No 1: An Old Epistolary Fragment on the Novel
May 10, 2014
“The poetry of primitive people is a narrative without begining, middle, or end. The pleasure that it gives them is merely pathological – simply pastime, mere dynamic activation of the power of imagination. Epic poetry is the ennobled form of primitive poetry. In essence, altogether the same. The novel already stands much higher. The former continues, the latter grows. In the former there is a rhythmic progression, in the latter, geometric.”
– Novalis, Logological Fragment #34
Before any enquiry into the novel genre may begin in earnest, one must first arrive at a clear conception of the nature of the idea of literary genre itself, and upon considering what that nature is, one is led inevitably on to further ask precisely just what literature is for that matter. In this way we have already greatly exceeded the scope of our present investigation, but to launch headlong into that idea of the novel I herein mean to articulate for you without, at least, sketching the bare outlines of some foundation upon which we may confidently stand would be to jeopardize our entire enterprise before it has even been begun unfortunately. The speculative nature of this foundation and ground of our understanding of the novel, and the time it would take to fully construct it with all the intellectual rigour it truly requires, means that at present we cannot undertake a full systemic elaboration of it without getting farther off the course we mean to steer than is really prudent, and for that reason, sadly, or should I say, for your sake, thankfully, we will resort to a different method of communicating the underlying philosophical notions we’ve erected upon more suitable to our present purposes.
Perhaps, if we make no grand claim upon the absolute truth of things, and here, at the outset, lay only a preliminary ground for what’s to come by means of a literary contrivance, we can in so doing not only avoid an unbecoming breech of intellectual decency, but, as this is after all an introduction, ie the part of our work most directly tasked with titillating you (and titillated by all this I’m sure you are), at the same time also inflame your imagination and curiosity, and thereby incite you to continue on against your better judgement into the strange world into which I mean to lead you.
No style of literature seems to me better suited to accomplishing this twofold task, given our material, than that of the fairy tale, so let us gird in the glistening armor of the knight the concept we wish to champion, and conceal with the gossamer webs of fantasy’s otherworldly logic the clockwork machinations of our iron clad, abstract theorizing. Let me lull your reservations to sleep with a sweet tale, that in the miraculous realm of dreams the heavy load I lay upon you act not as a weight upon your back, but as wings lifting you up into still higher spheres of intellectual clarity.
Here then will you imagine for me a world before our own, and bring it into the sharpest focus you can muster by shedding every daily concern that may be troubling you as you read this from your thoughts? Will you close your eyes and lift from the dark wilderness of your unconscious an image of the world in its most ancient epochs? Imagine now the world that preceded our kind, prior to even the most antediluvian period the ruins of history in fragmentary myths whispers to us. Imagine that time in natural history when our planets atmosphere consisted in nought but the noxious smoke countless volcanoes then billowed endlessly. That time before a shred of life could be discovered anywhere upon the face of the Earth. As man too lives and breaths like all the rest of his fellows in the animal kingdom, I hope you will agree he is not to be found here in this early stage of natural history. You will also necessarily agree I hope that today on the other hand, in contrast to this most ancient epoch of geological time, he is found quite easily. You are of course reading something this very instant that should attest to that, unless you think so poorly of me to believe my writing completely devoid of conscious intent that is. If therefore consciousness now exists, and at one time in the distant past it did not, the unavoidable conclusion we must draw is that there exists some definite point in time when it first appeared.
While man’s biological actuality is given in the history of his evolution, the actuality of his mind is not. What precisely makes the mind the mind? That’s certainly a fair question to ask. Mankind possesses a mind, while other beings do not of course, there is something different about us, but what? In “The German Ideology” Marx speculates: “Men can be distinguished from animals by consciousness, by religion or anything else you like. They themselves begin to distinguish themselves from animals as soon as they begin to produce their means of subsistence, a step which is conditioned by their physical organization.” But how can this be so? Animals do the same, they fashion, though admittedly without great effort, sticks into tools with which to collect morsels from an ant hill. We could even say this is a sort of technology some animals have developed for themselves, as such a practice can not be given to a tribe of primates in the depths of the African jungle via genetics. It is something taught and passed from one generation of the tribe to the next in continuous succession. Religion too is something animals may be seen to possess, as Elephants bury their deceased in a ritual fashion so uncanny as to invite some to question whether or not they aren’t just as conscious as us. And language? Just the other day I came across a story about an animal anthropologist who decoded the sophisticated language prairie dogs use to warn each other and even describe in remarkable detail the events occurring on the surface above their heads.
If we are to point to one foreshadowing of the minds eventual emergence in our own history over all others then, let it be the crude depictions of natural objects man once scrawled upon the rock walls of his improvised dwellings. And though it would be out of such depictions mind would one day flourish, even here he had a long road awaiting him before his object could finally be attained. In those first tentative steps, he created two things which are now ostensibly quite distinct from one another, that is, visual, representational art, and in the same instant, his own written language, as, for a long time, his language was merely a pictorial, or, later on, hieroglyphic one and nothing more. As a language the earliest artistic origin of writing did not serve man all that well. This was because of the severe limitation the positivity of such a mode of expression imposed upon him. To be expressed at all, a thing required a dedicated symbol, a symbol that functioned in its exact visual correspondence to the thing being symbolized. There was no grammar, no way in which to combine existing symbols to form novel ideas. Every object, every idea or thing that could ever be expressed out of the infinite number possible, every last one necessitated a symbol, a word all its own.
