Ernst, Tragisch, Problematisch – Guido Mazzoni on Late Capitalism and the Theory of the Novel

Guido MazzoniGuido Mazzoni is a poet, essayist and a founding editor of Le parole e le cose, Italy’s leading cultural webzine. He is a professor at the University of Siena. In 2011 he published Teoria del romanzo, which has now been translated into English for Harvard University Press.

Interview by Chris Fenwick

Guido Mazzoni, you gave a talk at the Freie Universität summarizing ideas from your new book, Theory of the Novel. Could you tell us in more detail about the argument of your book and how it differs from past theories of the novel?

In my view the novel is defined by two elements. One element is linked to a language game: the novel is something that narrates; the novel tells a story. The second element is the fact that the novel has become the genre in which you can narrate anything in any way whatsoever.

To turn to the first element – what does it mean to narrate a story? In the twentieth century, narratology established one ahistorical answer. My answer has a historical starting point.

Until a certain time in our Western tradition, narrative and poetry in general – what Greek culture called poetry – was not defined as a separate language game. It was only isolated from other games after a long discursive battle fought between the sixth and fourth centuries BC. This battle began with the first allegorical commentary on Homer and ended with Plato’s Republic. Plato was the first to separate in a very precise way a field of knowledge called poetry and a field of knowledge called philosophy.

In terms of narrative, Plato is the first to formulate what narratology terms the “elementary narrative phrase” – that is, the general template of a narrative. He says that narrative has to do with particular beings acting (he talks of men in the plural), at the end of which they are either happy or unhappy and they reach their goal, or not. Aristotle says more or less the same thing. So we have a basic definition of narrative. When you deal with narrative you deal with a plurality of human beings. These human beings are aiming at something, so they are driven by a force inside them. And the action takes place in time.

Using Plato and Aristotle and mixing them with contemporary narratology, I try to formulate an elementary narrative phrase defining what the linguistic game of narrative is. This phrase resembles the definitions of action and the human condition given by philosophical anthropology in the twentieth century. So defining what narrative is means giving a basic definition of what human life is: particular beings subject to time and located in a space, identified by a proper name, a body, a character, and manners; restless beings, because they are vulnerable to becoming and to desire; beings whose lives intersecting the lives of others, acting, speaking, and formulating thoughts, experiencing passions, living in a social system, until the imbalance is righted and the story reaches its end. This is the matter of stories.

I will now turn to the second element in the definition of the novel – narrative gets to narrate anything in any way whatsoever. This is also to be understood historically, since for centuries narrative wasn’t able to do this. There were two laws, aesthetic and ethical, that for millennia made it impossible. The first was the rule of the separation of styles (Stiltrennung) described by Auerbach in Mimesis. The second is what I call, following Marc Fumaroli, aesthetic platonism – the fact that for millennia the freedom of painters and poets was subject to a moral control that we don’t recognize now, but which was one of the most powerful forces in the history of Western literature.

If we read the prefaces to the things progressively called “novels” from the sixteenth to eighteenth century, we realize that the main problem for writers was to state that their work was morally and aesthetically correct. Getting to narrate anything in any way whatsoever was a historical process that took time and had its decisive moment from around 1550-1800. It was in this period that a series of texts arose that did not fit the aesthetic and ethical presuppositions of Stiltrennung and aesthetic platonism, but nonetheless tried to negotiate their position within these rules.

From the second half of the eighteenth century and especially at the beginning of the nineteenth century, the novel becomes more self-aware. It negotiates its position less and presents itself as a new, revolutionary genre, a genre that breaks the rules. Still, the nineteenth century is a battlefield where the questions of the morality and aesthetic value of the novel are open. But they are weaker, and the novel becomes more and more autonomous.

