Philosophy of the Novel VIII: Philosophy in the Twentieth Century Development of the Novel

(Summary of a research project unlikely to be realised in the form articulated, but which is guiding current projects. For earlier posts in this series, see posts of October 9th, 8th, 7th, 6th,  3rd and  27th August)

The story of Vico’s presence in twentieth century aesthetic and interpretative philosophy, literary criticism and critical theory overlaps with the story of Vico’s presence in twentieth century literature, largely through Joyce. The point of the discussion that flows out of this point is not to reduce everything about the twentieth century novel to Vico, but to provide a strong unifying perspective for looking at the twentieth century novel, with regard to repetitions and variations of the kinds of patterns explored by Vico.

Joyce who might seem a suitable object for Bahtkin’s Menippian origin claim was deeply interested in the Homeric model, as he showed in the most direct way in giving one novel the Latinate form of Odysseus, ‘Ulysses’ and first publishing that novel in a literary magazine with Homeric episodes as chapter headings. This chapter will start with the Viconian presence in Joyce, with some reference to Beckett’s role in discussing the relationship in ‘Dante…Bruno. Vico…Joyce’, and how that informs his own fiction. The nature of Joyce’s own fiction, particularly in Ulysses and Finnegans Wake, is a major influence on thinking about what the novel is, what literature is, with a transformative affect on both literary creation and thought about the novel as a genre.

Topics of discussion will include the ways that Ulysses’ appropriation of Homer relates to Vico’s interpretation, such as the contrast of supposed Greek and Jewish perspectives, the relation between narrative progress and circularity, the possibilities of literary communication in the different forms of language, the appearance of ‘Viconian’ ‘thunder words’ in Finnegans Wake, the role of repetition and recurrence, the contrasts between different aesthetic-historical perspectives,  all with regard to other twentieth century perspectives. Philosophical thought about literature, and related issues in language, has focused on Joyce in the case of both Derrida and Davidson, and literary critical work on Joyce is very great in its extent, so there will be some exploration of how we can understand the novel as a genre through these philosophical and literary critical reactions, and the currents of twentieth century literary philosophy and aesthetics with which they connect.

This part will explore all these issues with some thought about the legacy for the novel after Joyce. The Joycean approach to Vico is not just referencing of a philosophical perspective, it is an attempted continuation of the ways in which Vico brings human self-consciousness, historical consciousness, and literary imagination together. The direct references to Vico in Joyce, will be discussed along with the partially explicit and indirect ways in which Vico is present in both of Joyce’s major novels.  Both novels in some sense bring the end novel as a genre to an end, by going back to the beginnings in Vico, with regard to his philosophy of Homeric epic and of history. Joyce does not just make reference to Vico in his dealings with philosophy.

Kierkegaard is very apparent in Finnegans Wake, so that will be discussed along with the other ways in which Joyce is reacting to philosophical and literary concerns previous chapters have included. The Kierkegaard references certainly invite discussion of how Joyce’s novels may deal with the Romantic Irony model, and the various reactions to that model.  The end of this chapter and the book will be to establish how, in large degree with reference to Vico, we can see in Joyce that the novel has developed as the non-heroic ironic version of the epic, as the triumph of the plebeian ‘human’ over the aristocratic ‘heroic’, and as incorporator of other literary genres, and as a way of understanding the historical nature of human communities and institutions.

It will equally be necessary to explore in the spirt of Vico how far the novel contains traces of the ‘divine’  and ‘heroic’ past’ and stands outside reductive historical categorisation in the accumulation of historical anomalies. That will be tested against the examples of other major literary works of the twentieth century; and against various philosophical understandings of the novel, and of literary aesthetics. The theoretical and philosophical aspects will include including figures such as Girard using an anthropological-ethical perspective, Jameson on Marxism, Moretti using sociology of literature, and Alan H Goldman as an example of analytic aesthetic of the novel. The importance of the Viconian model and subsequent philosophical reflections on narrative, history, and fiction can then be assessed for a fully developed philosophy of the genre of the novel.

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