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Joseph Bottum

The Novel as Protestant Art

A great metaphysical drama played out on the world's stage.

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So, here's a proposition: The novel was an art form—the art form—of the modern Protestant West, and as the main strength of established Protestant Christendom began to fail in Europe and the United States in recent decades, so did the cultural importance of the novel.

The proposition begins to unravel as soon as we offer it, of course. By the time we are done listing all the demurrals, adjustments, and trimmings, little seems left of the notion that the novel is an artifact of the Protestant West. Little, however. Not nothing. It's hardly a new thesis that the novel exploded out of 18th-century England to become a dominant art form of Western culture. In 1957, for example, the literary critic Ian Watt published a work called The Rise of the Novel, which claimed exactly that. And it's not much of a leap to argue that the Protestantism of those foundational English novelists would have an effect on the shape of the novel down through the ages.

Among academics, Watt is rather casually dismissed these days; certainly his work was significant back in the late 1950s, they might say in distant praise, but it valorizes male British authors, fails to appreciate the truly radical impulses suppressed by all organs of culture (including the publishers of novels), and implies that literature can be judged aesthetically beyond the determinations of power in social politics. All of which is a little odd as a criticism of Watt, for The Rise of the Novel was intent on finding solidly progressive and secularizing reasons for the rise of the novel. Watt looked, as a good socialist might, at economics, particularly the economics of book publishing. And he insisted, as a good rationalist might, on the scientific and industrial changes of society after the Middle Ages and the new understanding of the self as defined by the early modern philosophers, from Descartes to Locke.

What he overlooked is the religious root of it all. Aware of the multiplicities of Protestantism, in all the variety of its post-Reformation sects in Great Britain, Watt nonetheless missed the unities of Protestantism: the central current of manners and morals that Protestantism had created by the time it reached its full cultural victory over Catholicism in England in the 18th century. This general Protestantism was, in a sense, too big for Watt to see: the received setting and given condition of the fiction. It was the secret de Polichinelle of the English novelists, the thing no one bothers to mention because they assume that everyone already knows it. And for too many subsequent literary critics, it became simply unknowable, hidden by their sure and certain faith in the novel as the mirror (or even the motor) of secularization.

The truth is that even after all the necessary caveats and qualifications are registered, the notion of the modern novel's Protestant essence won't disappear—for something in the confident precincts of Western culture really did latch onto extended prose fiction in the 18th century, and it wouldn't let go as the centuries rolled by. Yes, there was poetry and a flowering of music through those long years. Painting, sculpture, dance: all the outpouring of European art from the Renaissance on. Nonetheless, for more than two centuries, the West increasingly took the novel as the art form most central to its cultural self-awareness: the artistic device by which the culture undertook some of its most serious attempts at self-understanding. And the form of that device was developed to explain and solve particularly Protestant problems of the self in modern times.

To get to a conclusion like that, of course, we have to understand what we mean by the novel—the Novel with a capital N; the novel as an art form. And that proves exceedingly difficult. No one has any compelling idea of what unites The Manuscript Found in Saragossa, Fanny Hill, Notes from Underground, My Ántonia, Nausea, and Midnight's Children as a single type of writing. No one has any serious notion of what could possibly make the English writers Thomas Love Peacock, Ann Radcliffe, William Harrison Ainsworth, A. A. Milne, Daphne du Maurier, and Anthony Powell a single kind of author, even though we say that they all wrote novels.

Are we then forced back to the broad category of the novel simply as an extended piece of fiction? If so, literary history gives us novels long before 18th-century England came to be. Perhaps we can set aside the epic myth-tellings of the ancient world—Gilgamesh, the Iliad, the Ramayana, and all the rest—since they lack, we typically suppose, the self-conscious invention and falsity, the knowing fictitiousness, that we mean by the word fiction. And perhaps we can set aside works from the Latin Aeneid to the Old English Beowulf by holding a general insistence on prose (while admitting modern verse novels as specialty items in the canon, from Alexander Pushkin's 1831 Eugene Onegin to Vikram Seth's 1986 The Golden Gate).

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