Modern Epic:

The World-System from Goethe to García Márquez,
by Franco Moretti. trans. Quintin Hoare Verso, 180 Varick St., New York, NY 10014-4606. 256 pages; cloth $64.95, paper $19.95.

Marjorie Perloff

Published in Electronic Book Review 4 (Winter 1996/97).

Is it possible, in the late 1990s, to say something genuinely new about the masterpieces of the past two centuries, those “sacred texts that the modern West has subjected to a lengthy scrutiny, searching in them for its own secret”–texts like Goethe’s Faust, Melville’s Moby Dick, or Joyce’sUlysses? Yes, if you have the breadth, range, theoretical command, and rhetorical brilliance of Franco Moretti, the Italian critic now teaching at Columbia University. Like his earlierSigns Taken for Wonders (1983), Modern Epic defamiliarizes canonical texts we thought we knew and makes us want to reread them. It also raises more questions than it can comfortably answer in its relatively short span–questions about the relation of “epic” to “novel” in the past two centuries and about the ideological determination of specifc literary forms and genres.

Moretti’s thesis is seemingly simple. Such “monuments” as the “drama” Faust and the “novel” Ulysses are more properly classified as belonging to a category Moretti calls “modern epic”: “‘Epic’, because of the many structural similarities binding it to a distant past . . . but ‘modern epic’ because there are certainly quite a few discontinuities . . . to dictate the cognitive metaphor of the ‘world text’.” Indeed, the epic, Moretti argues, “has “halved modernism,” Ulysses being more properly read against the background of Faust than side by side with a bona fide modern novel like Woolf’sMrs. Dalloway or Mann’s Buddenbrooks. Indeed, “Modernism has become unusuable because it containedtoo many things. . . . Less is more.”

So what is a “modern epic” or “world text”? It is, to begin with, encyclopedic in ambition, unique in its representation of a particular national culture, but also, Moretti thinks, a “super-canonical form,” whose exemplars are “virtually unread” today because they “depend so closely upon scholastic institutions.” And further: modern epics are often “semi-failures,” in that they “reveal a kind of antagonism between the noun and the adjective: a discrepancy between the totalizing will of the epic and the subdivided reality of the modern world.”

To understand this “totalizing will,” Moretti turns to Hegel, for whom the epic form rested on three foundations: (1) it presents “the occurrence of an action which must achieve expression in the whole breadth of its circumstances and relations”; (2) this action must enable a “total world of a nation and epoch” to emerge; and (3) “Everything that later becomes firm religious dogma or civil and moral law still remains a living attitude of mind, not separated from the single individual as such.” This third foundation is the most troublesome, for “since historical evolution very soon puts an end to the age of heroes,” how can the individual remain central? “With the coming of the State, in short, individuality must no longer give totality a form, but confine itself to obeying it.”

Most Hegelians–for that matter, most contemporary critics– have therefore concluded that the epic is a thing of the past. For “if epic conventions have a real foundation only in the pre-State era . . . then between epic and modernity an inversely proportional relation obtains. . . . the nearer we come to the present, the more epic loses any meaning.” This, Moretti knows, is the common wisdom, but he cannot quite accept it. For in the same years Hegel was holding his courses on aesthetics, Goethe was announcing his epic ambitions in Faust, whose hero declares, “And in my inner self I will embrace / The experience allotted to the whole / Race of mankind, my mind shall grasp the heights / And depths.” The drive toward epic grandeur remains, but, as Moretti also recognizes, Faust’s declaration, “Im Anfang war die Tat” (“In the beginning was the Deed!”) never comes to any kind of fruition, Goethe’s hero sacrificing action for the “spectacle so rare” proffered to him by Mephistopheles. Indeed, whatever Faust actuallydoes in Part I–primarily he has a love affair with Gretchen– could have been done without any help from the Devil. Actor becomes spectator and much of the “epic” drama is given over to bricolage and “refunctionalization.” Mephistopheles, far from granting Faust an agency he doesn’t in fact need, serves to shield him from the violence outside himself, for example, the blow of Gretchen’s brother Valentino in the nocturnal duel.

