Thursday, June 12, 2008

The idea of progress (literary edition)

In an interview at The Believer (link via Condalmo), Tom McCarthy says:
Here’s the thing, right, Finnegans Wake—Joyce thought it was the last novel. He thought this was the novel in which the destiny of literature would realize itself. It was the event that we have been waiting for all of these years. And he literally thought it would be the last novel. It would be (a) unnecessary and (b) impossible to write a novel, I mean a proper novel, a serious novel, after Finnegans Wake. Now, in a way, if you have this linear-progressive view of literary or cultural history, then it is quite hard to see that he wasn’t right. But I have tried to argue, in the past, that he was exactly, I mean exactly, wrong—that Finnegans Wake is actually the first book. It is the source code of the novel. It contains everything from the picaresque Spanish, to the Anglo-Saxon novel, through Shakespeare and everything else. It eviscerates them and lays them open, but doesn’t resolve anything.

So, I don’t buy into the idea of progress, that we need to go beyond Joyce in terms of form. I think there are other things to do. Once we’ve observed the big bang in physics we don’t all just dissolve into space. We do other stuff that’s enabled by that. This goes back to what you were asking about Robbe-Grillet or Burroughs, who are writers I have a huge, huge admiration for. And you know, in my early twenties I used to copy passages of Burroughs out and make diagrams of sequences of Robbe-Grillet. But I don’t just want to imitate them or take what is most superficial about them and add one to that. I would rather do something that makes sense at a more intuitive level.
I like what McCarthy says here about literary progress. In my days of despair, when I looked on the literary milestones of the past, I assumed a progression of techniques. Certain writers would come up with new things, innovations, which would be incorporated into the literary playbook; or, successive generations of writers would go further and further in certain directions. From this view, the minimal fiction of Beckett (as I once imagined it, before I'd read any of it) appeared as one cul de sac, famously extreme allusiveness rendering Finnegans Wake yet another (to name just two examples I had in mind). So part of my despair, my confusion, was in wondering how later writers could possibly sufficiently "make it new" in the face of such monuments from the past. What was there left to do? My mistake, I've come to realize, lay, in part, in this area of progress, in advancement. And the notion I had of an ever-expanding literary playbook is similarly suspect. There is no playbook.

(See also Dan Green's two recent posts related to this topic: "Dead Systems" and "Incorporating the Old".)


Anonymous said...

This is a great quote from Tom. And I think you are both right: the idea of progress in art is a very daft idea indeed.

Further to what you've said Richard, I'd note that the idea of progress suggests both an incorporation of something (ideas, techniques) and then a distancing from them ... but something like, say, Sterne's Tristram Shandy just remains on our mental landscape resolute, unique, nonpareil. Responding to it isn't about decoding it, but rather about abiding with it.

Anonymous said...

Not only is there no playbook, but the medium of all the books, language, shifts according to consciousness, which is always complex, and in a creative trauma as regards the past. Consciousness, alive and with an ambiguous, dramatic, questionable, inheritance. And language, the expression always of the living, but itself a palimpsest, containing the inescapable past, still to be understood for it's part in the mystery of life.

What opportunity!