Fiction: History of the Novel
FICTION: HISTORY OF THE NOVEL
The novel has long been considered a literary form existing apart from religion, even if religion as social and moral fact may enter into the lives of its characters from time to time. The belief that the novel, our term for a lengthy work of fiction in prose, is solely the product of the period currently (if unhappily) labeled "Early Modern" has helped to sustain the belief that the novel is a triumphantly modern and secular form of literature. We dwell on authorship and prose style, but ignore earlier problematic points of development, including the eventual advent of the author as an individual "maker" instead of inspired recipient of divine information (see Finkelberg, 1998); in modern literature departments we rarely pause to inquire into the rise of prose itself as a significant and perhaps intrinsically democratic medium (see Goldhill, 2002).
The History of the Novel and Its Historians
Claude de Saumaise
The English history of the novel, born in the eighteenth century and placing its conception and birth in that century, flew in the face of another history composed by scholars on the Continent. The noted scholar and political theorist Claude de Saumaise (Claudius Salmasius; 1588–1653) in 1640 proposes a line of transmission in succinct prefatory essays to his edition of the Greek text of Achilles Tatius's novel, here presented as Erotikon, sive de Clitophontis et Levkippes Amoribus (Erotic stories, or the Loves of Kleitophon and Leukippe). In his dedicatory Praefatio and the address Ad Lectorem (To the reader) Salmasius tacitly picks up a suggestion made by Miguel de Cervantes (1547–1616), when the Spanish novelist's unnamed frame-narrator of Don Quixote describes the finding of the mysterious manuscript written in Arabic by Cide Hamete Benengeli, for which he must find a (Muslim) Arab-speaking translator, although officially there are no such persons left in Spain after the ethnic cleansing of the Catholic kings. (The initial act of censorship is massacre and expulsion.) Salmasius proposes that the novel's origins lie in the East, "The Persians first affected this kind of amorous literature.… You will not find it hard to believe that of old they introduced the beginning [originem ] of Milesian fables in Asia [i.e., Asia Minor] which they ruled. Certainly they gave to the Arabs the fashion of this same kind of writing and the genius for it. The Arabs then transmitted it to the Spanish. From the Spanish we Gauls in turn took it, and from them indeed it also went elsewhere."
Salmasius traces a clear line of transmission: antique fiction comes from the Persians into Asia Minor and thence into Greek and Roman writings; modern European prose fiction derives from Arabic fiction already influenced by Persians and Greeks and then transmitted through the Moors to Spain and thence to the rest of Europe.
A few years after Salmasius succinctly propounded this theory, Bishop Pierre-Daniel Huet (1630–1721) wrote his Traité de l'origine des romans. This important work was first published in 1670 as a preface to Zayde, a novel about an Oriental woman written by a woman, though issued under the name of a male writer (Segrais). Huet's treatise (in the form of a letter to Segrais, a respectable male-male discussion) was soon reprinted and amplified as a book. Huet argues that in composing histories of this kind of writing we have stuck too close to home, "It is neither in Provence nor in Spain, as many believe, that we must hope to find the first beginnings of this agreeable amusement of good idle folk [cet agréable amusement des honnestes paresseux ]; we must go to seek them in the most distant countries and in the most remote antiquity."
Huet's history makes the novel an arena of cultural anxiety and contestation. By 1674 Nicolas Boileau (1636–1711) was forced to take into account the implications of Huet's Traité. Boileau initiated the brilliant strategy of attacking the novel not only as a feminine and effeminating kind of literature, but also as a "bourgeois" form. For Huet, the novel existed before such modern social or literary classifications, springing as it does from the deep past and from diverse sources in folk traditions and various aristocratic cultures. It was an international—one could say "multicultural"—form of literature. The English definers of the novel tradition were trying to wrest the form from Huet and from contamination by the alien. Their strategy entails ignoring Continental fiction almost entirely at least, until after the "rise" of the novels of Daniel Defoe (1660–1731), Samuel Richardson (1689–1761), and Henry Fielding (1707–1754) ensured the establishment of the "new" form as of English growth. Such a story of the novel has been freshly established in Ian Watt's The Rise of the Novel: Studies in Defoe, Richardson, and Fielding (1957). In this English-manufactured account, only Don Quixote of all Continental works is allowed a place. Unlike Salmasius and Huet, English claimants to the invention of the novel do not see in Don Quixote a tribute to the Oriental sources of this literature, but rather a handy repudiation of all Continental forms of novelistic fiction. Don Quixote becomes an honorary British fiction, a herald of the realistic and commonsensical novel that remained for the English to invent and perfect. (Too bad for Cervantes that such an account made it necessary to suppress all reference to his last work, Persiles y Sigismunda, a prose romance manifesting the devices and tropes that Cervantes is supposed to have killed off.)
