Capitalist Epics

Abstraction, totality and the theory of the novel

RP 163 () / Article

How are we to read Georg Lukács’s The Theory of the Novel nearly a century after it was written?1 More specifically, how are we to reread its relation to Lukács’s own later Marxist work, framed, as the latter was, by its self-consciously materialist attempt to rework the book’s Hegelian categories in view of Marx’s ambition to turn Hegel’s idealism ‘right side up’? In the wake of the apparent disappearance of a horizon of world proletarian revolution inaugurated, for Lukács, by the events of 1917 – a horizon which informs his later accounts of the realist and modernist novel at every point – in what ways have the possible meanings of The Theory of the Novel been transformed? What is living and what dead in Lukács’s theorization of the novel? Is there perhaps new life in it today?

All of Lukács’s work on the novel proposes itself, in some form, as a series of answers to the questions that begin Ian Watt’s classic 1957 study, The Rise of the Novel:

Is the novel a new literary form? And if we assume, as is commonly done, that it is … how does it differ from the prose fiction of the past…? And is there any reason why these differences appeared when and where they did?’2

In this sense, Lukács’s theorization of the novel is also, of necessity, a theorization of modernity, and of its specific relation to literary form. For despite the calls of Margaret Anne Doody and, more recently, Franco Moretti to ‘make the literary field longer, larger and deeper’, taking it ultimately back into the ancient world, Watt’s questions remain, in a fundamental sense, ineliminable.3 David Trotter may be right to suggest that ‘traces of novel DNA’ can be found everywhere and anywhere within the history of literate culture, but there remains something more historically specific at stake in questions about the rise of the novel as such, whatever its lengthier ‘polygenesis’.4 Certainly, as Benjamin wrote in the 1930s, while it is evidently true that certain aspects of the novel might well ‘go back to antiquity’, it was in fact only in its encounter with the ‘evolving middle class’ of ‘fully developed capitalism’ that it found ‘those elements’ that were genuinely ‘favourable to its flowering’.5 And, if nothing else, such an assertion indicates what, for much twentieth- and twenty-first-century criticism, has been thought to most crucially delimit the novel: that it is a (perhaps the) distinctively modern literary form.6

The character of this modernity has been conceived in many different, more or less ‘mythical’ (and thereby deconstructible) ways.7 But if it takes a dominant form, as Benjamin’s account suggests, it is probably one that understands the novel, above all, as literature’s great bourgeois form: the expression of some ‘new centre of gravity’ embodied in the ‘selfconfidence of the middle class as a whole’.8 The roots of such a conception – associated, variously, with the rise of individualism, the concretely everyday and secular, progressivism, or the fragmentation and dissolution of some pre-existing hierarchy of genre – lie, however, not so much in any developed account of the novel itself, but rather, negatively, in an account of the ancient epic to be found first in what comprises little more than a page or two of Hegel’s Aesthetics, and from which, it is no exaggeration to say, almost the entirety of the conceptual apparatus of Lukács’s work on the novel derives:

[I]t is quite different with the novel, the modern bourgeois epic. Here we have completely before us again the wealth and many-sidedness of interests, situations, characters, relations involved in life, the background of a whole world, as well as the epic portrayal of events. But what is missing is the primitive poetic general situation out of which the epic proper proceeds. A novel in the modern sense of the word presupposes a world already prosaically ordered … the whole state of the world today has assumed a form diametrically opposed in its prosaic organization to the requirements… for genuine epic.9



1. Georg Lukács, The Theory of the Novel, trans. Anna Bostock, Merlin, London, 1971 – written 1914–15, first published in 1916. This article is a slightly different version of a chapter forthcoming in Timothy Bewes and Timothy Hall, eds, Georg Lukács: The Fundamental Dissonance of Existence, Continuum, London and NewYork, 2011. My thanks to both of this book’s editors, and especially to Tim Bewes for the invitation to deliver the paper at Theories of the Novel Now, a conference hosted by Novel: A Forum on Fiction, in Providence, Rhode Island in November 2008, from which the ideas expressed in this article initially derived. Thanks also to the editors of Novel for permission to reuse some brief passages from the version of this short paper, published in volume 42 of the journal under the title ‘Very Abstract and Terribly Concrete: Capitalism and The Theory of the Novel’ (pp. 311–17), within the material presented here.

2. Ian Watt, The Rise of the Novel, Penguin, Harmondsworth,1972, p. 9.

3. Franco Moretti, ‘Introduction’ to Franco Moretti, ed., The Novel, Volume 2: Forms and Themes, Princeton University Press, Princeton NJ, 2006, p. x. See also Margaret Anne Doody, The True Story of the Novel, Harper Collins,London, 1997. There is of course a longstanding debate between those who would locate Cervantes’s Don Quixote as the inaugural moment in the novel’s ‘whenand where’, and those, like Watt, who would see it asoriginating with Richardson or Defoe. But texts like The True Story of the Novel have traced the form back not just to early seventeenth-century Spain but to the ancient world and its own cultural hybridities. Nonetheless, while Doody may be right that The Rise of the Novel manifests a profound British chauvinism – certainly Watt marginalizes the more ‘philosophical’ development of the French roman – it is surely a considerably more questionable move to project ‘the novel’, a ‘genre’ for which the Ancient Greeks and Romans had no equivalent word or concept whatsoever, back into the Hellenistic world itself. Moreover, to say so is not merely to assert some naive nominalism – the untenable assumption of some absolute rupture in the history of writing between one discontinuous epistemic system and another constituted by the mere invention of the name ‘novel’ – but is to observe that such accounts precisely miss what is novel about the category of ‘the novel’ itself, and hence what came, over the course of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, gradually to require the elaboration of some new concept.

4. David Trotter, ‘Into the Future’, London Review of Books, 22 March 2007, p. 31.

5. Walter Benjamin, ‘The Storyteller’, in Selected Writings,Volume 3: 1935–1938, Belknap Press, Cambridge MA,2002, p. 147.

6. See David Cunningham, ‘After Adorno: The Narratorof the Contemporary European Novel’, in David Cunningham and Nigel Mapp, eds, Adorno and Literature,Continuum, London and New York, 2006, p. 199.

7. As a ‘myth of the modern’, almost all divisions betweenthe epic and the novel rely all too obviously, given the historical priority of the former, upon a canonically ‘metaphysical’ opposition of originary unity and secondary, ‘post-lapsarian’ fragmentation – although this does not, of course, necessarily have to take a strictly nostalgic form (fragmentation can always be affirmed as a mark of freedom). And, of course, one might well see this division of epic and novel as, among other things, a division organized around Derrida’s own pivotal metaphysical binary of speech and writing (though Lukács himself devotes almost no attention to this): the authenticity of that which derives immediately from oral tradition versus the novel’s irreducible reliance on technologies of writing, as intensified by the mass production forms of print-capitalism. For a defence of Lukács in particular on this point, however, see Bernstein’s forceful argument that the latter’s conception of the epicworld explicitly criticizes any romantic conception of it as a utopia, along with any universal philosophy ofhistory, and instead presents the epic merely as a necessary projection from within the world of the novel itself. J.M. Bernstein, The Philosophy of the Novel: Lukács, Marxism and the Dialectics of Form, Harvester Press, Brighton, 1984, pp. 47, 64–5.

8. Watt, The Rise of the Novel, p. 65.

9. G.W.F. Hegel, Aesthetics: Lectures on Fine Art, 2 vols, trans. T.M. Knox, Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1975, pp.1092, 1109; translation modified.