Ideas and the Novel 
by Mary McCarthy.
Weidenfeld, 121 pp., £4.95, February 1981, 9780297778967
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Why is the novel frightened of ideas? When did the dominant literary form of Western society turn away from dealing with large issues? Mary McCarthy’s 1980 Northcliffe Lectures begin by asking such questions with verve and elegance. Perhaps, she thinks, it is all the fault of the old maestro Henry James. As a critic, and even more as a practitioner, he got the public used to the doctrine of the novel as fine art, ‘a creation beyond paraphrase or reduction’. In James’s novels, the characters are typically made to talk of one another, and not of the issues that in real life are exercising the author’s fellow citizens. ‘What were Adam Verver’s views on the great Free Trade debate, on woman suffrage, on child labour? We do not know.’ But if the number of concepts allowed into James’s fiction is drastically restricted, compared with the ideas that are kicked around in, say, Little Dorrit or Middlemarch, so too are the specific things. What are the ‘spoils of Poynton’, the exquisite treasures for which Mrs Gereth and Fleda Vetch care so much? Furniture? Objets d’art? Have they the consistency of a collection, or are they heterogeneous treasures, linked only by their beauty and by their commercial value? The hints James gives are scarce and confusing. ‘It was a resolve, very American, to scrape his sacred texts clean of the material factor … He etherealised the novel beyond its wildest dreams.’

James’s purge was designed to expel two kinds of gross matter – concepts, and common factuality. Mary McCarthy darkly suspects a kind of snobbery in his association of the two. ‘I do not easily see what these tabooed subjects have in common, unless they were familiar to most people and hence bore the trace of other handling ... Henry James wished fiction to dwell on the piano nobile of social intercourse – neither upstairs in the pent garrets of intellectual labour nor below in the basement and kitchens of domestic toil.’ Since James, the basement has been flung open to view; those who choose to write about kitchen sinks, cabbages or cunts do not offend against literary decorum. The point which bothers Mary McCarthy is that a taboo still operates for the garret of hard, prosy thought. As a 20th-century novelist herself, she feels limited to an arbitrarily narrow intellectual range.

It must have occurred to many of her listeners that other would-be intellectuals have not been entirely put off the novel by James’s prescription. Wasn’t D.H. Lawrence full of the general theories he wanted to propagate, and didn’t his novels become vehicles for them? Yes, but, as Miss McCarthy points out, Lawrence’s message was itself anti-intellectual: his cult of more trust in the body entails less attention to cerebration. Meanwhile he also perversely denied that he was using the novel for so intellectual a purpose as preaching a message. ‘If you try to nail anything down, in the novel, either it kills the novel, or the novel gets up and walks away with the nail.’ This is like Joseph Conrad’s mock-horror at being told that he had at last, in an essay, revealed his philosophy. ‘Do I have a philosophy? Shall I die of it?’ At the very least, the modern intellectual novelist has felt a strong inclination to cover his tracks.

Oddly enough, there’s a category known as ‘the novel of ideas’, though Miss McCarthy could not find the term in her reference book. In Sterne’s Tristram Shandy, Peacock’s Crotchet Castle, Meredith’s Beauchamp’s Career, Huxley’s Crome Yellow, Mann’s Magic Mountain and Solzhenitsyn’s Cancer Ward, characters sit around and converse about – precisely – the issues which are exercising similar figures in the real world. Indeed, to debate issues is made their main activity, and the only reason the author has brought them into being. Here is the rub, as Miss McCarthy rightly observes. The intellectuality of characters like this is folly or even madness. They are in love with ideas all right, but only with their own; no one pays much attention to anyone else’s. And if the author remains poised in the background, having given his debaters their heads, it’s easy to conclude that he is laughing at the quaint human propensity to take anything seriously. The ‘novel of ideas’ turns once again into the novel against ideas, an apparent exception which proves Miss McCarthy’s rule.

