On Reading Homer, first of a series

I’ve just finished a phase of slow reading and note taking, most immediately for teaching purposes, on ‘Homer’, the supposed author of The Iliad and The Odyssey (transklared by Richmond Lattimore). From now on references to ‘Homer’ should be taken as references to these two poems, not carrying the implication that there was a single author of those two epics or that if such an author existed he or she was named Homer.

Having made those specifications of the use of ‘Homer’, I have to say I do lean towards the view that there was a single author if in a rather qualified way, that the author was male, and did bear the name Homer. I’m not scholarly specialists in these issues and I am certainly not suggesting that anyone take my views as remotely on a level with the specialists. However, it seems absurd to write a lot about Homer, as I will in blogging in the near future, and avoid these issues of authorships. At any rate I feel it best  to clear up what assumptions underly my comments, as a bit of context for what I say and to satisfy my general urge to foist my opinions upon the world through blogging, so a few words will follow about my non-expert views on these basic issues round Homer.

There does not seem to be any reasonable doubt that the Homeric poems draw on a tradition of oral poetry, largely sung in a communal environment, going back to the Mycenaean Greek period, which ended about 1,100 BCE. It also seems very widely accepted that the poems were written down in the eight, or at the latest seventh centuries BCE, in a form of Greek indicating that the writing down took place in western Anatolia, which at least establishes a possibility that the scribe, and the earlier minstrels had visited sites on the northwestern coastline of Anatolia, including the site we now know as Troy. Sites which might provided some historical origin, or origins, for the siege of Troy in The Iliad, and visiting them might have influenced the composition of the Homeric epics, and the preceding tradition. It is as at the very least suggestive that the poetic tradition goes back to people of the time of whatever wars inspired the story of the Trojan War, people who had fought in those wars or witnessed them, or knew such people, or at the minimum picked up on local accounts of those conflicts.

Though there is the possibility that the scribe, or scribes, who first wrote down The Iliad and The Odyssey, were just transcribing the oral tradition as they knew, my view is that there is too much unity of various kinds in The Iliad and The Odyssey, including unity across them for those texts to have been produced by the random accumulation of variations introduced into the oral traditions by various troubadours. Of course I am only reading in translation, I greatly regret to say, but since all translations indicate stylistic and unity in the pattern of thought, I’m willing to go so far as to assert that this tells us something about the Greek text.

On reaching the end of The Odyssey, I felt a great sense of return to the beginning of The Iliad. The Odyssey ends with reconciliation between Odysseus and the families of the Suitors. The Suitors are the local and regional aristocrats who consumed the wealth of Odysseus’ palace while aggressively courting his wife Penelope, during the twenty years Odysseus was away at the Trojan War or making the troubled journey back from Troy. In a very brief concluding passage it looks like a genuine social peace has been established under a rule of justice backed by oaths. It feels like a resolution not just of deep anger, envy, and rage in Ithaca, but a resolution of the anger, envy, and rage, between Achilles and Agamemnon, which opens The Iliad, itself following on from anger, envy, and rage between Menelaus of Sparta and Paris of Troy, regarding the marital status of Helen of Sparta/Troy.

The central character of The Iliad is Achilles direct and fierce in his passions, in which killing enemies in battle and sacking their cities plays a large part. The main Trojan character is Hector, who is given a milder side then Achilles, but is nevertheless a counterpart. The character of Odysseus, who is capable of great violence and anger, is nevertheless one largely characterised by cunning, intelligence, and deception. He is plays a large role in The Iliad so that his dominant role in The Odyssey seems like a natural outgrowth.

Minstrels appear in Homer, which is a fascinating topic in itself. At this point, in relation to the authorship question, it is necessary to refer to the uniform maleness of the minstrels. This is not in itself proof that Greek troubadours were all male from the Mycenaean era onwards, it does very much suggest that the poems were written down in a very patriarchal context, in which any history of female minstrels was erased. If the poems are the creation, inspired by oral tradition, of one author, it seems very unlikely that there was a female author in such a patriarchal context. Adding those considerations to the general ancient belief that Homer was a male author, the probabilities must lie in that direction. There is a possibility that the author was a woman hiding under a male identity, as in the nineteenth century cases of Amantine-Lucile-Aurore Dupin writing under the name of George Sand and Mary Ann Evans, writing under the name of George Eliot, but we just have no evidence of this and it would be wrong to confuse a fascinating possibility, or wishful thinking, with where the probabilities direct us.

