James Wood, David Mitchell, and the Metaphysics and Morality of the Novel

While I enjoyed number9dream, Cloud Atlas, and The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, I haven’t read David Mitchell’s The Bone Clocks, and I don’t know that I will. The high fantasy trope of immemorially-warring clans who represent good and evil may secretly structure most political commentary today, but the peculiar virtue of literature is to provide texts, narratives, and images of sufficient phenomenal density or intensity to avoid such moralizing.[1] (Almost everybody in King Lear is a little bit evil; almost everybody in Middlemarch is a little bit good.) This is why difficulty is often prized by writers and critics: it is the sign of the complexity by which literature announces its avoidance of the reductionisms of the philosophers and politicians. 

Now difficulty should never be sought or praised for its own sake—I prefer Mrs. Dalloway to The Waves—and apparently simple and easy-to-read texts can present fierce conceptual challenges, as in Kafka or Coetzee or Ishiguro or the poems of Emily Dickinson. But if a text aims mainly at either entertainment or didacticism or even beauty without introducing contradiction, paradox, and irony, then it falls short of literary merit. The autonomy of literature was an historical achievement, an episode in the freeing of the intelligence from unaccountable authorities; those who would dispense with it blithely don’t understand what was at stake in its construction and, like other populists who rage against independent institutions for their “elitism,” unwittingly bolster the authority of other, usually more powerful institutions. Having critics and professors arbitrate questions of literary merit is not perfect, but it’s better than having priests or bureaucrats do it.  

If the above were James Wood’s point in his review of The Bone Clocks, I would happily grant it and move on. But Wood makes a further claim about the historical role of the novel that entails some troubling consequences:

I doubt that David Mitchell’s intention was to return the secular novel to theological allegory, but that is what “The Bone Clocks” does. Above all, his cosmology seems an unconscious fantasy of the author-god, reinstating the novelist as omniscient deity, controlling, prodding, shaping, ending, rigging. He has spoken of his novels as forming one “Über-book,” in which themes and characters recur and overlap: an epic ambition. Battles involving men and gods are, indeed, the life-and-death-blood of the epic form. But didn’t the epic hand off to the novel, in the last book of “Paradise Lost,” when the Angel Michael tells Adam and Eve that, though they will lose actual Paradise, they will possess “a Paradise within thee, happier far”? The novel takes over from the epic not just because inwardness opens itself up as the great novelistic subject but because human freedom asserts itself against divine arrangement. The “human case” refuses to be preordained. The history of the novel can, in fact, be seen as a secular triumph over providential theology: first, God is displaced; then the God-like author fills the theological void; then the God-like author is finally displaced, too. Despite Mitchell’s humane gifts as a secular storyteller, “The Bone Clocks” enforces an ordained hermeticism, in which fictional characters, often bearing names from previous Mitchell fictions, perform unmotivated maneuvers at the behest of mysterious plotters who can do what they want with their victims. Time to redact this particular Script.

I disagree with this for the following reasons:

First, the Milton quote is great and effectively persuasive at first glance, but it has an arbitrariness that makes one aware of its sectarian basis. Is the novel really an attenuated consequence of the Reformation?  I doubt it. For one thing, the dates don’t line up, and the ideologies and theologies don’t either. The literary turn to inwardness predates both the rise of the novel and Protestantism. Landmarks include the post-Petrarchan lyric and Shakespearean tragedy and even, from a certain point of view, the Arthurian romance. Also consider The Divine Comedy. On the one hand, this is an epic on Wood’s terms, a proto-BoneClocksian saga of the eternal battle between good and evil. On the other hand it is legible as a projection onto the cosmos of a psyche, or a series of psychic states. All of these influence Milton, but both the novel and Protestantism might better be seen as consequences of a larger historical sequence, one with nuances and gradations hidden behind the “hand-off” narrative in which Milton simply passes the torch to Defoe and Richardson and Christianity becomes secular liberalism. Reversing the causality—taking the liberalism that is the deliquescence of Protestantism as primary and unproblematically universal and not the contingent epiphenomenon of an older and ongoing process—is an ideological maneuver that forecloses more complex ways of accounting for both literature and intellectual history.

Moreover, because Wood simply opposes epic to novel (and leaves out lyric and tragedy altogether), he can’t see continuities among these forms. In Dante, good and evil are adduced, but portrayed as a spatialized metaphysics—hell, purgatory, paradise—that doubles as a psychology, as inwardness; the moral conflict is an inner conflict, as it will later be in the great novels. There is no good vs. evil in The Aeneid, Dante’s model; there are simply conflicts among humans and gods, with ironies attending everybody’s activity, and a fate that, however unavoidable, extracts massive costs even from its beneficiaries.

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These two examples show two major genealogies Wood leaves out of his implied history of the novel.

First, call it the Dantean, is the broad romance or gothic tradition (at times a Northern Protestant redaction of a Southern Catholic sensibility); it encompasses Poe, Hawthorne, Melville, Dickens, the Brontë sisters, and Wilde, and arguably extends to include Kafka, Borges, and magical realism. In this mode, affects or concepts are externalized in a landscape.