Development of the term novel
The word novel is a relatively modern invention; in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries the term was in use but functioning much like our term novella, referring to a short fiction. A long fiction in prose, like long fictions in poetic narration, was termed a romance ; the word romance indicated simply and basically a work written in the vernacular (one of the romance languages, such as French, Italian, or Spanish) and had no negative significance—save to those who disliked all made-up stories. To this day, Continental languages have stubbornly adhered to the basic terms il romanzo (Italian), le roman (French), and der roman (German). For the English the term became suspect by the mid-eighteenth century, and the term history was more generally employed to describe a full-length work of prose fiction, for example, Fielding's The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling. This influenced Continental usage; see, for example, Antoine-François Prévost d'Exiles's (1697–1763) L'Histoire d'une Grecque moderne.
We must admit, along with Huet, that the novel in the West has much longer and less certainly "Western" roots. Certain prose fictions by authors writing in Greek and Latin from about the first century bce to the third century ce continued to influence Western literature both in the Byzantine regions and in Roman Europe. Their influence was renewed in the Age of Print; some of these novels were among the earliest fictional works to be printed, such as Asinus aureus (The golden ass) by the second-century author known as Apuleius (c. 124–c. 170), first printed in 1469. Many of these works, rendered familiar to readers of the Renaissance, acted as decided influences on the development of new fictions in the vernacular, including novelists writing in English in the eighteenth century and later. The influence of Aithiopika, to take but one example, can be seen not only in the Arcadia by Sir Philip Sidney (1554–1586), but also in Cervantes' Persiles y Sigismunda, and in Richardson's Clarissa.
What were these early Western novels? We must be leery of writing stories of "origins" at least in the sense of finding an exact terminus. We do not know when the first of the Greek stories of love and adventures (such as used to be called "Greek romances") was written. Possibly the earliest of those surviving in full is Chariton of Aphrodisias' (first or second century ce) Chaireas and Kallirhoe, which some wish to date as early as 50 bce, though others would put it as late as the second century. One piece of literary evidence indicates that there were a number of such novels in existence by the early first century ce. If we accept the standard equation of Petronius the author with Petronius Arbiter, his work on the Satyricon was finished by the date of his enforced death in 66 ce. This novel plays with the tropes of the Greek novels: with wandering lovers separated, much roaming from place to place, impediments resulting from offenses committed against the gods, the temporary enslavement of the central characters, a sea journey and shipwreck, and so on. If Petronius is able to treat the material of the novel as well known and to play thus with it, the genre must have been fully established by the mid-first century, though the best of the surviving examples come to us from the second and third centuries.
Only two major novels in Latin have come down to us. Petronius' Satyricon, if early in the temporal sequence, is ultrasophisticated and its fragmentary state adds to a sophistication in montage creatively imitated by writers like François Rabelais (1483–1553), Laurence Sterne (1713–1768), and James Joyce (1882–1941). Apuleius' Metamorphoses has an ascertained author and a fairly clear date (c. 160 ce). Shorter works in Latin include the late Ephemeris Belli Troiani (Diary of the Trojan War), presented as a found manuscript by an invented narrator "Dictys Cretensis" or "Dictys of Crete" (traditionally, all Cretans are liars). There were many other fictions, now lost; Apuleius wrote a second novel that—sadly—has not come down to us. Apuleius' extant novel is based on the Greek novel Onos (The ass), which was once attributed (wrongly, we now think) to Lucian of Samosata (c. 120–c. 190), who is, however, certainly the author of that fine parodic work of science fiction, known as Vera Historia (True story; c. 170 ce).
There are many more extant examples of ancient novels in Greek, including the novella Chion of Heraklea (c. 100 ce), which demonstrates that the classical world had already invented epistolary narrative. There are five works of substantial length; one, Ephesiaka (The Ephesian story; c. 150 ce) by Xenophon of Ephesus (dates unknown), may be partly a paraphrase. The other four are complete texts (given a few cruxes and some missing sentences): Chaireas and Kallirhoe by Chariton; Kleitophon and Leukippe (c. 150 ce) by Achilles Tatius; Daphnis and Chloe (c. 200 ce) by Longus; and Aithiopika (The Ethiopian story) by Heliodorus of Emesa (date uncertain; estimates have ranged from the second to the late fourth century, but it is most tempting to believe it belongs to the period of rule of the African emperor Septimius Severus (r. 193–211 ce). All these have named authors (though whether these are the genuine names of the writers has been challenged) and all are referred to in varying titles, sometimes naming the heroine alone: Achilles' Leukippe and Heliodorus's Charikleia.