On the name, Homer (Omeros) is the name we have from the ancient Greeks and we do not have any other names. We cannot exclude the possibility of some misunderstanding in the chain of transmission of information, or interference from the wish of some people somewhere in western Anatolia to manufacture a figure called Homer as a convenient way of simplifying some more complicated story of composition and authorship, but in the absence of evidence for such complications, I believe it proper to follow the simplest explanation: an Archaic Era Greek man in western Anatolia wrote down a collection of traditional oral poetry, a tradition going back to late Bronze Age wars between Mycenaean Greeks and Anatolians, through a process of such thorough revision, addition, and unification that it was an act of composition in itself.

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.

Philosophy of the Novel VII: Auerbach and the Novel in Literary Criticism

(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 8th, 7th, 6th,  3rd and  27th August)

Vico had a decisive presence in twentieth century thought on the novel through Eric Auerbach, who translated the New Science in to German early in his career, also writing a paper on Vico’s influence on Herder. Auerbach’s book Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature marks Auerbach’s presence as a thinker about the nature of narrative as imitative fiction, referring to epic and novelistic aspects from Homer and the Hebrew Bible to the twentieth century.

That comparison is itself quite true to Vico, since the New Science  has at its heart a differentiation between the gentile ancient world largely explored with reference to Homer and the history of the ancient Jews. The Biblical Jews were directly guided by God through history, and Greek history, like all gentile history moved through a mixture of natural forces and divine providence. The comparison Auerbach makes between Homer and the Hebrew Bible implicitly follows that distinction.

Explicit comments about Vico are very limited in Mimesis. The chapter will explain the implicit presence of Vico and expand on Auerbach’s direct remarks, such as his suggestion of  tension in Vico between a decorous conformist surface and a more disruptive inner nature of his thought focusing on the role of force. In this way we can see now Vico can both be located in a conservative Enlightenment and a proto-Nietzschean concern with violence in history, which informs Auerbach’s view of the tensions within mimetic fiction.  This will include discussion of Auerbach’s direct remarks on Vico elsewhere with regard to Herder and with regard to Dante, and the general way in which Auerbach transforms and preserves Vico’s ideas in twentieth century literary criticism and theory.

The argument will then move onto a consideration of the continuation of that transmission, and transformation, through Edward Said’s comments on Vico and on Auerbach, particularly in Beginnings. Said’s comments emphasise a continuous reflection on the limits of human consciousness and knowledge in Vico, which is necessarily a self-critical way in which Vico creates his ow view of human history and literature.

In doing so Said, suggests the relevance of Vico to both twentieth century literature and literary criticism, with regard to the self-reflective nature of interpretation of the constructs of  human history, and the ways that may enter into literary creation, particularly for the novel, which is the modern form most relevant to Vico’s historical scope and his focus on Homer.  This will be compared with the kind of historical thinking about literature influence by Vico, to be found in Hyden White.

The more philosophical aspects of Vico’s thoughts on philology, rhetoric, history, and interpretation will be explored with reference to Gadamer’s discussion of Vico in Truth and Method, concentrating on the connections with Gadamer’s aesthetics and the consequences for understanding the novel as a hermeneutic form and as an object of hermeneutics. Brief but significant remarks of Foucault and Derrida on Vico will also be taken up in this consideration of the philosophical status of the novel. Their remarks can partly be found in Discipline and Punish and Of Grammatology, texts with a very big influence on literary studies The comparison of Foucault and Derrida with Gadamer itself sets up a contrast between interpretation as concerned with force and conflict, and interpretation as concerned with a more consensualist  harmonising view of interpretative possibilities.

Given that Vico reflects on Homer and on the status of interpretative sciences in this way, with reference to a  divinely ordained order and with regard to force and inconsistency, all of this adds to the way that Vico continues to influence understanding of the novel, through a tendency of his New Science to be very literary in form as well as in preoccupations. The discussion of Vico’s direct and indirect influence serves as a unifying point for discussion of twentieth centıry literary criticism and literary aesthetics. The ways in which is influential will be fully discussed, but as a starting point for the discussion of the differing ways Auerbach, Said, Gadamer, Foucault, and Derrida, contribute to understanding of the novel. Exploration of these figures will allow a full investigation of the status of hermeneutics, deconstruction, genealogy, and historicism in thinking about literature and the genre of the novel.

