Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Bildungsroman, Modernity and Youth

As I mentioned, I'm reading Franco Moretti's The Way of the World: The Bildungsroman in European Culture. In fact, I'm speeding through it, although I've decided to skip the chapter on Stendhal and Pushkin because I don't want The Red and the Black spoilered for me. (It's on my “to read immediately list” with about 200 other titles, none of which are Eugene Onegin.) Unlike the soporifically dry Benjamin (I look forward to your comments – when I open the posts), Moretti's a good read, although a disconcerting one by the standards of “proper” Anglo-American academic prose. He writes forcefully and breathlessly (however unlikely that combination seems), with liberal italics for emphasis, scattered sentence fragments, and sentences that span sub-sections with the help of ellipses. All of these mannerisms aid the impression of arguments rushing along even though the individual paragraphs are densely packed with references to theorists, philosophers and historians and tangles of complex assumptions that Moretti is evidently in too much of a hurry to spell out. Hence I often feel like I'm missing the finer points, although the basic outline is clear, and all of it is fascinating. The only other Marxist critic I've read at any length (I'm not going to count Terry Eagleton) is Arnold Hauser, who, like Moretti, combines staggering erudition with a passionate and personal critical voice. Not, it would seem either, impassioned about Marxism as a rigid system so much as about (social) history and art and their interpenetration. His references to and quotations from Lukacs's Theory of the Novel actually make me want to brave another Marxist literary theorist, not least because Lukacs's opposition of soul and convention so strongly resembles the Freudian pleasure principle/reality principle I've been thinking of for some time as a basis on which to found a theory of the 19th century social novel.

The Way of the World was published just three years before Camille Paglia's Sexual Personae, and Moretti's take on what the French Revolution did to Western society is so similar to Paglia's (which for all I know may be a commonplace among historians) that the premise of The Way of the World was something I'd already accepted way, way back, with the first strong intellectual impressions that were made on me, when I read SP at 17: that in the wake of the Revolution, the bourgeois subject discovered that she feared freedom (with its attendant isolation and burden of self-direction) as much as she desired it; and that with the Revolution and the full inauguration into modernity, a new value is set on youth (as the “symbol” of modernity) while maturity is pushed to the periphery. The main difference is one of terminology: for Paglia, the Revolution inaugurates an era of Romanticism from which we've never escaped (even though we went through Late Romanticism and decadence at the end of the 19th century, as SP goes on to recount, so I'm not sure, or I've forgotten, how that works); while for Moretti Paglia's “Romantic” era is the era of bourgeois modernity.

Ironically, Paglia valorizes the pre-modern ideal of maturity in Sexual Personae (for instance, when she approves of Rosalind's renunciation of her androgyne self for marriage at the end of As You Like It, speculating that otherwise Rosalind would turn into something very much like Moretti's lost soul of an eternally restless modern subject) without ever giving an example of it; instead, Sexual Personae celebrates the decadent in art in all its immature glory of sex and violence, turning its back on what Paglia perceives as the Protestant high seriousness of realism and Modernism. Moretti, meanwhile, devotes himself to exposing the classical Bildungsroman (represented by Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship and Pride and Prejudice) as a beautiful deception that attempts to heal the social rift created by the Revolution by imagining an alternative in which the bourgeois subject and the pre-revolutionary authority of the aristocracy achieve an harmonious union. In what amounts to an opposite perspective on Rosalind's renunciation of androgyny and Arden, Moretti argues that the bourgeois subject is persuaded by this vision of a harmonious homeland within society to renounce her individuality; but of course, this vision of social authority is of what social authority ought to be, not what it is, and so the Bildungsroman amounts to a deception – one that soothes the bourgeois reader into reconciling herself to what, after all, she cannot change, not so much to prevent social unrest as to prevent internal despair. Which is, I guess, a long way of saying that the Austen of Pride and Prejudice and the Goethe of Wilhelm Meister are conservative.

But – don't we think that there is such a thing as maturity? And as the capitalist era goes on and on, and youth seems only to grow more central to its self-symbolization, with a new, even more violent outbreak of emphasis on it in the 1960s “social revolution” – do we not think that our youths drag on and on and become ever more of a...drag, perhaps even ending, or becoming a parody, at some point, but with no new mode of equal or greater value that we can move into? I suppose Moretti isn't saying that “maturity is just a trick to make you give up the pleasures, ideals and radicalism of youth”; rather, he's saying that in the classical Bildungsroman, youth represents the impulses of modernity and maturity represents authority; so symbolically, individualism is given up and authority accepted when (in the narrative) youth passes into maturity. However, symbol and “reality” may be, counter-intuitively, interrelated. With the loss of maturity as a cultural symbol of value and the rise of youth to symbolic prominence, we seem to no longer know how to mature; and with that loss, we may feel that it is a valuable thing, after all – and not a mere trick of authority. Or rather – because what we do most deeply believe is that maturity is no more than a trick of authority, and cannot conceive it as anything else, anything of positive content – for that reason we do not know how to mature, even as we are uneasy with our subjectively unending (yet objectively, distressingly, depleting) youth.

Perhaps I'm just showing my admittedly extremely superficial understanding of Marxism, but what's curious is that Moretti appears to be on the side of the bourgeois subject and capitalism here. Or rather, he creates an opposition within modernity between the bourgeois subject, on the one hand, with his capitalist-inspired vision of individuality and progress and mobility without end, and the genuine sources of capitalist power, which do not coincide with him and with which he must come to terms. Or else, presumably, he would revolt against them, as he revolted against the pre-capitalist sources of power; and yet, at the same time, he yearns for social cohesion and authority. And this, perhaps, is the paradox of capitalism for Moretti (or for Marxism, for all I know): on the one hand, the belief in individualism; on the other, the acceptance of authority and tolerance of inequality.

But there are other models for the progress from youth to maturity, in any case, than the acceptance of authority. There is also the progress from innocence – or in any case, from illusion – to experience, or maturity as the gaining of (harsh) knowledge, which Moretti looks at in his chapter on Balzac. In the first case, one renounces one's autonomy and becomes “mature” by accepting that wisdom is located outside oneself (in authority); in the second case, one loses one's illusions and becomes mature by oneself becoming wise (or in any case, gaining knowledge/experience). Except, as Moretti points out, Lucien de Rubempre manages to lose his illusions, and his youth, without gaining wisdom; wisdom is instead located in worldly figures like Jacques Collins and in the omnivorous, totally objective narrative perspective itself. The only figure of wisdom, or model for wisdom, in Lost Illusions is the snake in the garden.

Since the models of the progress from youth to maturity/wisdom above obviously have religious precedents (the Protestant relationship to authority as clerical authority and as divine authority; the Biblical Fall), it's evident that Moretti's historical/sociological reading needs supplementation: the Reformation as well as the Revolution informs Austen, and Balzac is drawing on some pretty old fables. It reminds me of the day I suddenly figured out what was wrong with both Freudianism and Marxism (while I was looking at a book on Marxism), and went running to tell a friend who was nearby. “For Freud – EVERYTHING is about sex! For Marx – EVERYTHING is about economics! But... NOTHING is about ONE THING!!” I guess I'm not a monist.