Actually, the bad press achieved by the novel of ideas is itself instructive. On the one hand, admirers of the mainstream English novel have been quick to point out that Peacock, Meredith, Huxley and their like, anyone who seems to put ideas before character, is not quite a novelist at all. Put to making a simple choice, between character or feeling or ‘experience’, on the one hand, and ideas, on the other, true novel-buffs choose the former, and believe that true novelists do so too. Yet the same critics are apt to censure purveyors of ideas for not taking ideas sufficiently seriously. Peacock, we are told, was barred by superficiality from understanding the ‘real’ thought of his age: he reduced Coleridge’s concept of Romanticism and Charles Darwin’s concept of evolution alike to sport. What Peacock himself said on Miss McCarthy’s topic is surprisingly like her own point of view – that literature has drifted unnecessarily far from intellectuality. But it cannot be denied that the great majority of Peacock’s readers, especially since about 1860, have read him as a fellow of infinite jest and no taste for a bona fide issue, and have evidently liked him that way. He has been happily confounded with one of his own characters, the clerical buffer and gourmet Dr Folliott of Crotchet Castle: ‘To enjoy your bottle in the present, and your book in the indefinite future, is a delightful condition of human existence.’

Miss McCarthy is most interesting on the half-century before James, the heyday of the novel, when on the whole attitudes to ideas, information and materiality were less shamefaced than in James. Much Victorian fiction was frankly educational. ‘Kim, a best-seller, was boy’s book, romance, Bildungsroman, and dry-as-dust dispenser of ethnographical lore.’ In Les Illusions Perdues, a novel about Parisian literary life, Balzac loads his story with a weight of documentation which would scupper a modern novel: ‘We learn how advertising revolutionised the book trade, how the affiches in shop windows and boulevard displays, which were the earliest examples of book advertising, were replaced by ads in newspapers and how this did away with the immense power of critics’ notices and the dependence of publishers on journalists. And we learn a great deal, naturally, about the manufacture of paper and the history of printing processes, as well as many other interesting things, such as the difference between country attorneys and Parisian attorneys and how that affects the jailing of a man for debt.’

By such means, the illusion that a world has been invented by the novelist is kept subordinate to the illusion that the real world is being mirrored by him. When the artist quietly demotes art in this way, he insinuates that life matters more than books. He makes the same claim more boldly when he addresses himself to the great issues of morality and religion, which take priority over the world of a single novel, in the experience of even the least moral or most aesthetic of readers. Thus in Crime and Punishment and The Possessed Dostoevsky labours far less than Balzac to document the real world of things, but he acknowledges it nonetheless, by firmly submitting his wayward individualists to moral imperatives shared by people in real life, people who would not read Dostoevsky at all.

At this point, Miss McCarthy makes what was surely the most interesting observation of her series of lectures, one which largely exonerates Henry James from having launched the fashion for mindlessness. The themes even of her favourite novelists of the mid-19th century are, unmistakably, anti-intellectual. Balzac’s Lucien de Rubempré, hero of Les Ilusions Perdues, considers himself a literary genius, but it would be more accurate to describe him as the ‘evil genius’ of his brother-in-law David Séchard, printer, inventor, mere technician and thus true man of the 19th century, who pays dearly for being over-impressed by Lucien’s intellectuality. ‘His fatal, innocent error is to suppose that Lucien’s lofty gift is superior to his modst one.’ The Possessed, too, satirises the trendy intellectual. A whole community is swept by a fashion for liberal ideas, and Dostoevsky portrays the craze clinically as a pathological episode, a virulent illness attacking the body politic.

It is of course vain to hope that the major English novelists did any better by large thoughts or by liberalism. Miss McCarthy is damagingly convincing on one point, that English 19th-century novelists were altogether weaker on concepts than their Continental colleagues. George Eliot, one of our leading intellectuals, is just not very interesting about radicalism in Felix Holt the Radical. French novelists continue to mull over the French Revolution, English novelists do not. Recalling that Hegel once dubbed Napoleon ‘an idea on a horse’, Miss McCarthy suggests that the Continent’s advantage may be due to the fact that they had Napoleon while we had only the Duke of Wellington. It is a bad moment in the book: less than Hegel meant, and much too wholesale a demonstration that novelists are trained to write about people rather than about ideas.

To be honest, even before Miss McCarthy sinks to flippancy over Napoleon, her appetite for ideas seems to have lost its keenness. Or perhaps she despaired of the analytical powers of her audience, who, if they were capable of following her train of literary allusions, must also have had their intellects sapped and mined by novel-reading. At any rate, she brings us to the point of agreeing that novelists have not sided with systematic change or with the type of individual we might term in real life an intellectual. And there, without any real attempt to explain this state of affairs, she seems content to leave it.

