The Death of the Novel

Death-of-Literature-Skull-and-Book

In his book of essays, The Art of the Novel, Milan Kundera discusses the death of that particular art form. Such a death, he argues, is brought about when the novel removes itself from history, as in the literature of the Soviet Union where novels could only confirm the official line of things and by doing so remain entrenched in the status quo. For Kundera, therefore, the spirit of the novel depends upon its historical position, a place that allows it to reveal the human condition to us from beneath the mind-numbing effects of the actual. Novels are, Kundera says, “part of a process which is the conquest of being,” participating in a “succession of discoveries” that are related to the historical process itself.

The idea of the historical process as a succession of discoveries that unfold and enrich humanity, is a humanistic perspective, and literature, and the novel, are without a doubt art forms driven by humanity-enriching purposes. Nevertheless, in our own analyses of the historical process, we have seen that history has never been a humanity-enriching progression. In fact, what we have discovered is that historical evolution has taken humanity further and further away from itself into the segregating tribalism of the national state or religious sects. History has been a process of dividing humanity instead of developing its potentials through unity. For this reason, we talk about the anti-human historical process – but if history is anti-human, what does that tell us about the novel’s role in that development? And, if we agree that our historical process needs to be redesigned in order to eliminate its anti-humanism and make it authentically human for once, what should the novel’s role in that revolution be?

In the first place, however, Kundera’s perception of the nexus between the novel and the historical process is a limited one. He is right to point out the way the novel’s evolution has reflected social changes, but he is mistaken in seeing that reflection as the means itself when the real nexus is the analysis of what it sees, and, through that analysis, its power of being critical.

What dictatorial censorship, like the Soviet one, must do is castrate the novel by chopping out its ability to criticise. Made impotent in its critical faculty, the novel is thereby rendered useless. Kundera’s argument, therefore, is that chopping in any form, even by well-intentioned capitalist editors, is potentially deadly for the novel itself. But a very dangerous question arises here: Is criticism only possible, therefore, because the anti-human historical process is so humanly flawed?

If this is so, then we have to ask ourselves if a truly-human process of progressive history would eliminate the need for criticism, which in turn would create a debilitating process for the mind akin to those created by dictatorship?

Or, in other words: Is the novel important to us only because the System (civilisation) we are immersed in is so defective?

We believe that Kundera, from his experience with Stalinism, would agree that it would. However, beginning an authentic-human historical process is not the same as completing the historical process, which was the purpose of communism.

By understanding the creative forces of humanity in a positive, universal way, guided by art, science and technology rather than ideology and religion, would be far more transformative than the evolutions and incomplete revolutions that have so far been produced by any anti-historical processes we have.

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Rather than dying, the novel would be in the front line of this pro-humanity transformation: both as an analyser and a critique of the new process. The novel, therefore, will not die with authentic-human history, rather its current moribund prestige will be rekindled and rejuvenated as wider appreciation will be made of its essential role in human (Sapiens) evolution.

Kundera admits in his book that the novel itself could have had a different history. He points to the different callings that the novel makes: The call to play (Tristan Shandy and Jacques the Fatalist); the call to dream (Kafka); the call to think (Musil and Broch); the call of time (Proust). There are other calls: the call to freedom (Joyce’s Ulysses); the call for justice (Zola, Dostoevsky and Tolstoy).

But the novel, like humanity has been more fettered than liberated by the anti-human historical process and our novelists now need to imagine new callings that can transcend the anti-human and embrace the calling toward an authentic Sapiens humanity. Yes, an evolution toward human authenticism, centring  history as a process of human-progress, would imagine more callings as the abstract and conditional perspectives of individuals are opened up. One of the major victories that humanity would gain through an authentic-human historical evolution would be the liberation of minds beyond the actual and into the abstract and conditional realms of the potential.