Needless to say the inefficiency inherent to this way of going about the thing made such a primitive language as early man suffered entirely unsuited to his needs. Having every object, or thought conveyable only by means of a single particular symbol and no other, made not just the writing of a dictionary of his language an unfathomably monumental labor, but even the creation of his mind an impossibility as well.
Long did he toil beneath the burden of the limitation so severe a method of conception shackled him with. Under the gilded yoke of the Egyptian sun-god’s despotism the proto-conscious man still fumbled with the hieroglyphic stones of his language in constituting himself. At the feet of the living stone god who spoke to him directly within own his sensuous perception of his exterior world, the tenant-farmer of the Sumerian city god transcribed the wishes of his deity with hammer and chisel in a language even cruder than those most ancient tools he employed to do so.
What was it that allowed the mind to burst forth from such dim depths as these, and with what revolution in his world did he cast out all those terrible gods of his neolithic idolatry? It was the introduction of the negative into his language that accomplished this transformation for him at long last. This change is the source of Greek Humanity. Their language became infinite, or at least capable of infinite and idealizing expression. From a one-to-one correspondence with everything that could be said to a single image of that thing devoted to it, to the phonetic, relational language of Greek poetry in the centuries following the Dorian Invasion, man arrived finally at his own actual existence by way of this long and arduous path. In his oldest and earliest written language there was a complete absence of any accommodation of vowel sounds, and in the lawlessness of his wild cries his mind long strived to be articulated, to discover a way of giving itself some definite form and becoming actual. With the Greek language, he gained the capability of expressing the infinite through the definite.
To exist requires limitation. The pure and unadulterated infinite can never be situated within material reality, as reality consists entirely in definite things. To become real therefore, the purely conceptual or mental must be penned in using sharp lines. If the pure mind is infinite, how can it ever come about then under such a restriction? These then are the two antagonistic tendencies of human writing, on the one hand toward the positive and definite, on the other toward the negative and infinite. Lining up a series of primitive representations of natural objects in series on the wall of some cave does not really unify them in some relation to one another given them. Analogously, take two discrete points and join them with line drawn between them, though this connection may feel solid enough, though the line at first blush may strike us perfectly concrete, what precisely is a line? It is a projection of our imagination, the projection of an infinite number of intervening points between any two so as to make the progression appear completely continuous. That continuity, as it rests on the existence of an imagined infinity of speculative points therefore is really only something negative and relational, and not something definite, something positive like the two points thereby being connected. The artistic beginning of language made use solely of single points forever separate from one another, forever lacking any relational principle unifying them into a whole.
The tendency toward the positive and the definite is the fundamental basis of all writing, and to give an example of a particular species of writing where this tendency is most evident, we need only look at the laws of any people or the constitution of any nation. Here the negative is of great annoyance to the statesman and the bureaucrat. Positivity is the object, but the negative aspect introduced to writing during the second or third millennia BCE eternally thwarts every attempt we may make to achieve our end. We see this all too clearly demonstrated in our own time, as the body of laws and regulations grow geometrically and new ones are heaped with reckless abandon upon the old in a desperate effort to cordon off and eliminate the negative. The behavior we most wish to eradicate from the population flees again and again to some dark space between the lines and try as we might to hunt down and seal every crack, a seam nonetheless always can be found through which illegality may flee. In philosophy as well, which means to explicate in a definite way the true nature of metaphysical abstractions, this desire for positivity is all too apparent. The negative though a detriment in such cases, allows us to bridge the gap between discrete linguistic moments in so seamless a fashion within the understanding, the enormous increase in the efficiency of writing that follows from this more than compensates for the loss of absolute positivity writing long ago forfeit.
Whereas the tendency toward the positive may be called the prosaic, the oppositional tendency, which represents the infinite mind striving for complete realization within the materially contingent and limited world of physical reality, may be called the poetic. If the one tends towards the sharp lines of a drawn figure, or the strict severity of conception found in sculpture, the latter tendency, which of the two developed last, is more closely aligned with music. This is confirmed to us by the close affinity ancient poetry had with song, the two being so intimately acquainted with one another as to be indistinguishable in fact. Let us, for convenience’s sake, term the entire mass of all human writing regardless of species or kind or purpose ‘literature’. Under this taxonomy all poetry is literature, but not all literature is poetic. Some types of literature wish nothing to do with the negative, and avoid it as best they’re able, such as legal writing, other types embrace and drink in the negative like the richest, most nurturing milk, and move away from too close an association with the definite so as to not lose the infinite in the process. As writing moves from the one, physical pole of concrete and definite representation to the other, from visual art to music, from rigid conception to formless and unbounded emotion, it becomes less prosaic and more poetic.
To move too far from the first pole in favor of the second, is to begin to abandon any definiteness of expression whatsoever though. It is to lapse into meaningless and indecipherable drivel, and the poetic literature of our own time suffers undeniably from just this sacrifice in its formlessness, in its contempt for limitation, in its belief that one need only drive gluttonously for the infinite to attain it. At some point however, this ceases to be writing at all, and falls out of contact with the understanding as it becomes purely musical in its embrace of sensuous and subjective emotion. The highest elevation of literature then, and the most purely poetic, is the kind that does not forgo the restriction of limitation imposed upon writing by its historical source. The highest elevation of literature resides in the complete reconciliation of the two tendencies to one another. An indifference point between the two poles must exist if this is to be possible, a point where any particular species of prosaic writing finally attains the infinite through limitation and not by abandoning it. And these are called genres.