2014/09/30

From Contemplation to Emotion: The Decline of the Novel

Let me preface this post by referring you to this outstanding essay by Mike Flynn. It covers the transitions in thought, art, culture, politics, and more that occurred between the Ancient, Medieval, Modern, and Post-Modern ages. All six parts are worth your time, but Part 5, dealing with the rise and fall of representational art--especially the novel--is the most pertinent to the following article.

As recently as the years immediately following WWII, Thomist philosopher Josef Pieper diagnosed the cultural ills afflicting the West as stemming from the absence of leisure. Pieper argued that not only do we in the West suffer from a lack of leisure time, we've lost touch with what the concept really means. The near certainty that everyone reading this paragraph has so far interpreted "leisure" as "idleness" supports Pieper's contention.

If leisure isn't the same as slacking off, what is it, and why does it matter? Both Pieper and Aquinas held Aristotle's account of leisure as definitive. Aristotle's concept of leisure agrees with the current notion in that both see leisure time as a state of freedom form external coercion and demands (specifically, those related to work).

Where the classical and contemporary views diverge is on the purpose of leisure. Contra Peter Gibbons, freedom from servile work isn't best spent doing nothing. Aristotle identified the ultimate purpose of human life as happiness, and he equated happiness with the intellectual act of contemplation.

So we work in order to buy ourselves leisure time, and the best possible use of this freedom from work isn't idleness, but contemplative intellectual activity. Pieper makes a strong argument that strenuous labor is important, but mostly to the degree that it affords people leisure time, since leisure facilitates the intellectual activities that produce culture.

Perhaps you can see how the philosophy of leisure relates to literature. Every midlist author aspires to quit the daily 9-5 grind in order to write full-time. Authors who write for a living don't actually work in the classical sense. They are people of leisure--and we should be thankful, since they are the makers of culture.

Book sales are in decline, especially in the West. That's unsurprising considering the loss of esteem for, and understanding of, leisure. Flynn points to the novel's origin as an effort to reproduce the early Modern resurgence of representational art in literature.

St. Benedict's Triumphal Ascent into Heaven, Melk Abbey
Early Modern representational paintings, with their near-photorealism, attempts to engage all five senses, and plethora of characters were meant as subjects of meditation intended to raise the intellect toward objective truth. For the same reason, most novels written before the late 19th century tended to feature lush description, voluminous exposition, and large casts of characters--all told by objective, omniscient narrators. Novels, as originally conceived, were objects to be contemplated.

The twilight of the Modern Age has seen a near-total revolt against logic, objectivity, and contemplation in favor of sentiment, subjectivity, and emotion. Novelists have been obliged to modify their craft to keep up with public tastes, and the inherent difficulties of bending the medium so far out of its original shape is compounded by the shortening of the Post-Modern attention span.

It's now vital to hook readers within a book's first page. Description must be short and sweet, and exposition light. Readers can't be bothered to remember more than a handful of named characters, and the presence of a single protagonist whose tale is told in the first or close third person voice is the boilerplate standard.

These innovations are touted as proof that storytelling has improved over earlier forms. Novels are now more capable of holding readers' attention by depicting characters they can identify with, thus forming deep emotional attachments.

It's true that contemporary readers find books written according to present storytelling doctrine more appealing than novels written in older styles. That doesn't mean the new way is better; just that audience tastes have shifted. Contemporary readers prefer emotional stimulation to intellectual stimulation, and they themselves lack the leisure time needed to fully engage with a book like War and Peace.

The constantly declining sales of books may signal that the Post-Modern rejection of representational art has exceeded the novel's ability to accommodate it. We may, as Flynn predicts, be occupying a transitional period between the death of the book and the advent of a new mode of immersive, interactive storytelling.

On a personal note, Pieper and Flynn have helped me come to a self-realization that explains my general disinterest in most fiction published since the mid-60s. Unlike most readers, who now complain of books being too baroque and populous, I chafe at current novels' concessions to Post-Modernity. Grand, sweeping epics like Dune, The Lord of the Rings (better yet, The Silmarillion), and John C. Wright's Count to Eschaton series hold my interest far better than today's taut, claustrophobic, and brazenly emotionally manipulative fare.

My greatest pleasure in reading comes from meditating over a book. I'll habitually read the same passage over and over till I'm satisfied that I've extracted all of its implications. The Church has long practiced the devotion of lectio divina, in which reading progresses through four stages: lectio, meditatio, oratio, and finally, (with divine aid), contemplatio. Any text can be approached in this way, and doing so greatly enhances the effect that is the true aim of speculative fiction: to kindle the human longing for Eden and for distant stars.

Whether future narrative forms will provide equally apt subject matter for contemplation remains to be seen.

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