The dating of these works is vexed, and we should be warned by the errors of great scholars of the past such as Erwin Rohde (1845–1898) not to put too much faith into our own current temporal schemata. Scholars used to be attracted to the late classical self-definition of the period of the "Second Sophistic," in which rhetorical play of a kind partly associated with the East (including Alexandria) enjoyed a recrudescence in new works. Plays of ideas and words, an understanding of how to interpret and describe works of visual art, clever and unexpected uses of literary allusions, and a self-conscious stance in relation to the literary tradition—all mark works of the Second Sophistic. These qualities, however, can be found outside the second-century temporal zone.
The term Second Sophistic was coined in reference to a presumed "First Sophistic," the period of the late fifth and early fourth century bce, in which rhetoricians had flourished in Athens. "Sophists" were repudiated as pseudo-wise and dangerous by Socrates (c. 469–399 bce) and Plato (c. 428–348 bce). Sophists, Plato believed, pervert the truth with ingenious twisting of words and undermine aristocracy by the employment of verbal techniques that they could make available to anyone who pays. Proponents of the Second Sophistic consciously reversed Plato, declaring there is value in this préciosité.
The Sophists were often foreign to Athens—men such as Gorgias of Leontini, who came to Athens as an ambassador in 427 bce, or Hippodamos of Miletus (fifth century bce), one of the foreigners who brought the scientific spirit of Ionia to the marketplace of Athens. Dangerous if attractive representatives of alien cultures were introducing moral relativism, disrespecting tradition, and undermining the independent city-state, the polis. The democratizing of power through rhetoric probably did herald the end of an idealized enclosed and aristocratically controlled polis. After the polis had been fundamentally altered in the Hellenistic age and then subsumed into the Roman Empire, gentlemen from different regions shared a common educational syllabus, including training in rhetoric. Athens had become a kind of university where wealthy young males from various parts of the Roman Empire could meet, instilling in themselves the Hellenic—or Hellenistic—sense of the beautiful and true. The writers of our novels arose out of this colonial matrix, sharing something of the culture of the center. Yet, they were capable of going beyond the Hellenistic- and Roman-adapted mental world. By and before the second century ce writers and readers were evidently interested in finding ways of understanding and assimilating influences that did not emanate from Rome or Athens as Rome interpreted it. By this time the Hebrew scriptures had become available in the Greek Septuagint to non-Jewish readers. Christianity was becoming a force to be reckoned with, though it was only one of many strange religions. Christian, Jewish, and "pagan" authors sought new narrative forms, visible to us in works like the Apocrypha, the Gospels, and the Acts; some recent studies attend to the relation between Christian writings and the early novels (e.g., Thomas, 2003). Christian imagination found expression in a number of works, including the Greek Poimen (The Shepherd of Hermas ), a sometimes novelistic text that once had practically canonical standing). Recognitiones (Recognitions; c. 150–250), the Latin Christian novel, has as its narrator Clement, the future second pope; here, he is a young man, who becomes a convert and a member of the circle around Saint Peter (d. c. 64 ce) during the conflict with Simon Magus.
There is at least one Jewish novel, aside from works like Judith and Daniel. Joseph and Asenath perhaps existed in the first century bce, if rewritten later, so as to convey a Christian perspective. The Egyptian heroine Asenath, based on a personage crisply alluded to in Genesis 41:50, is the center of the story. Amusingly, she is at first utterly contemptuous of Joseph (her future husband), seeing him as an alien fortune-teller who (she has heard) lay with his mistress. (She will be converted to Joseph and to Judaism.)
Cultural variety of novelists
One thing is as clear to us as it evidently was to Huet: the authors of the Greek novels were not Hellenes from the mainland of Greece. These authors came from the conquered eastern areas of the Roman Empire. They were Syrians like Lucian and Heliodorus (who came from a town in modern Iraq), or they came from inland Asia Minor like Chariton or from the intellectually and materially rich coastal region, like Xenophon of Ephesus and Longus, who appears to be from the Lesbos he describes. Petronius alone has the credentials of a man of the center of Italy, a genuine Roman citizen, but Apuleius, in marked contrast, is a North African, a Berber from Numidia who after much travel settles in Carthage.
The same pattern of diverse authorship appears when we consider the novels in Greek that exist only in fragments or in paraphrase. Substantial pieces of a number of these have been found, though the fullest account of some can be gathered only from the paraphrases prepared by Photios (c. 820–891), Patriarch of Constantinople, who composed a sort of reader's diary. Called Bibliotheke, it gives a fairly full account of the books he liked including novels, offering not only his opinion of style and substance, but also detailed plot summaries. His commentary and paraphrase gives us a fairly full if muffled rendition of Iamblichos' (second century ce) Babyloniaka (The Babylonian story) or Antonius Diogenes' Apista hyper Thulen (Wonders beyond Thule). Exact dates for these works and others surviving in fragments are not known; see the scholarly edition of Ancient Greek Novels by Susan Stephens and John J. Winkler (1995).