What does it mean for the novel to narrate anything in any way whatsoever? First of all, the novel allows our aesthetic subjectivity to express itself: this is true of all modern literary genresSecondly, this freedom makes it possible to narrate the private life of common people in a serious, tragic and problematic way. I take these adjectives from Auerbach: eine ernste, tragische und problematische Darstellung des Alltäglichen. In the vast field of aesthetic freedom within modern literature, there is this important core, as important as aesthetic freedom itself. It is something that Western literature had never done before and is related to our modern self-perception, our modern idea of the sacredness of individuals, of the importance of everyday individuals.

In the theory of the novel there are two great branches. The first is the tradition beginning with Friedrich Schelgel and becoming especially famous with Bakhtin in the twentieth century: the novel is the genre of mimetic and literary freedom where you can narrate anything in any way whatsoever, which refuses the definition of genre and changes ceaselessly. Then you have another tradition, starting with Hegel and running through the nineteenth century up to Lukács, Auerbach and Ian Watt in the twentieth. According to this tradition, the novel is particularly important because it gets to narrate what Hegel calls “the epic of bourgeois life”. We can rephrase this through Auerbach as a serious, tragic and problematic narration of the everyday life of common people.

I read these two traditions as being the same. You have the general space of the novel, which is Schlegelian and Bakhtinian, but at the centre you have a Hegelian core. If you didn’t have this Hegelian and Auerbachian core the novel wouldn’t be so important. Even if not all novels belongs to this core, and even if the novels belonging to this core are not better than the others, the novel is so important because we have obtained the possibility of representing the everyday in a serious, tragic and problematic way. This tradition is crucial for the perception of the novel as a discursive formation, as a symbolic form.

Speaking of writers outside the “core” – what about the leftist critique of the social fragmentation brought by an individualistic perspective? Of bourgeois art as an attempt to ignore the political sphere? How does this play a role in the history of the novel?

Privacy is implicit in every modern literary form. Modern literature, in general, is about the rise of the individual as a point of view and a subject matter. The critical tradition that has denied this individualistic core most openly – the tradition to which Deleuze and Guattari belong in Pour une littérature mineure – has represented itself as a counter-tradition. If you represent yourself as a counter-tradition, you assume implicitly that the hegemonic tradition is not yours – and the hegemonic tradition is modern literature’s individualistic core. You can criticize it from a political position, and Adorno does it very well, but you can’t deny it.

Individuals and their first social projection – family – are the core of how we moderns perceive ourselves. The tradition of the “age of revolutions” – the tradition beginning with the French Revolution and ending with the left-wing political utopias of the twentieth century – has fought against the destiny of bourgeois society, against the hegemony and the political victory of the middle classes. From a political point of view every critic of bourgeois solitude, of bourgeois individualism as cutting society into small egocentric spheres, has all my sympathy. But this tradition has lost.

2016 saw further failures of collective political projects. The elections in the UK, Italy and the US showed a clear resurgence of isolationism, to say nothing of nationalism. Yet there are pressing political, even existential, problems such as climate change that can only be solved via supra-national cooperation. Firstly, are you at all optimistic about the possibility of such political agreements, given recent events? And secondly, given that the novel as an ideological form is so related to the individual sphere, do you think that a political novel is capable of envisaging a global community?

The political and literary questions are quite different.

When we talk about the “present state of things,” to use the Marxian phrase, we always have to start with demography. In 1970, the population of the world was around 3.5 billion. Now, 46 years later, the population of the world is around 7.5 billion. This is the first starting point. The second starting point is that the links between the populations of the world ­– globalization – have grown much stronger over these years. We are more tied from an economic point of view, but also from a cultural point of view. We hear about what happens in China, Syria, Somalia, Indonesia – everywhere. Given the growing population of the world and these objective links, we are surrounded, bombarded, by information, ideas and conflicts that we cannot interpret. We see the surface but not the particulars. We don’t really know what is happening in China, since we don’t know Chinese, have never been to China, or we have only been there superficially. How can we imagine building a community in these conditions?

