As we begin the third millennium, it seems clear that the novel has relinquished to film its role as the dominant narrative form. This is increasingly the case even in those emerging countries where the novel would appear to remain a viable means of creating communal consciousness. We tend to tell the story of the novel as the triumph, consecrated in the nineteenth century, of the fictive imagination over public spectacle; we would do better to understand the dominance of fiction over spectacle as a romantic and post-romantic interlude.
Not that theatricality disappeared in the nineteenth century. On the contrary, as cultural historians such as Vanessa Schwartz (Spectacular Realities, California 1998) and Paul Metzner (Crescendo of the Virtuoso, California 1998) have pointed out, it is precisely this period that witnessed the emergence of modern popular spectacle and, with it, the modern notion of celebrity. In turn, the ubiquity of this spectacle provoked the literary reaction that led through post-romanticism to modernism. As principal heir to the post-romantic l’art pour l’art that culminated in Mallarmé’s combination of hermeticism and ironic consumerism, modernism aims at creating a spectacle for the elite that would defeat the popular at its own game. But whereas late nineteenth-century literature remained centered on the solitary genres of poetry and the novel–the individual nature of creation was perhaps the one dogma Mallarmé held in common with Zola–modernism tends to be collective (e.g., the Surrealists) and anti-narrative (e.g., Valéry). The greatest modern novelists belong less to modernism than to the extremes of the post-romantic; this explains why the questions posed by Joyce, Kafka, and Proust to the limits of the novelist’s communion with his reader did not lead, as with Scott or Balzac a century earlier, to an enlargement of the possibilities of the genre, but to their exhaustion.
If the figure of the romantic poet/artist is a tired cliché, it is because his example was accessible with only minor adjustments to the young men of the early bourgeois era. Frédéric Moreau, shown in the opening scene of Flaubert’s L’éducation sentimentale carrying an artist’s album and a guitar, typifies the pretensions of the jeunesse romantique. Any reasonably educated bourgeois can write a few verses or sketch a scene. The novelist’s role is different. The nineteenth-century realist novel, as opposed to the classical roman d’analyse, requires too much prolonged, concentrated effort to be within reach of the youthful amateur.
The novel exemplifies the creativity of the isolated individual, Balzac or Flaubert alone at his writing desk. During the age of the novel, from roughly 1830 to 1960, cultural energy was focused on the self-creation of the individual under the guidance of the singular author-creator. If the crowd communes in spectacle, the cultured self can only join the community once he has first asserted his capacity to create significance unaided. Each individual is the bearer of the originary source of significance, and it is only because of this that bourgeois society can function as a whole
Now that the novel has declined and the high-cultural novel all but disappeared from the first-world cultural equation, it is easy to see the purely representational yet personified spectacle of cinema as a synthesis of the purely representational novel and the personified spectacle of theater. But what was most significant about the novel has not survived its supersession: the novel was a factor not merely of adjustment but of subversion. In contrast to the poet/artist, the novelist is openly a middle-class entrepreneur, capitalizing his talent and profiting from its exploitation (think Dickens or Zola). Yet the novelist also represents a point of resistance to market activity; his solitary labors of the imagination contrast with the utilitarian practices of the bourgeoisie.
The novelist is at the same time isolated from the world and fascinated by it. Unlike the romantic self-regard that enhances one’s human capital in preparation for entry into bourgeois life, these attitudes of detachment and vicarious participation can only help us survive life’s disillusions. Balzac’s romantic realism is only superficially an encouragement to market success; Flaubert’s post-romantic disillusion is clearly an apology for worldly failure. Within the rhythm of bourgeois life, the novel is designed for a private experience of reading that consoles the private self after its daily buffeting in the marketplace.
Unlike the poet, the novelist is not a model to be emulated; he is a transcendent figure, a secular priest, an association that Balzac provoked with his monk’s robe and that Flaubert never ceased to flaunt in his correspondence. This priestly function gives the novelist access to a truth that the reader as ordinary bourgeois can see only through his eyes: Girard’s vérité romanesque, the revelation of the vanity of worldly desire from the transcendent vantage point of pure representation. As opposed to the popular novel whose romantic heroes are still served up for identification today, the “literary” novel ends unhappily or at best ironically. The reader plunges into these tragic depths protected by the diver’s bell of the novelist’s extra-worldly subjectivity.
The novelistic stance of refusing the world in order to grasp the world, naively assimilated by Balzac and Zola to that of the scientist, is in reality a sacrificial one that redeems the vanity of the worldly desire it denounces. This existential relation to the sacred is not possible in cinema. The “experimental” films made in the equivalent of cork-lined rooms have only technical or cult interest. The spirituality of cinema reflects that of the world itself, viewed with utmost seriousness; it has no place for the irony of the novelistic gaze. Where Dreyer shows us the Passion of Falconetti-Joan of Arc, Proust’s literary agony allows us to delight in the self-delusions of Charlus and Mme Verdurin.
The age of the novel is that of a short-lived bourgeois idealism. The novel serves as a guarantee for my faith that by sacrificing my own life to art I too could create an immortal work. It is the loss of this ideal consolation for worldly failure that explains the postmodern urge to monumentalize lives before they are complete in any sense. From Emma Bovary to Erin Brockovich, the protagonist has evolved from a figure of pity redeemed by Flaubert to a figure of envy consecrated by Julia Roberts.
What has passed away is not the novel but the novelistic attitude, that of the self who accepts lack of control over the world in exchange for the privilege of living within it detached from its values, observing it, at least in principle, as if it were material for a novel. Although this attitude is not incompatible with worldly success, it is difficult to reconcile with the corporate lifestyle. The novelistic withdrawal from the marketplace is conducive to success within it only so long as it reflects the secret desire of those entering a world that does not yet offer a full complement of means for expressing personal uniqueness. With the passing of this immature stage of market society, there is no longer need for a transcendental vision to oppose to that of the marketplace itself.
What dies with the novelistic attitude is not personal creativity but the ideal of its virtual existence in the isolated individual. The world of the film-maker, to draw the pertinent comparison, is far more egocentric but also far less solitary than that of the novelist. The latter can avenge himself on the world with pen or word-processor; the former must bend a whole team of people to his will and find financing in the bargain. The film-maker, however introspective, must be at least minimally gregarious and manipulative or his film will not get made. And if, at the bottom line, the novelist knows he can always find a place to withdraw to, even from failure as a (public) novelist, the film-maker must live with the terrible knowledge that if he can’t make his film, he has no recourse of any kind–other than to write a novel.
Because the Bronx, that urban Valley of the Dinosaurs, maintained nineteenth-century cultural modes long after they had perished elsewhere, my generation is perhaps the last to have known the novelistic attitude. Today we all take our cue from the film-maker in realizing that human creativity, like the human society it nourishes, is an interactive enterprise.