Friday, February 05, 2021

The withdrawal of the novel


We are subjected to that which does not exist
       Simone Weil

When an old friend who has drunk deep from the puddle of the New Atheism complained on social media that religious people believe things that are “inventions, fairy stories, not real, made up", I was impressed by how a string of synonyms can expose the anxiety in the expression of conviction, and then intrigued by how it stood in relation to the same friend's fervid geekchat about superhero comics, science-fiction novels and horror movies that are no less invented, not real, made up. Is it basic cognitive dissonance, I wondered, or something else? Of course I realised that the latter does not arrange an ethics and metaphysics for its adherents to organise soul and society, and ‘belief’ maybe overstating the reader’s attachment to characters, their stories and fancy costumes, but it does provide a similar form of consolation in face of a cold and apparently meaningless universe, which must be why, despite the call for rationality and science to replace religion and superstition, fantasy is admitted and even celebrated. And while such exceptions are not obviously responsible for war, persecution, torture and murder, and probably not damnation or eternal joy in heaven either, they do rely on a determined identification with the not real. It is evident that the promise and authority of another world maintains a hold over even those who proclaim reason über alles. The world is not enough.

I have to include myself in this condition because, despite having grown up in an almost entirely secular environment, having never attended church and never having had any sense of or concern for, let alone belief, in transcendence, spirituality or the divine, I have dedicated many years to reading and writing about literature with an even greater intensity than my old friend. Except, over the last few years, probably since the New Atheism rose to such prominence, but also because of what I have read in that time, I have begun to question if this has been the purely humanist pursuit of knowledge, social engagement and self-advancement that I had assumed it was, and is perhaps instead “a passion striving beyond all objects”, which is how Jeff Fort describes how literary space inhabits a life (this being one example of what I have read in that time).

The problem is, I don’t know what this could mean. How does one begin to address this condition from an inevitably atheist starting point and having had no grounding in anything obviously religious? I have made tentative efforts to read books by Christian and Jewish theologians, and though impressed by the personal investment of the writers in the fundamental questions of the meaning of life, which was oddly moving after so much philosophy and literary criticism in which the writers appeared to be invested only in the rhetoric of the subject, rarely acknowledging let alone investigating its own presence in relation to its subject, as if asking fundamental questions might knock down a house of index cards, there was none of the inwardness that enabled me to engage with philosophy and literary criticism in a practical manner, in which, say, I would read a book about Kafka having read everything by Kafka and having felt that the experience mattered enough to investigate further. I could not relate to the terminology of theology let alone its transcendent subject. The words had only a rhetorical power, stimulating like possibility without content or movement. A proper engagement would require a relation to the ‘Kafka’ of its studies, which, I assumed, would require either years of study, a leap of faith, or, more handily, a revelation of some kind, which, even if it happened, I may not recognise as such because it would likely be understood in secular terms, such as a mental-health issue. It appeared significant then that one of the Jewish thinkers I read refers to Kafka’s writings as representing “the world of revelation … in which it is returned to its own nothingness”.

a state in which revelation appears to be without meaning, in which it still asserts itself, in which it has validity but no significance.
It struck me reading this that the revelation might be an everyday condition, recognised until now as an “experience mattering enough to investigate further” without otherwise having anywhere to go except into the kind of intellectual research currently on offer: cultural, linguistic, historical, psychological, political, literary, each a part of the given world of the professional or the hobbyist, which only detracts from this vertigo of reading, this almost-experience at which an apparently humanist pursuit reaches a limit, the edge of its flat earth, which it is unable to accommodate let alone investigate, and yet which seems to be the reason for reading novels to such an extent rather than "living life to the full".

The quotation is from a letter sent to Walter Benjamin by Gershom Scholem. Neither were theologians with a capital T, and nor was Kafka of course, which suggests not only how little such designations mean when one touches on the most intangible of subjects, but also the value of bypassing boundaries when doing so. Willem Styfhals’ 2019 study No Spiritual Investment in the World: Gnosticism and Postwar German Philosophy emboldens the suggestion, as the philosophers whose thought he discusses – Hans Jonas, Jacob Taubes, Hans Blumenberg, Odo Marquard, Eric Voegelin, as well as Scholem himself – are not the 20th century German philosophers I would expect from such a title (Husserl, Heidegger, Wittgenstein, Adorno) and some may not be regarded by many as philosophers at all, at least in the academic arena. Nor would you expect the ancient Christian heresy of Gnosticism to have anything to do with post-war German philosophy, and yet here, to my great surprise, is a book that has helped me appreciate that my lack of inwardness with and difficulty in accommodating the edge of the flat earth has a history deeper than any regular philosophy book has ever suggested; how words like apocalypse, messianism, finitude and eternity, and the dynamic of transcendence and immanence, which I had thought meant very little to me, were those that give a charge of significance to dedicating an inordinate amount of time to reading and writing.