Where Kundera is most definitely right and acute in his book, is when he speaks of the Spirit of the Novel, and that Spirit needs to be analysed and continually vindicated in opposition to the spirit of the market-place or the spirit of selling books. Novels are meant to be written, published and read: and this implies distribution and/or accessibility, but it does not imply sales. A novel’s success has to be measured by how much pleasure it has produced by doing what novels do best, which is … to stimulate the mind. But even here we need to be careful of over-simplifying success: A novel that can stimulate the minds of millions might be considered more successful than another which only managed to reach a handful of readers, but the quantitative degree of that success is no real reflection of the qualitative importance of the two books. A book that is never read may be qualitatively far superior than another that is consumed by billions. We see here the importance of accessibility and distribution: a great, human civilisation would be geared towards ensuring the accessibility of quality. An authentically human ethics would have to always prioritise the production of quality above quantity in art.

Kundera says that “the spirit of the novel is the spirit of complexity,” a spirit which is also antithetical to the reductionist spirit of the market-place and its demands for simplicity.

Biblioteca-de-Babel-Erik-Desmazieres

Harold Skimpole: Art, Time & Money

 

Harold Skimpole is a character from Charles Dickens’ “Bleak House”. He is described as being innocent, like a child who knows nothing of time or money.

From this description we could conclude that Dickens is saying that time and money have eaten up our innocence. Dickens was writing at a time when the Industrial Revolution was pushing capitalism to its full potential and carving a new world-order designed to produce unlimited wealth on the one hand, and abject poverty on the other. A revolution that has endured centuries and continues to steam-roller forward through our own innocence-starved lives. But now, the concept of time-and-money has taken away far more than just our innocence: it has robbed us of our freedom, and, most especially, of our humanity.

In Bleak House, Skimpole has the airs of an artist: an amateur artist; a pure artist. Art, in its pure form, is always a gift – and we can see an association between the pure artist and innocence, because anyone who gives freely must be either innocent or mad. And yes, there is also an association between innocence, the simpleton, and madness. But art, as a gift, is the antithesis of capitalist ideology, because a gift is, in its essence, outside the economy and beyond the realms of time and money.

An authentically human system cannot ignore true art, and a truly human economy would have to understand the incompatibility between art (that which must be given) and the false-necessities created by the ubiquitous presence of money. A truly human economy, therefore, should be designed in a way that allows art to be created in a space beyond time and money, or, in other words, outside the money system itself.

 

PROPOSITION A:

The existence of art has to challenge the ubiquitous nature of the money system.

 

When Skimpole says: “… go after glory, holiness, commerce, trade, any object you prefer; only – let Harold Skimpole live!” in effect Dickens is saying that the capitalists can build society anyway they want. However, the world they are building stifles Skimpole, and if Skimpole is a symbol of the artist, then Dickens is saying that the time-and-money system is choking art.

But Skimpole is a survivor, who has still not been swallowed up by the System. Somehow he manages to maintain his autonomy, perhaps because “he still had claims too, which were the general business of the community and must not be slighted,” or because he is anti-materialistic himself: “I covet nothing”; or because: “I feel as if you ought to be grateful to me for giving you the opportunity of engaging the luxury of generosity. I know you like it … I may have come into the world expressly for the purpose of increasing your stock of happiness.” Forget your worldliness and play with me, he says, which is what any pure artist would say as well.

Art is the gift of escape, but it is also the gift of progress-through-creativity, and because of that it is not only a gift it is a fundamental feature of humanity whose essence is to become through a continual process of becoming. Only through art can humanity ever really conceive itself to be progressing freely. Art is an essential ingredient in any definition of freedom. And, as Skimpole asserts: “the base word money should never be breathed near it!”

Skimpole can only exist in the time-and-money system by being a charlatan, and as a charlatan he is unscrupulous at ensuring his survival. But Dickens is also blaming the system for Skimpole’s unscrupulousness. Skimpole has no choice, just as art or any artist has no choice. In order to survive in this world, everyone needs money, artist or not. Skimpole uses his charms to maintain his independence from the System, but the System is still there and he is still inside it. He is an impossible man, but in his absurdity resides something that the world that makes him absurd also needs: His creativity.

