Thursday, February 26, 2015

The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of the Novel

In The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism Max Weber famously argued that there is a connection between the rise of Protestantism and the rise of capitalism. Certainly Protestantism arose and modern capitalism rose shortly thereafter, and no doubt the breaking of the central power of the Catholic Church broke ground for the rise of secularism and the separation of church and state, church and art, and church and economy. Thus, regardless of whether one finds the source in the Protestant ethic or in the incredible changes in Western European culture that resulted from the rise of Protestantism, there is little question that Protestantism was important for the rise of the Modern Era.

One of the things that emerged with and from the Modern Era is the modern European novel (which includes those novels influenced by the European novel, including the American novel, the Latin American novel, the postcolonial novel, etc.). The modern novel has been called bourgeois art, which in many ways admits the connection between the rise of the novel and the rise of the bourgeois class that was only possible with the rise of capitalism. Might the novel, then, be a product of Protestantism as well?

Such is the thesis of Joseph Bottum. He argues that the strength of the novel has followed the same arc as the strength of Protestantism. As Protestantism rose, so did the novel. As Christianity, including Protestantism, has weakened, so has interest in the novel. It may be that similar processes are affecting interest in Christianity, including Protestantism, and interest in the novel together, but this would only reinforce their connectedness. The renaissance period of the Modern Era saw the final proliferation of the novel, a bang of final experimentation before the novel fell out of favor.

This may imply there is a style for each era. Perhaps there is. Film for the Postmodern era. The novel for the Modern/Enlightenment era. The romance for the Medieval era. Tragedies during transitions. Comedies, poetry, and epics scattered throughout (though epics are the statement of an era during its peak, the affirmation of an era's world view). Whatever art form will arise post-Postmodern era one cannot recognize or know until after the transition to that era is at its peak and the the seeds of the new era are already fully planted. But it will be tied in with the cultural forces affecting the structures of the economy, governments, scientific inquiry, philosophical inquiry, technological innovation, etc.

I am myself unsure what the new genre could be or look like. I feel drawn away from novel writing (what I originally wanted to write) and toward writing tragedies. I write a great deal of poetry. But I haven't found the big new genre quite yet. It's not likely I will. I'm probably, at best, a transitional writer (but so was Kafka, Faulkner, Shakespeare, Racine, Aeschylus, and Sophocles, so I'm in good company). Discovering the new genre will likely be the purview of others. But that new genre will arise, and it will replace film as the dominant narrative form. That won't mean the death of film any more than film was the death of the novel, or the novel the death of romance, but it will mean film and television will become as minor as the novel has become in the past half century or more.

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Love of Literature and the Literary Order

Studies such as “Loving Literature: A Cultural History”  by Deidre Shauna Lynch, as discussed by Joshua Rothman, can provide part of the story of literature as a spontaneous order. The literary order is of course made up of writers reading other writers, but it is also made up of readers who are reading those writers for a variety of reasons. What is viewed as the dominant reason to read has changed over the years, decades, and centuries, just as the ways people have experienced literature has changed with changing technologies. Most experiences with literature involved oral storytelling prior to the printing press and the subsequent push for widespread literacy. And things changed yet again with the development of cinema, television, VCRs, DVDs, and the Internet. With the ability to record and watch TV shows over and over, TV shows have become increasingly complex in their storytelling, for example.

Something that particularly jumped out at me was an institutional change that had widespread ramifications for reading. Lynch argues that people used to take a more "rhetorical" approach to reading, insofar as people read to learn how to write and speak well. One read poetry for information and arguments, for a good quote on a topic. But eventually, this changed.
The invention that disrupted this rhetorical world was the canon. “Canon formation,” as literary historians call it, started in the mid-eighteenth century for all kinds of reasons, among them a rising interest in taste and connoisseurship, and, in Britain, a rethinking of copyright law. (In 1774, in Donaldson v. Beckett, British judges rejected the system of perpetual copyright in favor of the “public domain”; one consequence was a new notion that the great, enduring books belonged to all Britons.) The growth of the canon changed how people related to literature. It shifted the temporal focus of literary life from the present to the past; it made reading intrinsically nostalgic.
There was, of course, a canon before this time. There was a literary tradition, after all. There were writers the educated would of course read, and there were writers that other writers in particular read. Homer was in the canon before this conscious development of the canon. But the historical development of it in a more conscious way is itself interesting, particularly in its relationship to the rejection of "perpetual copyright." By freeing certain books from copyright, more books could be published, meaning more books could be read. The cost of books decreased, meaning people could now afford to read for leisure. And this led to love of literature.