By the end of the 18th century, the novel had already begun to replace the rich variety of narrative genres that preceded it. This is a familiar theme in the history of the arts in the modern period. One particular artistic form comes to be preferred for its freedom; it crowds out the other forms, which are disdained for their traditional limitations; finally the artist is less free than she was at the beginning, having only one genre for her thoughts rather than many. (The same thing has happened with the lyric poem.)
The great novelists of the 19th century well understood the subtle handicaps of that apparently freest of forms. In his foreword to The Brothers Karamazov, Dostoevsky berates his readers in advance for their anticipated preference for the psychologically “interesting” figures of Ivan and Dmitri, and insists that it is Alyosha, the holy brother, who is the true hero. Tolstoy implicitly does the same thing in Anna Karenina, giving us a Levin whose motivations are not entirely novelistic, as a counterweight to his Anna and Vronsky, who are, as it were, virtuoso compositions of novelistic psychology. In The Mill on the Floss and Middlemarch we can, I think, see George Eliot struggling in the same way to release her heroines from the sociopsychological determinism that the novel form itself subtly imposes. In Madame Bovary we see the same theme but with a different strategy for dealing with it. Emma’s psychic straitjacket is thematized as tragic, in almost the same way that in Greek tragedy the dramatic form itself, of which irony is an essential structural feature, plays the part of the divine fate that destroys the hero.
What is it that the great novelists were battling against? Essentially this: When the novel abandoned the constraints of the classical narrative genres—meter, allegorical significance, mythic structure, etc.—it had to replace them with another constraint which, because it was largely invisible, part of a body of unexamined assumptions, was the more tyrannous. That constraint is what we know as motivational verisimilitude, or consistency of character. It is made up of two elements: the sociological and the psychological. The price the novelist pays for freedom from the old constraints is to be forced to create characters who are psychic and/or social automata; the contract between writer and reader requires that the reader be flattered in his worldly theory of human motivation, his shrewd estimate of human predictability. Since probability is now the only constraint and thus the only expressive medium whose manipulation might constitute meaning, woe betide the novelist who creates a character that resists the currently favored fashion of psychological or social determination! Such a character is not only a sort of moral insult to a reader who considers herself bound by those laws and excuses her conduct by means of them, but is also an aesthetically discordant note in the harmony of the form itself.
If, for instance, the libidinal drive is popularly believed to be fundamental, then it is useless, indeed rather sinister, to resist it even if it requires breaking faith with other people. In fact it is heroic, as in the case of Connie and Mellors in Lady Chatterley’s Lover, to give that impulse absolute sway. The reader is sentimentally warmed by this compliment to his own incontinence; and conversely, offended by a character who denies it. Perhaps the ultimate such psychic automaton is the heroine of Kate Chopin’s The Awakening. If on the other hand social forces are thought to govern motivation, the realism and verisimilitudes that keep open the channel between writer and reader will consist in characterizations that obey the laws of class and social history. Such is the socialist novel, though the naturalistic novel before it had a strong tendency in this direction also.
Perhaps it was in response to an unconscious sense of these constraints, as well as for the reasons already cited for the destructiveness of modern art, that the novelists progressively undermined all the foundations of their form itself, except for the one—motivational verisimilitude—that was causing the trouble. The original plot of the novel was a courtship leading to a marriage. With variations and elaborations, this single plot could serve as a capacious framework for whatever else the novelist wanted to do. As long as the moment of sexual union was delayed—and much of the novelist’s art consisted of ingenious delays—the plot was alive and could carry freight.
This plot gradually came under attack. The marriages became more and more objectionable to the societies in which they took place; then came the novel of adultery, the novel of multiple adultery, the novel of sexual freedom, and the loss of that suspense which is so central a part of a story. A new plot had to be found, and it was. It consisted of the liberation of the protagonist from the society of his or her birth; a liberation at first fatal to the hero or heroine, but eventually, as this plot matured, beneficial. Gradually the liberated protagonist came to be identified with the author, and the novel lost most of its other characters and came to resemble autobiography. Now the novel was adopted by the academy and suspense was no longer required to keep its paid readers. So plot itself was abandoned in the New Novel and its ilk, to undergo a phantom resurrection in the postmodern novel as the quoted fiction of a fictional author. But the ball and chain of psychosocial verisimilitude remained through all these changes.