Gnosticism is a term applied retrospectively to ancient Christians and Jewish sects that believed God is entirely withdrawn from the world, which was created by a malevolent spirit and is thereby “an evil, fallen, godless, demonic, meaningless place”. The only hope was a dissolution of self in the mystical knowledge of God – gnosis being ancient Greek for knowledge – or in an apocalypse – the Greek apokalypsis means disclosure in an everyday sense, revelation in the theological – in which the true God will appear and everything revealed, which would also mean the end of time, hence the word’s off-putting modern definition. “All these thinkers shared the conviction,” Styfhals says “that modern thought was lacking spiritual investment in the world as it is” and so made use of the concept of Gnosticism to make sense of modernity in which the divine has withdrawn.

The curious title comes from Jacob Taubes’ note favouring the apocalyptic route to salvation: “Let it all come down. I have no spiritual investment in the world as it is.” To which we may ask in all innocence, why would anyone in the modern liberal west wish for an apocalypse? Why is the world not enough to be going on with when words like evil and demonic have lost any depth of meaning and metaphysical threat? An answer may come upon learning that the note was sent to Carl Schmitt, a critic of modern liberalism, who was also a member of Hitler's NSDAP. Like others discussed in the book, Schmitt saw secular modern progress as secularised Christian eschatology (“the ultimate destiny of humanity”), except the modern world excluded the divine aspect, or conflated divine truth with the humanist values of the Enlightenment, making Christianity a dangerously fragile religion in that not only is God absent from the immanent world but so is the hope of a transcendent life to come, replaced by the pursuit of the material comforts of life and the injunction to "live life to the full", which leads to the obscure despair with which most of us are all too familiar, often soothed by reading novels. Eric Voegelin argued that such secularisation is essentially Gnosticism reborn, except that it replaced the mystery of a religious God with the impossible pursuit of heaven on earth. And while this might be OK for a time, we remain haunted by the threat of obscure despair erupting into something dark when the legitimacy of humanist values comes under question, and of course this generation of thinkers experienced more than one crisis of Enlightenment values in the twentieth century. They used the metaphor of Gnosticism to give such crises a form so it could be recognised for what it is in terms of deep history, given that the absence of the divine meant conceptual language lacked meaningful terms to discuss it. Schmitt believed the apocalyptic tendencies could be contained by the state and channelled into worldly salvation, and we only have to recall the messianic fervour surrounding Hitler to recognise how that worked out. Despite the hyperbolic edge of the comparison, this helped to justify my suspicion that my friend’s conviction in the truth of New Atheism is a mutant repetition of what it claimed to oppose, sublimating a need for apocalyptic truth in secular form, and may never recognise this precisely for reasons of faith.

I realise that the idea that the tensions within modernity have theological origins is nothing new – Michael Gillespie’s recent book, which ranges more widely across history and practice, is another book on the subject – but what surprised me was how the debates between Styfhals’ thinkers parallel those I have engaged with in literature for many years. For example, the central task of Styfhals’ philosophers was to determine the meaning of the world now that the divine has withdrawn aligns with that of Weber’s concept of the disenchantment of the world and the rise of literary modernism as a means of dealing with its causes and symptoms, notably in the loss of confidence in dominant literary forms, much of which is still marginalised by critics and readers as, at best, the integration of classical myth into the modern age (Joyce), a local transcendence (Proust) or, at worst, nihilistic and absurd (Bernhard, Beckett). This is echoed in Styfhals’ question of the attitude behind Taubes’ note:

Did [he] claim to be a modern atheistic materialist, a nihilist perhaps, who denied the world any spiritual value? Or was this actually a deeply religious statement from someone who rejected his attachment to this world in favor of another world to come?
His answer – “Paradoxically, both can be the case” – is immediately appreciated by someone immersed in what appears to emerge in the writing of those cited above, what Maurice Blanchot calls “not another world, but the other of all worlds”.

Styfhals moderates my haste in appropriating a correlation between Gnosticism and modern literature by quoting a passage by the Romanian scholar Ioan Couliano: “Once I believed that Gnosticism was a well-defined phenomenon belonging to the religious history of late antiquity.”

