Beginnings and Endings
Beginnings and Endings
Abstract and Keywords
Beginnings and Endings dates from 1980. Parts of it were presented at a conference on Writing Literary History organized by Wlad, and again in 1981 at a conference on The Institutions of Criticism. As indicated by the titles of these events, both of which were attended by many leading literary critics firmly entrenched in the opposing camps of either historical or text-oriented criticism, the taxing challenge was twofold. The proponents of historical literary criticism were asked to account for the practice of writing in the constitution of literary history, and the text-oriented critics to confront the fact that writing not only gives rise to self-referential texts, but also to discourses on literature such as literary history. Furthermore, both camps of professional critics were subtly invited to respond to what kind of institutional pressures shape the critical traditions to which they subscribe.
In Meaning in History, published in 1949, Karl Löwith argues that modern historical consciousness—that is, modern philosophy of history as the history of open-ended progress—originates in modernity's self-delusion of having radically emancipated itself from Christian faith, and, in particular, from its conception of sacred history as a history of salvation.1 The philosophy of history, Löwith contends, is a secular replacement for eschatological theology. The history of the remarkable influence that this book has exercised on the secularization debate, which arose in Germany in the sixties along with the intellectual movement of conceptual history (Begriffsgeschichte), still needs to be written. As testimony of this influence, let me only point to the heated debates that Löwith's criticism of the notion of progress provoked in those years and, in particular, the extensive objections that were raised against his notion of secularization by Hans Blumenberg in The Legitimacy of the Modern Age.2 Blumenberg has pointed out that the concept of secularization—especially Löwith's use of the term to account for modernity—rests on a substantialist conception of history. The expectation of a second coming—promised by the event of Jesus Christ which opens up history as a worldly interim, and which as the anticipated event of the end-time is believed to put an ultimate end to history—is indicative of the one substance that also subtends modern, that is, (p.174) secular historical consciousness, and underwrites the continuity between past and present despite all appearances to the contrary. Indeed, the idea of a secular world with its belief in infinite progress is not simply a dissolution of Christian faith. According to Löwith, modern historical consciousness may place a world of immanence, in which human reason alone shapes the course of history, in opposition to a history predicated on divine transcendence and intervention, but this merely transforms the history of salvation, which expects that the end of history is imminent, into an open-ended history in which mankind steadily raises itself to ever greater happiness. Moreover, the worldliness of modern times and this new conception of history are not only the result of a transformation of religious believes and theological conceptions. Dialectical theology has gone as far as to argue that the modern forgetfulness of transcendence is a necessary and inevitable moment—a providential happening, in short—in the history of salvation itself since it brings the Christian to concentrate on that which separates him from this world. Thus secularization in fact promises nothing less than purification, and the fulfilling reinstitution of Christianity itself.
In any event, if the modern world is a secularized version of the Christian world, this not only means that by transforming essential tenets that are the legitimate property of Christianity, modernity has deprived Christianity of what intrinsically belongs to it. Because of this expropriation and subsequent transformation of an identifiable substrate, the historical category of secularization is, as Blumenberg has pointed out, much more than a strictly historical category—it is essentially a category of illegitimacy and injustice. While the category of secularization fosters continuity between this modern world and that Christian world, it also suggests, beyond the former's objective spiritual indebtedness to the latter, that the foundation of the modern age is essentially illegitimate. Not only is a worldly world a derivative and inauthentic formation, rather than a world in its own right, it is also based on an illegitimate infringement upon divine property rights. The notion of secularization is thus, perhaps, the last theologumenon. Its aim is to blame the secular inheritors of theology for having disowned and plundered Christian property in order to inaugurate a new epoch which is under the delusion that it is a free and autonomous formation. Therefore, Blumenberg is led to wonder whether the concept of secularization has anything to do with history to begin with. Not only is secularization, as a category, unable to account for sudden ruptures, autonomous innovations, or chance events but its function is to negate, in the name of a privileged substance that guarantees continuity, all novelty, (p.175) any fresh beginning. Such attempts or events are cast in terms of illegitimate appropriations of what in essence is the sacred property of Christianity and its universe. Indeed, secularization as a historical category is primarily a category constitutive of Christianity's self-explanation in the face of history and hence theological, if not ideological, in nature. Instead of serving a genuine understanding of history, this notion furthers interests and agendas that are extraneous, if not hostile, to a true theory of history, whatever that may be.
Löwith's secularization thesis, which encountered rather severe criticism from the advocates of the burgeoning Begriffsgeschichte, should in principle have received a much friendlier reception in North America, particularly among literary critics who, in the wake of New Criticism, sought to account for contemporary trends in literature from a primarily historical perspective. Apart from either Marxist-oriented or merely positivistic literary historians, the representatives of the dominant form of literary and historical criticism in North America in the 1960s and 1970s are unmistakably secular thinkers. Not only do they make explicit use of the category of secularization, but their work also pursues many other aspects of Löwith's developments in Meaning in History. As I intend to show in what follows, the theological underpinnings of this conception of historical literary criticism manifest themselves in that its proponents inevitably fashion the history that they outline as one that is end-time oriented. Although it came into being largely as a reaction to New Criticism, this form of literary criticism targeted at the same time more contemporary critical trends, above all the approach that focuses on the inner form of the literary text—that is, on the text's self-referentiality and self-reflexivity—and which it therefore branded as ahistorical. I will argue that this kind of criticism, the so-called deconstructive literary criticism, is only one side of the coin, the other of which is secular historical criticism. Its alleged ahistoricity is eminently historical, and is just as much indebted to the theological categories of history as the former. Rather than standing in a relation of opposition, both forms of criticism call upon and mirror each other; they are both complicitous in promoting the same type of sacred history in a secular form.
In Truth and Method, Hans-Georg Gadamer contends that nineteenth-century historicism never truly escaped romantic hermeneutics, that is, the idea of an uninterrupted continuity of world history that, beginning in Greece, took shape, according to Leopold von Ranke, as the self-exposition of the creative force of this culture or, as Wilhelm Dilthey suggests, of life itself, in order to find its ultimate realization and expression in the (p.176) cultural and historical world of the Occident as a whole. Because of this assumption, historicism belies its pretension of being a science grounded in experience (Erfahrungswissenschaft) and a science based on facts. If Gadamer's judgment of historicism is correct, it is all the more true of the literary historical criticism I have in mind. Despite all its erudition and the distinctive differences between its proponents—René Girard, Frank Kermode, and Edward Said, to name a few—this criticism presupposes a similar understanding of the continuity of history. Yet, as the central category of secularization within this brand of historical criticism demonstrates, it is not, as Aby Warburg and Ernst Robert Curtius have made the case, the living on of the classical past that secures the continuity of Western literature throughout the ages but an enduring Christian substance. Although the historical approach that one finds in at least those works that will be my prime focus—Edward Said's Beginnings and Frank Kermode's The Sense of an Ending—is avowedly a thoroughly secular one, what immediately strikes the eye is that this historical criticism is also an attempt to meet the challenge posed by contemporary literature. Indeed, it is as if the secularization thesis provided these authors above all with a means to make sense of what they perceive as a scandalon—the development of the self-reflective and self-referential literary artwork. First, however, it will be necessary to recall the major premises of Erich Auerbach's Mimesis, a work to which Said, admittedly, is profoundly indebted.3
The Scandalon of the New
Mimesis, as its subtitle shows, is an inquiry into “the representation of reality in Western literature.” If, as Auerbach acknowledges, the methodology of this work is deeply involved with historicism and romanticism, that is, “the German intellectual development during the second half of the eighteenth century which [in opposition to German classicism] laid the aesthetic foundation of modern realism” (443), it is also because its subject matter—modern realism—emerges for the first time in “Romantic Historism” itself (463).4 But what, precisely, distinguishes the reality that is the subject matter of modern realism and sets it apart not only from antique realism but from the representation of reality during the Christian ages as well? Against the classical high style's preoccupation with the lives of sovereigns and the events at the royal courts, the reality discovered by historicism and romanticism is that of ordinary people and their everyday lives; in distinction from the low style of classical comedy, however, this (p.177) everydayness is transformed and renewed in its foundations by way of movements of world-historical importance in the depths of these common people. Reality, as Auerbach understands it, is determined by the historical forces that originate “in the depths of the common people […] within the everyday occurrences of contemporary life” (43). Although such reality is prefigured in the Scriptures, where the movement that stirs the common people is spiritual, the reality in question in modern realism is increasingly determined by social and historical movements. To depict the reality of the everyday depths of popular life and its characteristic organic unity, the aesthetic precepts of modern realism thus require a break with the classical separation of low and high styles—a separation that is advocated by antique rhetoric and constitutive of antique realism. Modern historicist realism not only implies radically mixing high and low styles, the sublime and the comic but such mixing itself takes on the form of another decidedly high style.
In its opening chapter, “Odysseus' Scar,” and prior to the discussion of the classical distinction between high and low styles, Mimesis delineates another distinction, one between two “basic types” (23) of style that have shaped European literature and its representation of reality: the realistic Homeric depiction in perfect fullness of all phenomena and the Old Testament style, which externalizes only so much of the phenomena as is necessary for the purpose of a narrative dominated by a single goal, namely, God's mysterious demands upon the protagonists. Even though the major distinctions that this chapter sets up between Greece and the Old Testament—above all, between the horizontal and the vertical, logos and eschaton, phenomena and truth, absolute presence and history, description and interpretation, as well as between Homeric hypotaxis and biblical parataxis—bear in complex ways on the genesis of modern realism that Auerbach has sketched out, he also expressed some discontent with this initial chapter. In “Epilegomena zu Mimesis,” he admits to the “onesidedness” of the account of the opening chapter and to even having considered dropping it altogether since, as he remarks, for his purpose in Mimesis “it would have been sufficient to start with the time of the birth of Christ.”5 Indeed, in Auerbach's book, the distinction between Christian realism and modern secular realism is the crucial issue. In other words, in his attempt to explain the emergence of the high style of modern realism, one in which the classical divide between high and low is radically abandoned, Auerbach takes off from the story of Christ which, from its theological position, had already ruthlessly mixed “everyday reality and the most sublime tragedy” (555), and thus thoroughly transgressed the classical distinction. The true aim of (p.178) Mimesis is to outline the process of the slow emergence of modern realism, beginning with origins in the paradigmatic story of Christ, as an autonomous aesthetic and historicist formation.