In the eyes of capitalism, Skimpole is a parasite, just as all artists are who cannot justify themselves in the world of the free market are parasites. But let us remember that some parasites achieve greatness as well: those who, doomed to be amateur nobodies in their poverty-stricken lives, became superstars after their death. A most poignant example is Van Gogh, whose work now brings in millions and yet he never sold a painting in his life. Likewise, Dostoevsky was a struggling unfortunate; as was Beckett.

Art in the civilised world now seems to be the heading the same way as the nomad. There is no space for the real artist in the free-money-market world. And, like any nomadic society, the artist will be forced to eventually conform to the system or perish.

Of course, the irony of this, is that art is one of the defining features in the identity of the civilised world against the barbarian. By reducing the artist to the level of the parasite, civilisation reveals a triumph of barbarism within its own walls. It has its pinacothecas and museums, but these only display its own hypocritical attitude toward the artist, who, like Skimpole, is only a parasite until proven otherwise.

The Aesthetics of the Universe

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The Universe is creative, capable of engendering novelty and incredible complexity as well as beautiful simplicity and harmony. In fact, when we examine the cosmos it is easy to make an analogy of its mechanics with the creative process of art: there is trial and error, perhaps even deliberation and accidental inspiration; there are moments when it destroys its own work, rubs it out and starts again; new options can emerge and it will follow them.

All art is in the Universe, and the Universe is in all art. It starts off as a Jackson Pollock and evolves into Da Vinci and then goes back to Pollock.

To be a good cosmologist, one has to study the aesthetics of the Universe.

On Taste

paradox

In logic, antinomy is the term used to describe a “real or mutual incompatibility of two terms”.[1] It could be regarded as a synonym of paradox. The statement “there is no absolute truth,” is antinomic because the statement declares a truth that it also claims to be impossible. Likewise, the concept of Fake news is an antinomic entity, if we consider news to be reports of what has actually happened, and, therefore, inherently true.

Antinomy is not only resolved when its conflicting propositions are found to be not in in fact contradictory, it is also seen to be one of the more profound insights into the apparently contradictory structures of truth. These conflicting propositions are capable of existing together, although in a way that, as Kant says: “transcends our faculties of cognition”.[2] Likewise, we have discovered how often conflict can be resolved by finding the middle way between them, and this middle way also possesses a certain transcendental quality that, when applied to the conflict, can take hold of these two antagonistic forces and, through its own possession of qualities in both of them, resolve their otherwise internecine obliteration of each other.[3]

Between the objective opinion and the objective judgement comes cultural taste, which is an opinion formed from a combination of objective study and personal feelings towards things. As such, we have taste standing between opinion and judgement, transcending the negative qualities of both.

For Kant, the judgement of taste has its determining ground: “in the concept of what may be regarded as the supersensible substance of humanity.”[4] In Jungian terms, we could say that taste is powered by archetypes which, if they are nurtured, will pull the subjective into the realm of the human, allowing for humane judgements that equally transcend the cold calculations of purely objective meaning.

As Kant said: “it is the supersensible, through taste, that brings reason into harmony with itself.”[5]

And yet, in terms of the human and universal, there is hardly anything more untrustworthy than taste. But: how can a thing that is so untrustworthy be the harmonising agent of reason? And, what are the consequences of this untrustworthiness of taste?

TASTE AND IDEOLOGY

To answer these questions, we need to examine how ideology uses taste to perpetuate itself. Here, perhaps, a viral analogy can be used: The viruses of ideologies insert themselves into the cells of taste in order to propagate themselves throughout the System. And as ideology is a divisor and anti-human force, the harmonising and humanising potential of taste is constantly mitigated.

Yet, it remains our only hope – and for this reason taste must be cared for and cultured towards the human, away from the ideological. It is ideological taste which perpetuates the social and environmental antagonisms we are faced with today. Refinement of tastes is, therefore, a humanising process concerned with universals and archetypes; with what connects us to each other and to the world, rather than what separates us.

