Theodor W. Adorno on modernism, Georg Lukács, James Joyce (1)



The task of compressing some remarks on the current status of the novel as form into the space of a few minutes forces me to select, albeit by doing violence, one aspect of the problem. The aspect I have chosen is the position of the narrator. Today that position is marked by a paradox: it is no longer possible to tell a story , but the form of the novel requires narration. The novel was the literary form specific to the bourgeois age. At its origins stands the experience of the disenchanted world in Don Quixote, and the artistic treatment of mere existence has remained the novel’s sphere. Realism was inherent in the novel; even those that are novels of fantasy as far as their subject matter is concerned attempt to present their content in such a way that the suggestion of reality emanates from them. Through a development that extends back into the nineteenth century and has become accelerated in the extreme today, this mode of proceeding has become questionable. Where the narrator is concerned, this process has occurred through a subjectivism that leaves no material untransformed and thereby undermines the epic precept of objectivity or material concreteness [Gegenständlichkeit]. Nowadays, anyone who continued to dwell on concrete reality the way Stifter, for instance, did, and wanted to derive his impact from the fullness and plasticity of a material reality contemplated and humbly accepted, would be forced into an imitative stance that would smack of arts and crafts. He would be guilty of a lie: the lie of delivering himself over to the world with a love that presupposes that the world is meaningful; and he would end up with insufferable kitsch along the lines of a local-color commercialism. The difficulties are just as great when considered from the point of view of the subject matter. Just as painting lost many of its traditional tasks to photography, the novel has lost them to reportage and the media of the culture industry, especially film. This would imply that the novel should concentrate on what reportage will not handle. In contrast to painting, however, language imposes limits on the novel's emancipation from the object and forces the novel to present the semblance of a report: consistently, Joyce linked the novel’s rebellion against realism with a rebellion against discursive language.

To oppose what Joyce was trying to do by calling it eccentric, individualistic, and arbitrary would be unconvincing. The identity of experience in the form of a life that is articulated and possesses internal continuity—and that life was the only thing that made the narrator’s stance possible—has disintegrated. One need only note how impossible it would be for someone who participated in the war to tell stories about it the way people used to tell stories about their adventures. A narrative that presented itself as though the narrator had mastered this kind of experience would rightly meet with impatience and skepticism on the part of its audience. Notions like “sitting down with a good book” are archaic. The reason for this lies not merely in the reader's loss of concentration but also in the content and its form. For telling a story means having something special to say, and that is precisely what is prevented by the administered world, by standardization and eternal sameness. Apart from any message with ideological content, the narrator’s implicit claim that the course of the world is still essentially one of individuation , that the individual with his impulses and his feelings is still the equal of fate, that the inner person is still directly capable of something, is ideological in itself; the cheap biographical literature one finds everywhere is a byproduct of the disintegration of the novel form itself.

The sphere of psychology, in which such projects take up residence, though with little success, is not exempt from the crisis of literary concreteness. Even the subject matter of the psychological novel is snapped up from under its nose: it has been rightly observed that at a time when journalists were constantly waxing enthusiastic about Dostoevski’s psychological achievements, his discoveries had long since been surpassed by science, and especially by Freud’s psychoanalysis. Moreover, this kind of overblown praise of Dostoevski probably missed the mark: to the extent to which there is any psychology in his work at all, it is a psychology of intelligible character, of essence, and not a psychology of empirical character, of human beings as we find them. It is precisely in this respect that Dostoevski is advanced. It is not only that communications and science have seized control of everything positive and tangible, including the facticity of inwardness, that forces the novel to break with the psychology of empirical character and give itself over to the presentation of essence [Wessen] and its antithesis [Unwesen]; it is also that the tighter and more seamless the surface of the social life process becomes the more it veils essence. If the novel wants to remain true to its realistic heritage and tell how things really are, it must abandon a realism that only aids the facade in its work of camouflage by reproducing it. The reification of all relationships between individuals, which transforms their human qualities into lubricating oil for the smooth running of the machinery, the universal alienation and self-alienation, needs to be called by name, and the novel is qualified to do so as few other art forms are. The novel has long since, and certainly since the eighteenth century and Fielding’s Tom Jones, had as its true subject matter the conflict between living human beings and rigidified conditions. In this process, alienation itself becomes an aesthetic device for the novel. For the more human beings, individuals and collectivities, become alienated from one another, the more enigmatic they become to one another. The novel’s true impulse, the attempt to decipher the riddle of external life, then becomes a striving for essence, which now for its part seems bewildering and doubly alien in the context of the everyday estrangement established by social conventions. The anti-realistic moment in the modern novel, its metaphysical dimension, is called forth by its true subject matter, a society in which human beings have been torn from one another and from themselves. What is reflected in aesthetic transcendence is the disenchantment of the world.