Philosophy of the Novel VI: Ethics of the Novel in Bakhtin

(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 7th, 6th,  3rd and  27th August)

A view of the ethical and interpersonal aspects of the novel can be found in Bakhtin’s essays on Rabelais, Dostoevsky and so on, which focus on the novel as a genre containing a variety of contending voices and a carnivalesque concern with pushing boundaries, destruction, and inversion.

Bakhtin’s thought on Dostoevsky’s novels continues the interests in the the ‘carnivalesque’ that he brings to his study of Rabelais. Carnival laughter appears in Dostoevsky in a reduced form, where the laughter is contained in the confrontation of voices not as direct laughter explored in the work on Rabelais.  Anyway, in Dostoevsky, the world is open and free, everything is still in the future and will always be in the future.

In Dostoevsky the fates of people, their experiences and ideas are pushed to their limits, everything is passing over into its opposite in fusion of opposites, laughter and de-crowning, thresholds to appear as places of crisis. Narrative and experiential time are explore as crisis time in which a moment is equal to vast amounts of time. Dostoevsky relativises everything that disunifies people and gives a false seriousness to life.

Carnival time appears in Dostoevsky as the time of a day, which is not the time of tragic unity but is close. It is even further from biographical and historical time, it is a time of an unlimited number of radical shifts and metamorphoses. All that is lacking in unity and distant is brought together at a single spatial and temporal point.

Bakhtin thought the novel could be traced back to Menippean satire, that is the literary form associated with the the third century BCE Greek writer Menippus. Bakhtin did so because he thought of the novel as a multi-voiced and scandalous form. It is  form concerned with parody and breaking down the distance of earlier genres. Scandal breaks out as conventions are defied. Tragic dismemberment followed by celebration suggests some elements of Nietzsche, a transformation of the tragic, and a recurrence of the Dionysian at the heart of the novel.

An epic time of continuity and flow, where the passing of time is not much of an issue is dissolved, and the novel appears to combine elements of comedy as well as tragedy in its universalist concerns. The kinds of dramatic disruptions that Bakhtin focuses on in Bakhtin and Dostoevsky provide ways of understanding those novels where the disruptions are not extreme, so that we can understand the form of the novel as a way of containing and channelling issues of extreme conflict, extreme disturbance of consciousness, and extreme transformations.

The extreme situations structuring Bakhtin’s analysis do not suggest for him a brea down in human communication and ethical consensus, but rather a deeper understanding. The novel is inherently polyphonic, containing many voices with no obvious hierarchy, and that is an ethical situation, the situation in which there can be ethics because different voices express themselves and interact. The ethics is to some degree in tension with dangers that Bakhtin sees in parody and the carnivalesque, which might turn entirely destructive, but the kinds of unity to be found in the novel around discourse and around time, resist such possibilities.

There must be two voices at least for there to be life and therefore there cannot be complete destruction of all points of views except one, except as an act of self-destruction. One character does not just have one voice, the polyphony is not just in the interaction between characters, but in the voice of any one character. That multiplicity of voice though depends on interaction between characters, so all the time it is a question  of many individuals who in the richness of interaction develop multiple voices. It is this which enables ideas to appear and the novel should not be analysed as the ideas of a single authorial voice.

The novel cannot exist as the expression of  a single set of ideas and a single voice supposedly expressing the views of the author, but in the capacity of the author to withdraw before the multiplicity of voices or divide between that multiplicity. Bakhtin provides in some degree a corrective to the more rigid Idealist aspects of the view of the novel in Lukács and Benjamin.

Philosophy of the Novel V: Lukács and the Theory of the Novel from Nietzsche to Benjamin

(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 6th,  3rd and  27th August)

Nietzsche does not write in detail about novels and he does offer a theory of the genre of the novel. However, the novel is important for Nietzsche. Like Kierkegaard, he wrote as a philosophical novelist himself, though it is only Thus Spoke Zarathustra that can be placed in this category. It is a very strange novel, but a lot of novels are and the ones most discussed in defining the genre are often very strange examples (Rabelais, Cervantes, Defoe, Sterne). In addition, novelists are referred to at important moments in Nietzsche, Dostoyevsky as a psychologist, Stendhal as a the source of a theory of aesthetic pleasure. The reference to Stendhal in On the Genealogy of Morality is with regard to On Love, rather than a novel, but it is difficult to keep an absolute distinction between this essay and Stendhal’s novelistic output.