TASTE

Taste is a mixture of both the aesthetic and the rational. The aesthetic is intuitive by nature, the rational is analytic, and taste is intuitive and analytic at the same time. It is in this combination of intuition and analysis that makes taste so important. But in order to be effective as humanising agent, it needs to be carefully refined. Perhaps there can be no more important labour for humanity than this refinement of our personal tastes.[6]

REFINED (UNIVERSAL) TASTE

A universal taste, for example, is one that still believes in good and beauty, but good and beauty themselves are universal and ideal concepts. For this reason, and in order to anchor the ideal in a coherent world-view, it is necessary to see the Universe as a purposive thing. It is only through this anti-nihilistic world-view that human progress is possible. Within our economy-obsessed System, progress is taken away from the domain of the human and invested completely in the realm of the economy under the guise of growth. But growth is not progress, because growth in the economy is always quantitative and never qualitative, whilst human progress must always be seen as an improvement in the quality of life for all human beings.

Aesthetic and moral concepts are purposive things. Things we are striving to make; discover; be: and all of them carry a sense of improvement in them.

The purposiveness of taste is both realist and idealist: the real is a process we are necessarily moving through before the ideal can ever be realised or attained, or, perhaps, even discovered. Accident is part of the real, but it is the real that makes the accidental possible.

In order for taste to become something of worth again, we need to anchor it to the ideals of universal purposiveness in order for real to move at last in a purposeful direction.

[1] Antinomy, Encyclopædia Britannica Online

[2] Immanuel Kant, CRITIQUE OF JUDGEMENT, p. 168

[3] See https://pauladkin.wordpress.com/2012/08/24/the-middle-way/

[4] Kant, CRITIQUE OF JUDGEMENT, p. 168

[5] Ibid. p. 169

[6] We are not advocating snobbism here, but a humanising process. Snobberies divide and are anti-human because of that. Refining our tastes towards appreciating what we all have is common and the archetypal forces that direct our collective subconscious has nothing to do with snobbery at all. What we are talking about lies closer to religion, but religion without ideology – and religion is now infested with ideology.

On the Beauty of Humanity

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Kant says that there are two kinds of beauty: that which is free and that which is dependent.[1] Human imagination can develop beauty, seemingly freely through imagination, but the essence of human beauty itself is always coming from a condition of dependency, for it depends on the Universe that it depends on for its existence and in which it is contained.

In fact, human beauty resides in two absurd drives: a) the desire to be free in a Universe that it is ultimately completely dependent on; and b) the desire to find permanence in that same Universe which is destined to die.

To indagate in our beauty then, we cannot escape our absurdity. And yet, all great art is based on these two paradoxical longings: how can that be? How can something be great and absurd at the same time?

The answer to this dilemma lies in the same paradox, the paradox of freedom and its impossible relationship with its dependence on reality.

The key to the human soul is embedded in our impossible dreams: we know that we cannot be truly free or permanent, but that does not stop us from trying or stop us from believing in such things. And it is this ability, this sapiens skill of pursuing the impossible, that pushes us beyond all paradoxes. The fact that we can understand the impossible and yet at the same time believe in the idea that the impossible will become possible and real, is a liberation.

Or, knowing that we are not free and yet still believing that we could be, makes us free.

This paradox has been the driving force of all deep art and deep technology. In it lies the immense beauty of what we are; the awesome beauty that can believe it will one day conquer even its own most absolute limitations … as long as we keep focussed and trying.

[1] Immanuel Kant, CRITIQUE OF JUDGEMENT, Oxford World Classics edition, OUP, p.60

Pleasure and Preservation – the need for an Aesthetics of Humanity

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Pleasure gives us a purposiveness to preserve that which we like.

This idea is Kantian[1]. In linking pleasure with preservation, it also ties it to the will for permanence and removes it from pleasure as a hedonistic love of the ephemeral.