Photios provides manuscript sources of about six pages' worth each of Semiramis and Nisus (a love story set in an exotic past with historical characters, perhaps written as early as 100 bce) and of Metiochos and Parthenope (c. 150 ce), a story surviving in fragmentary papyrus emanating from the Fayum in Egypt. The novels were certainly read in Egypt—but we know from the evidence of expensive mosaic illustrations that a wealthy house owner in Syrian Antioch wanted to surround himself with images from these two novels. Despite disdainful assumptions on the part of some that these early novels could have been perused only by women and the semiliterate, evidence indicates a wide readership, socially and geographically, definitely including wealthy males, that was able to pay not only for full-length manuscript copies, but even for costly artwork illustrating the stories.
Different styles of Greek novels
A strange work that has recently come in its fragmentary way to light is Phoinikika (The Phoenician story; first published in 1972) by Lollianos. The discovery of this lively comic novel put an end to our earlier theory that only Latin novelists penned realistic, sexually explicit, and comic works of fiction, whereas the Greek novelists were romantic and sentimental. It is more likely that the authors choosing to write in Latin took up forms and comic styles from works in Greek, and it is probable that works in Latin of a more romantic style are now lost to us. Other works of Greek fiction that have come into view include Herpyllis, whose surviving passage deals with a storm at sea, a trope beloved of novelists; Sesonchosis, with Egyptian characters and themes; and Chione, about a heroine whose name could be translated as "Snow White" (Stephens and Winkler, 1995).
The Deep Tradition: Fictions of Babylon, Syria and Elsewhere
It is apparent from the previously mentioned titles that the Greek novels are interested in dealing with material related to various regions that were not Roman. Nor should the resort to Babylon, Phoenicia, the Assyria of Ninus, or the Egypt of Pharaoh Sesonchosis be thought of as mere "exoticism." Readers and writers alike came from these regions. A matter capable of future examination is the possible influence on the novel of literatures of even more ancient cultures than those that we customarily mean in referring to "antiquity"—a passé label. When Renaissance scholars first seriously published commentaries on these fictional texts, they lacked almost completely any real information (aside from Hebrew scripture and the Apocrypha) about the literature of Babylon, Assyria, and Egypt. Slowly, more is coming come to light.
Consider, for example, the incursion of Gilgamesh on our literary studies in the late twentieth century. This epic is not an action-epic like the Iliad or Aeneid, nor a story of wandering, discovery, loss, and restoration like the Odyssey (which, however, can strike one as having some Egyptian strands). Gilgamesh begins as an action story but becomes a story of love, death, grief, and loss—of coming to terms with something that will not allow a victory. The central character in his coming to grips with the hard fact of death and bereavement becomes a hero of the interior life. Gilgamesh might guard us against rash suppositions about regularly progressive development, of the sort that Friedrich Nietzsche (1844–1900) negatively imagines in The Birth of Tragedy (1871), when he propounds an original fall from the Dionysiac perfection of ancient theater to the degenerate rationalism and individualism signaled in Socrates and the works of the ancient novelists, in which a sublime communal experience has been exchanged for individual self-consciousness and emotional self-attention.
Our desire for linear progression leads us to render literary history in a rather simplistic mode: first there was the folktale, then there was the epic, reflecting national and group consciousness shaped by an aristocratic class; then, in a new development (progressive or degenerative, according to taste), the epic action became the story of an unimportant individual, and the action turned inward, toward consciousness and what Johann Christoph Friedrich von Schiller (1759–1805) termed the "sentimental," away from the first "naive" strength. Poetry gave place to prose, and action to sentiment, as we move (sadly, perhaps) from Homer (eighth century bce) to Henry James (1843–1916). So attractive is this line of progress or regress that we are unwilling to notice how this plotline can be changed. At any moment, what we call "folk" material can reenter the picture and refresh the narrative—as with the advent of the folk tales of Jacob Grimm (1785–1863) and Wilhelm Grimm (1786–1859). Poetic narrative can reassume the telling elsewhere associated with prose fiction as in Evgeny Onegin (1823–1831) by Aleksandr Pushkin (1799–1837).
One text that challenges the paradigm is the Cretan narrative poem Erotókritos. This heroic love story is a narrative poem written by a Venetian Cretan Vitzéntzos Kornáros (seventeenth century). Kornáros's work, drawing on the material of novels, is also epic and nationalistic, a defense not only of Greek Orthodox personages against the Ottomans, but also of Cretan identity. This novel-based literary work of an individual Renaissance artificer becomes for Cretans their genuine national epic. It folds itself back into folklore and folk motif, with many tellings and popular, even home-made, graphic depictions of the hero and heroine, into at least the twentieth century. Erotókritos challenges many of our assumptions, as it seems in so many ways to go "backward"—from novel back to epic and then back to folktale. But our surprised impression of an almost unnatural reversal arises from our adaptation of a linear notion of a "progress" and certain staid, if recent assumptions about absolute divisions between literary culture and popular culture.
