Vico and the Nineteenth Century Novel

Early draft version extract of work in progress for a project on philosophy of the novel, beginning with the importance of Vico even if he does not address the novel. He does address Homer and the approach of his New Science is a highly suggestive in relation to the genre of the novel. Limited references. All references to Vico’s New Science  give paragraph section followed by page number in the Cornell University Press (Ithaca NY) 1975 edition translated by Thomas Goddard Berhin and Max Harold Fisch.  A pdf of the first, 1948, edition of that translation can be found here.

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Vico sets up a way of thinking about literature as embedded in the tension between a supposedly divine aristocracy and and cyclopean plebeians, which is certainly how Vico regards the plebeians at the beginning of the heroic (Homeric) stage of history . So the tensions in the novel since Cervantes that Vico should lead us to appreciate are those between: upper and lower classes; different levels of status and power in general; customs from the past and new laws; the divine and the bestial within humans; the poetic and the true in language; diverse individuality and national unity; unstable passion and abstract thought .

Stendhal’s portrait of Restoration France, after the fall of Napoleon Bonaparte, in The Red and the Black [183o], is one of the core novels in defining the genre.  It draws attention to the ways in which the novel can both provide a moral-sentimental critique of the cruelties of the old upper class, the remnants of hero-barbarians of the time, and promotes new heroes who maybe be more contemptuous of the mores of the people, more egotistical and impulsively violent, more passionate and imaginative than the ruling class, so that some qualities of the ‘heroes’ are attached to outsider upstarts like Stendhal’s hero, Julien Sorel. So the Red and the Black is not some exemplary proof of the correctness of a Viconian schema, but an example of how forces In Vico’s account both structure and destabilise Stendhal’s novel.

Putting the example of The Red and the Black in context, he expansion of the novel as a form coincides with national consciousness, and Stendhal was concerned with the tension between backward royalism and national emancipation. The accompanying element  of aristocratic disdain for a commercial and plebeian world, a disdain that tends to be associated with passionate generosity in , cuts across the background assumption that the aristocratic privileges of Restoration Europe rest on mediocre cloning to old forms. T


he element of stimulus to nationalism, as in Walter Scott’s novels of  England and Scotland during recent upheavals and in the Medieval past, always containing some nostalgia for the lost world of the Middle Ages and the Scottish Highlands before they were fully incorporated into the British state following the failed Jacobite Uprising of 1745. That is novels such as Ivanhoe, Heart of Midloathian and Waverley, which influence the European novel and that nationalism of European peoples. That is it influenced a new politics which in significant part rested on nostalgia for a pure and traditional time.  

That situation of an ambiguous even paradoxical unity between the desire for lost tradition and a politics new in history, finds some explanation in the way that Vico seems the Homeric epics as the expression and construction of  national Greek identity through a nostalgia for a lost age before the Greek Dark Age of the early part of the first millennium BCE. Of course Greek nation state was created in antiquity, but Homer fostered a common consciousness which enabled gatherings of Greeks at the Olympic games, a common resort to the Delphic Oracle, and some degree of unity against Persia during two attempted invasions by that empire, followed by a rather late form of unity against Macedonian domination, which only led to allying with Rome and becoming part of that empire, but was  in its fragmentary way an indication of the power of literature as memory on new political structures.

The issue of the novel as national in a way which is both aristocratic nostalgic and bourgeois democratic will be explored later with regard to Georg Lukács’ more Marxist phase, particularly in The Historical Novel (1969). For modern nationalism, Manzoni’s The Betrothed in Vico’s Italy, was a historic novel on the Scott model, usually held to be part of the cultural background to the Risorgimento. Manzoni was familiar with Vico, one of many full circles that appear when thinking of how to use Vico in discussing the novel, in that the practitioners of the novel sometimes had some familiarity with Vico that helped shape their fictions. Vico did not only analyse the novel without intending do, he also shaped the future of the novel.

More on the philosophy and literature theme coming soon


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