In this way, we find that there are two kinds of pleasure: the superficial (ephemeral) one and the deeper one that is tied up with this will for permanence.

Kant was investigating aesthetics when he brought this up, and in fact it is this double pronged idea of pleasure which explains the need for aesthetics as a need for understanding the pleasure that things can give us in order to understand the need to preserve them.

It there is a necessary purposiveness in preserving humanity, then perhaps this can be inculcated via the development of an aesthetics of humanity, a way of looking at ourselves that will foster the deeper pleasure instincts of the will for permanence.

By dwelling on the beauty that is humanity we encourage ourselves to strengthen the human and mould ourselves into good human-beings: a concept which can only be properly understood once we have learned to see the beautiful within what humanity is.

An aesthetics of the human would need to be disinterested in anything other than the authentically human. Any study of this aesthetic would therefore have to distance itself from the ugly humanity that we are, in order to find the beautiful humanity that we should be.

This concept should not be seen as Idealist, but rather as a kind of positivistic deconstructionism. The only way to know what we should be as authentic human beings, is to dismantle the errors that have shaped us into the monstrous form that humanity is today. Only by unveiling the ugliness of what we are now, can we see the beauty of what we should have become (and can become in the future). This unveiling demands a dismantling of all interests that divide humanity: all nationalisms; racial or religious divisions; as well as all economic interests and ideologies of class.

An aesthetics of humanity might not only be a way to ensure the permanence of the human race, it could also create an authentic design and composition for humanity or for human progress.

Technology, seen from the perspective of the aesthetics of humanity, is either an ornamentation that takes away from the genuine beauty of humanity, or it is an extension of the beautiful picture itself.

Objective purposiveness is either external, i.e. the utility; or internal, i.e. the perfection of the object,”[2] said Kant. But our line of thinking sees perfection coming through utility. Once we understand the utility of humanity in the cosmos, then we can begin to conceive where the road to perfection starts.

[1] See Immanuel Kant, CRITIQUE OF JUDGEMENT, Oxford Classics, OUP, p. 51

[2] Ibid, p.57

THE EXISTENTIAL NEED FOR NEW KINDS OF CRITICS

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How is an objective judgement of something so personal as art possible? Or, in other words, how is aesthetics possible? Or perhaps the question is irrelevant, for even if a truly objective judgement is impossible, the critic must try and make one. If not, without criticism what would art achieve? How would the artist know how to proceed in a critical vacuum?

Once again we find that something we take for granted rests on a very shaky paradox: criticism is impossible but we need it. In a sense, the whole basis of art is absurd and unsustainable, and yet we need it. In fact, we could not really conceive of being human without it.

Perhaps the most surprising thing is that we, or our artists, ignore the absurdity and the paradox and just get on with the job, and the critics keep on with theirs. Surprisingly, yes, until we start to consider that all activity in the whole of society and civilisation is based on this same paradox: How can any individual make an objective judgement of any human activity at all?

Of course, to most people the surprising thing would be that we are even trying to formulate such questions. Another paradox is that absurdity is so ingrained in our lives that we take it completely for granted and it doesn’t surprise us at all. We can’t even see the pointless nature of our lives. As Camus said, we are a kind of Sisyphus, condemned to push a huge rock up a hill, but a happy Sisyphus, unaware of the real absurdity of our condition. We just get on with the job; revealing or talking about the non-purposefulness of our lives does little to help. Or not at least until we realise that we can change things and that the most absurd thing about the absurdity is its repetitiveness which is completely unnecessary.

With an absurdity we have three choices: believe in it; not believe in it; or, ignore its existence and believe in something else. The fact that the objective system is impossible as a pure objective truth means that there are as many other impossible objective systems as we can subjectively imagine. The system as it is now, has most of us picking grass in a huge green lawn. This is not the best of all possible systems and neither is it the least worst, it is just one possibility that maintains itself purely and simply because it is geared toward convincing us that it is the only feasible possibility.