Distinct from both the Homeric narrative, in which nothing is omitted or left in obscurity as far as the protagonists and their actions are concerned but which lacks the depth of a historical background, and the Old Testament account of events that take place in relation to Providence but which is rather poor as far as realist detail is concerned, Christian narrative mixes high and low style and is thus realist and historical. Indeed, the Scriptures, above all the New Testament, “created an entirely new sublimity, in which the everyday and the low were included, not excluded, so that, in style as in content, it directly connected the lowest with the highest” (154). Auerbach explains:
The sublimity of the Christian style in representing such low aspects of reality is a function of its vertical linkage of everyday events to the promise of Christ. Now, this linkage, and thus also the historical dimension of Christian realism, is a function of what is termed the “figural interpretation” of characters and worldly events. Although figural interpretation, also called “typological allegoresis,”6 is rooted in the Jewish tradition, according to Auerbach it is “applied with incomparably greater boldness” in the New Testament and made into a “method of revisional interpretation” of the Old Testament by which the latter “assumes the appearance of a series of ‘figures,’ that is, of prophetic announcements and anticipations of the coming of Jesus and the concomitant events” (48). Quoting from his essay on “Figura,”7 Auerbach provides the following definition of figural interpretation: “Figural interpretation ‘establishes a connection between two events or persons in such a way that the first signifies not only itself but also the second, while the second involves or fulfills the first. The two poles of a figure are separated in time, but both, being real events or persons, are within temporality. They are both contained in the flowing (p.179) stream which is historical life, and only the comprehension, the intellectus spiritualis, of their interdependence is a spiritual act’” (73). As opposed to the horizontal linkage of events that characterizes the Homeric style, the connection of two events in figural interpretation presupposes that “both occurrences are vertically linked to Divine Providence, which alone is able to devise such a plan of history and supply the key for its understanding. The horizontal, that is the temporal and causal, connection of occurrences is dissolved; the here and now is no longer a mere link in an earthly chain of events, it is simultaneously something which has always been [ein Jederzeitliches], and which will be fulfilled in the future; and strictly, in the eyes of God, it is something already eternal, something omni-temporal, something already consummated in the realm of fragmentary earthly events” (74). With this vertical linkage of worldly events to Divine Providence, figural interpretation brings about a historical understanding of events. Needless to say, “historical” here does not mean that occurrences are chronological or the result of causal development (as in either the classical or the positivistic understanding of history), but that their connection is “a oneness within the divine plan of which all occurrences are parts and reflections. Their direct earthly connection is of secondary importance” (555). By being vertically connected, the worldly events become meaningful, that is, parts of the Divine plan. For there to be history, the merely temporal nature of worldly occurrences and their syntactical interconnectedness must make room for the “context of [their] meaning [Bedeutungszusammenhang]” (49), for the unity of the events that such meaning accomplishes. Indeed, for there to be history, the chronology of worldly occurrences must be violated, so that they become, on the one hand, independent or isolated individual events, and on the other, comprehended in a “simultaneous overall view [Zusammenschau],” which “is at the same time the expression of a unique, exalted, and hidden truth, the very truth of the figural structure of universal history” (158). But, in distinction from symbolic or allegorical interpretation, figural interpretation, in which an event taken as a figure is extracted from its chronological and causal worldly relations, preserves an event's literal and historical meaning. “It remains an event, does not become a mere sign” (196). It is qua real, historical, and individual events or persons that they prefigure the events in which they find their fulfillment, or the true reality of their being.
The true heart of the Christian doctrine—Incarnation and Passion—was […] totally incompatible with the principle of the separation of styles. Christ had not come as a hero and king but as a human being of the lowest social station […] That the King of Kings was treated as a low criminal, that he was mocked, spat upon, whipped, and nailed to the cross—that story no sooner comes to dominate the consciousness of the people than it completely destroys the aesthetics of the separation of styles; it engenders a new elevated style, which does not scorn everyday life and which is ready to absorb the sensory realistic, even the ugly, the undignified, the physically base. (72)
Now, after having highlighted the perfection that figural interpretation reaches in the great art of Dante, Auerbach points to a strange logic underwriting figural interpretation: at the moment of its fulfillment, it turns against and destroys itself. Auerbach writes: “Dante's work made man's (p.180) Christian-figural being a reality, and destroyed it in the very process of realizing it” (202). Indeed, by bringing “within the figural pattern […] to life the whole historical world and, within that, every single human being who crosses his [Dante's] path,” by representing within that framework life in all its richness, the depicted phenomena or figures take a life of their own and become independent of the Christian interpretive pattern in question (201). Dante's Inferno, then, is the turning point at which the Christian figural representation of reality, itself a radical break with the ahistorical richness of the Homeric style and with the lack of realist detail in the Scriptures, comes to an end. From here on, the very order within which historical reality is depicted—the reference to a transcendent purpose—is lost, while the historical reality that this order helped to establish and represent achieves an autonomy of its own. Auerbach sums this up as follows: “The figural unity of the secular world falls apart at the very moment when it attains—in Dante—complete sovereignty over earthly reality. Sovereignty over reality in its sensory multiplicity remained a permanent conquest, but the order in which it was comprehended was now lost, and for a time there was nothing to take its place” (228). As a consequence, historical realism, now fully secular, has become a literary creation in its own right.
For my purpose, it is not necessary to linger on the slow process in which modern realism as a fully autonomous and secular formation emerges in the aftermath of the self-destruction of figural interpretation of earthly reality in Dante's work. Beside the regular relapses of the literary representation of reality into classicism (as in renaissance humanism, French classicism, symbolist art, and so forth), modern realism was preceded by the depiction of the world of sensuous reality, the single individual, and the unity of the world and world history. As Auerbach frequently insists, however, the creatural realism of a Boccaccio and Rabelais, along with the wholeness of the random individual in Montaigne, are conceivable only from within Christian-creatural anthropology, while Shakespeare's concern with a cosmos that is everywhere interdependent is still rooted “in the cosmic drama of the story of Christ” (323). Although these aesthetic treatments of reality as creatural and tragic accomplish some sort of independence from the divine order, their realism nonetheless remains only relative in that their guiding ideas make sense only with respect to the plan of salvation.
By contrast, with Abbé Prévost's Manon Lescaut a movement begins in the representation of reality that, according to Auerbach, is already entirely lacking the creatural element, and with it all reference to a transcendent cause that determines the vertical dimension constitutive of the (p.181) historicality of earthly reality. In Mimesis, however, it is only within a discussion of Friedrich Schiller's middle-class tragedy, Luise Millerin, that Auerbach explicitly broaches the birth of modern, that is, fully secular realism—a realism in which the links to figural interpretation seem to have been successfully cut, with the result that one faces here something new, something truly original and independent of the Christian order. The first distinction of modern realism is its presentation of the dramatis personae upon the ground of contemporary political and social reality, as in the case of Stendhal. Auerbach points out that “the serious realism of modern times cannot represent man otherwise than as embedded in a total reality, political, social, and economic, which is concrete and constantly evolving” (463); such realism concretizes the whole of which man is part by increasingly turning to the representation of what is contemporary—of the present—and particularly to representations of the contemporary individual and the masses, as well as their relation to a whole that is socially and politically disturbed. Balzac introduces the next important element of the genre by emphasizing the necessity of the relation in which individuals stand to their precisely defined historical and social setting. As a consequence, modern realism highlights the organic unity of man and history, showing how, at all times, the present springs from historical events and forces (480). Finally, with the novels by the Goncourts and Zola where realism's ambition to represent the whole reality of contemporary civilization is achieved insofar as the bourgeoisie makes room for the common people and the masses, realism comes to a certain completion. Of this form of modern realism Auerbach observes that its “art of style has wholly renounced producing pleasing effects in the conventional sense of the term. Instead it serves unpleasant, depressing, desolate truth. But this truth is at the same time a summons to action in terms of social reform […] what we have here is, beyond the shadow of a doubt, the core of the social problem of the age, the struggle between industrial capital and labor” (512).
Modern realism is thus an entirely autonomous formation that has effectively severed all ties to Christian figural representation. Maybe. Recall that, in “Odysseus' Scar,” Auerbach claims that Homeric realism and the historical approach of the Old Testament are two fundamental and distinct styles that have shaped all of Western literature, particularly since these two basic styles lend themselves to so many different combinations. Even though Auerbach does not elaborate in detail how Christian realism is linked to these two distinct styles, it is clear that it is one, if not the major formation in which these two basic styles, all differences considered, mix. (p.182) And so is, modern realism, as the secular form of Christian realism. What it shares with the early Greek representation of reality is that it brings all the various aspects of life even ugly and desolate things, into full light, and thoroughly interconnects them. Its concern, however, with the lower classes reveals its indebtedness to the Scriptures (especially the New Testament), and their dimension of historicality. Moreover, the representation of reality in modern realism still takes place in the name of truth; although it is no longer the truth of Divine Providence but rather a truth immanent to reality, a truth on this side of all ontological and social hierarchies and one that is therefore associated with the common people, the masses, in short mankind in all its everyday concreteness—the question of this realism's radical independence from religious and theological presuppositions nonetheless remains as a question.
As I have already indicated, in the readings of Said's Beginnings and Kermode's The Sense of an Ending I will be interested above all in how the secularization theory permits these critics to make sense of contemporary literature. Why is contemporary literature experienced as such a challenge to begin with, and why is this challenge met by way of the theory of secularization? What is it that causes these critics to experience modern literature as a scandalon if not the expectation that literature should essentially be mimetic? Literary critics might of course take such expectation for granted, and point to the foundations of this exigency in Platonic and Aristotelian poetics. However, if the secularization theory serves as a way to account for what happens with contemporary literature, then theological, rather than poetic, considerations have obviously shaped the concern with the representation of reality in the name of truth, religious or secular. Yet how, precisely, does the secularization theory help to make sense of contemporary literature? First of all, in light of the transcendence that secularization theory entails all things become transparent. As a theory that provides a total knowledge of history, the secularization theory allows these works to be situated as end products, fully secular in nature, however such secularity is evaluated. In these works, either a whole tradition comes to an apocalyptic end, or mimesis, now freed from all theological restrictions, accomplishes a radical autonomy. Between the two extremes in which the secularization theory renders contemporary works intelligible lies a scale of variations. More important still is the fact that by making it possible to discern the remainders of the sacred representation of reality in the seemingly thoroughly secular works, the secularization theory provides a way of making them intelligible as such, and thus establishes a continuity between them and past works. Or, when such remainders are (p.183) missing, these works may be declared the result of decadence and decay, and dismissed altogether.
