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One Sunday morning years ago I was walking across Mexico City’s zocalo, the grand square abutting the cathedral and the presidential palace. Street vendors swarm there until the cops roust them. A middle-aged man in a grey windbreaker had opened a box of blue-covered paperback editions of the Mexican Constitution, the kind that’s given free to schools and trade unions. “Buy the Mexican Constitution!” he cried. “Sorry,” I told him. “I don’t like fiction.”
The man with the blue books laughed at the joke, but it was a liberating moment. There: I had said it! I don’t like fiction. I’m like the dumb blonde in the joke who gets a novel as a present. “Thanks,” she says, “but I already have a novel.” The novel I already have is J. W. Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther, which really is about why people shouldn’t write novels, let alone read them.
There are perhaps a dozen works of fiction that embodied the Zeitgeist so well that the whole literate world had to read them. The 16th century read de Rojas’ La Celestina in dozens of editions and translations; the 17th century read Don Juan in a thousand versions, and the mid-18th century read Voltaire and Rousseau. But the last quarter of the 18th century belonged to Werther. Napoleon read the French translation under the pyramids.
It is the first modern novel, that is, a novel of personal development that one reads to develop one’s own personality by proxy. Goethe’s biographer Nicholas Boyle observes that the generation that came of age in the 1770s was the first with the freedom to choose its own identity. This generation gave us the American and French revolutions, as well as the great rejection of tradition. It also gave us the modern novel.
Werther is a young man who sets out to invent his own identity with a rural bias influenced by Rousseau. He falls hopelessly in love with the married Charlotte and at length blows his brains out. As Professor Boyle observes, it is not a sordid little love story but a cautionary tale about the folly of self-invention. To be young at the time was very heaven, wrote Wordsworth. Wordsworth lied; on the contrary, it was excruciatingly horrible. Human beings simply aren’t clever or strong enough to invent their own identities, and come to grief whenever they attempt to. The outcome is likely to be embarrassing. Werther, mortally wounded, declaims verses from the spurious epic Ossian, a literary hoax perpetrated by a Scots pastor who claimed to have discovered the Celtic Homer.
Werther made me cringe as an undergraduate, but the 18th century couldn’t take its eyes off him. Lovelorn young men emulated Goethe’s hero and did away with themselves so often that copycat suicide still is called the “Werther effect.” The book made Goethe Europe’s first literary celebrity. Forty years later he created another youthful hero, Wilhelm Meister, who fancies himself an actor and leaves his dull merchant family for a traveling theater troupe. Rather than kill himself like Werther, Wilhelm Meister decides at length that he doesn’t want to waste any more time being in a novel, and goes off to get a life instead. It’s the same idea, but without the pistols.
When I reject “fiction,” I do not mean all imaginative prose, but only the kind of prose that is supposed to give us profound insight into character and help us work through our own existential quandaries by proxy – the sort of fiction that is supposed to help us grow as human beings, extend our empathy with our fellow human beings, and similar rubbish. You don’t stumble upon an identity by falling in love, running with the bulls in Pamplona, murdering a pawn-broker, or suffering along with the retreat from Moscow.
Novels become important to us as a wellspring of identity when the center of our lives shifts away from family and congregation, that is, from the hope of transcending our mortal existence through physical as well as spiritual continuity. Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister spends a few years stumbling into other people’s tragedies, and then drops out of his own novel: he discovers that an actress with whom he had a youthful fling died after bearing his child, and leaves his wandering to raise his son. At that point he no longer has a novel, but a life. Like his cousin Werther, Wilhelm Meister finds his fictional existence insupportable, but unlike Werther, he abandons the novel for life instead of death.
It’s like the joke about an old Jewish couple. The wife says, “Let’s go to the theater!” The husband replies, “I don’t want to go to the theater. It’s boring.” “What do you mean, ‘boring’?,” the wife protests. “It’s boring,” insists her husband. “How can the theater be boring? The only reason people go to the theater is to be entertained. People go to the theater all the time for entertainment, and entertainment is the opposite of boredom, so how can the theater possibly be boring?” The old man sighs: “It’s boring. When he wants, she doesn’t want. When she wants, he doesn’t want. And when they both want, it’s over.”
What is boring from the Jewish way of looking at things is the fantasy of pursuit and evasion. Real life, by contrast, is interesting. Tolstoy got it exactly backwards in Anna Karenina: unhappy families are all unhappy in the same way. It is happy families that are different, because every child is radically unique, such that raising children is the one human activity that is sure to surprise. No-one writes novels about raising children; if they did, they would be as dull as a day spent watching someone else’s domestic videos. Jane Austen’s interest in her mating pairs ends abruptly with the promise of marriage; how they handle their eventual progeny lies outside her purview. I never cared if those tedious specimens of English gentry married in the first place.