Eastern and African influences on the novel
If we question our linear representations of such "histories," we may be willing to admit into the novel written and not just folkloric "influence" from non-Hellenic sources, as Huet divined. It is tantalizing to know that Babylonians of Chaldea had libraries (destroyed by Sennacherib [c. 704–681]) and that the Assyrians followed suit, with libraries of books in clay tablets open to the public. The Chaldeans invented systems and discovered much mathematical knowledge, including geometrical figures; when the Greeks fell in love with geometry as a training for the mind, they were really imbibing the discoveries of Mesopotamia, as transmitted through the cultures of coastal Asia Minor. Much of what we call "literature" could have followed a similar route.
Punic Carthage had philosophies, a priesthood, and a library—all was wrecked by the invading Romans, save for one useful treatise on agriculture. Yet, it seems hard to believe that so much thought could altogether disappear; and elements of Phoenician and more particularly Carthaginian thought and style may be lurking in a number of texts, invisible to us. By contrast we can now pick out the bright red thread of Egyptian thinking, style, and concerns. Since the late nineteenth century we have possessed a collection of classic Egyptian fiction, and poetic stories like The Story of Sinuhe or The Shipwrecked Sailor seem strongly related not only to some biblical material, but also to many elements in our own fiction. More saliently visible is the influence of the Egyptian religion. The story of Isis (Isis/Osiris) is everywhere alluded to in the ancient novels, and Isis worship forms an extensive part of Apuleius' Metamorphoses. The other and older central Egyptian religious story, that of the solar boat in its journey through the underworld during the twelve hours of darkness, was elaborated by Egyptian thinkers and artists, so that it becomes the basic story of all ordeals—and of all twelve-step programs.
The Egyptians are strongly attracted to stories of an ordeal (of Isis, or of the solar voyager) that develops through multiple sequent phases. A number of the "Gnostic gospels," written around the same time as our novel texts, betray decided signs of Egyptian influence, especially in the love of progressions through the twelve stages. Dante Alighieri's (1265–1321) Inferno and the Purgatorio both have an ultimately Egyptian ancestry. Journeying is important to the Egyptian ordeal, loss of self, loneliness in the midst of an unmarked world momentarily completely alien, and the encounter with the monster or the monstrous. Yet, in "classic" Egyptian fiction of the two millennia bce, redemption seems almost always possible, as does some new negotiation of the relation between authority and its subject, as between divine and human.
When we look at the longest and most sophisticated of our Greek and Latin "early" and "Western" novels, Metamorphoses and Aithiopika, we can see that the writers are very conscious of the possibilities of multicultural narratives. Different traditions are signaled in the introduction of different kinds of story within the main or frame story. We meet characters of varying national or ethnic identities. People establish relations who have no original familial or even ethnic connection with each other. A young Sicilian woman, once in the power of the Persian Great King, develops a friendship with the Persian queen, and on returning to her native Sicily urges the queen "write to me often." A chatty young Athenian walks on the banks of the Nile with an elderly Egyptian priest and hears the story of the trials of an Ethiopian family. A blond young Greek male from Attica, sentenced to the harshness of the Roman games in Corinth, is spared and consoled by the ministrations of an Egyptian priest and becomes fully a convert to the Egyptian religion of Isis.
Poetry, drama, folk tale and the novel
Traditional or "classical" Hellenic stories are mixed in with new styles and materials from other sources. As examples of the interweaving of different forms of narrative, we may take Heliodorus' inclusion of the "Phaidra and Hippolytus" kind of story told by a young and somewhat silly if good-natured Athenian young man who is the Hippolytus of his tale; we can note how his story contrasts with the story about himself told by the dignified Egyptian priest Kalasiris, a story that has some resonance with the early Christian semifictional The Shepherd of Hermas. In Metamorphoses Apuleius sets within with his hero's comically painful autobiography a miniature epic-cum-love elegy, the charming and puzzling story of "Eros and Psyche," and then includes sex stories both grim and ribald, told with a twist, and set in a heavily marked social context, the sort of thing medieval writers were to call fabliau. Folk material of magic, ghosts, and werewolves mingles with reference to elegantly written literature, and realistic observation of behavior exchanges places with magical transformation, as in realismo magico. We do not here forget the presence of alien and oppressive power. Apuleius strikingly describes the way the brutal soldier piles his weapons on top of his dunnage so as to strike terror in the hearts of the ordinary people. Perhaps Apuleius is the first to employ the word terror in such an ideologically critical manner. Certainly, he is aware throughout the entire novel of the accoutrements of power used by an oppressive ruler and daily encountered by the vanquished.