Although Auerbach's admitted aim in Mimesis is to argue for the thorough independence of modern realism from Christian figural interpretation, he may as well have written Mimesis to meet the challenge that, in the aftermath of modern realism, the writings of Virginia Woolf, James Joyce, and Marcel Proust pose for him. As is plain from the final chapter “The Brown Stocking,” what makes these works so provocative, and so difficult to account for, is that they exacerbate modern realism by submitting much more than was done in earlier realist works to the random contingency of real phenomena. Indeed, as Auerbach notes, these works go so far as to privilege “any random fragment plucked from the course of a life at any time” over the “important exterior turning points of a destiny” (547). If these contemporary works are a challenge for the critic, it is because they stage things that at first glance seem to be external to the point of being insignificant—in the case of Joyce's Ulysses, for example, “the external insignificant course of a day in the lives of a schoolteacher and an advertising broker” (547). The challenge of these “postmodern” realist works is that they portray things that are so contingent as to be seemingly meaningless. They are realist to the point of appearing insignificant. Yet, notwithstanding the inherent lack of significance in such moments of contingency and randomness as well as their profusion in the contemporary novel, Auerbach maintains what he had established about modern realism by crediting the pursuit of such randomness with highlighting “nothing less than the wealth of reality and depth of life in every moment” (552). At the same time, however, something more disturbing characterizes these novels which demands to be accounted for, namely the “predilection for ruthlessly subjectivistic perspectives,” and the dissolution of “reality into multiple and multivalent reflections of consciousness” (551). How are readers to make sense of this dissolution and the concomitant hopelessness that seem to call into question everything that modern realism sought to accomplish? Auerbach's interpretative feat here consists in the claim that, by displaying “numerous subjective impressions received by various individuals (and at various times) […], the unipersonal subjectivism which allows only a single and generally a very unusual person to make himself heard” is radically displaced, with the effect that, paradoxically, this kind of subjective perspectivism is even more realistic than the realism from Balzac to Zola. In fact, these contemporary novels, as Auerbach suggests, give voice to the multitude; they are written from the standpoint of the people, opening up “new perspectives into a milieu or a consciousness or (p.184) the given historical setting” (547). Consequently, rather than “a mirror of the decline of the world,” the plethora of random and insignificant aspects of life to be found in these novels, testifies to “the wealth of reality and the depth of life in every moment” (552). By featuring multiple voices and perspectives, rather than admitting only one person's way of looking at reality, the contemporary writers featured in the final chapter of Mimesis emphasize interpretation as an essential element of reality itself. As Auerbach contends, “one comes [here] upon the order and the interpretation of life which arise from life itself […] there is always going on within us a process of formulation and interpretation whose subject matter is our own self. We are constantly endeavoring to give meaning and order to our lives in the past, the present, and the future, to our surroundings, the world in which we live; with the result that our lives appear in our own conception as total entities—which to be sure are always changing, more or less radically, more or less rapidly” (549). Through that which at first seemed to indicate its decline, or to be altogether alien to it, realism thus achieves a paradoxical climax as the representation of the unrelenting process in which, even at the most futile moments, life is given meaning by random people in their encounters with equally random things. The tour de force of such interpretation consists in showing that what, at first sight, is worldly to a degree of being insignificant, if not even base or abject, is in fact the most essential depository of what is believed to have been lost. But what also becomes tangible at this juncture is that the persuasiveness of the critic's forceful interpretation of contemporary literary works, which allows him to situate them within an overall view of Western literature, is a function of a definitely Biblical remainder that pervades these secular works that seem thoroughly secular. Interpretation is one of the basic features of the Biblical style in that it secures the linkage of earthly events and persons in figural interpretation. Though no Divine plan of salvation presides anymore over the interconnections of what now, in these novels, have become random events, it is through such unrelenting interpretation, or meaning-giving, that the process by which people make history is aesthetically shaped. More generally, by linking each contingent element at any random moment of life, the multiple subjects in these contemporary novels are working to realize what is human about humans, namely, the need of “interpretive synthesis” (549).
There is one more aspect of Auerbach's inquiry to which I would like to draw attention. As should have become clear, the various combinations and modifications of the two basic styles—the Homeric and the Old Testament styles—in the development of Western literature and its representation of reality, despite repeated relapses into classicist ahistoricism and its (p.185) aristocratic viewpoint, are not without a telos, namely the progressively amplified concern with the historical present, and the people's point of view in the representation of reality. As Auerbach's manifest sympathies for socialism reveal, literature's struggle to accomplish a realist representation of reality is intimately tied to the political struggle to “achieve a common life of mankind on earth” (552). Now, at precisely the moment when Auerbach is writing this book during his exile in Istanbul, the telos inherent in literary aesthetics is linked to the very essence of Europe on the verge of dissolution or collapse. Mimesis, as Auerbach avers, “is very consciously a book that a particular man in a particular situation has written at the beginning of the forties.”8 It is also a book that, as the last pages of “The Brown Stocking” demonstrate, is written with respect to a goal—“the very simple solution […] of the approaching unification and simplification” on the basis of “the elementary things which our lives have in common” (552–53). Its purpose is to work at overcoming the diaspora of all those who stand for such promise, but who have been exiled from Europe by the political situation in Germany. Mimesis closes with the following words: “And may it [this book] contribute to bringing together again those whose love for our western history has serenely persevered” (557).
To conclude this discussion of Mimesis, I offer one more reflection. It has been argued that Mimesis is Christocentric, and even to such a degree that the history of Western literature that it draws is very nearly a “Christological history of literature.”9 Undoubtedly, by holding it to originate in the story of Christ, modern realism appears, despite all its innovations, to be a secularized form of the style of the New Testament. Indeed, with modern realism's representation of the everyday world of the wretched and the dispossessed, the story of Christ rather than the Old Testament seems to have been its defining model, although the very attention paid to minute detail is also hugely indebted to the Homeric style. But more significant than the traces of modern realism's debt to Christianity is the fact that whole development of this genre of Western literature is seen to be oriented—though not mechanically, as Auerbach repeatedly observes, since it is a history of trends and tendencies that still require fulfillment—toward the realization of the new high style of modern historicist realism. With this the methodology of Mimesis becomes an issue. Indeed, as the essential thrust of Mimesis demonstrates, its method—namely Auerbach's own “method of revisional interpretation” (48)—is modeled, first and foremost, after the Old Testament's linkage of historical events to a transcendent aim, thus making these events meaningful to begin with. Interpretation here serves to shape literary facts in such a way that they can be (p.186) linked to a goal, and thus to the task of anticipating and progressively accomplishing it. The end pursued by Mimesis is to show that the history of literature in the West is oriented toward the formation of historicist realism, which undoubtedly fulfills the realism of the story of Christ. But by taking also everything transcendent out of this story it leaves the story of Christ behind, so as to retain only the method of interpreting events from supposed endings towards which they tend. As is evident from “Odysseus' Scar,” this method originates primarily in the Old Testament. As far as its form is concerned, the “scientific” method of interpretation of Mimesis is, therefore, not Christological but the secularized remainder of the Old Testament's claim to truth.
An Autumnal Event
As I have already pointed out, in Beginnings, Said, who speaks of himself as secular critic, acknowledges his indebtedness to Auerbach's masterpiece. It, is as I will argue, a particular indebtedness to the logic of secularization for the project of writing a literary history whose aim is also to account for a new and different type of contemporary literature than the one dealt with by Auerbach, a literature that is not only experienced as a scandalon because it seems to break with the Western mimetic tradition but that is also one that Said, like Auerbach, affirms insofar as he views this emancipation from the religious and theological as the promise of a new beginning, or rather new beginnings. Said's subscription to secularization as a historical category is manifest right from the beginning of the book in the way he sets up beginnings as a concept distinct from that of the Origin. For this distinction between beginnings (plural) and (the one) Origin, Said relies above all on Søren Kierkegaard's conception of the aesthetic and the ironic as secular alternatives to religious writing. But, as Said demonstrates, the order of aesthetics in Kierkegaard does not simply stand in a relation of opposition to nor does it break with the order of the religious; it is, first and foremost, a “dialectical reduplication of [divine] truth” (85).10 As the reference to dialectics suggests, it is more than a mere secular double of the latter, since this order paradoxically serves “indirect, ironic communications of [these same] higher truths” (86). For Kierkegaard, the aesthetic order is not an autonomous order. It is characterized by secondariness, wholly dependent on the religious, and this in such a manner that, despite the aesthetics' effort to supplant the religious, its nullification of truth ironically causes this truth to “emerge more fully (p.187) later” (86). Indeed, if the paradoxical task of the secular substitute that is aesthetics is to make divine truth “emerge more fully later,” what is of the order of the aesthetic cannot be restricted to a mimetic transcription of the sacred. It must be based on what Kierkegaard terms “repetition,” which is linked to the essence of creation, and it must make “repetition itself the very form of novelty” (87), the very form of beginnings. Indeed, when speaking of novelistic narrative—the novel being understood as the desire “to create an alternative world, to modify or to augment the real world through the act of writing” (81)—Said contends that “the actuality of the narrative process is repetition […] but it is not the repetition of backward but of forward recollection” (87–88), in short, creative recollection, one that in a secular manner progresses toward religious truth. Emancipated from the constraints of religious truth and origin that it reduplicates, the aesthetic domain opens to the freedom of inventiveness and to the creation of beginnings, which, however, are only beginnings intent on indirectly promoting the abiding truth of the Origin. This, then, is also the reason why beginnings, however seductive, must ultimately fail—theirs is a “‘usurped totality’” (88)—and this failure, in the end, makes the authority of religious truth more compelling than ever.
His recourse to Kierkegaard's dialectical account of aesthetics allows Said to bring into explicit relief an implication of the secularization thesis that was not quite tangible in Auerbach, namely that secularization is a transitory moment in a historical process that ultimately leads to a return of the Origin. But does this scenario not presuppose a primacy of mimesis, or, in Kierkegaardian terms, of repetition in aesthetics, and above all in the literary form of the novel (even where the genre becomes introspective, as in the novels analyzed by Auerbach)? What if the secularization process results in a mode of literary writing that is no longer mimetic or repetitive at all? Would such a process not end up in a kind literature more scandalous than ever, a true challenge for the secular critic, no doubt?
