Stinging Wasps proves painful

The True Story of the Novel
March 21, 1997

Let us only be furious", reads Margaret Anne Doody's dedication, "with things that are spurious." By the end of her book, one finds oneself taking her at this word, if no other.

In part, and in the good part of her book, Doody is really just entering a plea for us to read the stories of antiquity with the same engagement as modern texts. Anyone who has defended premodern literature to students predisposed to discount it will applaud the old-fashioned verve with which Doody insists and demonstrates that it deserves and rewards our fullest critical and emotional readiness. She uses the time-honoured method of retelling these often little-known stories (it takes almost five pages in the case of Bocaccio's Filocolo) while firing off barrages of information about them. Chapters two to 12 read like a series of bravura, if rather disorderly lecture notes that make us want to rush out to the nearest library and get to know the material for ourselves. One could almost recommend the book for them alone. Sadly, the preface and introduction are of such arch pomposity, and the first chapter starts with such a deconstructive howler (of which more later), that I suspect many readers will go no further. The second half of the book is then utterly swallowed up in the extraordinary grand narrative that Doody has the tactical sense, if not the pedagogical honesty, to keep hidden away in the early stages.

Doody's critical thesis is that 18th-century England saw an epochal change in the definition of the novel (her stress is not on artistic practice or public taste but on the role of criticism). From its origins in the multicultural near east of the classical age, the novel/ romance had always been an open, incorporative form that combined elements from a recognisable world with a willingness to explore different possibilities of living. The novel/romance's inherent radicalism always lay in this structural predisposition towards transforming reality into myth. This tradition of the novel/romance is unbroken (though often attacked as subversive) until the mercantilist-imperialist, proto-industrial culture of 18th-century England redefines (and thus sanitises) the novel "as an excuse for shedding the tradition". In place of that which is aesthetically vrai sembable, a "prescriptive realism" attempts to deny and repress all mythical aspects of the novel as suspect, foreign, inferior, feminine, wicked ... in short, romantic.

The bones of this argument are the stock-in-trade of American deconstruction: critical practice is central to literary history and can "subvert" a Wasp hegemony that denies all other traditions by the political myth of Enlightenment universalism. But with Doody one must use a bad word for a bad thing: postdeconstruction. By this, I mean those critics who, rightly seeing that the end of deconstruction must be solipsism, but unwilling to abandon the licence and status it grants the critical writer, have attempted to combine deconstructive relativism with an appeal to supra-individual categories of knowledge (the fact that this is a re-enactment of the internal struggle of Late Romanticism accounts, no doubt, for the omnipresence of Nietzsche in their work). Now, as then, myth is the category wherein they affect to have attained some access to a post-Enlightenment form of truth. It all hinges on a simple fallacy: what rationalists call "truths" are actually myths; therefore what rationalists call "myths" are actually truths.

Where others may consider that to connect with ancient literatures we need a consciously reflective effort of the historically informed imagination, Doody holds that we need to rediscover "the bloodline of western fiction" and recognise the novel as a "ritual of alternative". Then we shall see that "the novel itself seems to yearn toward that ancient matter", that all novels "share their true characteristics and inner structure" and that they all have "roots tapped into the great stream ... the novel's genetic inheritance".

The sources of this "great stream" are the "secret religious rituals of the Roman Empire", most importantly those of Isis. This is "the novel's religious background and bedrock". Doody offers virtually no evidence for the influence on ancient literature of what (she admits) are in any case almost unknown rituals. Indeed, she makes little enough real case for the subsequent influence of classical novels, whatever their "bedrock" may have been. For example, in the section promisingly entitled "The influence of the ancient novel", the first chapter contains a discussion of medieval Spanish literature that makes not one suggestion as to that influence; in a vital paragraph detailing Bocaccio's alleged knowledge of the Greeks, her argument runs thus: "It is almost harder to believe ... It is most likely ... It is impossible not to believe...". Where history has to be demonstrated, myth simply has to be believed. Or rather, it can be slipped in at any time by a sneaky linguistic shuffle: "Once 'Quest' is expanded into 'Journey,' then we see that all novels are really 'about' journeys". And once journey is expanded into "approaching the goddess", no doubt we see that all novels are really "about" the soul's approach to the goddess. Or what have you. Really, if a critic makes no distinction between historical fact and aesthetic myth, when she leaves the lecture theatre let us count our quotation marks.

Taken literally, Doody is to literary history what Erich von Daniken is to archaeology. Doody might claim she is allegorising ("we think of ourselves 'allegorically' - if we think of ourselves at all") but this merely begs the question: if it is allegory, why attempt to claim even the minimal alleged evidence? If we want to make art-myths in the manner of Nietzsche and Wagner, well and good: but let us be frank about it, rather than disguising them as (dis)provable intellectual history. There is something frighteningly sly about an academic culture that enables a tenured humanist to glorify breathless schwarmerei ("the goddess, as she tropes the novel and whirls it about her golden spindle") as if it were the conclusion of a rational debate.