Novel and Political Resistance
The novels of the first centuries ce reflect a tacit resistance to Roman (or Greco-Roman) domination, a search for an imaginative home free of the oppressive dominion of the present. It may have been prudence that dictated that most of these novelists should give their works a historical setting, in an era safely past, customarily when Persia was the ruler of the world. (Persians could be safely criticized.) The political implications of ancient novels have been underemphasized. This may be because of our own allegiance to Rome and our reluctance to realize that its presence could be felt—not only in Judea but elsewhere—as an unjust weight. We do not customarily hear in school, for instance, about the overt expressions of revulsion against Roman rule, as in 88 bce when the people of Ephesus, with the assistance of the king of Pontus, Mithradates VI Eupator (120–63 bce), revolted against the Romans, first overthrowing Roman statues and then massacring the Italians found in the region. (Freedom was short lived; the Romans inevitably exacted a strong penalty.) If analyzed, almost every one of these novels is capable of bearing an interpretation of resistance to imposed power. The theme of resistance is strongest in Chion of Heraklea, where the student-hero becomes a tyrannicide. Less overtly, the theme of resistance also becomes clear at the end of Chariton's novel Chaireas and Kallirhoe, when Chaireas invites all those of his fellow warriors, hitherto living among the Persians and fighting for the Great King of Persia, to join him in coming to Sicily, here imagined as a land of the free (book 8, cap. 2). The hero is willing to include his former enemies, Egyptian fighting men, as well as the Greeks, but only with their own free will; each person is to be asked individually: "hina monon tous hekontas paralabomen " (so that we take up only those who are willing).
Slavery and choice
"Choice" is at the center of the morality pursued or invented by the novels—of all kinds. Aristotle notably gave great weight to choice, but only a few people (educated free males) in his view had the power of real choice. Slaves represent human entities who are not persons and absolutely lack choice. In the novels, however, most of the central characters experience enslavement and degradation—in a sense it is true to say that all the central characters are both rulers and slaves. The characters, however low their circumstances, are never without significance, and never, even in enslavement, without the concept of choice—which is proclaimed and presented through their attention to their own inner lives. This is a monumental, not to say monstrous, departure from the classical ordering of the social world. In the novel the individual matters most. The definition of a set cannot be the ultimate measure of a person. A personage is first of all a person—and not first of all, slave or free, Greek or Egyptian, or even male or female. Barriers between civilized and barbarian are set aside. The identity we now call "racial," the difference between "black" and "white" persons, becomes in Aithiopika a gigantic conundrum; the heroine proves to be both "black" and "white." Whether Heliodorus' Charikleia is Greek or Ethiopian is less important than that she is Charikleia.
These novels consistently show the life of the individual as central; the individual casts off, overtly or secretly, the restrictions of familial authority, arranged marriage, and custom. Individuality encompasses an inner life. From this individual inner life spring new apprehensions of morality, new orderings of society, and new religious insights. New perceptions and actions may be deeply spiritual, but the central religion is no longer the religion of the state. Public religious ceremonies indeed figure—often as a means for the lovers to lay eyes on each other—but the most loved deity has intercourse with the individual spirit, as Isis makes herself known to asinine Lucius. Epic must not put the individual at the center; the heroic individual, like an Aeneas, is simply and grandly at the service of his clan or nation, and the enticements of a Dido must be got over. It cannot be possible for Aeneas to have a new revelation as to how to live. In the novels, individuals constantly make new cultural adjustments and experience new revelations.
Women and freedom
Another great change from the traditional Greco-Roman view of things is the installation of the female at the center of the story. Many of the Greek novels were called simply by the name of the heroine: Kallirhoe, Leukippe, and Charikleia.
The story of courtship in the Greek novels sets aside the reality of marriage in most parts of the empire. Traditionally, a good Greek marriage consisted of the union of a young girl of fifteen or so—who had nothing to say in the matter—with a man of about thirty. The two were not equal and were not meant to be so. Love as a practical affection was supposed to grow between a married pair, though given the limitations of the female and her patent inferiority, the role of the erotic was to be limited in marriage; in illegitimate heterosexual connections, the desirable female (slave or freedwoman) was usually a prostitute, well below the male in class, and not officially important. When the Greeks—especially the Athenians—of the classical period wrote about what we recognize as romantic love (e.g., in the Symposium ), they treat the homosexual connection of an older man (the lover) with a youth (the beloved). (Or, in the poems of Sappho [late seventh century bce], the pull of an older woman toward a nubile girl.)