Before novels set out to help us find the meaning of life, the genre had a different purpose, namely to paint a broad canvas of society and show things in their true light. The incapacity of the Christian West to suppress evil formed the great theme of European fiction from the appearance of La Celestina in 1499 through Byron’s Don Juan in 1819. In the twilight between the medieval Christian world and the Enlightenment, the West became obsessed with its own vulnerability to evil.
Fernando de Rojas was a Toledo attorney from a converted Jewish family. Published just seven years after the forcible expulsion from Spain of Jews who refused to convert, Celestina is an indictment of the Christian world at the cusp of modernity. De Rojas’ perverse, elderly procuress Celestina is a top-of-the-food chain predator in world of feckless hypocrites. Marlowe’s Barnabas and Shakespeare’s Iago look like the Katzenjammer Kids next to the literary sensation of 1499. In the century after its release, the book had 30 editions in Spanish and translations into all major European languages as well as Hebrew.
Celestina was the first work of fiction that every European had to read. The next work was Celestina’s spiritual stepchild Don Juan, who first appears in Tirso de Molina’s 1630 play The Trickster of Seville, and then in no fewer than 1,720 subsequent versions of the legend during the next two centuries. Don Juan is a pest with no natural predators. As a devout Christian, Juan believes in the power of repentance, and reckons that he has plenty of time to rape women and murder their male relatives and repent afterwards. This theological joke was the object of the original drama by Tirso, a Spanish monk from yet another Jewish family forcibly converted to Christianity.
Reflection on the fraying of the Christian West is the impulse that gave us the modern in literature. Don Quixote looks back to the world of the medieval epic that he lampoons, the chivalric accounts of Roland or El Cid Campeador or Amadis of Gaul, as does Grimmelshausen’s Simplizius. Contrary to Harold Bloom, Don Quixote is not the first modern novel, but the last antique one. Celestina and Don Juan are modern monsters, throttling their victims with the loose ends of Christian society. Shakespeare did it better, to be sure, but he got there a century after the Spaniards.
The next works of literature that every literate European read were Voltaire’s Candide (1759) and Rousseau’s Emile (1762). These two philosophical novels marked the end of Christianity as a culture, if not as a religion. For the first time, the whole of literature Europe was reading polemics against religion.
Just 10 years later it was time for Werther. After Voltaire and Rousseau, literate Europeans no longer sought personal salvation in religion. Goethe’s genius was to create a protagonist who looked for the meaning of his own life in intimate personal relationships, and that is why his confused young Thuringian set the standard for love letters, men’s clothing style and, occasionally, suicide. All of the searchers-for-meaning in subsequent literature, from Pierre Bezukhov to Holden Caulfield, are Werther’s children – a feckless race of boors.
I did manage to finish Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship, but I have an excuse: I was nineteen at the time and didn’t know any better. I abhor Tolstoy, but confess to having read all of Crime and Punishment. Raskolnikov is easy enough to understand. I met plenty of fellows like him in the financial industry, but none who felt guilty about whatever heinous crimes they might have committed.
There are still great works of fiction that must be classified as novels for lack of a better designation. The ones I like all are anti-novels, for example Fielding’s Tom Jones, Jan Potocki’s The Manuscript Found in Saragossa, or Robert Musil’s The Man Without Qualities. Fielding’s hero is a foil for the author’s dissection of English manners. Saragossa lampoons all the literary genres in a carnival sideshow of the West; after one peels all the onion layers off Western civilization, there is nothing left. Musil’s masterwork is set in 1914 Vienna, and the reader knows what none of the protagonists do; namely that their world will come to a sudden and horrible end when the world war breaks out in August. By construction, the novel cannot end.
The problem lies not so much in the novelists as in what came to be expected of them, namely to play the role of modern prophets once religion ceased to be the center of public discourse. They are woefully ill-suited to such expectations, and the cult of High Culture as a substitute for religion turned out to be one of the weaker ideas to bother the Western mind.
Werther should stand as horrible example to would-be novelists, warning them that we’ve been there and done that, and it never was worth the trouble in the first place. The trouble with searching for the meaning of life, as I argued in this space some time ago, is that human beings are woefully unqualified to find such a meaning, for the simple reason that they all will die before very long. To find a meaning beyond one’s mortal existence is something that no individual can do for himself, for an obvious reason: our existence can only mean something beyond our brief life span if it means something to people other than us. The search for personal meaning is the problem. That is why modern novels of character development typically are tendentious.
Returning to that day in Mexico City, I might add that a special sort curse afflicts Latin American novelists. The surrealism of everyday life in Mexico draws on the creative energy of the 90 million actors who daily extemporize the continuing national telenovela. By contrast, the novels of a Carlos Fuentes or Octavio Paz seem like an attempt to tame the epidemic insanity for effete literary tastes. One has to rely on visiting Spanish surrealists (Ramon del Valle-Inclแn’s Tyrant Banderas, Luis Bunuel’s The Exterminating Angel) to find a fictional representation stranger than cotidian life.