In addition, Nietzsche has a theory in The Birth of Tragedy of the birth of the novel from the death of Attic Tragedy, which should be seen in the light of Hegel’s reservations about the genre of the novel. The Socratic death of tragedy provides two sources of new philosophical-literary inspiration: the philosopher who plays music; the dialectician who writes dialogues.  Socrates returns to the Dionysian, Plato creates a new unity from the genres of Greek literature. On one side the Euripidean tragedy forms the basis of the novel, through the low characters such as the Graeculus, the cunning servant who is a debased form of Odysseus ; on the other side the Dionysian returns underground in a tradition of rites and excesses.  Plato’s dialogues form their own basis for the novel, which seems to be an ambiguous legacy.  The dialogue rises above the Aesopian fable where it begins, and which was the only literary form Socrates admired, through bringing in all other forms.

It is possible to formulate a Nietzschean goal of philosophical literature after the death of tragedy.  A literature which emphasises the plurality of styles within one style, the impossibility of natural forms, the contradictory nature of any naïve approach, the conflict between particularity and universality, the ideal of the hero caught between particularity and universality in necessary crime, the struggle with the empirical self, the struggle with the death and nothingness necessary to rise above mere sensibility and given laws, an individuality torn between itself and community, a representation exploring its unrepresentable origin.  Philosophical writing in Nietzsche is dialectic and music, dialogue and poetry, law and intoxication.  The Socratic combination of rational criticism and the daemonic is the model and counter model of Nietszcheanism. Nietzsche’s discussion of the birth and death, and return of tragedy, gives many pointers to philosophical aesthetics and the study of literary genres.

Through The Birth of Tragedy, it is possible to look back to Vico’s interpretation of law and history through Homer in The New Science (Vico, 1984); and forward to Lukács on Epic and Novel, the appropriation of Homer in Joyce and the philosophical reflection on the novel and genre in Ulysses (Joyce, 1968) and Finnegans Wake (Joyce, 1975). Nietzsche himself contributed to the writing of novels, even in a marginal form in Thus Spoke Zarathustra, which will be discussed with regard to how it fits with what Nietzsche says about literature.

Particularly in the early work of Georg Lukács and Walter Benjamin, in the tradition of German Idealism and Romanticism, literature appears as forms which contain the essential contradictions of consciousness in general, and through stages of history. Lukács and Benjamin, literature is embedded in historical consciousness, reflecting or expressing the essential capacities of language in the consciousness of an era.  The German Idealists and Romantics are all interested in, or are troubled, by how literary-aesthetic consciousness is subjective and inward, so expressing essential aspects of individual consciousness, but also supporting the differentiation of subjectivity from objective world.

The connection of aesthetic-subjectivity with world may require the world to be seen as determined not only by the rational ideas of reason, but by its subjective inner self-reflection.  This may allow a metaphysical realism in which individual consciousness is determined by an objective, it might also only allow an internal realism in which the reference of our conscious constructs to an outer world is uncertain. The tensions round these questions have developed to the point where it is no longer plausible to conceive of literary history and aesthetic theory as joined in the Idealist enterprise of reducing literary texts to the categories of historical concepts which reflect the inner structure of consciousness.

These tensions were already at issue in Kierkegaard and Nietzsche. This is reflected in a style of writing, continued in Benjamin and Lukács, which is daunting but is a literary achievement in itself, an achievement of dialectic, in which the connections between ideas are established through the power of writing, with a sensitivity of style which also allows for precision in the use of concepts.  The limit for both is world and consciousness are chaotic.  They can only be grasped in terms of contingency, accident, forces, conflict, perspectives, changing experience.

Lukács and Benjamin in the end are maybe more Idealist and Romantic than Kierkegaard and Nietzsche, so while exploring their contribution to the understanding of the genre of the novel, it will be necessary to discuss how far they fall back to the Idealist position which failed to recognise the importance of the novel as a literary genre. The key texts here are Lukács’ Theory of the Novel and The Historical Novel. The key texts by Benjamin are his essays on Proust and Kafka, along with other essays dealing with poetry and the short story, and his study of German Tragic Drama.