As David Konstan points out, the traditional Greek equation of love is always unequal, the relation asymmetrical; thus, the novels make a great leap in boldly imagining courtship between equals. The hero and heroine in any of the new novels are both young and near in age, and each is both lover and beloved. There is no division between agent and patient. The two have chosen to love each other—despite their families. The woman consistently has a choice about what she or even they will do, and both display intelligence and courage (and sometimes dull-wittedness and timidity). This equal couple escapes the confines of family and city, roaming through the world. In the course of their wanderings they make friends who are by all traditional standards unsuitable (in any case, it is traditionally unsuitable for the woman to have friends outside of home, her oikos ). The rule of the household, the rule of the polis, and the rule of the empire are all challenged in this representation, which offers a new definition of what freedom might mean.
Hero and heroine together overthrow the "citizen" as an ideal. Love takes them away from convention and into discovery. They are not unguided, for there is a tutelary deity, perhaps several; the deity presiding over many of these novels, however, is a female god: Artemis, Aphrodite, or Isis. (Ephesus, the center of the worship of powerful Artemis, "Diana of the Ephesians," figures incessantly in the novel as locale and reference.) The novels can be seen as explorations of the relation with the goddess rather than with the god. The goddess endorses freedom, love, experience, and searching. The goddess also implicitly endorses the significance of both the physical life of the body (which must include death) and the life of consciousness. The goddess recurs in modern novels as much as in ancient ones, and may be lurking in surprising haunts; one critic (Brown, 2004) convincingly traces the pattern of Celtic myth and the role of the fierce Celtic mother goddess Mor Rigan in Mrs. Dalloway (1922) by Virginia Woolf (1882–1941).
Religion and the Novel in the West
Unlike tragedy, comedy, or epic, the novel has traditionally been supposed to have arisen without religious affiliation. That view was challenged by some twentieth-century scholars, most notably by Karl Kerényi in Die Griechish-Orientalische Romanliteratur in Religionsgeschichtlicher Beleuchtung (1927) and by Reinhold Merkelbach in Roman und Mysterium in der Antike (1962).
Kerényi emphasizes the connection between novelistic and Christian perceptions; the central character(s) of the ancient novel imitates on the human level the trials of a divine being. Merkelbach proposes that the early novels embody and encode a mystery ritual, a sequence of experiences initiated ultimately by the divine power. Merkelbach considers that these Greek and Latin novels present to us and their readers the actual images and practices of the mystery cults and are close to the religions of Demeter and Isis. The characters, like the mystery initiates, undergo tests and trials—being beaten, imprisoned, and even left for dead; they eventually encounter various important figures of consolation and enlightenment, including the shepherd or herdsman and the fisherman. From a near-death or seeming death (Scheintod ) they are resurrected to new life.
Merkelbach applies his discovery only to the ancient novels, but it can be applied to novels beyond this temporal range. The novel, if we look at the templates suggested by the ancient novels, embodies a sequence of experiences that not only the character, but also the reader follows in a sequence of initiation. These "tropes of the novel" take the reader through a participatory ritual. It is the reader as well as the character who undergoes the shock and excitement of entering the new, being cut off from past life at an initial critical moment, and crossing a borderland of marsh or muddy margins. The reader vicariously undergoes a kind of baptism, walks the labyrinth, gazes on enigmatic images demanding interpretation and understanding, descends into the abyss, and is resurrected. The hidden pattern of initiatory ritual and enlightenment within each novel makes it possible for us to read novels, which would otherwise fly apart under the pressure of their novelty, becoming abstract kaleidoscopes of words, or mere journalism. The goddess presides over this new life, this metamorphosis and grappling with the phenomenal—phainomena symbola, to use a term from the opening of Aithiopika.
That the "goddess" presides can be explained in another fashion. Under the sign of the male we have placed the creation of what is abstract and enduring: a philosophy, a law, and a work of art—monuments more lasting than bronze. The sphere of the female is more lowly; women create what is temporary and consumed: cakes, fabric, and babies. The novel is the only form that consistently summons the goddess because it is the form that centrally deals with the sacredness of daily transitory and physical life. It respects the fundamental equality of all human beings and their relation both to the animal and spiritual worlds. The novel never ignores the perishable and transient things such as food, lovemaking, dreams, conversation, fabric, babies.
Plato opposed the changeable, and even Aristotle saw our love of change as a weakness, but the novel gives over the search for steadfast rest and permanence, celebrating the capacity to change. Every novel could really bear the title of Apuleius' Metamorphoses, because all characters are metamorphosing—Elizabeth Bennet, Anna Karenina, or Gregor Samsa. And all are journeying, through space and time. The title Journey to the West could apply to all—the journey to enlightenment is simultaneously a journey toward sunset and the grave.