It is an intellectual shortfall which illustrates precisely what she is complaining of, that creative writers care about manner not matter, grace rather than intellect. She does not define what she means by an idea, but it is clear that the intellectual activity she is looking for is political. Yet are great divisive political issues characteristic of modern Western democracies, with their consensual two-party systems, their largely stylised political conflict? Even in 19th-century England, when Miss McCarthy’s favourite kind of novel was in its heyday, the English middle-class reading public was more deeply exercised by religion than by politics, and perhaps some of the depth and intensity she is looking for emerges in the religious or anti-religious sentiments of George Eliot or Charlotte Brontë or even Charlotte M. Yonge.

Yet this is not to prove that the English educated classes, or a significant section of them, were never politicised. What about the 1780s and 1790s, which produced a range of writers for whom explicit political comment within works of art was not merely allowable but necessary? They included Blake, Burns, and the younger Wordsworth and Coleridge, as well as a host of lesser figures, some of whom were novelists. In William Godwin’s Caleb Williams the era produced a novel of ideas that not only did without a conventional love story, but broached issues relating the individual to the state on a scale of generality that is positively Dostoevskian. Caleb Williams attacks the laws that keep poor men subservient to rich men, while also exploring the patterns of thought that make social change and real personal independence terribly hard to achieve. In a competition judged by Henry James, Caleb Wiliams would not be short-listed, but if Miss McCarthy was recruited to give marks for public issues, there would be few English novels to beat it.

If it is intellectual to espouse radicalism, the example of Dostoevsky suggests that it may also be allowable to give radicalism up. In that case, England can offer William Wordsworth. He’s no novelist, admittedly, but his play The Borderers, which he wrote in 1796, has a Dostoevskian theme, and could even be seen as a dummy run for Crime and Punishment. A sinister conspiratorial radical called Oswald persuades the hero, Marmaduke, to believe totally in his own convictions and in his right to implement them, even in actions that could conventionally be regarded as crimes. Carried through, the precept leads him to cause the death of an old man whom he sees as an oppressor. Perhaps the old man is Louis XVI, and the whole story an allegory of the French Revolution, in which evil-minded extremists have led the impressionable young to crimes bad enough to warrant a century or so of repentance. At any rate, The Borderers ends by recording the amendment of an English exliberal, much as Crime and Punishment sends off Raskolnikov on a programme of religious rehabilitation and political good behaviour. Along with others of his generation, Wordsworth declares his disillusionment, not only with visionary schemes for putting public matters right, but in effect with doing anything practical at all:

Action is transitory – a step, a blow,
The motion of a muscle – this way or that –
’Tis done, and in the after-vacancy
We wonder at ourselves like men betrayed:
Suffering is permanent, obscure and dark,
And shares the nature of infinity.

In short, the state of mind that Mary McCarthy is discussing has not affected only novelists. Well before Henry James, imaginative writers were prone to belittle material possessions and to find the world of inward experience, Wordsworth’s ‘suffering’, much more interesting than the world of action. Since the biggest political issue of the last two centuries has been who should own those possessions and control the means of producing them, it follows that works of literature have not been making a major contribution to it. Nineteenth-century intellectuals had a choice to make, spelt out by John Stuart Mill: either to follow the lead of the idealist and Romantic Coleridge, or of the materialist and political liberal Bentham.

Judging by Mary McCarthy’s examples, imaginative writers tend towards quietism or the political Right, and it is easy to see why, since Romanticism, their specialism has often taken them in that direction. The act of writing makes a writer what the act of reading makes his reader – they are both for the time being thinkers and not doers. To give cachet to their activity, littérateurs have had to develop a code of values and a language distinct from those of the economists, political scientists, sociologists, men of applied rather than pure ideas. Novels have got cleverer since Godwin was writing them; this was an allowance Mary McCarthy should certainly have made. They have also become more ingeniously specialised, more peculiarly literary, so that their cleverness is radically distinguishable from the cleverness of men who talk about the world of affairs. Would the most learned or inspired political or philosophical argument sound even intelligent if printed as a dialogue in a novel? Come to that, how many literary men of anyone’s acquaintance conduct the kind of conversation about great issues that should encourage us to urge them to do it in print?

The division of labour of the last two hundred years has compartmentalised intellectual effort, along with everything else. While she is being a novelist or a literary critic, Mary McCarthy is required to play down her apparent aspiration to change society or to rival the rigour of mathematics, logic, linguistics or economics. All writers pretend to tell the whole truth, but truth can be perceived only from one angle at a time, and the novelist’s angle has mostly been that of the child or the traditional domesticated woman, personal, religious, intuitive, nostalgic. It is precisely because novels do no more that Mary McCarthy herself has never been content to be just a novelist.

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