We have global problems – climate change, for instance – but we have fewer and fewer possibilities for finding global solutions since we are objectively tied together, economically, but subjectively more and more separated. All that ties us subjectively are some masscult mythologies that are linked to the society of the spectacle but which are very weak in terms of community. One of the first ISIS videos shows the execution of a group of Syrians faithful to Assad, or seen as too Westernized. They are made to lie down on their backs in a sort of trough and shot in the head with automatic weapons. The scene is mesmerizing in itself, but it is the details that hypnotize the viewer. For example, some of the victims are wearing the jerseys of European soccer teams: they live swaddled in a global mythology that ISIS combats directly; they die wearing jerseys emblazoned with the names of Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo, even Nani. A small part of foreign public opinion really knows what’s going on in Syria from a political point of view, but we have second or third-hand ideas. We don’t have a political ideology linking our lives to the lives of those people as happened, for instance, in the years of the Vietnam war – but everybody recognizes these details.

From a literary point of view, if we don’t consider some enlightened models of avant garde literature, but only consider what we normally read and write, the movies and TV series we watch, then we have to say that the core of our perception of the world is still the individual and the family – or the “clan,” if you want to relativize the Western concept of family. Our perception of the world is still largely local and individualistic, not global and communitarian. So I think we are facing global problems in a very egoistic and micro-communitarian way. But the contradictions are real and they are going to explode.

To return to the book – it offers a cultural anthropological perspective on the rise of individualism. But couldn’t you see this as a scientific account in which the individual voice disappears? Where in the theory of the novel does individual experience – aesthetic experience – have a place, and what could you say about the cognitive or epistemological function of the novel as a complement to history and science?

As Käte Hamburger says in Die Logik der Dichtung, the novel is the only symbolic form that can treat the other as a subject and not as an object – that is to say, which lets us get into the mind of another person, treating this person not as an object of analysis, like psychology, sociology, anthropology, ethnology would do, but as another subject, equal and contrary to me. This is unique. And that’s also why the novel will still be strong even in the age of cinema and television. What TV series and movies never do – unless they adopt an epic device, in the Brechtian sense of the word – is get us into the thoughts of other people. Other people can express their thoughts in cinema by speaking. But when we see characters in movies, normally we don’t hear their thoughts. Yet this is in the logic of the novel and makes it unique.

You also write cultural criticism and poetry. How do you think these activities relate to your work as a literary critic and professor, if at all? Do you feel a certain dissatisfaction with professionalized academia and literary studies?

I was a poet before being a literary theorist. My first writing and publication was poetry. I don’t consider myself a professor who at a certain moment started writing poetry, because the poetry came first. I survived this potential contradiction by not letting the left hand know what the right hand was doing. I still think that my right hand is literature, and my left hand is literary theory. They express the same Weltanschauung, but don’t influence each other.

Social criticism came afterwards by chance. I collected a series of reflections that are there in my poems, in the book on the novel, and developed them because I felt I needed to. I wrote two essays that were published on Le parole e le cose, the website I co-founded. They were discussed on the internet. A publishing house asked me to transform them into a book, which I did – I destini generali (2015). So it happened by chance. Normally my books are planned in advance, but I let this happen because I needed to set down some thoughts that I’d had for a long time.

The reflections that ended up in I destini generali probably began in 2001, a year that signifies a lot for me, not only for 11 September, but also for the failure of the protests against the G8 in Genoa, where I was, and where I saw the failure of the anti-globalization movement of the ‘90s in which I had participated. This was a political shock for me. My reflections on the present state of things began with that experience.

The second essay in the book is about Berlin. What did you see in the city?

Berlin is the allegorical city of the twentieth century. It is where the three forms of society that sought control of the Western world – fascism, communism and the Western way of life – fought directly. When you walk around Berlin you see the traces of this confrontation.

