Monday, February 21, 2011

"Plot in the Modern Novel" by J. Arthur Honeywell

Honeywell's brief 1968 essay "Plot in the Modern Novel" (included in the admirably readable anthology Essentials of the Theory of Fiction, edited by Michael J. Hoffman and Patrick D. Murphy) outlines a historical narrative of the development of novelistic plot that is as powerful as it is questionable. Building on the work of R.S. Crane, Honeywell writes that 18th-century novelists "tended to construct their plots around definite beginnings and endings" (the novel-initiating birth and novel-terminating marriage of a Fielding hero, for example), while 19th-century novelists "began to subordinate the problem of beginnings and endings to the problem of constructing a logical sequence of events." So far, so good. All of this is greatly oversimplified, but the relative privileging of beginnings and endings as opposed to 'middles' captures the way 18th-century novels generally feel 'looser' and closer to the picaresque than the more carefully structured works of the following century. The Honeywell scheme continues into the twentieth century with the contention that Modernists turned away from 19th-century causational structure and toward "structuring the events of the novel so as to present a coherent 'world' or vision of reality." Along with these supposedly distinct--but actually interpenetrating--tendencies, Honeywell finds three corresponding tendencies of plot movement: reversal of fortune in the 18th-century (Tom Jones, Clarissa), reversal of moral intention in the 19th century (Crime and Punishment), and in Modernist novels "a movement from appearance to reality constituted by the emergence of structural patterns which give coherence and intelligibility to facts previously seen as unrelated and incongruous." Honeywell's description of Modernist plot tendencies initially reads like a pretty good description of the process of understanding Joyce or Proust, but the more I think about it, the less it satisfies me. Its most glaring weakness is a reliance on that hairily hoary critical cliche, appearance versus reality. (That's the way it's expressed, as I recall, in elementary literature textbooks: appearance versus reality, as though we are to imagine a football game between the two: the fist-pumping Hemingwayish he-men of Reality against a cadre of opiate-fogged Wildean aesthetes who wave their perfumed handkerchiefs in support of Appearance. It's a duality with all manner of nasty little sociopolitical undertones; homophobia and misogyny are but the tip of its berg.) First of all, the revelation of reality was less a twentieth-century innovation than a nineteenth-century fetish and one of the important engines of 19th-century novelistic production (think of all those Zola novels no one reads anymore, all dedicated to anatomizing a hard, 'scientific' reality beneath the appearances of French society). Bumping this tendency up to the next century in order to preserve a moralistic view of 19th-century fiction is woefully ahistorical. If we focus instead on Honeywell's description of the Modernist process of the revelation of reality, we still face the problem of Honeywell's understanding of appearance and reality as a simple opposition. It's truer to the facts of twentieth-century literature to view them as a dialectical pair. While the 19th-century saw reality as the material basis of existence and appearance as a sentimental veil, Modernism exploits and constructs a dialectic of appearance and reality. Material reality determines appearances, as in the vulgarist Marxism (when someone once accused me of being a vulgar Marxist, I corrected him thus: "I'm a fucking vulgar Marxist!"), and appearances also determine reality, as in the most decadent Wilde-ism. Much of Modernist literature, up to the present day, concerns itself with the latter side of this dialectical interpenetration: the way appearance (or representation, or discourse, or [place your favorite jargon word here]) constructs a 'reality' that demands Nabokovian scare quotes. There is much more in the heavens and hells of Modernist literature than is dreamt of in Honeywell's philosophy.

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