Philosophy of the Novel IV: Romantic Irony and Kierkegaard

(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 3rd and  27th August)

In Concept of Irony, Kierkegaard considered irony in the Jena Romantic/Romantic Ironist group which gathered briefly in 1798 and 99, and which published some of their work in the Atheneum journal.Kierkegaard analyses their literary and philosophical production as the outcome of Fichte’s philosophy in the first two editions of the Science of Knowledge (1794), leading us back to the aesthetic significance of German Idealism. Kierkegaard looks at the way that the Fichean ego appears in Irony, in endless reflections and shifts of perspective.

Romanticism marks an elevation of the aesthetic. The emergence of art an autonomous realm culminates in its elevation into the realm of autonomy where the freedom of imagination enables an act of pure creation. The rise of Romantic aesthetics coincides with the elevation of ethics in philosophical legislation, where the laws of ethics reveal the essence of philosophy as legislation.  Aesthetics becomes the absolute expression of freedom, legislating for itself; ethics became the absolute expression law legislating for freedom.

In the Romantic urge for aesthetic absolutism, there is the urge to find the absolute source of law; in the law’s urge for the ethical absolute, there is the urge to establish a realm of freedom where individuals have autonomy and can legislate for themselves. There is a strong complicity between these positions, which Kierkegaard gives form to in his remarks on Fichte in The Concept of Irony, which demonstrate how Romantic aestheticism arises This is the way that Kierkegaard writes in Either/Or and his life of writing is of using different styles and perspectives, even in his more ‘direct’ Christian discourses.

In The Concept of Irony, Kierkegaard criticises the ironists for destroying the strength of the self, which is the subjective origin of irony. In Concept of Irony, Kierkegaard also expresses some support for Hegel on the question of irony.  Kierkegaard’s positive account of Hegel in Concept of Irony is in contrast with his later tendency to take Hegel as the main object of criticism. Kierkegaard both depends on Hegel’s analyses and moves on from them, and we can this in The Concept of Irony as Kierkegaard develops a position, which accepts to some degree Hegel claim that Roman Irony tends to dissolve reality, including the reality of the subject that ironises, but maintains a position in which Romantic Irony has some continuity with the philosophical achievements of Socrates who was the first great hero of irony.

There is wish to avoid the absolute ‘historicism’ in Hegel, so absolute that the absolute take over from the historicism, and allow for a tension between subjectivity and the collective forms of spirit which Hegel with all his awareness of conflict and paradox, sees as able to absorb subjectivity, so that anything left over is negative, even ‘evil’. Kierkegaard’s own more aesthetic texts, particularly his narratives, Either/Or, Repetition and Stages on Life’s Way, themselves serve to show and alternative to Hegel and to show the philosophical and religious possibilities of the novel. He puts into practice more successfully than the Romantic Ironists argued for with regard to the fusion of poetry and philosophy in the novel, while exploring the problems he found in an idea of absolute romanticism, an idea that there can be a self-producing imagination without limit, unrestrained by anything external. There are forms of absolute we encounter in our subjectivity and in the foundations of that subjectivity for Kierkegaard, and the exploration of that brings him into exercises in novelistic form, which illuminate the nature of the genre.

Philosophy of the Novel III: The Place of the Novel in Hegel’s Idealism and in Romantic Irony

(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 my last post and post of 27th August)

Innovations in aesthetic theory and in literary production come together in Friedrich Schiller, Novalis, Richter and Hölderlin. It is Novalis and Richter who develop the importance of the novel, along with the other Romantic Ironists, including Friedrich Schlegel and Ludwig Tieck who also combined literary theory with literary creativity. For the purposes of this projectthe Romantic Ironists are more significant than Hölderlin given their ideas about the novel, but Hölderlin will also play a role as an expression of an aesthetic literary subjectivism that helps illustrate the concerns of the Jena Romantics, also known as the Romantic Ironists with regard to essays in the last two years of the eighteenth century at a time when the writers concerned were gather in Jena and were  collaborating.

Their themes and preoccupation include the contrast between the Classical and the Romantic, which connects with the contrast between the naive and sentimental. Those two contrasts revolve around the differences between immediacy and reflectiveness in literature and aesthetics, which establish a way of thinking about Homeric epic on one side and the modern novel on the other side. The novel has some origin in epic, but for the Romantic Ironists it is more the Platonic dialogue that anticipates the novel due to its integration of poetry and philosophy.