Why then attempt epic at all? Because–and here the argument becomes especially interesting– its nineteenth-century alternative, the realist novel, as representation of the modern scientific perspective, was not enough. “Physics,” as Moretti puts it, “will never replace Hesiod,because it does not confront the same questions.” As an inherited form, epic allows the modernist to confront the past, to historicize. But since the encyclopaedic work is no longer trusted, modern epics likeFaust and Moby Dick can only be “flawed masterpieces.” Digressions becomes the main purpose of the epic action. The construction of national identity is no longer temporal and historical, as in classical epic, but geographical: witness the spatial construction ofFaust, Part II or of Ulysses. And polyphony, what Bakhtin called heteroglossia, is asserted, although in practice, as in Moby Dick, the monologic voice (in this case, of Ishmael) reasserts itself. “In the last resort,” writes Moretti, “the ambition of the narrator of Moby Dick is precisely this: to take the multifarious codes of nature and culture, and to demonstrate that they are all to be found in the moral super-code.” Or again, take Whitman, who declares “I am large, I contain multitudes,” and calls for a “rhetoric of inclusivity” that can encompass all creatures large and small. But “contain,” as Moretti notes, also implies “control and surveillance”; like the voice in Moby Dick, Whitman’s is a “monologism that is ashamed of itself, and dresses itself up as polyphony.”

The failure is not the individual writer’s but the failure of the culture. In Wagner’s great cycle The Nibelung’s Ring, for example, we can see one of the purest examples of the modern epic’s “desire to reunite what history has divided: knowledge, ethics, religion, art, narrative, drama, lyric poetry; literature, music, painting.” A “world text” like the Ring, likeThe Waste Land and Yeats’s visionary poems, “rejects the calm agnosticism of the novel: it rebels against the slow decline of the sacred, and seeks to restore lost transcendence.” The ambition is noble but it cannot be fulfilled. AGesamtkunstwerk like the Ring cannot maintain complexity throughout; in Wagner’s case, this means “simplicity of the drama, and complexity of the music. . . . One level of the work can be bold because the other is crude and superfluous.”

This insight brings us to the end of Part I of Modern Epic , with its lively, provocative, genuinely fresh examination of the transformations of epic. Part II, “Ulysses and the Twentieth Century,” does not quite live up to the promise of Part I; nor does it resolve the issue of epic continuity. Moretti begins with familiar terrain: Georg Simmel’s analysis of the “nervous stimulation” of the modern metropolis, Walter Benjamin’s discussion of “shock” experience in Baudelaire, and the increasing commodification of capitalist culture. The stream of consciousness, in Moretti’s reading, is the rhetorical embodiment of the new sensation glut, the “inexhaustible transmitter of the capitalist metropolis. And Moretti writes:

A different style is required, in order to find one’s way in the city of words; a weaker grammar than that of consciousness; an edgy, discontinuous syntax: a cubism of language, as it were. And the stream of consciousness offers precisely that: simple, fragmented sentences, where the subject withdraws to make room for the invasion of things; paratactical paragraphs, with the doors flung wide, and always enough room for one more sentence, and one more stimulus.

In a chapter on the evolution of the stream of consciousness technique, Moretti contrasts the Joycean paradigm characterized above to such earlier variants as Tolstoy’s in Anna Karenina or such later ones as Benjy’s monologue in Faulkner’sSound and the Fury. For the novelist, Moretti posits, stream of consciousness is used for dramatic effect at certain moments of narrative crisis (e.g., Anna’s thoughts leading up to her suicide). The stream of consciousness in Ulysses , on the other hand, is non-selective; it presents what is. Indeed, Moretti regards the Joycean stream of consciousness as “the last anthropocentric attempt,” “the last language of the modern individual.