Before further pursuing this line of thought, I'd like to take a more detailed look at Said's account of the history of that most secular form of literary writing, the novel. Acknowledging that “the condition of secularity” (141) is essential to the formation of the novel and novelistic narrative, Said writes: “Fictional narrative is […] an alternative departure, a set of misadventures that begins away from an Origin (a term almost theological in that it must be understood in the strictest sense possible, as pure anteriority and, paradoxically, as pure genetic power). For that Origin, a unique miracle, cannot be duplicated or incarnated within the absolute boundaries (p.188) of human life” (142). For “the history of imitation in the West,” particularly of the novel, this means that as literature continues to grow estranged from the Origin, it undergoes a “gradual literary specialization of styles whereby the models of imitation slowly lose their exemplary force and their Originally divine reference” (142). Whereas any Christian text that submits to Christ's summons to “[d]o this in remembrance of me and like me,” is, like Dante's Divine Comedy, “an implantation [and prolongation] of the Biblical text in the here and now” (212), which “originates in the original mystery” (142), the secular narrative of the novel “lives in the temporal, quotidian element” (142), breaks away from the Christian ethos, and inaugurates a beginning that, as such, is temporal, finite, and contains the seeds of mortality (99).11 Hence, bound to fail, “directly or not, novels too reflect the ethos of the Christian text” (99). Indeed, since “the temporal, quotidian element” in which the narrative lives is “that element which commemorates the absence of timeless mystery,” and the words that the narrator uses “are lapsed recollections of the single Original word,” (142) the distinction between the Origin and a beginning is not only far from radical, or even clear-cut, but novelistic beginnings are intelligible only insofar as they fail in their project, and ultimately commemorate that from which they broke away.
According to Said, novels, and the fictional process in general, are attempts to reshape reality as if from the beginning. They presuppose a form of secular authorship as the authority to inaugurate or invent fictional events—beginnings that, by definition, claim novelty. Yet, as products of a secular form of authority, such beginnings are from the start indebted to the religious or theological concept of Origin. But by introducing the (rather strange) concept of “molestation,” one that necessarily accompanies the concept of authority and authorship, to describe “the bother and responsibility” of the latter's constellation of meanings, Said prepares the way for an analysis of the manifold of levels at which the novel, its author, its reader, and its critic are all attempting in vain to escape the absoluteness of the Origin. Molestation inevitably besets all finite authorship, all attempts of secular narrative to institute another discourse alongside the world of common discourse, a discourse that attempts to break with the Origin but that nonetheless refers back to a greater truth, to an Origin that itself is fully present to itself. Molestation, Said writes, “is a consciousness of one's duplicity, one's confinement to a fictive, scriptive realm, whether one is a character or a novelist” (84). What is revealed in molestation is that any secular authority to begin not only remains “part of an integral truth it nevertheless cannot fully imitate” (100), but that whatever (p.189) seeks to inaugurate an autonomous beginning also stands in a “tantalizing distance from a radical beginning,” a distance, that is, from an Origin (84).
Now, Said does not confine his inquiry into the beginning of the novel to the suggestion that it attempts to modify reality by recreating it “as if from the beginning.” What makes Beginnings interesting is Said's contention that, near the end of the nineteenth century, “something like an event [occurs] in the life of the novel itself” (139–40). This is precisely that autumnal event of the self-reflective fiction by those “exceptionally reflective autumnal craftsmen,” James and Conrad, who, aware of being at “a remove from a truly fundamental role,” write about the novel's inherent incapacity to ever emulate the Origin in creating radical beginnings. Much of Beginnings is an attempt to situate this event within the secularization framework. For Auerbach, the contemporary novels of Woolf, Proust, and Joyce mark not the decline of realism, but instead signal its very epitome, which as it were completes the telos of the literary representation of reality in the West. Said's position, on the other hand, is markedly different: the self-reflective and self-observing text to which the secularization process, as an ever-increasing distance from the Origin, gives rise is a text that has thoroughly broken with the mimetic history of the novel—with imitation, repetition, and representation—so as to reflect on the sham of seeking to usurp the authority to become an author and make a new beginning. But what also immediately becomes evident is the extent to which this conception of the self-knowing and self-reflecting text is tied to the secularization theorem, from which it draws its very intelligibility.
Said writes: “Whereas in the classical novel there had been both a desire to create or author an alternate life and to show (by molestation) this alternative to be at bottom an illusion with reference to ‘life,’ the later version of this desire was a revulsion from the novelist's whole procreative enterprise and an intensification of his scriptive fate. Not only does this reaction constitute a critique of the traditional theory of mimetic representation, it also radically transforms the idea of a text” (137). Said diagnoses this mutation of the novel through the “divorce of man from his generative role either as a man or author,” which results in the self-reflective text that therefore has been widely judged as a dead-end that is witness to sterility, blindness, and celibacy (even though these topoi are part of these novels themselves). He construes as exemplary of this mutation Conrad's Nostromo:
In Conrad, Said detects the author's self-abnegation. The loss of faith in his authority to create, combined with doubt “in the ability of novelistic representation directly to reflect anything except the author's dilemmas,” gives rise to texts that focus on the author's sterility and are primarily autobiographical or texts that relinquish the traditional task of representation, turning upon themselves in order to author themselves. Now, significantly enough, as an event in the life of the novel, the birth of the self-reflective text is not an aberration that befalls it from outside. As numerous statements in Beginnings suggest, the self-reflective text already lay in wait in the classical novel, and thus something that characterizes literary creation since its inception in the West comes here, in the end, into its own. Take, for example, Said's delineation of the two special conditions for novels in practice: “first, the technique of consecutive explanation, and second, the liberty to return to whatever he has already passed over in the narrative sequence” (140–1). Reflexivity, or the scheme of “returning to a point of fertile beginning in the past from which the narrative subsequently unfolds and to which it can repeatedly return,” is an essential constituent of the classical novel from the very beginning (141). Furthermore, as Said emphatically points out, “the primordial discovery of a novel is that of the self.” If the discovery is primordial, this is because it is “the first validating condition for [the novel's] intelligibility” (141). Self and reflexivity concern more than the characters in novelistic narrative who, after having made their act of presence, are “given paternity in the novel” (141); on the contrary, self and reflexivity bear upon the novel itself. Its very intelligibility as a whole is a function of its self-discovery though the narrative, whereby it returns to itself in order to father itself. The self-reflective text which emerges in the life of the novel at the end of the nineteenth century, and which seems to turn its back upon the representation of reality, thus consists in nothing more or less than a reflective return to the beginning of the genre and its conditions and primary discoveries. But as the novel's concern with itself right from the beginning also demonstrates, its “generative faculty was sacrificed to celibate individuality” from the very start. If the condition of secularity is, as I have argued, an essential characteristic of novelistic narrative, the novel, because secondary, is always already a sterile formation. As Said poignantly remarks, the aims of the novel have (p.191) always been “peculiarly unnatural” (146). The self-reflective text, and particularly its postmodern version, is thus in no way a form of the novel's decline. On the contrary, it is a reflection of what has always been there from the beginning, in short, of the very conditions of the novelistic genre's intelligibility. The self-reflexive text is the climax of the self-awareness that, from the beginning, was connected with the genre, and that becomes more acute over time as its characters become more and more engaged in the celibate enterprise of individual self-generation.
Conrad's exceptional status … lies in having produced a novel (and novels) implicitly critical of the beginning premises of all earlier novels. Instead of (p.190) mimetically authoring a new world, Nostromo turns back to its beginning as a novel, to the fictional, illusory assumption of reality; in thus overturning the confident edifice that novels normally construct Nostromo reveals itself to be no more than a record of novelistic self-reflection. (137)
Even the novel's “particular beginning function” (179) is the result of the self-reflectivity and self-interpretation that, since its inception, is inscribed in the text. In what Said at one point calls “original fiction” (146), the text circles back to its true beginnings in order to stage a new beginning. Just as Freud showed with respect to dreams, according to Said, the text's self-interpretation is also an endless process. And so the text, endlessly recoiling upon itself, reengenders itself without end. Beginning is something, Said claims, that “must always be produced, constantly” (196–7). In distinction from an Origin whose happening is unique and forever, the text, as a beginning, requires that it be rewritten interminably. Rather than allowing the text to close upon itself, to become one with itself, such interpretive rewriting produces only other, new texts with no end in sight. A text, according to Said, is “a pathway to other texts” (205). This very “beginning function” of the text, particularly of the modern self-reflective text, is therefore the acme of sterility and as such it is the most powerful actualizing reminder of the Origin. At the same time, the literary text's sterile self-begetting is also the however frail attempt to break with the Origin and with originalities. Its renewability is not only an index of its constant failure but also some sort of promise, the promise of beginnings, which although not radical, nonetheless gesture toward the realization of the finite being that is man, in his full potential.