Second, let’s say the Virgilian, is less a genre than an aesthetic mood, closer to tragedy than to epic, exhibited by many distinguished novelists—maybe “naturalism” comes close as name—in which humanity is pictured as more or less non-free, as caught in a webwork of natural determinations that mock the Christian promise of free will except in the most local moral situations and sometimes not even then; such a mood is centered in naturalism proper (Hardy, Zola, Dreiser) but also includes realists like Tolstoy, Dickens, and Balzac, and abuts, too, at one end on modernism (Conrad, Joyce) and at the other on genre horror and speculative fiction (Lovecraft).

In neither of these traditions, the Dantean or the Virgilian, does individual freedom play a very large role, except as hope, delusion, or sometimes only half-integrated political polemic; there is a deep and perhaps dismaying conservatism in literature, where “conservatism” means the acceptance of limitation, and means as well the denial of human self-fashioning that is the hallmark of modern thought.  

Wood has always been famously uneasy with the romance/gothic/magical realist mode (“Fiction should not be magical,” he wrote in The Broken Estate), while, in reference to the second, he has celebrated the freedom of human consciousness within natural and social determination as materialized in free indirect discourse. Indeed, free indirect discourse itself is the stylistic compensation, the verbal residue of the Christian promise, for the Darwnian or Schopenhauerean or Nietzschean or Freudian anti-Christian and implicitly anti-liberal philosophy we encounter in fiction from Tolstoy to Woolf. Consciousness in modern fiction is less a seat of free decision than a ghostly nimbus in a half-remembered room.

The problem with Wood’s aesthetic, then, is that he rules out a priori an interaction among psychology, supernaturalism, and human constraint in the novel, seeing the conjunction as simply outmoded (and religiously erroneous: Catholic or Gnostic), even though these have long interacted in some of the greatest modern novels.

It’s no surprise that he praises Karl Ove Knausgaard, whose tedious artifices I find more pernicious than those of an author-God like Mitchell’s, precisely because they pretend not to be artifices. Maybe this is my lapsed-Catholic/Nietzschean qualm about the whole cultural (as opposed to political) project of secularism: you can get rid of God, but not the place He filled. Here’s a sentence from my novel, Portraits and Ashes, a sentence about an artist who purchases a deconsecrated church: “When they asked her what she intended to put in the nave, in the empty space where the altar had been, she said, ‘Nothing.'”

The assumption that the novel is a fundamentally liberal form—a praise of the individual’s rational freedom—just does not pass the test of historical evidence. Many of the best have been tragic, showing a conflict between incommensurate worldviews decided well above the human head—or else so deep within it as to be inaccessible to free choice—and at great human cost. Does this not describe Wuthering Heights and The Portrait of a Lady, Anna Karenina and To the Lighthouse? Even in Dostoevsky, who was committed to the theology of free will without—to say the least!—being a liberal, we find an attention to the hidden motivation and an emphasis on the submission to holiness. Just as Virgil and Dante are great insofar as they exceed the ideologies they ostensibly wrote in support of, so the novel can be great insofar as it is more than an expression of North Atlantic post-Protestantism.

[1] Edited to add (1): If Brian Finney is correct, Mitchell employs this trope as a metaphor for the psychology of individual avarice, which would put him in the Dantean tradition, and moreover deploys it in the register of parody, in which case he follows that other student of Dante, Joyce, whose tropes are always at once serious and parodic, statements of truth that raise awareness of the rhetorical means by which truth is necessarily stated, since words are not the world.

Edited to add (2): I did end up reading The Bone Clocks and disliking it for reasons superficially similar to but profoundly different from Wood’s reasons. I regard it as failed fantasy rather than failed realism. My review is here.


One comment

  1. […] I have quarreled with the theoretical presuppositions underlying James Woods’s review of The Bone Clocks: as I said, I fundamentally disagree with Wood’s philosophical claim that the novel as a literary form must treat the inner life with some version of psychological realism because the novel has absolutely superseded the epic following, in Wood’s account, a suspiciously sectarian and nationally specific hand-off from Paradise Lost to modern fiction. In fact, Mitchell smartly seems to foretell such a critique and answer it in advance when his writer character, Crispin Hershey, silently borrowing from Ezra Pound and Milan Kundera among others, notes that the modern novel emerges long before the eighteenth century in the sagas of medieval Iceland: If you’re writing fiction or poetry in a European language, that pen in your hand was, once upon a time, a goose quill held by an Icelander. Like it or not, know it or not, it doesn’t matter. If you seek to represent the beauty, truth, and pain of the world in prose, if you seek to deepen character via dialogue and action, if you seek to unite the personal, the past, and the political in fiction, then you’re in pursuit of the same aims sought by the authors of the Icelandic sagas, right here, seven, eight, nine hundred years ago. I assert that the author of Njal’s Saga deploys the very same narrative tricks used later by Dante and Chaucer, Shakespeare and Molière, Victor Hugo and Dickens, Halldór Laxness and Virginia Woolf, Alice Munro and Ewan Rice. What tricks? Psychological complexity, character development, the killer line to end a scene, villains blotched with virtue, heroic characters speckled with villainy, foreshadow and backflash, artful misdirection. Now, I’m not saying that writers in antiquity were ignorant of all of these tricks but,” here I put my balls and Auden’s on the block, “in the sagas of Iceland, for the first time in Western culture, we find proto-novelists at work. Half a millennium avant le parole, the sagas are the world’s first novels.”* […]

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