Religion and the Novel in the East
Both Chinese and Japanese fiction display qualities and patterns remarkably similar to those found in Western novels. The orderly disorder of birth/death, muddying, eating, contemplating images, plunging into the depths and arising—all these ritual experiences can be found. There is perpetual contestation between the political public male-ordered world and the world of private experience.
The earliest collection of poems in Chinese literature may be read as personal lyrics of love and longing, or as coded references to political affairs. The personal can be set against the ideal of order—even the ideal of political order, so central to Chinese thinking and endorsed by Confucianism. Rebellion is a topic, as in the fourteenth-century Outlaws of the Marsh, where we follow the individual lives of bandit-heroes, who dwell on the muddy margins. One of them, Song Jiang, is given three heavenly books by the goddess-like Mystic Queen of the Ninth Heaven, who exhorts him to remember justice and bring peace to the people. In the sixteenth-century classic known as Journey to the West, a complex narrative of a pilgrimage from China to the borders of India to find the original Buddhist scriptures and bring them to China, the heroes are often aided by a divine female, the bodhisattva Guanyin, who gave them their assignment. By contrast with the refreshment of her rare presence, monasteries encountered en route seem abodes of greed and inertia, masculinity without heart and without spirit. Spiritual life develops in the lived life. The insertion of Monkey, the famous mischief-making hero, reinstates the body and the life of desire in a story that both supports and questions Buddhism itself, as it also questions the Dao that supplies so many of this narrative's fascinating systems of contrasts and affinities. At the end of the novel, the importance of "sacred text" becomes subtly ironic—the truth is within, so a blank page is as good as any other. This strange ending also suggests that the real story is always about to be—that the religious truth can be encountered only in the experience of seeking it.
In the high flowering of the Chinese novel, the feminine moves to a central place, countering both the worldly orderliness of Confucianism and the sense-rejecting purity of Buddhism. One of the greatest of the world's novels is Hong Lou Meng (Dream of the Red Chamber, or Story of the Stone ) by Cao Xueqin (c. 1715–1763). Generations have marveled at and wept over the complex and fated loves of Bao-yu and Dai-yu. Divine discontent has never been more subtly or powerfully revealed in a novel teeming with multifaceted characters and taking time to deal with many developments over half a lifetime. Its only rival in representing the subtleties of consciousness in relation to love and loss is the great Japanese novel Genji Monogatori (The Tale of Genji ), written at the turn of the eleventh century by a woman author called Murasaki Shikibu (late tenth to early eleventh century). In both of these novels, love is at the center, love and the yearning of desire, which is constantly faced by the great fact of Death. In contemplating loss and absence, the soul stirs. Individual life is experienced in a world full of social, financial, and moral complexity, with much bustle and comedy, as well as beautiful and ugly objects; yet, amid the welter of experience the spirit knows an inalienable loneliness, sharpened by the metamorphoses demanded by living. The quest for love can awaken and enlighten the spirit, but is not soothing.
These Eastern novels have extraordinarily fine and subtle endings, endings that dramatically make the reader experience that what is desired cannot be grasped; it is the experience of the desire that educates the soul and continually kills and gives rebirth to the self. The self, too, is something not capable of being fully known, even to the self. These are religious revelations, but they cannot be precisely squared with Dao or Buddhism, however much is to be learned from these. What is most approachable is the feminine deity, the goddess of compassion and of the senses, who makes constant change bearable. There is in both Western and Eastern novels an allusion to something that endorses our eagerness to live—and not only to live but to satisfy curiosity and to undergo change in ourselves—which means living through perpetual dying (and very dangerous that may be). In living our lives and in reading a novel we pursue a mystery that lies deeper than any plot.
The novel is really a religiously developed form. It quietly sets itself in opposition to political and religious conventions and traditions to plunge itself and its reader into a closer apprehension of the sacredness that imbues the individual person and the world. It may at times appear dismissive of what is called religion, or it may appear fascinated by religions, but it is not orthodox and will never yield humbly to orthodox authority—even when an author tries to do so. The novel is secular—secular in the original sense, having to do with the saeclum, that is, with time. Novels, more than any other form, show the individual dealing with experience in time—including not only biological time, but also a particular social and political era (historical or imaginary). The novel pays heed to the importance of time and space, in which the phenomena of matter manifest themselves. It draws on each reader's bodily and temporal experience; the smell of jasmine or urine, the feeling of spring rain, and the taste of honey are supplied by the reader's sensuous knowledge. The novel exhibits characters living with the biological body amid a welter of detail and necessities (including food and money). To live so realistically is not to be subordinated to things, but to have an arena for spiritual experiment, and the novel displays consciousness itself as a major experiment, in harmony with the expedient that is each individual novel.
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Margaret Anne Doody (2005)