Indeed, the history of the movement of the realistic novel to the self-reflexive text outlined in Beginnings, is hardly of the scientific or disinterested kind. At stake here is clearly a notion of secular humanism that informs the text of Said's book in all its turns and twists. But what, in conclusion, I would like to draw attention to are effects produced by the very logic of the secularization theory at the very moment he has recourse to this theory—effects that were not necessarily intended. For example, notwithstanding the measured praise that Said bestows on the so-called self-reflective texts, the development of the novel that he sketches out is still one of decline, of “a loss of vivacity, of increased celibacy, and sterility” (372). Even though the latter are shown to inhabit the genre of the (p.192) novel as a secular formation from the very beginning, and to undermine its mimetic pretensions, Beginnings cannot but be nostalgic of mimetic representation. In addition, one cannot avoid the impression that the self-reflective text is not the end of the story, but that, precisely because with it a nadir of alienation has been reached, a return to its opposite—namely, the beginning of secular and realist representation of reality—may be again in the offing. Indeed, the self-reflective novel's return to its beginnings as a genre involves a double dialectic: on the one hand, the reactualization of the novel's beginnings engenders both the sterile and cerebral self-reflective text (itself somewhat anticipatory of fully secular beginnings); on the other hand, reflectively reaching back to its beginnings implies a forceful representification of the intuitively self-evident mimetic pretensions of the genre. But when Said writes: “To put the pen to a text is to begin a movement away from the original; it is to enter the world of the text-as-beginning as copy and parricide” (209), something else becomes manifest as well. Undoubtedly, the “original,” refers here only to an “‘original’ text” (209) (rather than to the Origin), which the creation of a new text preserves as it copies it, but which by the same token it also displaces in a parricidal deed. With a reference to Mallarmé, Said contends that “writing [which] is therefore rewriting, […] has all the force of original—i.e., first-time—writing” (242). The “‘original text,’” just as Said establishes with respect to style in Mallarmé, “blots out origin, and substitutes for it the beginning, which is the writer writing his text” (254). Origin here, however, refers to the absolute transcendent “beginning.” The self-reflective text, as is to be witnessed in the case of Mallarmé, has a force that makes it indistinguishable from the “original text” or first-time writing as a beginning. In this sense, the climax of the decline of what began with the novel is also a high point in that it leads to the reemergence of the beginning in all its power, but first-time writing, or better still, “the ‘original’ text,” as a beginning, remains a substitute for the Origin. But does the return, at the nadir of mimetic representation's decline, to the beginning of the novel, and therefore the reactualization of that beginning in all its original force, not also reactivate the proximity to the Origin that the beginning still presupposes, even in all its distance from it?12
In the same manner in which contemporary literature represents a challenge for the previous critics, for Frank Kermode, too, it defies all recognized standards. The new literature with which Kermode is trying to come (p.193) to grips—later modernism and avant-garde writing—is characterized by nihilistic and schismatic qualities in that it seeks to destroy the indispensable relation to a relevant past. In addition, it is apocalyptic, and knows only a world without beginning or end. As with Auerbach and Said, the genre of literature with which Kermode is above all concerned is the novel, and what has become of it in the present. Kermode's list includes the writings of Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, and especially William Burroughs, which he judges to be apocalyptic stagings of a hatred of life. In The Sense of an Ending, the schema of secularization thus once again becomes a means to make contemporary literature intelligible, and to put it in its place, so to speak. But the beauty, as it were, of this particular thematization of the history of literature from its promising beginning to its contemporary decline is its own self-reflective nature. Kermode not only puts contemporary literature on trial because of its ahistorical concern with itself, but his own approach to what kind of history subtends the history of representational literature is of a self-reflective kind as well. It is based on an inquiry by a literary critic into what precise concept of history grounds the eschatological history characteristic of literary criticism. I am referring to Kermode's notion of paradigmatic history, which will also allow readers to better understand how the acme of decline turns dialectically into the promise of the restoration of what has been lost.13
For Kermode, “fictions of the End” (5), that is, “paradigmatic fictions” (24), are constitutive of the human attempt to make sense of historical development, and if, among all the genres of literature, he privileges the novel, this is precisely because it is a major instantiation of such fiction and its temporal form. Paradigmatic fiction itself is a secularized version of the theologians' contention that “we ‘live from the End,’ even if the world should be endless” (58), which distinguishes the fundamentally secular literary genre in question. According to Kermode, paradigmatic fictions are rooted in “our deep need for intelligible ends” (8). For him, indeed, the sole way of making sense of history in a meaningful way is to view it as end-oriented, and as having a beginning that contains an end. For Kermode, however, this recourse to concord fictions is not simply the result of a specific historical tradition. In his attempt to assess the nature of this paradigmatic need for intelligible endings, Kermode cites the following passage from Hans Vaihinger's The Philosophy of ‘As If,’ in which the philosopher defines “fiction” as a mental structure: “The psyche weaves this or that thought out of itself; for the mind is invention; under the compulsion of necessity, stimulated by the outer world, it discovers the store of contrivances hidden within itself” (40). The pattern of closure (p.194) characteristic of paradigmatic fiction and its account of history is thus grounded in the structures of the mind that produce such fiction in order to withstand, in the interest of self-preservation, the “assaults of a hostile world” (40). Moreover, this mental urge to view historical development according to end-oriented fictions by which all historical events are beaten into a whole—that is, made hermeneutically meaningful—is markedly distinct because it emerges from a pattern that has been biologically inscribed in our very genes (44). It is therefore no surprise that Kermode holds it to be an absolutely vital paradigm, or archetype, of our entire intellectual life (52). The paradigmatic fiction of history is in the service of life; it is a means to ward off death, to keep life free from it, to exclude or even to repress it within life. As I have already pointed out, the novel is for Kermode the central form of literary art because this genre's representation of reality is intimately linked to the biologically rooted, paradigmatic form of fiction that makes sense of reality by shaping it as a whole with a beginning, a middle, and an end.
Kermode's indictment of the contemporary novel concerns its skepticism toward fiction's vital function for making sense, in that the new novel is no longer about reality, but about itself, and uses fictions to explore fiction. In other words, it has become self-referential and self-reflective. Three things, therefore, need to be put into relief. First, if the traditional novel is a model for making sense of reality in that the beginning that it stages, and which develops by way of a middle to an end, is a “beginning [that] implies the end” (148), it follows that the novel itself has a self-reflective, or speculative structure. Second, if, as Vaihinger and Kermode claim, the life-affirming function of fiction is the essential characteristic of the psyche, and if the latter—in the shape of the mind, consciousness, or the self—is constituted in self-reflection, then self-reflection is both the agent of paradigmatic fictions and the substance of its products, the novels. Third, if it is ultimately life itself that is at the root of the psyche's production of end-oriented fictions, then self-reflexivity has a biological substratum. Kermode accuses the modern and postmodern novel of having reverted into self-reflexivity by departing from the basic paradigm of peripateia, and yet the very idea of a paradigmatic history itself paradoxically requires a foundation in the psyche as a self-reflective agency, and ultimately in biological life's concern with itself. It will thus be interesting to see how Kermode will, in the end, judge the self-reflective novel whose schism with the world, and its exclusive concern with itself, shows all the signs of decline and death. Also of interest will be the way in which Kermode employs the secularization pattern to save the self-reflective novel from the brink of death, and to accommodate it within that pattern.
(p.195) Toward the end of his study Kermode remarks that access to paradigms, that is, to end-time–oriented patterns is possible only where “a relation between the time of a life and the time of a world” can be imagined (166). In other words, only by projecting an organicist conception of the totality of a lifetime onto history can history reveal paradigmatic structures. It is perhaps not insignificant that the conception of history (or for that matter, of a discourse such as the novel) as a living organism requires that its author be God (or, respectively, to be an alter deus).14 When Kermode writes that projecting the chronological divisions of the saecula onto history helps us “to find endings and beginnings” (11), let us bear in mind that the term saeculum refers, prior to the Biblical meaning of aion, world, and worldliness, as well as to “the utmost lifetime of a man,” “to the ordinary lifetime of the human species.”15 Indeed, a saeculum is a holistic, if not organic, temporal totality whose parts are arranged like the body of a living animal with its head, torso, and tail, so as to form a whole uniting the middle and its temporal extremities, the beginning, and the end.16 When Kermode speaks of the “vital interest in the structure of time, in the concords that books arrange between beginning, middle and end” (178), it is clear that the novel also shares the same temporal structure as a saeculum. “Novels […] have beginnings, endings, and potentiality, even if the world has not” (138). Even if the world lacks historical unity, the paradigmatic schema of the saeculum and its temporal structure are a characteristic of the novelistic fiction which, for this very reason, is instrumental of making sense in the world.
Nor is this organicist conception of the novel's totality limited to its temporality; it extends to the novel's form—in other words, to its spatial organization, which for Kermode is also essentially temporal.17 The novel shares this oriented structure with that of a lifetime and with the bodily organization of a living creature whose head, which dominates the whole of its body, points forward, heading toward an end. But, as has already been shown in Said's Beginnings, the novel also contains, from the start, the seeds of self-reflection. Aside from its temporal structure of a lifetime, the novel primordially discovers not only the self of its characters, but also a self of its own. This self is indistinguishable, however, from the bodily and temporal unity of the novel. Just as the novel moves from a beginning to an end, from burgeoning life to death, in the same way it reflects its beginning in its end, and vice versa. Kermode asserts as much when he remarks that in a novel the beginning always already implies the end. The paradigmatic schema of end-time oriented history also presupposes that (p.196) the end be, in some way, a return to the beginning. If the temporal structure of the novel and, more generally, the paradigmatic fiction of history is dialectically speculative—that is self-reflective—then beginning and end, the life and death of the novel, mimetic novelistic representation and self-reflection cannot be placed in a relation of strict opposition. These extremes not only co-imply, but revert into one another.
Because of its self-reflective, ahistorical, nihilistic, and schismatic qualities, contemporary fiction represents, for Kermode, the end of a process. But in spite of all the denigrating characterizations that he showers on the contemporary novel, his condemnation is not simply, and not always, absolute. Indeed, with the structure of paradigmatic fiction that subtends his account of the history of the novel, or as he also puts it, with “the knowledge of the fictive […]” which he employs to “explain what is essential and eccentric about early modernism,” he gives himself also the tool to “purge the trivial and stereotyped from the arts of our time” (124). The theory of fiction, of the tension between reality and the need for endings, is the means by which the apocalyptic and schismatic literature of the present, striving to separate itself from the history of the novel hitherto, is nonetheless reappropriated, thus reestablishing its continuity with that history. Not only is all schismatic literature dependent as far as its intelligibility is concerned on that from which it seeks to break away, as his lengthy discussion of Sartre's Nausée demonstrates but also, in its very failure, the modern antinovel paradoxically shows that it is actually about the very kernel of what constitutes the novel. Indeed, by staging “the dilemma of fiction and reality” (131), as “a kind of crisis in the relation between fiction and reality, the tension or dissonance between paradigmatic form and contingent reality” (133), this novel returns to, and as it were reactivates the very foundations of the novel itself. Is it not also highly significant that, in spite of all the nihilism and absurdity of modern fiction, Kermode's secularization theory allows him to recognize within this literature “a vitality dependent upon its truth to the set of our fear and desire” (124)? At the end, in the shape of apocalyptic and deadly schismatic concerns, the novel reflectively folds back upon itself, in order to achieve a vitalizing return to its source. In finally becoming fully self-reflective, it brings to light what it has always been, from the beginning.
