On the worthlessness of novels

By “a few days” it seems I meant the whole Christmas octave: among my longer disappearances from the Idlesphere. I have enjoyed this absence, which did not constrict my writing, for I caught up with correspondence, pinging my last owed message on the eve of the New Year, indeed just at the stroke of midnight, so that I assumed the fireworks, car horns, and noises within the building were in celebration of my heroic deed. As an old hack, a man of deadlines, I was in fact racing to complete the tasks of MMXVI, and settle its debts, within the calendar year; with the exception of those debts which can never be settled, and for which forgiveness and absolution must be sought.

A “hack journalist” to be sure (I love the biblical redundancy in this term), and a graphomaniac, from years of habit. For in the middle of a peaceful week, which I might have devoted more constructively to drinking, I wrote a long short story, or short novella. Verily: I was tempted almost to post, here, what I would describe as a “modern” ghost story — in which none of the characters die, or are dead, but succeed nevertheless in haunting each other. My title was, “The Curse,” and the whole piece could have been read as a chapter of memoir by anyone who knows me well enough. Fortunately, no one living knows me that well.

Of course, one changes names, locations, small details, to protect the guilty and the innocent alike; skips particulars irrelevant to the story, inserts events which might improve it, and both consciously and unconsciously toys withal. A story is a story, and in defence of those who tell stories not strictly accurate to events, they may not be merely trying to purvey “fake news.” They may also be trying not to bore the reader with facts he neither needs nor wants to know. Homer’s “angle” on the Fall of Troy would disintegrate under the ministrations of a professional fact-checker, and the wanderings of Odysseus which enchanted my youth beggared “literal” belief even then.

Yet it fulfilled the requirements of a tale, “which holdeth children from play, and old men from the chimney-corner.”

Stories, “myths,” are in this sense truer than life, or easier to remember. Life is just a mess, and in trying to recall, precisely, what happened (in last week’s case) thirty-six years ago, and in exactly what order, for the purpose of retelling in an ordered way, I found even old notes of limited utility. Some have better memories, some worse; some, as I’ve discovered in conversation with old friends, have almost no memory at all, and I pity them on the Day of Judgement. For as I tell my students, it is good to be at least partially prepared for an Examination. Notwithstanding, earthly recollection is through a fog of emotional interests, seen and unseen, and by evidence that is quickly lost.

Much of what we attribute to “tradition” goes back only to the last century, or at best the century before. This has always been so: authority is sought by fathering our whims on imaginary ancestors. The next British Coronation — which I fear to be approaching — will be presented as an impossibly ancient rite, when in fact the model was cut from whole cloth at the accession of the late King Edward VII; and the wrinkles later ironed out for his son. Or so I was once told by a supposed expert on this topic. A nation state is inherently unstable, and must constantly recast not only its present but its past in order to keep up with the times. (How very human.)

Indeed, every attempt to subtract God from our proceedings, and insinuate our own profane needs, involves fraud. That is among the uses of Scripture, or other historical documents for that matter: to correct our fluctuating notions of “the record.” Writing was worth inventing for that cause.

The same is so in the history of our storytelling. Prose narrative had, by the early Victorian era, moved against deep truth to nature in the direction of the narrow veracity of “realism.” In the hands of a Dickens or a Dostoyevsky, the new genres could be turned to old effects; but the contemporary “realistic” novel does not descend from Boccaccio, Rabelais, Cervantes. Instead it descends, or might be said to degenerate, from the periodical journalism of the eighteenth century. It was and remains a bastard form, much closer to journalism than to poetry. It must always entertain in a cheapened way.

The legitimate form is that of the tale, which eschews the mundane, and aspires instead to the elevation of poetry. Beowulf, among the unexpected miracles of literature (the manuscript recovered less than a dozen generations ago) is noble; any attempt to recast its essential content in the plausible environment of an historical novel would fail ludicrously. Grendel would shrink into a case study.

Aristotle understood this, and the catharsis he represents is not the Freudian thing we have come to prize. Moreover, he grasped that the plausibility of a tale does not rest on our everyday experience, remembered or projected; instead upon an invisible order that is true to life in the manner of music. Each of the sensible Greek terms he employs — crucially mimesis, hamartia, melos, peripeteia, anagnorisis, dianoia — escape simple English translation, and require serious contemplation to be retrieved.

Modern scholars admit that Aristotle’s categories are largely irrelevant to modern literature, but this is a condemnation of the latter. He is not presenting a “creative writing” formula for successful authorship, incidentally. He is describing how “the tale” works, in its mysterious movement. It is, if gentle reader will, a spiritual organism. Mythos and opsis (too easily translated as “structure” and “spectacle”) are not, as for a modern, the same thing. They are different organs for different functions. The world is not being transformed into “myth,” nor stylized, nor appropriated in any other way; it is instead being visited, Told.

I have never wanted to be a novelist, any more than I have wanted to be a journalist, and in writing my oppressively realistic novella I realized that while it might (or might not) amuse others, I was actually indulging in a therapeutic act that pertained to me alone. As I passed through layers of ethos and lexis, I was discovering for myself how little the protagonist (who was really and inevitably moi) understood about the events in which he once participated. It became an exposé of his selfish blindness, his ham-fisted tampering with hearts, and the consequences not only to others but finally and comprehensively to himself. Had I been writing such garbage from the beginning (I have a talent for describing erotic tension), I would probably be rich by now.

The modern novelist deals in phantasms of the living; he projects himself as if onto a cinema screen. Gentle reader might offer the pop-psychological “narcissistic,” but this word is also widely misunderstood. The image of Narcissus was reflected in water, and “discovered” by him there. But to understand the myth one must understand his tragedy: that Narcissus did not recognize himself.