The Soul in the Novel: From Daniel Defoe to David Foster Wallace

In: The Resounding Soul: Reflections on the Metaphysics and Vivacity of the Human Person, ed. Eric Austin Lee and Samuel Kimbriel
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  󰀱󰀹󰀹 10 The Soul in the Novel From Daniel Defoe to David Foster Wallace E   W  , O.C  . Introduction T 󰁨󰁥   󰁮󰁯󰁶󰁥󰁬   󰁤󰁥󰁶󰁥󰁬󰁯󰁰󰁥󰁤   󰁡󰁳  a literary form particularly suited to a certain typically modern view of the division between soul and body—a view that makes a very sharp distinction between the inner, psychic reality and the outer corporeal reality; between the res cogitans  and the res extensa ; between interiority and exteriority; between the subject and the object; between the world of “the fi rst-person” and that of the “third person.” T e novel, I claim, was particularly suited to expressing the world as experienced through this dualism. I shall illustrate this by looking at Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe . I shall then go on in the second part of this essay to consider what happens to the novel when this view is rejected, a task I shall undertake by examining the novels of David Foster Wallace.Daniel Defoe is one of the fi rst novelists in the modern sense. David Foster Wallace, on the other hand, is a (near) contemporary novelist who has been described as “post-postmodern.” If postmodernity dissolved the Cartesian distinction between subject and object by radically questioning the very idea of the subject, and thus seemed to entail the end of the novel,  T e Resounding Soul Section III 󰀲󰀰󰀰 then Wallace’s project could be described as an attempt to revive the novel through fi nding a new mode of human subjectivity. Wallace’s friend and rival Jonathan Franzen compared Wallace to Defoe in an essay in which he (Franzen) describes how he went to Selkirk Island in the Paci fi c, where Alexander Selkirk (one of Defoe’s inspirations for Robinson Crusoe) was stranded. Franzen camped out on the island for a while, read Robinson Crusoe, re fl ected on novel writing, and tried to come to terms with Wallace’s death. 1  (Wallace had committed suicide two years earlier.)Franzen recounts how he and Wallace had worked out an account of the purpose of the novel as overcoming existential loneliness by giving “ac-cess” to the consciousness of its characters. Franzen sees Defoe as one of the fi rst novelists to try to do this, and he sees Wallace as working in the same tradition. T e details of Franzen’s comparison are highly questionable, 2  but what I want to draw attention to here is his view of what the novel is: a genre that begins with Defoe and Richardson in the eighteenth century, and which is concerned with giving the reader a peep-hole (as it were) into the consciousness of other subjects.Steven Moore has recently attacked Franzen’s view in the fi rst volume of his new history of the novel. Moore argues that there have always been novels, not just since the eighteenth century, and that the best novels have a di ff  erent purpose: [We] don’t read such novels “to sustain a sense of connected-ness, to resist existential loneliness.” We read them for the same reason we might go to the opera or the ballet: to be dazzled by a performance. 3 Moore’s championship of “performance” over peep-hole-ism is, I think, the reason why he rejects the traditional view of the novel as a modern genre, and it is symptomatic of a collapse of the view of the relation between soul and body on which the “modern novel” was based. “Performance” is actually more typical of a certain pre-modern view of the relation between soul and body, of the exterior and the interior. A view that sees the external 1 . Franzen, Farther Away  . 2 . Franzen sees himself as working in a slightly di ff  erent version of the tradition of the novel from Wallace—one inaugurated by Samuel Richardson, the pioneer of the courtship-marriage plot in the novel. Franzen argues that while novelists such as Defoe and Wallace tried merely to portray the existential isolation of the modern subject, and thus overcome it, Richardson and Franzen try also to depict the overcoming of that loneliness through a certain kind of relationship. I claim that Franzen exaggerates the similarities between Wallace and Defoe. 3 . Moore, T e Novel, 9 .  Waldstein, O.cist. T e Soul in the Novel   󰀲󰀰󰀱 as immediately expressing the internal; that sees the soul as not foreign to the body, but as forming with it a microcosm that mirrors the macrocosm—a macrocosm that is itself no Cartesian res-extensa , but rather an ordered whole, full of intrinsic teleology and form. T ink of Dante’s Commedia  in which the visible is the immediate expression of a deeper order. Perfor-mance in this view of things is the best way of expressing the truth, because the truth itself is primarily public.But in modernity performance is problematic, because the relation between the inner and the outer is problematic. Truth is not public, but private, a matter (above all) of the interior monologue within the hidden depths of the res cogitans . T e novel thus tries to avoid the impression of performance, of arti fi ciality. Even if it is in fact a work of very careful art, it tries to give the impression of merely peering into another mind. T e fi rst great master of this technique was Daniel Defoe. I. Daniel Defoe Defoe’s great literary innovation was what Ian Watt in his classic study of the early novel calls “formal realism;” a style marked by a great many details, many of them unremarkable, and which therefore stresses the particulari-ties of its characters, rather than their universal characteristics. 4  To call such a style “realism” is somewhat question begging—it assumes that the indi- vidual is more real than the universal. But Robinson Crusoe  is not only important because of its formal in-novation, but also because of the peculiar character of its hero. Crusoe’s character has two sharply distinguished parts: fi rst, what we might call the economic or technological, and second, the spiritual. 