A recent e-mail exchange with some friends of mine resulted in the following post. It’s essentially a very basic summary of the main arguments Lukács puts forward in the first half of his Theory of the Novel (1916). I must stress that it is written as a basic introduction for those who have never read Lukács, and therefore it is not concerned with the subtle minutiae of his thesis. I do hope, however, that those who have followed the recent debates centring on Gabriel Josipovici’s What Ever Happened to Modernism? may find it of relevance.
The Greek epic (i.e. basically Homer) represents what Lukács would call an authentic ‘totality': a world in which everything makes sense, in which mere empirical phenomena have about them the glory of the transcendent, where meaning is immanent to everyday life itself, where the stars burning in the night sky are of the same substance as the soul. It is, in other words, a sort of Utopia or ‘world before the Fall’, a place where the subject-object divide which haunts German idealism has not yet even become a problem. It is a world in which philosophy has not come to be, since the solutions to the questions which philosophy poses are already being lived out: the question as such has not yet been born.
There has been only one other stage in human history which has approached the same genuine ‘totality’ – this rounded, immanently meaningful world – and that is the Middle Ages. The time of Dante and Aquinas (the shorthand figures for that epoch) is one in which everywhere one turns, everything one touches, everything one is, is held in being and in meaning by the Christian God. One can defy God, one can loathe him, one can turn one’s back on him, but no matter what one does, there is an overarching narrative of which one is still a part whether one likes it or not.
And then – to cut a very long story short! – comes the Enlightenment, the rise of capitalism and modernity (modernity being effectively the process of secularisation and disenchantment spurred on by the commodity form’s colonisation of all social space). Suddenly, there is no longer a pre-given meaning inherent to all that I come into contact with. I confront objects and people – and myself – which/ who are void of immanent sense and it is down to me with the powers of my own reason to project out of my own being the meaning which they are to have. There is no longer a ‘totality’ in the sense in which Lukács uses that word: an overriding organic unity between all that is.
But this is not to say that the desire for totality has been lost. Enter the novel. The novel, Lukács writes, ‘is the epic of an age in which the extensive totality of life is no longer directly given, in which the immanence of meaning in life has become a problem, yet which still thinks in terms of totality.’ In other words, one might say that when that profoundly modern question, ‘What is the meaning of life?’, has become coextensive with reality as such, then we have entered the age of the novel. ‘The novel is the epic of a world that has been abandoned by God.’ The epic was not technically, in Lukács’ terms, a ‘form’ as such; it was, rather, an organic coming to consciousness of the world through mankind. But the novel is a form, and the vacancy of meaning and organic coherence which sunders the very terrain of modern existence (summarised in Sartre’s existentialist dictum: ‘existence precedes essence’), is a heavy burden for any form to bear: ‘[forms] have to produce out of themselves all that was once simply accepted as given; in other words, before their own a priori effectiveness can begin to manifest itself, they must create by their own power alone the pre-conditions for such effectiveness – an object and its environment.’
The formal solution most propitious to such conditions is that of the biography (just think of Don Quixote, or the early English novels). The biography form unites into a pseudo-totality an individual whose essence is problematic and who must therefore seek and journey towards clear self-recognition: he or she is on a quest to find the immanent meaning which modernity has lost. The biographical individual becomes the formal solution to the problem of modern formlessness. The epic had a pre-given, rounded totality already given in reality itself, but the novel must conjure this unity from thin air, and so the unity of an individual’s life comes to replace the unity of the totality. The novel, then, is the form conducive to a contingent reality which is merely the flipside of a problematic individual (problematic in the sense of the question as such constituting the dark heart of his very being). ‘The novel tells the adventure of interiority; the content of the novel is the story of the soul that goes to find itself, that seeks adventures in order to be proved and tested by them, and, by proving itself, to find its own essence’. The novelist is a poor imitation of the Creator God.
Hence, as Lukács writes in the final passage of the relevant section of the book, the novel is ‘the representative art-form of our age: because the structural categories of the novel constitutively coincide with the world as it is today.’