Another way of putting this is in terms of the tense of the novel: the past historic. When a novelist tries to escape by using the present tense, it feels like the historic present. The characters are fixed to an ineluctable past which they can never escape: They are temporal automata going through their psychic motions before the eyes of a godlike reader, whose secure place in the present preserves him like a god above the struggles of the protagonists and whose feelings perhaps include a trace of sadistic voyeurism.
The point becomes clear when we contrast the novel with different narrative forms. Consider the myth, whose timeless heroes and heroines are terrifyingly free to establish a language of action for us to emulate or avoid. Or the epic, which does the same but does it within history, showing us how to generate our own kind of time, for a whole society. Even the mere addition of poetic meter, by bringing into direct play other parts of the brain than the linguistic capacities of the left temporal lobe, can provide a playful spaciousness, an openness to mystery, an alternate structure to psychological probability that can release a story’s protagonists and readers into a greater world.
Or take science fiction, which, since it rejects the psychosocial givens, turning them over to the technological imagination of its protagonists, is not much concerned with motivational verisimilitude; but which can make perfect sense as a story to an attuned reader, while, like myth, it takes up anew the great philosophical and scientific questions abandoned for so long by the mainstream novelists. Again, drama, which is genuinely always in the present tense, need not be tied down to psychosocial determinism; those wonderfully subtle and moving automata of Ibsen and Chekhov do feel to us in the past tense, but the allegorical figures of Brecht and Beckett do not in the same way, however dated the Marxist or existentialist ideas they represent. Shakespeare, who has his characters choose and perform their own masks—all the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players—gives us all the pleasure of a novel while preserving the protean initiative of his characters. The detective novel occupies an interesting place in this classification, for the detective is indeed in the present tense, while all the suspects she analyzes are in the past. But the detective pays for this godlike power by a hermetic and hermeneutic detachment from the world; unable to take part in the actions of the automata, she can only, like the reader, come to understand them.
The postmodern solution to the problem of psychosocial automatism is no real solution; for in insisting on the fictional arbitrariness of his characters, the postmodern novelist simply turns himself into the god of the story universe, and his characters act out his own imputed psychic automatisms. John Fowles has sought a way out of the problem in The French Lieutenant’s Woman by providing multiple endings and in Daniel Martin by abandoning his own fictional narrator. But in doing this he has essentially borrowed from science fiction the device of multiple time-lines, without borrowing science fiction’s much more relaxed view of motivational verisimilitude. Even more brilliantly Nabokov, in Ada, invented a whole new world for his narrator-heroine and narrator-hero; like Doris Lessing and Anthony Burgess, among others, he found it necessary to go all the way over to science fiction, in order to set his characters free.
It may seem irresponsible to advocate the abandonment of motivational verisimilitude in fictional characterization, as it may be inferred I am doing here. But it does make sense. Paradoxically, real people surprise us all the time by their capacity to act “out of character,” to disobey the currently fashionable laws of psychological and social motivation. People are nobler and more wicked than they ever are in novels. Sometimes they invent their own motivational schemes and live by them; even, as in the case of the great devisers of such schemes, Freud and Marx, impose them on millions of other people.
The only true verisimilitude for sane and healthy human beings is surprisingness; it is the mentally sick who are predictable, and their predictability constitutes their mental sickness. What makes a long marriage possible, so that its participants do not die of boredom with each other, is precisely our capacity to reinvent ourselves and each other, to play the storyteller with our lives and surprise our audience. It is the automatisms of our spouses that are intolerable; the very thing that makes a novelistic character believable is what makes a marriage impossible. No wonder that the easiest kind of novel to write is one about divorce! In this sense the realist psychological novel can only be about damaged people.
Not that complete people act randomly; rather, they are autonomous, they make up their rules through a process of reflection and artistic synthesis that makes perfect sense after it has come into existence and been explained, but which cannot be predicted beforehand by psychological or sociological laws. And the mechanisms of this freedom are to a large extent implicit in the classical artistic tools: in the literary field, poetic meter, dramatic role-playing, sacrificial and performative action, mythic archetypes, and narrative structure, among others.