A common feature of the great novelists of the age is that in their work the novelistic precept “this is how it is,” thought through to its ultimate consequences, releases a series of historical archetypes; this occurs in Proust’s involuntary memory as in Kafka’s parables and Joyce’s epic cryptograms. The literary subject who declares himself free of the conventions of concrete representation acknowledges his own impotence at the same time; he acknowledges the superior strength of the world of things that reappears in the midst of the monologue. Thus a second language is produced, distilled to a large extent from the residue of the first, a deteriorated associative language of things which permeates not only the novelist’s monologue but also that of the innumerable people estranged from the first language who make up the masses. Forty years ago, in his Theory of the Novel, Lukács posed the question whether Dostoevski’s novels were the foundation for future epics, or perhaps even themselves those epics. In fact, the contemporary novels that count, those in which an unleashed subjectivity turns into its opposite through its own momentum, are negative epics. They are testimonials to a state of affairs in which the individual liquidates himself, a state of affairs which converges with the pre-individual situation that once seemed to guarantee a world replete with meaning. These epics, along with all contemporary art, are ambiguous: it is not up to them to determine whether the goal of the historical tendency they register is a regression to barbarism or the realization of humanity, and many are all too comfortable with the barbaric. There is no modern work of art worth anything that does not delight in dissonance and release. But by uncompromisingly embodying the horror and putting all the pleasure of contemplation into the purity of this expression, such works of art serve freedom—something the average production betrays, simply because it does not bear witness to what has befallen the individual in the age of liberalism. These products fall outside the controversy over committed art and l’art pour l’art, outside the choice between the philistinism of art with a cause and the philistinism of art for enjoyment. Karl Kraus once formulated the idea that everything that spoke morally out of his works in the form of physical, non-aesthetic reality had been imparted to him solely under the law of language, thus in the name of l’art pour l’art. It is a tendency inherent in form that demands the abolition of aesthetic distance in the contemporary novel and its capitulation thereby to the superior power of reality—a reality that cannot be transfigured in an image but only altered concretely, in reality.



SOURCE: Adorno, Theodor W. “The Position of the Narrator in the Contemporary Novel,” in Notes to Literature; Volume One, edited by Rolf Tiedemann, translated by Shierry Weber Nicholsen (New York: Columbia University Press, 1991), pp. 30-36. Excerpts from pp. 30-32, 35-36; beginning & ending quoted. First published 1954.

Note: The other key, related essays in these two volumes are:

“Extorted Reconciliation: On Georg Lukács’ Realism in Our Time” (vol. 1, pp. 216-240), 1958
“Trying to Understand Endgame” (vol. 1, pp. 241-275), 1961
“Commitment” (vol. 2, pp. 76-94), 28 March 1962

Alternate translation: Adorno, Theodor. “Reconciliation under Duress,” translated by Rodney Livingstone, in Aesthetics and Politics, by Ernst Bloch, Georg Lukács, Bertolt Brecht, Walter Benjamin, Theodor Adorno; afterword by Fredric Jameson; Ronald Taylor, translation editor (London: NLB, 1977), pp. 151-176.


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