History, or the Self-Mirroring of Life
If what I have developed so far is correct, then is it not also impossible to rigorously distinguish the structure of historical criticism—at least, of the (p.197) historical criticism rooted in the idea of secularization—from that of a literary criticism whose sole object is the self-reflexivity of texts? In the eyes of contemporary historical critics, this way of looking at works of literature has been and still is, along with the dismal state of current literary writing, another symptom of decline, and even amounts for some to a loss of manly vitality. In addition to the structural and even material reasons for this impossibility of radically opposing the two forms of criticism that I have put into relief, there are also powerful historical reasons for arguing that a criticism focusing on the inner form of the literary artwork is covertly related to, and even complicit with, historical criticism that centers on the artwork's attempt to represent reality. Some of these reasons are even implicitly acknowledged by Kermode himself. While seeking to assess the reasons for the contemporary impoverishment and difficulty of access to paradigms, in The Sense of an Ending Kermode traces both the modern novel's primary inquiry “into the autonomy of forms” (164) and modern poetry's almost exclusive concern with itself back to romanticism. It is no small irony, however, if, at the same time, he accuses “the clerkly rejection” of paradigmatic history, by thinkers such as Karl Popper and by modern poets and novelists, of being a rejection of “romantic tenements” (43). Indeed, romanticism is seen as both the culprit for what has gone wrong and what is needed to maintain the tradition of historicity. As I suggested at the beginning of this chapter, nineteenth-century historicism and romantic hermeneutics are intimately interconnected, as are historicism and romantic aesthetics. The apparent rejection of history solely for the sake of the autonomy of form belongs as much to the romantic heritage as the belief in the categories of paradigmatic history. One might argue, further, that the so-called self-reflexive text of the new novel, or of postmodern fiction and poetry for that matter, is essentially a completion of the early romanticist program of an infinitely self-mirroring poetic text in which all generic distinctions are sublated—what Friedrich Schlegel and Novalis refer to as the “poetry of poetry” or “transcendental progressive poetry.”18 It is a well-known fact, moreover, that the early German romantics were involved in the eschatological interpretation of history that flourished during the later phase of the Enlightenment period. As is manifest from the “Atheneum Fragments,” the desire to realize the kingdom of God on earth is part and parcel of the romantic notion of history.19 Indeed, history since romanticism is primarily determined by what Coleridge referred to as the religious instinct which supplies the notion of an end. This notion of a secular, end-oriented history and the romantic (and post-romantic) conception of the (seemingly ahistorical) (p.198) self-reflective literary artwork together belong to one and the same epistemic configuration.
The fact remains that for paradigmatic historical fiction—the fiction of end-time–oriented history—the historical process does not evolve toward just an end but ultimately toward an end in which this process, by dint of a reversion, returns to its Origin. This also means that if paradigmatic history is processual, it is because the tendency of such history consists in heading toward its own abolishment, to a state where all beginnings come to a halt once and for all. Such a conception of history is inevitably apocalyptic. Yet, despite the grim diagnoses of the present state of literature according to the literary critics whom I have discussed, the end that they proclaim is not simply the terminal loss of all concern with reality through a sterile and devitalized self-preoccupation. Instead, this end shows itself either as a more radical realization of the value of critical realism at stake in all Western literature, or as the full effectuation of the essential structural kernel or conflict that informed the genre of the novel from the beginning. The end is an end only if something in it comes to be and possesses a vivacity that is an index of the Origin, or of new beginnings. All literary theories indebted to a notion of paradigmatic history—whether the process reaches its end with the establishment of some sort of secular Kingdom of God, or whether it finds its end in a secular unfolding of infinite progress—share the same perspective of a final overcoming of history. Such an end of history takes form as the full realization of the telos that has driven history until then, or paradoxically as an infinite process of approximation to a regulative idea.20 Yet, if this dialectical conception of the end of history underpins the literary theories that I have considered, are they not therefore guilty of the same sin of which they accuse the contemporary novel, or antinovel, as well as the mode of criticism that delves exclusively into the inner form of these works—namely, ahistoricism? Furthermore, the latter kind of criticism—one criticism based on the literary work's exclusive self-referentiality—may itself be understood as the fulfillment of historical criticism's tendency to think history as a process by which it is overcome in the end. The difference between historical thinking according to paradigmatic schemata and a thinking engaged in the self-reflexivity of the inner form of aesthetic objects is merely the difference between mediate and immediate knowledge of the same object: history as the absolute medium of reflexivity at the end-time, or art as the absolute medium of reflexivity in the present. What Gerald Graff terms “the reflexive fallacy” also appears to be in literary theory the “natural” (p.199) conclusion toward which historical criticism is carried by its own premises.21 If history is determined as a fall away from an Origin, then the return to this Origin entails the abolition of the whole process itself. The kind of literary criticism whose object is the artwork's structure of self-reflexivity is, in its disregard for history, not only perfectly historical in the sense of paradigmatic historical criticism but it is even more faithful to, and has greater bearing upon, the presuppositions they both share. The paradigmatic approach to literature, as I have pointed out, is based on the assumption that the present is characterized by the complete erosion of all values—aesthetic, ethical, and political—associated with the literary representation of reality. With the dismal, or catastrophic, end that is the present, the end of history, as one structured by paradigms, has been reached. The critical approach to the artwork, which singles out the text's self-referentiality and construes it as a purpose in itself independent of all reference to reality, has a similar take on the present except that here the present is valued differently. As Blumenberg has noted, the absolute lack of interest in history and historical explication is itself “a characteristic of the acute situation of its [history's] end.”22 The literary concern with the self-reflective autonomy of texts, hence their lack of history, shares a perfect symmetry with the historical critic's assumption that his age is the end-time, and that he is in fact the last man, and, as this last man, both a prophet of doom and a herald of hope.
At the outset of this chapter, I raised the question of the commensurateness of the historical category of secularization to history in what one might call its factuality. Needless to say, in order to reject this category, and with it the conception of history as paradigmatic, it would be necessary to know what history really is, apart from this concept which serves to make it intelligible as history. Rather than pursuing this issue, I will, therefore, limit myself to discussing one more approach to history, one that is anathema to Kermode and his conception of paradigmatic history, and that may perhaps be viewed as an alternative to the secularized versions of history that I have discussed so far.
As has been argued, historical criticism and the ahistorical criticism that centers on the artwork's structure of self-reflexivity each occupy one of the two facets of the romantic epistemic paradigm. Whereas historical criticism, in the name of the truth of history, abides by the model of paradigmatic fiction, formalistic criticism rejects this model in the name of the higher truth of the works' structures of self-reflexivity and self-cognition. But, again, historical criticism is also strangely ahistorical because it conceives of the present as the end of history. For historical criticism, the (p.200) present is always an end insofar as it represents the final decline of what promised itself at the beginning, even as it makes us reach back for the vitality of that beginning. But historical criticism is ahistorical for still another reason, namely, because it fails to reflect upon its own position in terms of its indebtedness to romantic historicism. When Kermode, for example, acknowledges paradigmatic history's links to romanticism, he does so without drawing any consequences. Ironically, however, once this indebtedness is taken seriously, the historicization of historical literary criticism is experienced as a profound threat, as though to retrace its indebtedness to romanticism is to jeopardize all the values to which the traditional critic resorted in his attempt to counter ahistorical, formalistic criticism. In Validity in Interpretation, E. D. Hirsch therefore fires back at what he calls “radical historicism,” accusing it of historical skepticism. But this threat posed to historical criticism by the acknowledgment of its rootedness in romanticism is only one aspect of the problem. Hirsch himself evokes a second implication of this historical reflection when he points to the fact that, ironically, “it has been a development of historicism itself which in the present day has raised the most persistent objections to the possibility of historical knowledge.”23 The threat emerges from within historical criticism in the shape of a reflection on its own historical origin. In short, historical criticism, by reflecting on its own historical condition, is accused of turning against itself and of mutating itself into a form of ahistoricity.
But what exactly does Hirsch refer to with “radical historicism?” In Validity in Interpretation, the avowed target of this term is the Gadamerian concept of effective history (Wirkungsgeschichte).24 In Truth and Method (1960), Gadamer introduces this concept in the declared attempt to draw out the implications that Martin Heidegger's analysis of the temporal modes of Dasein in Being and Time holds for the human sciences. Whether Heidegger's ontological radicalization of understanding as essentially historical lends itself to such an application is not our concern here. By contrast, Gadamer's idea of effective history, which in fact rests on his analyses of the living tradition in which the experiencing and cognizing subject necessarily partakes, does deserve our interest. Indeed, with this notion Gadamer seeks to overcome the abstract antithesis of subject and object—and also, therefore, of history and the knowledge of it—that dominates the romantic hermeneutics of Schleiermacher, and that was adopted not only by the historical schools of the nineteenth century, but also by a philosopher no less important than Dilthey. In Truth and Method Gadamer writes:
Since historical consciousness itself is involved in history, it is imperative, according to Gadamer, that “real historical thinking … take account of its own historicity” (TM, 299). Whereas by objectifying its object, so-called historicism merely chases a phantom in the hope of progressively determining it in a scientifically objective manner, true historical thinking views “the object as the counterpart of itself and hence understand[s] both. The true historical object is not an object at all but the unity of the one and the other, a relationship that constitutes both the reality of history and the reality of historical understanding” (TM, 299–300). Rather than an objective correlate of an ahistorical subject, such intertwining of the historical subject and the tradition in which he or she partakes, and from out of which or with respect to which he or she makes sense of the present, is constitutive of history itself. For Gadamer, then, historical continuity is not a given. On the contrary, only by reflecting on one's own participation in a tradition and thus taking one's own historicality into account, only by being conscious of the hermeneutical situation in which historical experience and cognition takes place, does historical continuity come into being. True historical thinking is therefore historical in that it is productive of history as a tradition and a continuum. True historical thinking is “historically effected consciousness [wirkungsgeschichtliches Bewusstsein]” (TM, 301). Yet, as Gadamer also admits, such reflection has its internal limits: “the illumination of this [hermeneutical] situation—reflection on effective history—can never be completely achieved; yet the fact that it can never be completed is due not to a deficiency in reflection but to the essence of the historical being that we are. To be historically means that knowledge of oneself can never be complete” (TM, 303). The subject of historical understanding, that is, effective-historical consciousness, is inevitably a finite consciousness. In fact, as Gadamer suggests, there is no subjectivity and no consciousness without some kind of substantiality, without something historically given that determines them, and that causes them to participate in that which they try to understand.