The Platonic dialogue shows an interplay of relative points of view, which itself indicates an absolute point of view above them. The associated capacity for reflection is not present in the naive naturalism of Homer, in which there is little  awareness of the limits of the dominant point of view. Awareness of the limits of any one point less to the incorporation of irony into philosophy and literature, in which the irony is the awareness of the limits of any one point of view expressed. This is taken into a view of nature as chemical, so interactive and dynamic, rather than mechanical, so that nature becomes part of ironic, romantic, or sentimental dynamism, rather than the course of a naturalistic, classic or naive fixity.

The Romantic Ironists presented their views in essays, which often had a connected literary style, and in their own literary productions.  Given that their literary output has not become amongst the internationally known parts of German literature and their own enthusiasm for Laurence Sterne and Cervantes, their contributions to literature will be focus of the discussion of literary texts here. The enthusiasm of the Jena Romantics for the novel as what allows the exploration of the unity of philosophy and poetry was not universal in Germany. Hegel was dismissive of the novel, the reasons for this and their need to exclude the novel from the highest achievement, to implicitly link it with the ‘death of art’ as expression of religion and philosophy in Hegel, comes next.

Hegel himself had reacted to the Jena Romantics and other expressions of Romantic subjectivism, such as that of his friend the poet Friedrich Hölderlin.  The most notable examples of this are in Hegel’s 1807 book, Phenomenology of Spirit, in the discussion of the beautiful soul and the unhappy consciousness, where Hegel looks at the dangers of attempting to find a pure inner subjectivity. Hegel also deals with this issue in various other places including his Aesthetics and the Philosophy of Right, but most significant for the purposes of this chapter will be Hegel’s dismissive comments on the novel in general and on Cervantes in particular in the Aesthetics.

Hegel regards the novel as a secondary literary genre engaged in a kind of insubstantial playfulness. It was never part of the role that literature had in representing absolute spirit for Hegel, and never will since he believes that philosophy and religion can now express absolute spirit without resort to aesthetic and literary representation of any kind. This is the basis of Hegel’s ‘end of art’ thesis, which is not a literal end of art, but the end of the possibility of art matching religion and philosophy in representing ‘absolute spirit’, that is the activity of  consciousness moving towards absolute knowledge of itself through both self-directed knowledge, knowledge of history, and knowledge of nature. In some respects Hegel simply represents a limitation of the importance of the novel, but provides a basis for thinking about the novel as what is beyond the end of some metaphysical ambitions for art. Hegel may be right in seeing the novel as less suited than some other literary genres to a representation of an absolute ordered cosmos, but wrong not thinking about how this itself might provide the basis for expanded understanding of the possibilities of knowledge and aesthetic form.

Philosophy of the Novel II: Vico on Homer. An Implicit Philosophy of the Novel

Rather a late addition in a series of posts I inaugurated here, in a post of August 27th. Travel, a conference, starting the new university semester back in Istanbul, dealing with renewal of my contractual and legal status in Turkey, partly keeping up with contributions to group blogs have all interrupted blogging here, though the material concerned is largely ready. I should be getting it out much more rapidly now. I should also say this is research proposal for a book that is never likely to be published though some major part of the ideas proposed have a reasonable chance o being published as a monograph about one maybe two years from now, and other ideas any appear in other places. The structure proposed is too complex, speculative, and ambitious to be the basis of a book that is likely to published though, or only possibly if I was much more of a big star in the philosophical firmament. If the time ever comes when I have the standing to publish a similarly ambitious book I will, no expectations of that though, and one consolation of  blog is to throw out ideas, and articulations of ideas, which might not find an audience otherwise.

Vico puts Homer and the interpretation of Homer at he centre, as a way of understanding a world in which rulers and the literate think themselves godlike, but are giving way to a human world, in which citizens are equal under laws in a language understood by all. That tension between the hierarchical domination of the priestly-aristocratic-hero class, in a world of poetic imagination; and the egalitarian world of the people, in a world where imaginative forms have been subordinated to abstract universals, and all are human rather than divine, is at the heart of the novel, which a democratic, or at least anti-priestly form, appealing to a world of secular humanity sharing common laws, passion and imagination, and where the world has become comparatively unstructured.

The world of political force perceived by Machiavelli, where mythical ‘animal’ capacities underlie the world of human law, is expanded by Vico in a history where force and myth (or religion) establish a social world that limits force, but as law grows, the state becomes more vulnerable to force. Since Rabelais and Cervantes the novel has something democratic about it and sceptical with regard to a world of myth distinct from the human world, suitable to aristocratic control.