I was to learn soon, however, that I was naïf indeed. [...] Reformation was gnostic, Communism was gnostic, Nazism was gnostic, liberalism, existentialism and psychoanalysis were gnostic too, modern biology was gnostic, Blake, Yeats, Kafka, Rilke, Proust, Joyce, Musil, Hesse and Thomas Mann were Gnostic.
Gnosticism is then “a sick sign” because it can “accommodate with different contexts, in which it acquires different meanings”. However, I was encouraged to continue because Scholem believed gnosis is “a constantly self-repeating structure within religious thinking”, which could suggest literature marks the place where religious thinking recurs in a culture where it has otherwise withdrawn, in this case as anachronistic, and yet cannot be repressed. Again, it seemed significant that Hans Jonas told Couliano that an attraction to Gnosticism is “existentially rooted”, which may explain my dissent of current literary culture practised here in limited light over the years, even if all those words listed above mean very little to me. Perhaps I’m following Saul Bellow who described himself in later life as “backing up towards the monastery”.

If Gnosticism-as-structure marks the withdrawal of transcendence in modern thought, it doesn’t mean an end to transcendence as an idea pulling on us like the moon on tidal seas. For Styfhals’ thinkers, Gnosticism is a category of crisis because “the idea of transcendence questions by its very nature the legitimacy of immanent being and mere human life”. My suggestion is then that literature as we experience it, especially in what can be loosely and unhappily called creative writing, implicitly contains and presents to us the gravity of the idea of transcendence, and the expressions of the critic and booklover alike are drawn from its gravitational effects.

It is an idea embedded in our ambivalent relation to literary modernism: in public we feel the need to highlight and valorise its fight against the repression of “voices” (Woolf), its stylistic innovation (Joyce), its intellectual grandeur (Proust), its existential horror (Kafka), its humour and minimalist beauty (Bernhard, Beckett), and we strain to seek equivalent cultural weight in contemporary artists who thereby appear only as sad epigones because they lack the pressure placed on their predecessors by the felt absence of transcendence, revealing how the question posed by its withdrawal has been replaced by ones of current affairs, identity, fashion and genre appreciation, in which doubt and anxiety present as hasty comparison (“already being compared to Proust and Nabokov”) and as synonyms of appraisal. 

To apply this angle to Styfhals’ study: it appears that if Taubes and Schmitt are at the apocalyptic/modernist end of the gnostic spectrum, with its unappealing means of salvation, Hans Blumenberg is at the other, humanist/realist end, rejecting the inevitability of the repetition of theological structures, arguing that God’s withdrawal can enable human beings to recognise their finitude, assert themselves as free to explore their “worldly potential”, which we see reiterated in Martin Hägglund’s recent book with the subtitle “Why Mortality Make Us Free” (or Secular Faith and Spiritual Freedom in the UK – the link goes to Dan Fraser’s excellent review). This has clear echoes of the conservative resistance to literary modernism in its promotion of literature as a utilitarian tool for knowledge and palliative escapism, and, as we have seen more clearly recently, for liberation and emancipation, initially for the bourgeois individual, then for the working classes, the subjects of colonialism and racism, and now for so many minority groups each individual might claim to be a group in themself and demand that the process all start over again. (This may explain the popularity of Joseph Campbell's Hero with a Thousand Faces theory in which everything is centred on the individual's “journey” and the generic mould it offers, leading to overtly nostalgic and anachronistic cultural products like the Harry Potter series.)

What this serves to emphasise is the remaining presence of a reverence for the aura surrounding literature, for the obscure power it wields beyond that of the utilitarian containment of its emancipatory gifts, without the aura ever being identified let alone examined. Gnostic dualism might then be useful as a concept to appreciate why we are so confused in our relation to literature in a world that doesn't quite know what to do with it; a confusion most notable in the aggressive appeal to the aura in the disguise of literature’s value as a vehicle of “worldly potential”, and yet whose repressed presence is the guarantor of its value.

Kafka’s novels take place in infinity…defined as the ideal point where two parallels meet 
              Erich Heller

The aura is the ideal point, but this needs the second parallel, which has disappeared. Instead, we follow the first line into an infinity with no ideal point in prospect. The other line is invisible, and yet, even in this lack of recognition, the governance maintaining its separation is how we might understand contemporary literary culture: the book review pages in newspapers, ostensibly there as evaluators of generic conformity and consumer guidance are in effect keeping readers focused on one of the parallel lines, which may also explain the division of literature into various genre silos: go here for Realism, go there for Fantasy; follow the line into meaningless infinity. You have only to sense the discomfort of those using the reviewing cliché “blurring the boundaries” to see how governance works to accommodate everything within its fiercely limited understanding. While this may seem a trivial observation, it’s worth looking at where the common gestures of literary appreciation have their origins. Reading novels in particular is such a familiar activity that we neglect to register how strange the presence of a book is; not as an object so much as what that object represents: an addition to the existing world which itself doesn’t seem to exist in the way everything else exists, almost to the point where it is nothing; “a gap in the universe” as Maurice Blanchot imagined the first time writing was experienced. (It may be significant that in God Interrupted, a companion to Styfhals' study, Benjamin Lazier writes: "Some kabbalists...thought that God manifested himself in the world as nothingness, albeit of a special kind.")

