Liberty and the Novel I (Before Austen)

I’ve been working on Jane Austen and ethics recently. These ethical investigations have overlapped with considerations of politics and liberty, with regard to the progress of such ideas in the early nineteenth century when Austen was writing, along with the immediately preceding and following periods.

There is a well known Marxist view of the history of literature, which is that the novel (and other literary genres, but mostly the novel) can be seen as developing along with the development of the bourgeoisie, so  that is progressive and emancipatory until the turning point year of 1848 when the bourgeois class at least in part turns against the progressive democratic, working class and national revolutions of the European Springtime of the Nations.

At this point the capitalist class flees from democracy, allying with the royalist and aristocratic forces to prevent a revolution that might overturn property relations as well as pre-democratic political forms. After 1848, the novel largely becomes inward looking and alienated from social reality, because of the ties of writers and readers to a bourgeois class trying to hold back socialist working class politics, or at least fears to ally with it.

The classic exponent of this view is the Hungarian philosopher Georg Lukács who was born into the Habsburg Empire and so wrote in German, very much continuing themes from German language philosophy, literary studies and social science. The relevant texts include The Historical Novel and Studies in European Realism.

I do not write to advocate Lukács’ literary history and of course even less do I advocate his Leninist politics. However, he undoubtedly make an important contribution. Not many people now, Marxist or otherwise, would advocate the more schematic elements of his literary history. Nevertheless he was continuing ideas he had before his turn to Marxism, as expressed in Theory of the Novel and Soul and Form and he was onto something with regard to the heroic and less heroic phases of literature.

The novel itself has non-heroic and even anti-heroic aspects. If we take Miguel de Cervantes’ Don Quixote (1605 and 1615) as the starting point of the modern novel, a debatable proposition but not outrageously so, then the novel is something that starts with the mockery of the heroes of medieval knightly romance through a character trying to imitate them in real life Castile. It is a crude piece of social history to say this, but nevertheless it is roughly true that Don Quixote coincides with the growth of commercial Europe, trading across the Mediterranean and the Atlantic, as there is a growth of cities along with the increase in member of the merchant and financial classes.

This is the sweet commerce rightly advocated by Charles-Louis de SecondatBaron Montesquieu, but also the violent consolidation of European states and the growth of their overseas empires. This is not all pleasant, but then that makes it to some degree ‘heroic’, as heroism refers to struggle and triumph with limited regard for other concerns. The ‘heroism’ of Quixote is to observe the Spain of his time in his bizarre adventures, learning from experience and awakening from his illusions, if only on the point of death. He becomes disillusioned by experience so achieving a more inner awareness freed from the illusions of romances in an idea of authenticity which has its own romance. A romance that is very visible in the subsequent development of the novel.

Other inputs into the development of the novel include John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress (1678), a religious story from England of salvation in an allegory focused on a hero called Christian. There was nothing new about texts of salvation, but this is a novel length narrative devoted to individual struggles with externalised representations of distractions from faith. It was read very widely in the English speaking Protestant world, turning theological concerns into a popular heroic narrative of release of the self from ungodly illusions, and references to it abound in later literature of a kind less guided by strict Reformation Protestantism. (to be continued)

Also posted at Notes on Liberty

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