The character of Don Quixote is a mockery of the aristocratic hero and of the world of mythical forces, as it works through characters lacking psychology where actions are frequently those of supernatural influences. The eighteenth century novel questions aristocratic power and morality that is not based on some kind of egalitarianism and practical application. These novels are not structured by a religious order of any kind, but by the search for a passion that will end the interplay of distorted egotistical passions discussed by La Rochefoucauld.

The human world of equality under the law in a democracy or a monarchy resting on popular welfare, described by Vico, is the world of the novel. Like the democratic monarch in Vico, the novel is based on a capacity for judgement that corresponds to the infinite variability of individual cases, rather than the simple insistence on the consistency of application regarding a few laws. Vico’s thought contains reactions to contract theory in politics, which he is inclined to see as reading the consequences of the absorption of revived Romand law into nature.

One of the contract theorists who emerged after Vico’s death was a major novelist Jean-Jacques Rousseau. On the other side, one of the major historical writers on law and political institutions, Montesquieu was also a novelist. Montesquieu had his own view of how Roman law came to permeate legal institutions and state practice in High Medieval Europe which has many points of contact with Vico. Both wrote what can be described as historical narratives of law and its contexts, which have novelistic features of diversity, and integration, distance and purposiveness in their portrayal of history.

We will see how that conditions the novel before Vico, particularly in Don Quixote, the novel in the eighteenth century, and subsequent centuries, and what that tells us about a whole form engaged with irony and social reality, on the basis of Vico’s understanding of Homer. In the eighteenth century that means some comparison with the ways in which moral sentiment takes over from natural law, how that process is part of what gives the novel a role, and how that fits with Vico’s own account of natural law, along with the rise of a new human age. The study of the  multiplicity of human passions, ideas, sentiments in Hume, Smith, and so on, and their integration, is in large degree a study of the structural conditions of the novel.



Philosophy of the Novel: I Literary Aesthetics Before Hegel

Extract from a research proposal expanding on work in progress regarding the philosophy of the novel, lightly edited to make it suitable for posting on a blog

The aim is to set up the account of the novel in Vico and later thinkers about the novel, through a survey of literary aesthetics before Hegel. This will overlap with Vico’s time, though Vico will only be considered later in the project. This slight anomaly is necessary to give a full account of what Hegel was reacting to and is justified by the lack of obvious influence from Vico on literary aesthetics, or thought in general until the eighteenth century. Vico’s thought itself does not draw in any obvious way on literary aesthetics after Horace, and can therefore be treated with some detachment from work in that area after the age of Augustus. The survey will commence with Plato’s thoughts on the role of poetry particularly in the Republic, but also in dialogues such as Phaedrus and Ion where the theme also appears. The aim will be to look at how Plato defines the different parts of poetry, and the reasons he has for moral disapprobation of some parts. This will be followed by a discussion of Aristotle’s Poetics, agains drawing on other texts, such as the Rhetoric when it is appropriate. The focus will be on the account of epic, as the most obvious forerunner of the modern novel, but attention will be paid to all aspects of what he says, where it is relevant to the modern novel, which as will be discussed across chapters, tends to incorporate all aspects of poetics or literature.

The discussion will then move onto some discussion of Longinus On the Sublime and the Horace’s Art of Poetry to complete the understanding of antique perspectives on literary texts. Given the relative lack of influential texts on literary genres, and other material about the nature of literature, in antiquity and the Middle Ages, the discussion will make a jump from antiquity to the Renaissance. The era of Rabelais and then the era of Cervantes appropriately overlap respectively with the earlier and later parts of the life of Montaigne, the greatest of the Renaissance essayists, and the nearest thing to an inventor of the essay as a major form of writing. It is in Montaigne that the form of the essay, and of the essay collection finds an extreme exemplar, where digression and shifting perspectives take place within essays and across a whole series of essays, which themselves have narrative and fictional aspects. They also mark the decomposition of antique assumptions about the comprehensibility of the world and the self, of a natural alliance of will and reason to control desire, which is part of the emergence of the novel, of the looseness of prose in narrative as opposed to the structure of classical poetic metres. The Renaissance and early modern essay is not only developed in the self-conscious self-referring thoughts of Montaigne but in apparently more strictly political and philosophical writing.