Moretti’s account of stream of consciousness would be an accurate description of our own “language poetry” –the long poems, say, of Charles Bernstein or Clark Coolidge. But I don’t think it’s an accurate description of what Joyce is doing. Moretti takes pains to show us that Leopold Bloom’s language is characterized by its passivity and absent-mindedness, the replacement of action by consumption: “Things; then commodities; then images; then words; and finally possibilities.” At the microlevel, Moretti believes, modern epic allows for such freedom to fragment, suchbricolage. But it is not clear, at least to me, that the stream of consciousness technique has the freedom Moretti attributes to it. As the passages cited from “Lotus Eaters” and “Hades” make clear, even Bloom’s stream of consciousness is highly controlled. Joyce makes sure that his hero’s mind will always come back to such recurrent counters as the soap, Gilbraltar, “oh rocks,” the kidney, the Turkish bath. “Joyce’s parataxis,” says Moretti, “constructs separate, independent sentences,” but the seeming randomness and disconnection gives way, on closer inspection, to a dense network of echoes, all of them intricately related. This becomes more obvious if we ask ourselves: what doesn’t Bloom think about or see or notice? And the answer would include about eighty percent of “normal” observation and perception. It is no coincidence, for example, that Bloom thinks about kidneys or Plumtree’s Potted Meat but not about spinach or turnips.

It is not clear to me, then, that the microlevel of a text likeUlysses is all that different from the macrolevel. At that level, as Moretti convincingly argues, the drive, as in the case of Wagner, is toward totalization, toward what Eliot called, in his famous essay on Joyce, the “mythical method,” that is, “a way of controlling, of ordering, giving a shape and a significance to the immense panorma of futility and anarchy that is contemporary history.” Beginning with Chapter 7, “Aeolus,” Moretti argues, Joyce downplays the bricolage of the stream of consciousness in favor of a series of stylistic experiments (the weakest, Moretti suggests, is the musical structure of “Sirens”), allowing “the languages of modern institutions” to take over. The modern epic thus expresses an irresolvable tension between the remnant of individualism, as embodied in the stream of consciousness, and the “encyclopedic” drive toward a larger totality that is no longer fully believed in, much less trusted.

The dominance of institutional discourse in the latter part ofUlysses has been noted before, but I wonder if the distinction between it and the early chapters is all that sharp. Are Bloom and Stephen ever “individuals” in the full sense? And is it true that the various languages of Ulysses “do not communicate with one another,” that language fields have become “objects”? That Ulysses is, in Moretti’s words, “a novel without style, which is made up of styles without a novel”?

Moretti views Ulysses as a giant complexity system–a “mechanism so easy to set in motion that it almost always ends up beingdominated by chance: by trivial affinities . . . or accidental similarities.” And he cites J.-L. LeMoigne: “Complexity is the property of a system that can be modelled to show behaviours that are not all predetermined (necessary) even if they are potentially foreseeable by an institutional observer of the system (possible).” The modern epic must be such a system because, unlike its earlier counterpart, it cannot construct an encyclopaedia: encyclopaedias already exist. Every reader, coming across Eliot’s or Pound’s fragments, makes up her own mental encyclopaedia, “which will inevitably be unlike anyone else’s. Context, in other words, has become so weak, and commonly accepted symbols have so wholly disintegrated in our commodity culture, that the complexity system is a necessary response. Yet complexity is frightening and so most modernist works have opted for some kind of reduction of it, the “totalitarian temptation–present from the start in the modern epic . . . is never absent in the world texts of modernism.” The Waste Land, for example, is in Moretti’s scheme of things, a “monologic Ulysses”; it subordinates complexity and bricolage to what is finally a rigid mythic superstructure.