That culture also allows Doody to present very timely ideas as radically subversive. Timely, because Doody's myth is that anti-dialectical one wherein no civilisation, no artistic practice, no literary form, no system of beliefs has ever been truly superseded: all "progress" is political repression - and the Wasp is the world-historical villain. Exactly the myth, in short, that replaces history in Disney's Pocahontas.

In the real world, which "British and American critics of Protestant descent" (remind me to check my "bloodline") have claimed within living memory that the novel as such originated with "English Puritans and merchants"? Doody is here unforgivably indulging in a typically Derridean tactic of deliberately shifting meanings. Only thus can she line up sufficient hostile forces to present a modest critical reminder (ie, that not all novels are realistic) as the revolutionary achievement of "our new criticism, visible in its power to disconcert". If I paraphrase her argument, colleagues may find it entertaining to discover its essentially demagogic structure repeated in other such criticism. First we get an unexceptionable truism: "Wasp critics say that the realistic novel developed among the nascent English middle-classes". Then comes the specious lie: "All critics inevitably privilege their own tradition." This enables the all-important resonant conclusion (if all truth is political myth, rhetoric is all that matters): "Thus Wasp critics claim that the novel as such is realistic and of English origin." The second step involves a sad assumption about human propensities - and indeed, Doody tells us roundly that "we as westerners are bound to" present one tradition only (the deconstructive critic is, like the demagogue, mysteriously free of such allegedly inescapable blinkers).

All demagogy is best confronted at the leap from truism to falsehood. With Doody (as with much deconstruction) the point d'appui is the absurd over-privileging of decontextualised linguistic observations. She asserts that English alone linguistically despises romance ("Other European languages have admitted the unity of romance and novel"), taking this as proof that Wasp culture has uniquely repressed the novel. As an example, she scorns an "Anglo-American" writer who has written of French literature "as if the nature of the word roman could be set aside from a discussion of romans" (one assumes she means "history", not "nature" - but then again, perhaps she does not). The whole thing turns into farce when we realise that despite her frequent positive references to Spanish literature ancient and modern, Doody either does not know (which would be amazing) or deliberately omits to mention (which would be almost comically underhand) that in Spanish the only word for novel is novela. What price the "nature of the word" now?

It does not occur to Doody that there may be a historical reason why English Protestants and Spanish Catholics do not say "roman", while Dutch, German and Swedish Protestants do (ie, that England and Spain both maintained their distance from the French cultural hegemony of the long European 18th century). The historical fact that novela-reading Spanish Catholics were at least as much a disaster for non-European cultures as novel-reading English Protestants has no bearing on Doody's purely aesthetic case: only the Wasps "dismiss Mary out of hand" (one trusts that the pre-Hispanic civilisations of South America are aware of their good fortune). Doody never considers that the term novel/novela/novella/novelle may once have seemed appropriate to readers and writers not because some contemporary critical theory told them so, but because they felt that here was something genuinely new. But then, Doody's myth is hostile to the very notion of positive change (hence her dislike of history). She cannot accept the dialectical notion that a literary form may once have been quasi-religious, but has now developed beyond such "taproots": what once was, must always be, and if we cannot see it, then we are blinded by the false light of Progress.

Doody's scorn for history is clear when she unwillingly allows that she ought at last to make "the humble but basic connection" between the ancient and modern novel before theorising too much: immediately, she blithely undercuts this nod to rational argument by inviting all who are "truly convinced" already (!) to "skip directly to part III". The rest of us are reassured that we will soon be "released from all the bondage to history as chronology". Instead, we will be bound to myth: "it is disturbing to realise that we know about Julius Caesar in the same way we know about Don Quixote". Well, it might be, if we did. But we do not: the political-literary image (the "myth") of Caesar is corrected incessantly by those who attempt to deal in facts. The true opponent of a received myth is not an alternative myth, and certainly not an antimodern myth of restoration; it is history.

Having cut itself free from fact and chronology (the prerequisites of any true story), Doody's knowledge is sucked, inevitably but at disheartening length, into the mythical bog; her infectious love of her material is swamped in the bizarre attempt to combine a half-baked deconstructive critique with the quintessentially high-aesthetic idea that literary history may fruitfully be discussed in terms of a timeless allegory. It can rarely have been so clear that two wrongs do not make a right, that myth has nothing whatever to do with truth, and that good teaching and millennial theorising rarely occupy the same chair.

James Hawes is on sabbatical from the department of German, University College of Wales, Swansea. His second novel, Rancid Aluminium, will be published in June by Jonathan Cape.

The True Story of the Novel

Author - Margaret Anne Doody
ISBN - 0 00 255802 5
Publisher - HarperCollins
Price - £25.00
Pages - 580

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