5   T e fi rst part of his character is, I’m afraid, more interesting, and is the part that appeals to children; Robinson’s tireless and inventive labor, by which he produces everything that he needs. (Note however, that this labor is only rendered so interesting by a Utopian feature: it is wholly un-alienated; there is neither division of labor nor separation of labor and capital. 6 ) Robinson is the ex-emplary representative of the project of the domination of nature through the application of mathematics to the physical world, inaugurated by Fran-cis Bacon, and carried forward by Descartes. As Robinson himself notes: 4 . See Watt, T e Rise of the Novel  , especially 32 – 34 . 5 . For the following analysis I am much indebted to Brann, “ T e Unexpurgated Robinson Crusoe.” 6 . Marx points this out in his discussion of Crusoe: Marx, Capital  , ch. 1 .  T e Resounding Soul Section III 󰀲󰀰󰀲 So I went to work; and here I must needs observe, that as Reason is the Substance and Original of the Mathematicks, so by stating and squaring every thing by Reason, and by making the most rational Judgment of things, every Man may be in time Master of every mechanick Art. 7 T e Baconian-Cartesian project of dominating nature is of course a key element in the “disenchantment” of the world in modernity. Descartes’ method of universal doubt can be seen as a method of stripping the world of all features that are not relevant to the Baconian programme. T e intrinsic teleology of things is of course irrelevant to such a project, since domination involves substituting one’s own end for the natural end of the thing. And therefore the teleologically determined substantial forms of things (in the Aristotelian sense) are irrelevant. T e only form that is le f  in the world is the most extrinsic and accidental sort of form: mathematically metrical fi gure.In the capitalist economic system, which Baconian-Cartesian sci-ence helped to bring about, the mechanization of nature is extended to a mechanization of human relations. As Karl Marx famously put it in T e Communist Manifesto: [It] has put an end to all feudal, patriarchal, idyllic relations. It has pitilessly torn asunder the motley feudal ties that bound man to his “natural superiors,” and has le f  remaining no other nexus between man and man than naked self interest, than cal-lous “cash payment.” 8 Now, this poses a problem for the human subject: she is not at home in the mechanized world she has brought about. T e more the subject advanc-es in reductive, mechanical knowledge of the world of objects, the more she becomes a riddle to herself. “Lost in the cosmos” as Walker Percy would say. Robinson Crusoe’s solitude on the island can be taken as an uncon-scious symbol of the isolation of the modern subject. Defoe gives this remarkably eerie expression in a scene in which Robinson Crusoe is awak-ened by the voice of his parrot: But judge you, if you can, that read my Story, what a Surprize I must be in, when I was wak’d out of my Sleep by a Voice calling me by my Name several times,   Robin, Robin, Robin 7 . Defoe, Robinson Crusoe, 78 – 79 . 8 . Marx and Engels,  Manifesto .  Waldstein, O.cist. T e Soul in the Novel   󰀲󰀰󰀳 Crusoe,   poor   Robin Crusoe,   where are you   Robin Crusoe? Where are you? Where have you been? 9 T ese are, of course, questions that the parrot has heard Crusoe pose to himself, and they bring us to the second part of Crusoe’s character—the spiritual part. Robinson Crusoe  is largely concerned with Crusoe’s religious journey, with his growing recognition of God in his life. T e long spiritual introspec-tions in Crusoe  are o f en le f  out in children’s versions of the novel as being too boring, but for our purposes they are of crucial importance. Crusoe’s religion largely functions as a means of giving his life meaning. T is is a very modern sort of religion. Pre-modern Christians tended to see the world about them as saturated with meaning and intentional agency, much of it dangerous; they did not pray to God for meaning, but for salvation. 10  But Crusoe’s relation to God above all gives him the comfort of the sense that his life has meaning, despite the emptiness and solitude about him. Ian Watt has noted that Crusoe’s religion has little e ff  ect on his actions; it remains in the subjective sphere, and does not in fl uence his treatment of objects. 11  It is, of course, true that Crusoe sees even the external events of his life as guided by divine providence. Crusoe is not a twentieth-century liberal Protestant—his religion is not merely subjective. And yet, one can see in Crusoe tendencies that already tend in the direction of reducing religion to the subjective. In a passage where Crusoe speaks of praying for deliverance from cannibals, he notes his dissatisfaction with his prayer, since prayer ought really to be a matter of fi nding internal comfort, rather than facing objective threats: I must observe with Grief too, that the Discomposure of my Mind had too great Impressions also upon the religious Part of my T oughts, for the Dread and Terror of falling into the Hands of Savages and Canibals, lay so upon my Spirits, that I seldom found my self in a due Temper for Application to my Maker, at least not with the sedate Calmness and Resignation of Soul which I was wont to do. .   .   . For these Discomposures a ff  ect the Mind as the others do the Body; and the Discomposure of the Mind must necessarily be as great a Disability as that of the Body, and much greater, Praying to God being properly an Act of the Mind, not of the Body. 12 9 . Defoe, Robinson Crusoe, 168 . 10 . Cf. Taylor,  A Secular Age,  ch. 1 . 11 . Watt, T e Rise of the Novel,   81 . 12 . Defoe, Robinson Crusoe, 193 .
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