Machiavelli’s thoughts on the politics of princes and republics are an expression of the still relatively new power of prose writing in Italian, or the capture of antiquity in the modern languages, as well as of the importance of imagination, symbolism and narrative in constructing theories of power and of political forms. Like Don Quixote, The Prince and The Discourses expose illusions; like Rabelais and Montaigne, Machiavelli shows that a mixture of antique authority and sceptical imagination is the basis of writing, of any kind of writing which shows the cultural energy and tensions of the age, rather than the kind of formalised discourse, which tries to expel context.

Even the mathematically inclined philosopher Descartes, wrote sometimes in ways which bring narrative and imagination into the exposition of pure philosophical principles. Those are his most widely read writings Discourse on Method and Meditations on the First Principles of Philosophy. The cultural continuity with Cervantes is apparent in references of the Discourse on Method to a mind dominated by thoughts of knights, magic, and the like. Both are concerned with the description of the world both as a set of representations cleared of anomalous representations, which cannot be clearly said to represent real entities or clear thinking processes; and the extreme multiplicity of forms when the criteria of existence is representability, rather than any kind of intelligible and purposive substance. It is the openness and less hierarchical language of the novel compared with epic, which allows for both the rationality of existence and its inexhaustible pluralism.

These themes in Descartes are taken up broadly speaking in a rationalist continental traditions and an empiricist British tradition, which feed into aesthetic thought. The process continues during the seventeenth century into the eighteenth with the continuing exploration of the issues raised by Machiavelli, Montaigne and Descartes in political though, essays and philosophy as in Grotius, Pascal, Spinoza, Leibniz, and Locke. The idea of a covenant or contract at the basis of state and law brings narrative and fiction into political thought, which forms part of the context of the novel, as it will exist in the eighteenth century.

Another focus here will be on the aphorisms of La Rochefoucauld and La Bruyère, which set up a kind of store of perspectives on the passions and their conflicts for the use of novelists, in a form which is not novelistic, but is open to integration into the psychological intimacy and speculation, which is part of the nature of the novel. These moral aphorisms are also a major source for a philosophical ethics of scepticism and subjectivity, which is a challenge to the idea of a world and a human self structured by moral purposes.

The final part of the discussion will look at the aesthetic and literary aesthetic thought of the early modern period that draws on, or parallels, the material above. That will include the ways in Wolff’s aesthetics develop’s Leibniz’ metaphysics and Shaftesbury’s development of Lockean empiricism in ways that lean more towards Platonism than Locke himself, and which incorporates discussion of aesthetics. British ideas about aesthetics and literature will then be traced through Hutcheson, Hume, and Burke. Finally there will be a return to continental philosophy, with regard to the philosophical aesthetics of Kant, which aims to synthesise rationalist and empiricist approaches. For Kant there will be a concentrate on the nature of poetry and the place of ‘common sense’ in aesthetic judgement. The exploration of a diverse range of material over a long period will be unified by a concern for the ways in which various aspects of previous aesthetic thinking, philosophical reflection on literature, literary style in philosophy, and connected themes in philosophy and literature, are taken up within the novel as a form and reflection on the novel from Vico onwards. It can be thought of as a discussion of the deep history or preparation for the philosophy of the novel.

Ethics and the Novel: Nietzsche’s Twist

My latest post at the group blog New APPS


The slow emergence of the novel as a major literary genre is an ethical event. The novel as a form of literary writing goes back to Greek antiquity, and one novel from antiquity is still widely read,  The Metamorphoses of Apulieus (or The Golden Ass by Apulieus). One of the great writers on the form of the novel, Mikhail Bakhtin, even claimed it went back to the Menippean Satire of antiquity. This is probably  not one of his most shared ideas. In any case, the idea of a unique moment of origin is not a good basis. There are a series of beginning, which include antique epics, behind the novel as it developed from the sixteenth to nineteenth centuries, when it did become accepted as a literary genre on a level with epic, drama, and lyric poetry.

The modern origin is again ambiguous. Rabelais provides a strong candidate, with major attention coming from Eric Auerbach as well as Bakthin, but Don Quixote is the more widespread object of discussion. Nietzsche refers to it (Genealogy, II.6) as with regard to a change in ideas of humour, so explicitly ethical ideas about where we can find humour. The original readers of Cervantes could laugh without restraint at the suffering of Quixote, and the suffering caused by the ‘ingenious hidalgo’, but Nietzsche suggests that by his time, readers feel unease and even pain themselves at the suffering and humiliation.


For the rest read on here.