The Death of the Novel


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.

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.



Paradoxically, whilst we start to become increasingly aware of how undemocratic the global, neo-liberal capitalist system is, and how insignificant are our voices in the vastness of the new global empire of the IMF and World Bank, at the same time we are finding platforms to stand on and express ourselves and our points of view. These platforms exist in the Internet.

In a sense the Internet is allowing us to discover Greek-style democracy for the first time. Within our own social-network cultures we enjoy a new space in which an extended group of friends and family interact with each other, sharing experiences and opinions. The group may consist of hundreds or thousands of members, a virtual village or town that may, and often does, extend widely with group members from different corners of the country or even the globe. There is a sense of belonging and freedom in the group, a flourishing visibility and meaningfulness outside of the global, corporate-empire world in which we are reduced to nothing more than insignificant particles. And this would have been how the Ancient Greeks would have felt in their city-state enclaves away from the engulfing, dehumanising, bureaucratic empires of Asia – and later Macedon and Rome.

In the blogging experience, or in the social network communities the herd and mass dissolve and the individual is able to express him or herself more creatively and communicate on a deeper level, both emotionally and rationally. The Internet experience is allowing people to self-publish stories or novels; post their poetry and deepest feelings and thoughts; express their personal philosophies; help one another; encourage one another… The atmosphere may at times be cynical or critical but it is usually positive, We are actually starting to sound like Greeks. There is debate, there is hope, there is a feeling that here, in cyberspace, there does exist real freedom.

It was from the sense of freedom within the social and cultural evolution of the Greek City-States that allowed lyric, epic and satirical styles to blossom, and that permitted the birth of tragedy, drama and comedy. From that spirit of freedom came its expression in a political form – Greek democracy. Freedom created democracy, not the other way around. Democracy did not and does not create freedom. Even without democracy the Greek City-State citizen felt freer than the subjects of the most benevolent Persian king. They were freer because they more visible in the City-State than in the Empire.

Milan Kundera was right in associating the tyranny of our times with the lightness of being that the traditional media-culture produces. Whether in the form of communist tyranny or capitalist democracy the deadening of the individual is the same. In either regime the opportunity of standing on the stage and expressing one’s deepest thoughts and feelings is minimal. In either system we are quite insignificant, suffering the tyranny of invisibility. Poems, stories, sketches, paintings, play scripts and film scores remained hidden in drawers and only now are we starting to see them seep out.

Here lies the importance of the Internet revolution.