Unreal Nature

September 17, 2017

The Presentness of the Present

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:43 am

… It is possible … to conceive even “my time” as heroic, epic time, … one can distance it, look at it as if from afar … But in so doing we are removing ourselves … from the zone of familiar contact with me.

Continuing through the essay ‘Epic and Novel: Toward a Methodology for the Study of the Novel’ found in The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays by M.M. Bakhtin edited by Michael Holquist (1981):

… I will attempt below to approach the novel precisely as a genre-in-the-making, one in the vanguard of all modern literary development. I am not constructing here a functional definition of the novelistic canon in literary history, that is, a definition that would make of it a system of fixed generic characteristics. Rather, I am trying to grope my way toward the basic structural characteristics of this most fluid of genres, characteristics that might determine the direction of its peculiar capacity for change and of its influence and effect on the rest of literature.

I find three basic characteristics that fundamentally distinguish the novel in principle from other genres: (1) its stylistic three-dimensionality, which is linked with the multi-languaged consciousness realized in the novel; (2) the radical change it effects in the temporal coordinates of the literary image; (3) the new zone opened by the novel for structuring literary images, namely, the zone of maximal contact with the present (with contemporary reality) in all its openendedness.

These three characteristics of the novel are all organically interrelated and have all been powerfully affected by a very specific rupture in the history of European civilization: its emergence from a socially isolated and culturally deaf semipatriarchal society, and its entrance into international and interlingual contacts and relationships.

… To portray an event on the same time-and-value plane as oneself and one’s contemporaries (and an event that is therefore based on personal experience and thought) is to undertake a radical revolution, and to step out of the world of epic into the world of the novel.

It is possible, of course, to conceive even “my time” as heroic, epic time, when it is seen as historically significant; one can distance it, look at it as if from afar (not from one’s own vantage point but from some point in the future), one can relate to the past in a familiar way (as if relating to “my” present). But in so doing we ignore the presentness of the present and the pastness of the past; we are removing ourselves from the zone of “my time,” from the zone of familiar contact with me.

… In ancient literature it is memory, and not knowledge, that serves as the source of power for the creative impulse. That is how it was, it is impossible to change it: the tradition of the past is sacred. There is as yet no consciousness of the possible relativity of the past.

The novel, by contrast, is determined by experience, knowledge and practice (the future). In the era of Hellenism a closer contact with the heroes of the Trojan epic cycle began to be felt; epic is already being transformed into novel. Epic material is transposed into novelistic material, into precisely that zone of contact that passes through the intermediate stages of familiarization and laughter. When the novel becomes the dominant genre, epistemology becomes the dominant discipline.

… contemporaneity as such (that is, one that preserves its own living contemporary profile) cannot become an object of representation for the high genres [i.e. poetry, epic, etc.]. Contemporaneity was reality of a “lower” order in comparison with the epic past. Least of all could it serve as the starting point for artistic ideation or evaluation. The focus for such an idea of evaluation could only be found in the absolute past.

[line break added] The present is something transitory, it is flow, it is an eternal continuation without beginning or end; it is denied an authentic conclusiveness and consequently lacks an essence as well. The future as well is perceived either as an essentially indifferent continuation of the present, or as an end, a final destruction, a catastrophe. [For those genres] The temporally valorized categories of absolute beginning and absolute end are extremely significant in our sense of time and in the ideologies of past times.

… Contemporaneity, flowing and transitory, “low,” present — this “life without beginning or end” was a subject of representation only in the low genres. Most importantly, it was the basic subject matter in that broadest and richest of realms, the common people’s creative culture of laughter.

My previous post from Bakhtin’s book is here.

-Julie

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