(p.201) Whereas romantic hermeneutics had taken homogeneous human nature as the unhistorical substratum of its theory of understanding and hence had freed the con-genial interpreter from all historical conditions, the self-criticism of historical consciousness leads finally to recognizing historical movement not only in events but also in understanding itself. Understanding is to be thought of less as a subjective act than as participating in an event of tradition, a process of transmission in which past and present are constantly mediated. (290)25
(p.202) Why does Hirsch judge Gadamer's conception of historicism to be “radical” and a threat? “Radical historicism”—note that this term has been explicitly claimed by Auerbach for his own approach to the history of Western literature—is radical insofar as it poses a threat to Hirsch's understanding of the history of literature, its methodology, and especially the status of the critic.26 It is radical because Hirsch considers the concept of an effective history that takes the hermeneutical situation of the subject of historical experience into account, and that therefore understands this subject as an inescapably finite subject, to be a skeptic's conception. Certainly, the concept of effective history radically puts into question the possibility of a subject who from a bird's eye view totalizes the whole historical process as a definite meaningful continuum. Within the context of my discussion so far, the concept of effective history, which concerns history as a living entity, one whose life arises from understanding it, is in no way simply a relativistic conception. The label of skepticism therefore serves to disqualify a position on history that threatens Hirsch's objectivist understanding of the truth of history, and above all one that undermines the venerable status of literary critics and historians as seers or prophets.
Undoubtedly, the irreducible finitude of historical consciousness that follows from its hermeneutical situation thoroughly disputes the possibility of all great narratives and paradigmatic fictions of history, even and especially if it is the very condition for the production of history itself. But if one continues to unpack Gadamer's conception of historical hermeneutics and effective history, one may discover that this conception is perhaps not as radical as Hirsch has made it out to be. Indeed, it may not even be totally distinct from the secular versions of sacred history. I should first point out that Gadamer's attempt at forging a historical hermeneutics also entails freeing it “from the metaphysical claims of reflective philosophy” (TM, 342). Even as he announces this project of uncoupling historical hermeneutics from reflective philosophy, and above all from Hegel's speculative philosophy, Gadamer is fully aware that one cannot possibly topple reflexivity by way of reflection; as he sees it, the formal quality of reflective philosophy—its “dialectic superiority”—is the reason why “every possible position is drawn into the reflective movement of consciousness coming to itself” (TM, 344). Yet, all appeal to immediacy, that is, to an “irrationalistic reduction” of reflective philosophy, is no less “self-refuting, in that it is not itself an immediate relation but a reflective activity” (TM, 344). In contrast, Gadamer resists the irrationalist response to reflective and speculative thought in order to find a way of understanding effective-historical consciousness so that, whatever becomes of its object, it “does not (p.203) dissolve into a mere reflective reality in the consciousness of the effect.” In other words, his concern is to discover a way in which “to conceive a reality that limits and exceeds the omnipotence of reflection” (TM, 342). According to Truth and Method, this reality that escapes reflective philosophy's totalizing grasp is language. But the question that begs an answer is whether Gadamer's hermeneutics and concept of effective history truly meet this challenge, and whether he avoids the reflective fallacy that, as I have argued, supposedly takes history out of history. Furthermore, I will have to determine whether Gadamer's alleged radical historicism succeeds in extracting itself fully from the romantic heritage.
Notwithstanding his emphasis on the limits of reflective philosophy, for Gadamer, Hegel is not to be simply overcome and discarded. On the contrary, since Hegel's reflective philosophy seeks to achieve a total mediation of past and present, Gadamer views his own undertaking as a continuation of Hegel's efforts. After all, what else is effective history if not a complete fusion of the subject of historical cognition and history itself? Yet, because of this ostensible kinship between the two enterprises, and the need “to define the structure of historically effected consciousness with an eye to Hegel,” Gadamer must also set his own understanding of history against the earlier approach (TM, 346). Indeed, even though Truth and Method pursues the mediation between the present and the past in a way that is analogous to Hegel's project, the difference with Hegel lies in Gadamer's refusal to embrace the latter's reflective philosophy. As he sees it, effective history and effective-historical consciousness as forms of finitude involve a criticism of the idea of both reflexivity and its corollary, speculative infinity. But what precisely constitutes the difference? As Gadamer's developments on historical experience show, the difference derives from his attempts to demonstrate that reflective thought never closes upon itself, and never achieves completion. Rather than culminating in a synthesis, the mediation of effective historical consciousness of the present and past remains open. Instead of bringing history to an end, this consciousness is essentially productive of historical continuity, and thus finitizes without end all totalizations of experience as essentially temporal. In a way, Gadamer aims at a dialectics without synthesis.
Before further inquiring into this openness, and thus also into a history that, at first glance, is not teleologically oriented towards endings—that is, not paradigmatic—it is necessary to linger for a moment on the irreducible historicality of the mediations of past and present brought about by historically effective consciousness. This will provide a more precise understanding of what “historical” means not only for Gadamer but for the (p.204) romantics, Hegel, and the Hegelian tradition as well. In mediating the present and the past, historically effective consciousness consists in historicizing what, according to Gadamer, an eighteenth-century precursor of romantic hermeneutics called Chladenius called “the point of view [Sehepunkt]” of the subject of experience and cognition (TM, 182). If this assertion is correct, the question arises as to whether historically effective consciousness, understood as a function of the subject's historical situatedness, is not simply a variation on Hegel's demand that philosophizing move within its own history. Yet, if reflective philosophy holds that the history of philosophical thought is necessarily the medium in which it unfolds, then a historical dimension is attributed to the subject, whose finite point of view becomes the condition for taking up all of history and creatively extending it into the present. Is this not precisely the reflective gesture par excellence? And does the historicization of the subject on which effective history rests, in spite of its claim to openness, not have to reintroduce in some way what it had set out to overcome, namely, the idea (or fiction) of paradigmatic history whose endings are always consonant with its beginnings, and without which no meaning of history, effective or not, can be established?
In order to round out my interpretation, one more detour is warranted. It will lead through Wilhelm Dilthey's The Formation of the Historical World in the Human Sciences. For Dilthey, history is sedimented human experience that crystallizes in social organizations and institutions. If history rests on lived experience, the role of the human sciences, and particularly the discipline of history, is to render conscious, and thus actual, the knowledge that a society, or mankind, has of itself. It follows that there is no distinction here between subject and object, but rather an intrinsic continuity between sedimented experience and the subject of understanding. Interestingly enough, Dilthey calls this continuum between the historical world and the human sciences an “effective totality [Wirkungszusammenhang].” In understanding history as a living understanding of another's lived experience, the limitations of the singularity of that other's experience are overcome, so that experience may be shared in the present by the whole community. In fact, historical understanding is grounded in the communal life of historical subjects at a present time. Dilthey writes that the “basic experience of commonality […] is the presupposition for understanding” (FHW, 163).27 Historical understanding is an understanding that is not only grounded in the communal life of subjects, it fosters communal life itself by dissolving the uniqueness of individual experiences past and present and turning them into a communal experience by all the (p.205) members of the community. Thus, an important feature of the human sciences becomes highlighted:
Unlike the natural sciences, the human sciences are not stratified. Understanding in the human sciences, especially in history, is characterized by a fundamental congeniality of subject and object, of individual and communal experience, of systematic knowledge of one historical period and time and the experience of that same period and time by an individual subject, and so forth—a congeniality based on reciprocal dependence. The understanding of history is truly understanding only on the condition that it is rooted in that same history, and is thus itself historical. This, however, prompts the question of what is meant, possibly, by history and historical. From what Dilthey says in the above quoted passage, historical means only the reciprocal dependence, or the determinedness, of, say, a part by a whole, or an individual by the community, and vice versa. Being determined is being historical! The real question, then, concerns the meaning of determinedness.
Understanding presupposes experience, but lived experience only becomes life-experience if understanding leads us from the narrowness and subjectivity of experiencing into the region of the whole and the general. Moreover, the understanding of an individual personality [Dilthey's example is Bismarck], to be complete, requires systematic knowledge, while systematic knowledge is equally dependent on the vivid grasping of the individual life-unit. The conceptual cognition of inorganic nature proceeds through a formation of sciences in which the lower stratum is always independent of the one that it grounds; in the human sciences everything from the process of understanding onwards is determined [bestimmt] by the relationship of mutual dependence. (FHW, 164)
At this point, it is necessary to recall that, in The Formation of the Historical World in the Human Sciences, both history and understanding as lived experience are objectifications of life. Life is at once the objectifying source of history and its totalizing force. Through understanding the whole of its objectifications in history, life as a totalizing force secures its own reflection, in what Dilthey terms an “effective totality.” Since life is the whole that determines the parts, understanding is the very process through which the parts that contain this whole are reflected back into the whole to which they belong. Whereas history is this process in which life is objectified, historical understanding folds these objectifications, these parts of life, back into the whole, and is therefore nothing less than the agent of life's self-reflection. It thus comes as no surprise that autobiography becomes the main form by which life understands itself. Dilthey (p.206) writes: “In autobiography we encounter the highest and most instructive form of the understanding of Life” (FHW, 199). Autobiography is not just one instance in which an individual life proceeds to understand itself; it is the root of all historical understanding insofar as the latter consists in a community's self-understanding, and, ultimately, in the self-understanding of life. Dilthey remarks that self-reflection “alone makes historical insight [Sehen] possible. The power and scope of our own lives and the energy with which we reflect on them provide the basis of historical vision” (FHW, 222). Based on self-reflection, historical perception produces an understanding of history as specular autobiography, as it were, in which life (or the spirit [Geist], which for Dilthey are homonymous concepts) reflects itself into an always-open totality. This infinite openness of history and its congenital understanding is what distinguishes Dilthey from Hegel.
Based on my reading, history accomplishes its specular, though open, totality in the same manner as the human science of history, namely, through a mutual determination of part and whole, individual and community, singular act of understanding and communal consciousness of the tradition, and so forth. But, significantly enough, such mutual determination, whether in history or in its systematic science, can only elaborate history as a self-reflexive totality if the process of reciprocal determination is end-oriented. In other words, the goal is reached only on condition that the process of determination takes place in view of a point of total the self-reflective transparency of life itself, even though this process is only one of infinite approximation. That such is, indeed, the case, becomes clear at the very moment when Dilthey argues that the fundamental relation between lived experience and understanding as a relation of mutual determinateness is to be conceived as a “gradual elucidation [Aufklärung]” that takes place “through the constant interaction of two classes [individual and universal] of truth” (FHW, 167). The telos of reciprocal determination is the gradual illumination, or enlightenment, of life, that is, a gradually increasing consciousness of life itself through all its objective shapes.
