.” The jab at ‘abstract idealism’ is one of the few references made to philosophy as a positive influence on the historical process of modernity’s self-definition, not ‘just’ a source for the invisible theoretical edifice. Odd when the whole enterprise, certainly modern and certainly formalist, just like the novelistic hero, is so plainly, irrecusably Hegelian. Hegel and his lineage — ‘philosophy itself’ — are permitted into the form but not the content of this narrative of the modern subject disguised as narrative of the modern novel; in this little glimpse we see only hubris (“carrier of transcendent worlds”), just another shorn vanity. Philosophy gets us from Gemeinschaft to Gesellschaft, or communalism based on shared myth to organized society based on legal binding, and Lukács has his critiques elsewhere of Kant and Hegel. But what about the ‘style’ of philosophy? Like the Old Testament its concern is Truth, but with an invitation to dialogue, its announced dependence on the testability (if not verifiability) of logical argument? Plato’s dialogues are already tricks of interpellation, a staged conversation wherein Socrates makes pronouncements in the form of questions, fools spout banalities in the form of argument, and Plato silently transcribes. The trail from dialogues to dialectics would be worth following.
Of course, the poststructuralists already tore down the barriers separating myth, theology, philosophy, and literature. Rancière gives a well-practiced version of this argument in “The Body of the Letter,” where he reads the avant la lettre ‘postmodern’ skepticism of Cervantes (via Borges) back down to the Bible, permitting a solution to the antinomy of Christianity — “a Christianity of incarnation that finds its realization in the pagan ‘Bible’ of the epic poem, and a Christianity of absence that founds the ‘modern’ epic of the novel” — by reducing the Bible’s cryptic eschatological promise to so many ‘textual economies’ generated by the in-existent secret:
“Against any facile theory of a god as master of stories, playing with the madness of his characters and the belief of his readers, the modern novel manifests this solidarity of the power of writing with the dispersion of the letter that travels the world without a body of legitimacy. And its story is also that of the inversion of the initial relationship of mastery, which becomes the subjection of literary absoluteness to any characer whatsoever, to any ‘madman,’ caught in the trajectory of the silent and loquacious letter.”
Even the most tyrannical, irrational, inscrutable proprietor subject is expropriated by the a-signifying logic of information processing, hoist by his own petard so to speak. The anti-‘anthropomorphism’ and expansive definition of subjective idealism presented by Brassier and (some of) his speculative realist pals, it should be noted, apply to all of the above, especially the latter (the old and now outdated source of anti-humanist jollies). Where precisely do they differ? Not on the level of form — there are only so many of those to go around — but on the level of Truth, a truth for which form is not the expression, is rather the vehicle for the return of subject to object. Brassier elevates what for Lukács are two unfortunate indulgences of consciousness:
“The desire to know a world cleansed of all wanting and all willing transforms the subject into an a-subjective, constructive and constructing embodiment of cognitive functions.”
“In the Romanticism of disillusionment, time is the corrupting principle; poetry, the essential, must die, and time is ultimately responsible for its passing”
to the realm of necessity — true no matter what ‘you’ ‘think.’ The “childish” naiveté of Lukács’ Homer is non-dialectically combined (a la Laruelle) with the expulsion from Paradise. Reality is Authority, and the subject has the inestimable privilege of being nowhere.