Realism as a literary genre is a good example of how the ideal is policed out of the culture. Why is the sense of a narrative being true to life so valued in public appreciation? Why do we need the sensuous or gritty details of the world returned to us in the form of writing? When it was suggested to Thomas Bernhard that his writing displayed “universal indifference” to the world because there is almost no empirical description, he answered that he was only interested in perfecting his art, as “getting to know the world happens anyway”. Perhaps the answer is that literature exposes us to that which withdraws from description, the place in which we are ourselves withdrawn, and we recognise this in the experience of reading a novel or, rather, as the experience of reading a novel, which we seek to mitigate with appeals to the getting to know the world or the guilty pleasures of an imagination run wild, when, really, neither have much to do with why we are drawn to novels. Realism and Fantasy thereby become indistinguishable, as all genres become one in resistance to the ideal. This may also explain the exulting iconoclasm of the art Thomas Bernhard was trying to perfect:

I’m no storyteller, I basically loathe stories. I am a story-destroyer, I am the epitome of a story-destroyer. In my work, whenever any sort of portent of a story appears, or I see any sort of suspicion of a story surfacing from behind a massif of prose, I shoot it down.

The massif of prose and what it reveals aligns with what I detected as an incipient gnosis in the excess of Karl Ove Knausgaard's My Struggle, but my advocacy was bound to fail given the reception culture's obsession with gossip and genre. As I learned, this has been going on for some time.

In his great essay on Kafka, Erich Heller expresses astonishment at the “pathetic plight” of learned and well-meaning critics trying to accommodate The Castle within familiar genres – a fairy tale or religious allegory like Pilgrim’s Progress – when instead he says it is “a terminus of soul and mind, a non plus ultra of existence”, hence Kafka's inclusion in Couliano’s list. Heller goes on to define what he believes is the correct genre and in doing so offers a clue as to why the question of genre has become such a force in modern literature. He says The Castle is a symbolic novel, which he defines in opposition to the allegorical:

The symbol is what it represents; the allegory represents what, in itself, it is not. The terms of reference of an allegory are abstractions; a symbol refers to something specific and concrete. The statue of a blindfolded woman, holding a pair of scales, is an allegory of Justice; bread and wine are, for the Christian communicant, symbols of the Body and Blood of Christ. Thus an allegory must always be rationally translatable; whether a symbol is translatable or not depends on the fundamental agreement of society on the question of what kind of experience it regards as significant. The possibility of allegorizing will only vanish with the last man capable of thinking in abstractions, and of forming images of them; yet the validity of symbols depends not on rational operations, but on complex experiences in which thought and feeling merge in the act of spiritual comprehension. The sacramental symbols, for instance, would become incommunicable among a race of men who no longer regard the life, death, and resurrection of Christ as spiritually relevant facts. An allegory, being the imaginary representation of something abstract, is, as it were, doubly unreal; whereas the symbol, in being what it represents, possesses a double reality.
The issue for our response to The Castle is that, even if it is allegorical rather than symbolic, both meanings are lost to us because “there is no more any commonly accepted symbolic or transcendent order of things. What the modern mind perceives as order is established through the tidy relationship between things themselves. In one word: the only conceivable order is positivist-scientific”. This is why even literary modernism has withdrawn.

Time is the allegory of its own unintelligibility

This wonderfully confounding line from Pat Bigelow’s Kierkegaard and the Problem of Writing follows from this and returns us to the epigram from Simone Weil’s notebooks quoted at the very beginning, which happens not to be referring to the non-existence of a deity: “Time, itself unreal, covers everything, ourselves included, with a veil of unreality. Such is our condition. We are subjected to that which does not exist.” While it would be natural for us to resist the ideas behind each statement, we can move closer to appreciating them by recalling that in reading a novel we are similarly subjected to “that which does not exist”. If time is an allegory, a genre, not real, it threatens to become doubly unreal to us in the same way as Heller describes despite it being an embedded and vital force in our lives. In reading novels, we experience a world without time, or, perhaps more accurately, the eternal recurrence of time, in which time thereby withdraws. So, while the meaning of genre is accommodated in public for its worldly potential, it correlates to the effect of liberal Christianity as described by Eric Voegelin: that, despite the modern removal of the divine from the world, there is a heretical desire for re-divinisation. This desire, a virus in the morgue of space, finds a host in the novel. The novel is the heresy of our positivist-scientific order; an unwitting gnosis. We might see the form renewed if it authors, critics and reviewers set aside the 'about' novel to approach the significance of this other of all worlds, of that which does not exist, of what is otherwise unintelligible, to see what emerges in the withdrawal of the novel.


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