If the totalitarian temptation is the aporia of modernism, Moretti finds a hopeful note in his final exemplar,One Hundred Years of Solitude (1968), a masterpiece no longer European but of the New World. In Garcia Marquez’s “novel,” Moretti finds that the perspective of Faust has been reversed. “We no longer see things from the core of the world-system–but from the periphery. And from this new viewpoint, epic digressions become something else. Interferences: weighty events, with long-lasting consequences.” Magic Realism, by this account is an answer to the polyphony of the Modernist Epic, it satisfies our thirst for “meaning,” for imagination,” for a “re-enchantment” denied by our own literature. Western technology and Western consumption which stand behind the problematic bricolage of the Western epic from Faust to The Cantos is here regarded as a game, a form of magic, and hence “nothing frightening.” In this scheme of things, the West looks to other continents for those “reserves of magic of the modern world-system” now denied us. And Moretti concludes,

The sixties. With the withdrawal from Africa, the phase of open colonial conquest comes to an end: the phase of gunboats, and military violence. And a novel reaches Europe which recounts those hundred years of history as an adventure filled with wonder. Is this perhaps the secret of One Hundred Years of Solitude?

As an explanation of Garcia Marquez’s enormous popularity in the West, this may well be convincing. No doubt we do go toOne Hundred Years for those “reserves of magic” we are otherwise too sophisticated to trust. Still, Moretti’s Epilogue strikes me as something of a cop-out. For the response he describes to Garcia Marquez’s novel and related non-Western texts seems like little more than exoticism, a new Noble Savagery that ignores the vexed relationship between the individual and the state in modernity, that bathes events and conflicts in a mysterious, magical glow.

Then, too, Moretti never comes back to his original thesis as to the bifurcation of Modernist literature, the competition, as it were, of epic and novel or epic and lyric. In regarding modern epics as necessarily “flawed” masterpieces vis-à-vis their classical counterparts, Moretti still adheres to the Marxist, more specifically the Lukácsian model of decline; indeed, he quotes Lukács’s Goethe and his Age as discussing Faust as the “poem of primary accumulation,” a work that tells of of “capital running with blood.” Like Lukács and like Fredric Jameson, who is an important presence in Modern Epic, Moretti is nostalgic for the “organized whole,” for a pre-Capitalist world in which there is not yet the necessity for the bricolage / polyphony paradigm he himself has put forward. And, again like Lukacs and Jameson, Ernst Bloch and Hans Blumenberg, Moretti regards the aporias of the modern metropolis and modern commodity culture as created solely by Capitalism, as if the Communist East had somehow produced more fruitful epic paradigms in the twentieth century.

Moretti knows, of course, that this is not the case, knows that the appeal the pre-Capitalist Macondo of Garcia Marquez holds for the West is more “magic” than “realism.” But he might have taken the next step and have recognized that those “sacred texts” of modernity he writes about are perhaps no more “flawed” thanParadise Lost or even The Aeneid — just different. And how could it be otherwise, given the transformations of culture in the past two centuries? For that matter, the modernist world-system to which Moretti refers is in fact already a thing of the past: surely at the end of century the collage, bricolage, and polyphony Moretti describes are no longer central. Free verse, for example, which Moretti treats as the signature of the “experience of complexity” is now on the way to being replaced, not by traditional metrics but by a visual layout that takes the page rather than the line as poetic unit. And so on.

Ironically, then, Moretti himself resorts to a model that is excessively encyclopaedic to account for the particular complexity systems he discusses. “Halving” modernism may not be enough. What, for example, is the relation of Ulysses toFinnegans Wake? On such questions, Moretti is curiously silent. Where he does excell, however, is in his ability to define the peculiar pathos of the modern epic’s quest to be at once individual and encyclopaedic, and to distinguish that quest from that of the more conventional bourgeois novel. Neither solemn nor in any way doctrinaire, he is a superb analyst of rhetoric as well as of the political unconscious of his chosen texts. And his own style is so lively, so informal and conversational, that he draws us easily into his own admittedly monologic orbit. Modern Epic is a bravura performance by an unusually engaging as well as learned critic.