To find another possibility we need good new critics. Ones who are capable of inventing a purposeful aesthetic for the rest of us to follow. The grass on the lawn we are picking has already created too many bare and ugly patches of desolate, impotent land. A better system would be one that plants and grows much and picks little. In order to enjoy existence, we have to let it be.   

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The War Around Us

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There is a war raging in our midst. A war between the Reproducibles and the Unreproducibles, and there is a near certianty that the former is about to annihilate the latter once and for all. We sit in almost utter ignorance whilst this terrible conflict rages around us. Most of us don’t even see the effect it has on our own lives, but a victory of the Reproducibles would be tragic for humanity as well. We must wake up. It is time for us now to ally ourselves to the beleaguered Unreproducibles and turn the tide on this insidious genocide. We have been seduced by their Darwinian, “survival of the fittest” contentions, but the Reproducibles are now so ubiquitous that there is no room for the Unreproducibles to grow in at all.

What is at stake is the existence or annihilation of the originality and creativity that the Unreproducibles represent. The Culture of Reproduction no longer has to create new things. Now it can perpetuate its dominion of the market place by simply reworking old fashions, slightly modified to seem contemporary or even futuristic. And the market place is spreading so widely that the Unreproducibles are left with nowhere to stand. Authenticity is a withered concept now. Originality has been left limbless or lame. To find creativity, one must dig in the cemeteries.

Of course our own health has also been damaged by this one-sided war, especially our souls. We stand cold before the beautiful and glance nonchalantly at the awesome. We shake our heads slightly at the tragic and turn peevishly away from the difficult to comprehend. We gravitate unto anything easy to understand and digest. The Reproducibles have made us insipid, nihilistic, and, like the war itself, our Unreproducible individualities are on the brink of extinction.

Descartes’ Perfect Being

Descartes

Descartes argued that a perfect being cannot be created out of something less perfect. Common sense immediately refutes this: we merely have to imagine any great artist and consider his or her development. Let’s take Beethoven as an example, and imagine his first lesson before the piano. A first lesson that was the first spark of a process that eventually produced the 9th Symphony.

What we take for God can also be created out of something much baser, even something as flawed as humanity.

Certain it is that Beethoven could never have arrived at our Beethoven without being prepared to work at it. Perfection doesn’t come about by accident. Likewise, for humanity to achieve its great destiny and become the God it alone can imagine, then it must get to work.

The Sublime

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The sublime experience is one which is elevated and inspires awe. Some would say, an experience that touches us or moves us deeply. Many would say that the experience of the sublime is a feeling that behind the phenomena lies some substantial but inaccessible thing – like God, for instance. Because of this the sublime is often put forward as an example to demonstrate the presence of God in our lives. But, we think this is a total misreading of the sublime.

In fact, the experience of the sublime is not that which points toward the inaccessible at all. The experience of the sublime is really a discovery of the real substantiality of things. What the sublime experience tells us is that there is a substantiality in all things, but habit and closeness have robbed us of the magic of it. A magic which is really based in the simple fact that we are perceiving it.

The first great miracle of the Universe is that it exists. The second great miracle – almost more miraculous still – is that we can perceive it. And the greatest miracle of all is that we know we perceive it. The sublime is the experience of knowing that we perceive existence, and that that is a miracle. It has nothing to do with God.

When we see the light behind the grotesque or the beauty in the monster’s interior, we are making a leap from our subjective prejudice to the universal perception. All sublime feeling is an immersion in the universal, whether that be the universality of our species or the universality of the Universe itself. The sublime is a perceiving that suddenly blasts out of a state of not-perceiving. A great work of art can move us in a sublime way on repeated occasions because it is always opening up different doors for us to perceive things from. However, the sublime sensation of the work will not be generated if we have it hanging on our living room wall or if it is a recording that we listen to every day. The sublime has to be a surprise, a way of snapping us out of our subjectivity. Sometimes it can be an absolute shock, as if we were suddenly pushed under water at a moment of complete lethargy when we had practically forgotten we were even floating.