Do-It-Yourself

George Steiner

  • 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.

The novel, after Defoe, is wholly expressive of the mundane, secular categories of middle-class and mercantile being. It recounts modes of existence in which non-theological, immanent values and ambitions predominate. Prose fiction, with its highly self-conscious adieu to epic-fabulous presumptions by Cervantes, constructs contexts of totality, related to those in the economic systems of mercantile capitalism and to those aimed at by positivist science. This ‘totality’ has, in Hegel, a crucial, informing function. Also in Lukács. But he reshapes Hegelian-Marxist mappings of the novel (Marx on Balzac). The historical novel, from Scott and Manzoni to Tolstoy, necessarily incorporates epic attributes and purposes. The polyphony, the play of dialogue and rhetoric of conflict essential to drama enter into modern fiction.

There is, therefore, a sense in which the prose novel is the logical culmination of Western literature and the sole genre capable of achieving totalities of representation in respect of the perennial dialectic of private and public, of the ideological and the material, of class-conflicts. In a great novel – so Lukács – in a major fiction by Balzac, Tolstoy or Thomas Mann, the ripening of the epic and of tragic and comic drama is harvested and given full deployment. It is only minor, ephemeral fiction, by which Lukács intends psychological miniaturism on the one hand and naturalism or verismo on the other, which seeks to negate the epic-dramatic genesis of the form. Concomitantly, Joyce’s Ulysses is, to Lukács, unacceptable not merely for its scabrous material and linguistic saturnalia, but because it mimes Homer in far too mechanical a way. The authentic, developmental continuities are those between, say, Tolstoy and Homer or Mann and Goethe.

It is against this implicit model that Franco Moretti sets out his merry bricolage (a favourite word). The pivotal works in literary modernity, from Goethe’s Faust II to García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude are ‘epics’ of a distinctive kind and lineage. They are ‘world-texts’ – a crucial term never wholly defined. Faust II, Moby-Dick, Wagner’s Ring, Ulysses, Latin American ‘magic realism’, diverse as they are, share a constellation of characteristic features. They are ‘internally discontinuous’; they may, accidentally as it were, achieve the status of a masterpiece, ‘but under no circumstance can it be a consistent, well-amalgamated masterpiece’; in them irony subverts the ‘unitary world view’ emblematic of the pre-modern epic. This means that these and related texts are ‘necessarily flawed’. A most intriguing fact appears to interrelate them: they are ‘very long and very boring’. ‘How many people read Faust II or Ulysses unless forced to do so at school? Note, moreover, that I am confining myself here to Goethe and Joyce; pointless even to mention Madach or Dos Passos, The Cantos or The Death of Virgil.’ It follows (condign frisson in Moretti’s audience at the Gauss Lectures in Princeton) that the ‘modern epic’, though an ‘almost supercanonical form’, is ‘virtually unread’! If it is read at all, it is in scholastic institutions. The task ‘is not at all agreeable’. But that must be Goethe’s or Melville’s or Joyce’s fault. Flawed masterpieces at best; sometimes, ‘to be candid ... semi-failures’.

But is this not their representative truth? How, save by virtue of customary illegibility and failure, can literature bridge or fully reveal the gap between ‘the totalising will of the epic and the subdivided reality of the modern world’? It is the very ‘imperfection of world texts’ which certifies to their authenticity, which signals ‘that they live in history’ and, more especially in our fragmented, multi-voiced (Bakhtin) current historical-spiritual condition. Does Darwinism, a recurrent motif in Moretti’s arguments, not demonstrate that morphological imperfection provides ‘proof of the evolutionary path’?

Wagner is the hero/anti-hero of the plot. It is in the Ring that a ‘lost transcendence’ is restored, that ‘the slow decline of the sacred’ is in some measure reversed. Only thus can the ‘modern epic’ overcome the ‘calm agnosticism of the novel’:

It is Wagner at his worst: a sly, false naivety. And yet, it is exactly what is needed to breathe new life into the idea of the sacred text. It is the Lucifer face of the modern epic: vying with, and if possible ousting, the Christian faith. Challenging it with a curse of colossal dimensions: the black masses of Faust and the Temptation, of Moby-Dick, Ulysses and Last Days of Mankind. Or, on the contrary, inventing a new sacredness: the redemptive virtue of das Streben (‘aspiration’), the Bayreuth sanctuary, the vision of Yeats and the Surrealists, Eliot’s mythology.

‘Or, on the contrary ...’ The characteristic move. On an ‘undulating curve’, in a ‘discontinuous history that soars and gets stuck’, after Goethe’s momentous invention of ‘a mechanism that allows readers to make mistakes’ (no doubt unavailable to Shakespeare), anything goes. And again, this may well be Moretti’s point: why ask, why expect of a ‘meta-text’ – a set of literary lectures – a coherence, a ‘decision-procedure’ alien both to the ‘supercanonic’ works being discussed and to the contradictory, dispersed worlds they inhabit?

God may or may not lie in the detail; Moretti’s forte certainly does. Local findings are often acute. Work in Faust ‘is typically night work’ as in the first paintings of modern factories by Wright of Derby. The mythic immensities of the Ring mask an extreme narrowness of design. There is only one fundamental move in the whole plot: shifting the ring from Fafner to Siegfried. The rest is largely reiteration and reduplication. Illuminatingly, Moretti juxtaposes the encyclopedic enumeration of ships in Book II of the Iliad with chains of proper names, personal and geographic, in Chapter 15 of Ulysses, in The Waste Land, 374-5 and in the famous litany of place-names in Swann’s Way. An interweaving of genealogy, history and geography in Homer; an arbitrary delight of the imagination, a ‘phenomenon of “hypersemanticity” ’ in the moderns. Or consider the aphorism: ‘As I announced earlier, The Waste Land is not a shorter Ulysses – it is a monologic Ulysses.’ Equally suggestive are the comparisons Moretti draws between Faust II and Moby-Dick as ‘allegories run amok’. Both promise canonic orders of revelation, rooted in a scriptural-classical matrix. Yet at the same time, they are ‘open-ended’ works (cf Umberto Eco) whose unbounded polysemy solicits innumerable future interpretations or misinterpretations (cf de Man). As Moretti finely puts it: ‘the sacred text dominates the reader, and reassures him; while the open work frees him and, like Melville’s doubloon, “mirrors back his own mysterious self”.’

It is when taken as a whole – but are we intended to take its collage as a whole? – that the argument remains loose and arbitrary. Suppose we played the game with a different set of markers. Invited to offer a syllabus of the ‘modern epic’, I would start with the extraordinary modulation of the epic-heroic into the private and introspective in Wordsworth’s Prelude and Excursion. Next comes the epic commedia of Byron’s Don Juan and the new historicism in Victor Hugo’s Légende des siècles. I would want to include the specific epic paradigm in Balzac’s Comédie humaine and the claims for an ‘epic theatre’ (so characteristically modern) in Hardy’s Dynasts, in Claudel and in Brecht. Pessoa’s vast Faust would have to be a part of the taxonomy; as would, today, the programmatic epic design and colossal incompletion of Solzhenitsyn’s 1914. Would this catalogue be in any way less representative of Moretti’s theme? But here as well, Moretti might concur. Games can be played in so very many ways.

There are doubtless those readers who will rejoice in this aleatory, ‘do-it-yourself’ kit, who will find endearing Franco Moretti’s manifest pleasure in his own and their company. And why not? Others, of a more morose cast, will be haunted by Hegel’s ominous description, in the Phenomenology, of literati engaged in vacant virtuosity.