The first time I came to Berlin the Wall was still there. It was the beginning of the ‘90s and Berlin had a tragic aspect. The tragedy of the twentieth century was everywhere in the architecture of the city. Then I came back in 2013 and I was shocked by the transformation. I tried to understand how Berlin had managed its history. I went to all the museums concerning memory and German history (the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, the Jewish Museum Berlin, the Topography of Terror museum that stands on the ruins of the Gestapo headquarters, the Berlin Wall Museum in Bernauer Strasse, and the remains of the wall at Potsdamer Platz) and I realized that there were two discourses. The first was official, the discourse of the state, of unified Germany. This discourse was saying, “We come from a history of tragedy, of horror. We apologize for Nazism, and we also apologize that part of our country was seduced by die kommunistische Gewaltherrschaft, the Communist tyranny,” as the bilingual caption of the Wall Memorial reads. This is what liberal democracy, what the Western way of life, has to do – and in a way has a right to do, having won.

On the other hand, around this official discourse held by the state was another discourse. This was held by capitalism and it was very interesting. I took a picture on Potsdamer Platz where what was left of the wall was overshadowed by a gigantic ad for the iPad. When you leave the Holocaust Museum you immediately face a sort of Burger King with a huge papier-mâché hotdog outside. When I was coming out, that Burger King was playing some music – ‘Live While We’re Young’ by One Direction. In front of the Wall Museum you have the image of Gartenstraße as it was in 1989. On the other side of the street you have another image. A piece of wall was bought by a real estate agency and they had covered it with a photo of new buildings in Berlin saying “Wohnungen mit Weitblick,” apartments with a view, in front of what’s left of the Wall.

The state was so serious, so well aware of the contradictions of the twentieth century; capitalism was completely happy to be itself, and unwillingly nihilistic. It was playing a counter-discourse. For me it was very clear that there was an ethical contradiction, but the contradiction was there, in all Berlin. Capitalism, in a way, also had the right to do that. The people who had lived through the history of twentieth-century Germany in the end wanted that: they didn’t perceive the contradiction. The discourse about how sorry we are about our history went together with another discourse saying, “What we want now is autonomy and material wellbeing, nothing else.” And while the discourse of the state was self-aware – ernst, tragisch, problematisch – the discourse of capitalism was just that we are happy to have our small sphere of negative liberty and commodities.

As I strolled through the streets of Berlin, these are the kinds of observations that came to mind. There was something moralistic and unilateral in my thoughts, though, something that disturbed me: my annoyance with Berlin was overlaid by an equal and opposite annoyance with myself. Why this unease?

What I was seeing in the streets of the city was for many, for almost everybody – and for a part of myself – an extraordinary accomplishment. Most Westerners are happy to have been exonerated from grand politics: they no longer have to undergo mass mobilization; they can delegate and live undisturbed in a world of their own, indifferent to the rest. Yet every day the Western way of life inflicts wounds on the illusions of humanistic culture, on an apparatus of ideals whose absolute unreality is shown by our retreating into the private, into consumerism, spectacle, non-belonging and regression. Freed from religious and secular transcendent ideals, human beings do not want what the noble interpretations of the Enlightenment envisaged for them. They do not want to participate in the life of the polis or create a more just world. They want to spend their time nurturing their own affections and pursuing their own personal goals, their own auxiliary constructions, their own dada. They want a refrigerator, a beach vacation and a capsule of micro-autonomy; they want to forget the boredom, fatigue and death that float vaporized above a time that refers to nothing and which, precisely for this reason, should be enjoyed; they want to have fun and dream.

The Western way of life has a deep legitimacy and a powerful force of attraction because it consecrates ordinary existence and the rights of common individuals. It propagates with momentum because it rests on a universally human foundation. Its irresistible empire arises from the private more than from consumption. It is the empire of common, private life. This sphere of values is known to all cultures, but only the contemporary West has transformed it into a supreme good, and this is another reason it has achieved hegemony. I have nothing political or real to offer against any of this. The only thing I have is a form of unease.

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