Narrative calls into play a number of basic human capacities. Vladimir Lefebvre, the brilliant mathematical psychologist, has shown that we possess an inbuilt reflexive operator which enables us to regard ourselves and others as players upon an internal stage, and to imagine not only the points of view of those players but their point of view about each other’s point of view. Out of this recursive feedback process comes our everyday ethical calculus and the gradients of possible action we express by the modal auxiliaries “ought” and “should.” We do this very complex thing very easily, like seeing or speaking; it is wired in. Our panhuman preference for the golden section, which is the fundamental proportion generated by any feedback process, is related to this operator.
Again, narrative constructs a temporal sequence which in turn constructs an appropriate kind of time. If we can tell a story about our predicament, we have made enough sense of it to discern what alternatives for action are offered and need not respond to it out of some automatism or reflex. The problem with the novel form is that its implicit assumption of psychic automatism frustrates the purpose of tale-telling, which is to propose alternatives. Modernism often counsels us to live in the moment because modernist narrative sees time as a single set of rails to which we are fixed, and from which the only escape is by a denial of time. But the classical narrative genres do not propose the same temporal geometry; in the tale, for instance, the primacy of plot over characterization paradoxically leaves the protagonist free, responsible, and creative.
By narrative, then, we tell ourselves the story of ourselves and thus learn how to be a coherent and effective self The story is the central operation by which we are able to love and to work. Certain types of mental illness might well be characterized as lesions in the narrative capacity. The inability to see other people’s point of view and the inability to string the moments of time together in a valuable and meaningful way are characteristic of a certain type of narcissistic or borderline personality which is now showing up in the therapists’ waiting rooms. It also shows up in the characters and implied narrators in postmodern fictions by the likes of Raymond Carver and Anne Beatty.
It seems to me that the time has come to rethink our whole aesthetic and ethic of narrative and fiction, as we rethink, from our oddly detached viewpoint in this transitional period we call postmodern, the fundamentals of all our arts. If we regard ourselves as at a beginning rather than as at an ending, we will find enormous opportunities for artistic achievement. We must examine the great traditions of all the world’s cultures, compare them with what we are coming to know about the human nervous system and human evolution, and actively seek out the inbuilt grammar by which our creativity operates. The “naturalclassical” forms, as I have called them, are those forms arising in all traditions which are demonstrably tuned to the chemistry, rhythmicity, and anatomy of the human brain in such a way as to enhance our capacity to make moral, aesthetic, and philosophical sense of the world, and to make us effective in it as individuals and as a community. These forms are embedded in our genetic makeup by their value to our prehistoric ancestors, and in using them we reunite ourselves with the immediacy of their oral, performed, magical, and kinetic ritual.
Once such a traditional genre is mastered, it feels to the artist like an immensely powerful and sensitive instrument, by which tasks one would never have dreamed of accomplishing become feasible. Its range of options—every great genre is both a collection of possibilities for creation and a method for generating more—suggest entirely new ways for the artist to develop and manifest her creative individuality. An artist becomes the more himself, the less he is confined within the monotonous voice of his own everyday subjectivity. There is a certain self-regard which can ruin an artist quite as it can ruin a friend—and for similar reasons. A traditional genre, with its demand for technical craftsmanship, fictive invention, and sympathetic objectivity, can reroute the energies of that self-concern and make them productive rather than paralyzing. The result is often, strangely enough, a much deeper probing of psychological truth than is the barren posturing of the naked ego upon the empty stage of modernist or postmodernist “freedom.” At the same time, the artist is truly united with the grave or hilarious ghosts of his predecessors and successors in the genre. The immortality of art perhaps consists more in this piety than in the memory of a name.
How might the renaissance I have suggested be accomplished in narrative? As I have implied, much might be done simply refurbishing the old narrative genres and using them to revision the contemporary world. Again, it is high time that narrative be reunited with verse, drama, and the richest and deepest philosophical discourse. Most interesting of all, perhaps, is the possibility that science fiction may have arisen as an authentic response to our need for myths to give coherence and meaning to the universe. If this is so, we need only graft this new manifestation of the mythopoeic impulse to the old, to have at our disposal an artistic instrument of great power, ready and able to supply the story material for a new epic of our times.