Epic to Novel or Tragedy to Novel?: Hegel and Nietzsche

Hegel places the epic at the origin of the novel, which probably matches what most people think about the development of literary genres.  One aspect of this worth mentioning is that the novels of James Joyce build on the philosophical-historical reading of Homeric epic in Giambattista Vico’s work of Enlightenment thought, The New Science.  That construction of possibly the most important novels of the 20th century through a return to a reflection on epic, is in interesting issue itself which I should return to on another occasion.  Returning to Hegel, he has little to say about the novel, and clearly regards it as inferior compared with the epic, just as he is inclined to regard prose as inferior to poetry, suggesting that Goethe improved those works which he rewrote in verse after a first version in prose.    Lukács gives more weight to the novel, but follows a Hegelian way of thinking (referring mainly to Theory of the Novel here) in which the development of the novel is itself a tale of the break up of the ancient epic world in which the hero could be seen as unified with the world.  The novelistic hero is increasingly at odds with the environment, so becoming a criminal or a mad man.  Lukács’ account is certainly valuable though highly schematic.  Are not Achille and Odyssesus in Homer at odds with the world in some way?  Of course Lukács would say there is an underlying belonging, but we do not have to accept that.  

Nietzsche offers a rather different account of the emergence of the novel in Birth of Tragedy.  He suggests that we can see Plato’s dialogues as a philosophical novel, and that we can see these as the degeneration of tragedy, in which Euripides plays the key role along with Socrates, whom Nietzsche suppose Euripides put on stage.  Even before Hegel’s discussions of aesthetics, the Jena Romantics had already suggested that the Platonic dialogue leads the way to the novel, though they put a very different evaluation on this, seeing the Platonic dialogue as a fusion of philosophy and poetry which is again achieved in the novel. To some degree this is endorsed in the 1840s by Kierkegaard, since The Concept of Irony suggests some continuity between Socratic irony in Plato’s dialogues and the irony of the Jena Romantics in both their theoretical and literary creations.  Some of Kierkegaard’s own works look like like a response to the idea of a fusion of philosophy and poetry in a novel, particularly Either/Or, Repetition and Stages on Life’s Way.  

Getting back to Nietzsche, the Platonic dialogue has a rationalist dialectic which is taken as a decline from the tragic unity of the Dionysian (loss of identity, the body) and the Apollinian (identity, reason).  The naturalism of the novel is an inferior version of the Dionysian and the dialectic is an inferior version the Apolline.  The novel was a minor form in antiquity, or so literary hierarchies presumed.  Only one has lasted as a widely read classic, and that in Latin,  Apuleius’ Metamorphoses or Golden Ass. In Birth of Tragedy, Nietzsche assumes that Greek tragedy and Wagnerian opera are the cultural highlights of European history, the two moments of perfect but tense union between the Dionysian and the Apollinian.  Implicitly the novel is cast down in status in various ways by Birth of Tragedy, after all Nietzsche was writing in the time that the novel emerged as accepted a great literary genre.

Later writing by Nietzsche suggests he came to give the novel a higher status, he certainly has a positive opinion of Stendhal and Dostoevsky.  Regardless of his initial low valuation of the novel, Nietzsche’s early suggestion that the novel is a form of tragedy is a fascinating suggestion, that does fit with how the novel is often understood.  That is the novel is often understood as more concerned with clear cut individual characters, their inner life, conflicts between them and their environment, than epic is.  In these senses the novel is closer to tragedy, going back to the way that Aristotle discusses tragedy and epic, something on which Hegel draws heavily.  


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