The term historical, then, names not only determinedness—the reciprocity of parts and whole—but a teleological orientation toward a state of total self-reflective transparency as well, even though, for Dilthey, this state will never be fully actualized. At this point, it is necessary to recall the German word for determination: Bestimmung. As with Aufhebung, Bestimmung is a specular word, but the history of concepts demonstrates that it is a word that has proved to be much more resistant to criticism than (p.207) the concept of Aufhebung, or sublation. Bestimmung means both determination and destination, that is, teleological orientedness. What, then, is the status of this specular term which tying these two meanings into an (almost) inextricable knot: Bestimmung, I would venture to say, is the reflective operator par excellence. Determination is the very mechanism by which reflective philosophy (including the philosophy of romanticism) accomplishes the reflective mediation of opposites. Based on my discussion so far, historical is merely another term for determinateness, that is, for a relation of which Hegel speaks, for example, in the Greater Logic, as “reflective determination [Reflexionsbestimmung].” I have already pointed out that the telos of history in both its senses as the whole of past events and its systematic science or narration—its Bestimmung, in the sense of destination—is the total self-reflection of spirit, or life (whether this is a process that, as for Hegel, comes to a determinate conclusion or is an infinitely ongoing process, as with Dilthey and Gadamer). In sum, then, history, or anything that is historical, is an intrinsically reflective notion, teleologically oriented toward the absolute self-reflection of life, or spirit, or total determinateness.
I ended my discussion of Gadamer's concept of effective history by asking whether this concept is drastically different from that of paradigmatic history, and thus an alternative to it. From the preceding developments, it is clear that this is, at best, rather unlikely. As with Theodor W. Adorno's concept of negative dialectics and of a dialectics without synthesis, the idea of effective history merely defers the teleological completion of its process of interaction, or mutual determination between past and present. Furthermore, if the understanding of history as effective history were not teleologically oriented by the tradition of historical thinking as a whole, Gadamer would have to restrict all understanding to that of the present, and would have to concede that no true understanding of the past is possible. In fact, without such orientedness, even if it is never fully actualized, the present, too, would remain thoroughly opaque. In short, without a minimum of a paradigm concerning its beginnings and endings, Gadamer would be unable to make sense of both the past and the present, and he would be vulnerable to an objection like the following, which Hirsch has leveled against what he, for his part, understands as effective history: “The radical historicist is rather sentimentally attached to the belief that only our own cultural entities have ‘authentic’ immediacy for us.”28
If Hirsch's argument fails to score a point with regard to Gadamer's notion of effective history, this is precisely because the dialectical openness that this concept promotes is, in the end, not so open as Gadamer would (p.208) like us to believe. It is true that the accomplishment of effective history consists in abolishing the atemporal and ahistorical position of the historicist himself which traditional historical criticism has been reluctant to give up. Yet, if the position of the subject of historical experience and understanding is determined by the whole of history, and is thus situated with respect to this whole—if, in other words, he or she becomes a moment in history—then history itself becomes the very telos of the mediation that is brought about in and by effective history. Indeed, once subject and object become historicized, that is, determined and reflected into one another, history itself is turned into the absolute self-reflective subject waiting at the end of the process, deferred or not. History paradoxically becomes its own telos. History, as an absolutely self-reflective entity, is the telos of the tradition in which the subject of the cognition of history finds his or her effective place. It hardly matters whether this telos of history is grasped along Hegelian lines as a becoming self-conscious of the tradition—as seems to be the case with Gadamer—or according to what Benjamin has called the medium of infinite reflection—as is the case with the romantics who continue to inspire the kind of literary criticism whose object is the text's self-reflexivity. Both cases demonstrate a reflective concept of history that remains intrinsically paradigmatic in a Kermodean sense.
What the preceding discussion has brought to light is an essential complicity between the concept of reflexivity and history, and by extension, between a literary criticism that pretends to be historical and one whose aim is to establish the text's inherent self-referentiality or self-reflection. Historical literary criticism's conception of history as paradigmatic—that is, as a history shaped by beginnings and endings—cannot do without reflexivity, while the supposedly ahistorical criticism that engages the inner form of literary artwork implicitly assumes a notion of history in which it has accomplished its goal and has come into its own. This complicity makes it rigorously impossible to play one against the other. All polemics by one position against the other are based on a denial of its own presuppositions.
Are there then no other concepts of history, or, to cite the title of a work by Paul Bénichou, is there no ending to Le temps des prophètes? Is there no alternative to paradigmatic history? As I hope to have shown, the idea of effective history may have been developed in an effort to overcome the limitations of reflective philosophy critically, but it does not represent a radical alternative because of its own dependence on reflexivity. Paradoxically, it is its own intimately reflective nature that establishes its kinship with the secular paradigmatic patterns of the conceptions of history that I (p.209) have discussed. But to speak of alternatives to paradigmatic history, to end-time–oriented history whether in a religious or secular manner, is perhaps not the right way to engage this issue. The aim here has not been to propose an alternative, but, on the contrary, to ward off a false opposition—the opposition of history and reflexivity—and in the same breath, a false problem—in order to clear the ground for another debate, particularly in the domain of literary criticism, about history. In such a debate it cannot be a question of confronting the history of beginnings and endings with an alternative concept of history, but only of displacing the dominant models of historical thought by inquiring deeper into the notion of the historical itself.
(1.) Karl Löwith, Meaning in History. The Theological Implications of the Philosophy of History (Chicago: University of Chicago Press), 1949
(2.) See in particular the proceedings of a conference from 1962 published in Die Philosophie und die Frage nach dem Fortschritt, eds. H. Kuhn and F. Wiedmann (Munich: Anton Pustet, 1964) and Hans Blumenberg, The Legitimacy of the Modern Age, trans. R. M. Wallace (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1999). Martin Heidegger's objections regarding the notion of secularization are even more devastating than those forwarded by Blumenberg—in that, as he has pointed out, the notion of secularization is thoughtlessly deceptive “because a world toward which and in which one is made worldly already belongs to ‘secularization’ and ‘becoming-worldly’” (Martin Heidegger, Nietzsche, vol. 4, trans. F. A. Capuzzi [San Francisco: Harper & Row], 100). For my purpose, Blumenberg's criticism, which takes on the historical credentials of this category, must suffice.
(3.) Edward Said, Orientalism (New York: Pantheon Books, 1978), 258–59
(4.) Erich Auerbach, Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature, trans. W. R. Trask (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1974)
(5.) Erich Auerbach, “Epilegomena zu Mimesis,” Romanische Forschungen 65, nos. 1–2, 1953: 2
(7.) Erich Auerbach, “Figura,” in Scenes from the Drama of European Literature (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984), 11–76, 229–237
(8.) Auerbach, “Epilegomena zu Mimesis,” 18
(9.) Helmut Kuhn, “Literaturgeschichte als Geschichtsphilosophie. Zu Erich Auerbachs ‘Mimesis,’” in Schriften zur Ästhetik (Munich: Kösel Verlag, 1966), 194
(10.) Edward Said, Beginnings: Intention and Method (New York: Basic Books, 1975)
(11.) The full passage to which I am referring reads as follows: “Religious narrative, Christ's biography, and what Vico called sacred history are founded upon and originate in the original mystery of a Virgin Birth that can never be wholly verified, but which demands recognition and unqualified acceptance; whereas secular narrative […] is based on—begins in—the common and indisputable fact of natural human birth—or, using more severe terms, in the natal banishment of man from immortality and in his initiation into an afflicted family, not one that is apostolic but is rather a problematical combination of repression and love” (142).
(p.376) (12.) The historical dialectic of secular representation is not always carried out in such a rich way, that is, according to all its multiple layers and ramifications, as it is in Said's Beginnings. Take, for example, Gerald Graff's criticism of the “reflexive fallacy” of postmodernism, which he analyzes in a way that it is diagnosed as a dead end of literature without any possible dialectical salvation. The only answer to it can come from outside this literary aberration, which Graff detects in a promising return to realism in the anti-intellectual novels of Saul Bellows and in the elegy to toughness in Stanley Elkin's Poetics for Bullies. See Gerald Graff, Literature Against Itself (Chicago: University of Chicago Press), 1979.
(13.) Frank Kermode, The Sense of an Ending (London: Oxford University Press, 1975)
(14.) Otto Pöggeler, “Dichtungstheorie und Toposforschung,” in Jahrbuch, für Ästhetik und allgemeine Kunstwissenschaft vol. 5 (1960), 136–8
(15.) Charlton T. Lewis and Charles Short, A Latin Dictionary (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1975)
(16.) Plato, Phaedros, in Plato, The Collected Dialogues (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1980), 510 (264c–d)
(17.) Kermode is highly critical of all attempts to separate the spatial from the temporal, and to privilege it (see Kermode, The Sense of an Ending, 176–9). This same organicist motive that we find in Kermode is also operative in Said's Beginnings when it is pointed out that “a narrative also contains the seeds of its own aging and death” (142).
(18.) Friedrich Schlegel, Philosophical Fragments, trans. P. Firchow (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1991), 31, 50
(20.) All the critics I have been discussing consider the present in which they are writing as the climax of decadence or decay—as the reign of the beast as it were—and themselves as prophets announcing a new age.
(21.) Gerald Graff, “Politics, Language, Deconstruction, Lies and Reflexive Fallacy: A Rejoinder to W. J. T. Mitchell,” Salmagundi, nos. 47–48 (1980): 78–94
(22.) Blumenberg, The Legitimacy of the Modern Age, 43
(23.) E. D. Hirsch, Validity in Interpretation (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1967), 40
(24.) Ibid., 42. Although the translators of the revised edition of Gadamer's Truth and Method to which I will refer translate the term Wirkungsgeschichte as history of effects, I will continue to use the older translation of effective history. See Hans-Georg Gadamer, Truth and Method (no trans.) (New York: Seabury Press, 1975). Both renderings in English are problematic, but the notion of a (p.377) history of effects misses out on Gadamer's conception of history itself as an effective actuality that represents at all moments the horizon of signification in the present for all actions and thoughts.
(25.) Hans-Georg Gadamer, Truth and Method, 2nd rev. ed., trans. J. Weinsheimer and D. G. Marshall (New York: Continuum, 1995)
(26.) Helmut Kuhn, “Literaturgeschichte als Geschichtsphilosophie,” 163
(27.) Wilhelm Dilthey, The Formation of the Historical World in the Human Sciences, eds. R. A. Makkreel and F. Rodi (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2002)
(28.) Hirsch, Validity in Interpretation, 43