- The Modern Epic: The World System from Goethe to García Márquez by Franco Moretti, translated by Quentin Hoare
Verso, 250 pp, £44.00, March 1996, ISBN 1 85984 934 2
A theory becomes ‘classical’ when it is thought to have been understood, which is to say left behind or constructively challenged. Where a theory is forceful enough, there is, inevitably, a sense in which it consumes its object and, thus, itself. These are Hegelian concepts and they bear directly on the theory of the evolution of literary forms which Lukács derived critically from Hegel. Roughly put, Hegel attached the origin, maturity and decline of the major genres in Western literature to corresponding epochs of consciousness. These, in turn, generated and were generated by (the dialectic) historical, ideological and social realities. The heroic epic enacted conditions of life and perception of an archaic social order. It yielded to the conflicts between individuation and society, between the familial and the political represented in drama. Out of the erosion of the mythological-polytheistic or theistic components in drama came the novel.
Vol. 18 No. 11 · 6 June 1996
George Steiner, while charitable to a number of its local insights, takes a somewhat dismal view of the general worth of Franco Moretti’s recent book, Modern Epic (LRB, 23 May). I take a very different view. That is clearly a matter of opinion. But what will not do is to give an account of the book that is in many ways misleading, mainly by omission. Thus, Steiner begins his review by rehearsing the idea of epic developed by Hegel (and Lukács), without, however, mentioning the fact that Hegel’s Aesthetic Lectures are explicitly Moretti’s own point of departure (he refers to this background as an ‘implicit model’ for Moretti). Moreover, where the Hegelian ‘model’ is concerned, Steiner gets it wrong where Moretti gets it right. Steiner wants Hegel and Lukács to be saying what Moretti denies they are saying: that the novel from Walter Scott to Tolstoy ‘necessarily incorporates epic attributes and purposes’. Neither Hegel nor (early) Lukács saw the novel in this way. On the contrary, Hegel very precisely argued that they were different cultural forms, as did the early Lukács of Theory of the Novel (it is only the later, post-Hegelian Marxist Lukács of Studies in European Realism who sought to graft the integrating ambitions of ancient epics onto the great tradition of the 19th-century novel). More important, Steiner charges Moretti with failing to have ‘wholly defined’ what he means by the term ‘world text’ (of which modern epics are alleged to be instances). This is crucial because the concept of world text is the intellectual underpinning of Moretti’s historical analysis and explanation of the modern epic. It is deeply unclear what a ‘whole’ definition might look like and who could conceivably supply us with such a thing. What of course is required is a satisfactory definition, and this Moretti goes to great pains to supply, notably on pages 49-55. These pages offer more than a definition: they give a historical account of the conditions for the emergence of the modern world text, linked to the creation of what the practitioners of world-history (Braudel, Wallerstein, McNeill) have called the modern ‘world system’. Steiner again does not so much as allude to this account. The unfortunate impression created by Steiner’s omissions and straw men is that Moretti’s book is the work of a dilettante, its author enjoying himself in a kind of Post-Modern DIY playground where no serious scholar would dream of joining him. This is a travesty of the facts and entails a most unfortunate neglect of what it is about Moretti’s book that makes it a quite major contribution to literary and cultural history. No review can ever begin to do it justice that does not centrally address the argument it puts forward linking the notion of modern epic to that of world text and its evocation of the history which produces that link.
King’s College, Cambridge