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Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

Far Country

Scenes from American Culture

Franco Moretti

Farrar, Straus and Giroux





Stanford, Salerno. Behind this book are two universities: Stanford, where I taught my last course in the spring of 2016; and Salerno, where I taught the first one, in the fall of 1979. In many ways, the two places could not be more different. Stanford is the world’s richest private university, in the midst of Silicon Valley; Salerno was a minor public university, located near the “osso d’Italia”: the bone that is left once the meat has been eaten away; a barren region, further ravaged by the earthquake of 1980. Many Stanford students come from superb high schools and, if they’re interested in English, have at their disposal a department with thirty full-time professors; at Salerno, they came from schools that lacked just about everything, and the entire English department consisted of two inexperienced thirty-year-olds. Due to the vagaries of the heating system, in that winter forty years ago I learned to lecture in my overcoat, to a room filled with overcoats; at Stanford, anything of this sort would be unimaginable. And so on, and on. But there was one point in common: in both places, students seemed to know very little about literary history. Something had to be done.

Remedial. At Stanford, the English department decided to launch a yearlong course—“Literary History”—which would function as a sort of general introduction to English and American literature, and be taught by a different team in each quarter.1 In the discussions that led to that decision, some colleagues described the aim of the course with the word “remedial.” Remedial, remedium: restoring health after an illness (its root, mederi, is the same that “medicine” also comes from); as someone said, let’s teach them what they haven’t learned in high school. And one understands the logic, of course, but those years in Salerno, where things were definitely worse, had taught me that what matters is not what we ignore, but what we know, and how we know it. Students have learned little? Then let’s give them more. If they have no idea what poetry is, let’s see what happens by compressing into a single lecture the basic concepts of verse and prose, an analysis of “Song of Myself,” and some thoughts on lyric and modernity. Too much, in too short a time? Yes; but that’s what the university is for: trying to do more than is commonly considered reasonable. Teaching as a wager; the opposite of passing on what one “has” to know about a discipline. Or at least: this is how I (mis)understood the task I had been given, and the spirit in which I taught that class, and have written this book.


Hopscotch. With its sixty to seventy students, “Literary History” was large, for a literature class at Stanford. Lectures, just like Salerno. But in the meantime, something had changed. Back then, I had really taught a course: a fluid, 200-hour-long reflection on the European Bildungsroman, which developed slowly and steadily over two (unforgettable) academic years. At Stanford, I decided right away—but it was more irrational than that: I felt compelled right away—to make each ninety-minute lecture stand on its own. The absence of continuity was declared, and almost flaunted: between the first class, on “Poetic Form and the Experience of Modernity,” and the return of the same topic a month later, there were two classes on “The Modern Literary Field,” two on “Style and Socialization,” one on “Radical Modernism,” and one on “The Modern Metropolis and the Form of the Novel.” Six meetings separated the first two classes on the literary field from the third one; seven, the first lecture on the novel and metropolitan experience from the second one. This hopscotch disposition was perfect for the two aspects of literary history I wanted to highlight: on the one hand, recognizing the permanence of a few major questions from generation to generation (What kind of plot allows us to “see” the structure of a modern city? Is tragedy still possible, in the capitalist world?); on the other, realizing how varied were the answers that had been found in the course of time. Janus-like, each lecture oscillated between the stability of literary history and the earthquakes that from time to time redesigned its landscape.2 This was not the kind of literary history—one author after another, in a long uninterrupted chain—that I had been taught in my university years: where continuity was so pervasive and “natural” it seemed to make explanations superfluous. The irregular chessboard I put in front of my students was too strange to be taken for granted. Literary history had become a problem, that asked for a solution.

Form against form. “Whitman and Free Verse,” read the title of the first class on poetry and modernity; given that the lecture’s main point was the bifurcation between two incompatible conceptions of modern poetry, “Walt Whitman or Charles Baudelaire?” would have been much better. And so it went, class after class; every topic would split into two, and generate an opposition. The pleasure of early mass culture could take the form of a cheap anonymous dime novel, or of a Sherlock Holmes story in The Strand; the pleasure of 1950s adventures, the spacious sunlight of a Western, or the ill-lit claustrophobia of a film noir. At times, the opposition ran across two successive lectures (free indirect style/stream of consciousness; Gertrude Stein/Virginia Woolf; Endgame/Death of a Salesman); in the final class, on the Dutch golden age and twentieth-century American painting, it even spanned centuries. In every case, conflict emerged as the key mechanism behind the history I was trying to teach; conflict between “high literature” and pulp fiction, of course, but just as much between texts that belonged to the same niche of the literary field, such as James’s “Beast in the Jungle” and Joyce’s “The Dead.” Antagonism ruled, everywhere; and it did so through the medium of form. For Whitman, the poetry of modernity required a maximum of simplicity; for Baudelaire, of complexity. Form against form. “Dashing Diamond Dick” tried to conquer a broad audience by being explicit and excessive; “The Adventure of the Speckled Band,” by being ambiguous and restrained. Form against form. To understand the logic behind this conflict, each lecture explored three interconnected aspects of literary form: its use of language and rhetoric; the historical context of its emergence; and its potential appeal for contemporary audiences. Technique, history, and pleasure: the “how,” “why,” and “what for” of literature. It didn’t matter where the argument started from: the discussion of free indirect style took off from a few sentences in Austen, and that on the stream of consciousness, which followed two days later, from Simmel’s sociology of metropolitan life; the lecture on Vermeer began with a narrative analysis of his domestic scenes, and that on Rembrandt with the texture of the skin of his self-portraits. It didn’t matter where one started, as long as all aspects of form were activated, doing justice to the concept’s complexity. Complexity, though not perfection: committed to disparate imperatives, and caught in the never-ending campaigns of the literary field, great forms are necessarily contingent, tentative—“problematic,” to use a keyword of the early Lukács. That, despite being engaged on so many fronts, they accomplish as much as they do—this, not perfection, is their greatness.

Petite phrase. “Every form,” reads a memorable passage of Theory of the Novel, “is the resolution of a fundamental dissonance of existence.”3 As World War I reduced millions of men to a state of terrified impotence, Hemingway’s prose style provided an answer (if not exactly a “resolution”) to the trauma they had undergone. Here, the technical side of form—Hemingway’s spectacular use of prepositional phrases, for instance—emerges as the key mediation between the historical world and readerly pleasure. And if “prepositional phrases” sounds a bit esoteric … it is, and it’s deliberate. Because this is how form works: with devices that are often microscopic, and hard to recognize. (Which is also, incidentally, why it works: by remaining undetected, microscopic devices don’t disturb the immediacy of our pleasure.) But not everyone approves of this way of connecting (an aspect of) form and (an aspect of) historical experience; when Walter Benjamin sent his essay “The Paris of the Second Empire in Baudelaire” to the journal of the Institut für Sozialforschung, Adorno rejected it because of the “crass and rough” connection instituted in the essay between “the Baudelairian world of forms” and “the necessities of life”:

I regard it as methodologically unfortunate to give conspicuous individual features from the realm of the superstructure a “materialistic” turn by relating them immediately and perhaps even causally to corresponding features of the infrastructure. Materialist determination of cultural traits is only possible if it is mediated through the total social process.4

In the absence of such totalizing mediation, concluded Adorno, work such as Benjamin’s would find itself “at the crossroads of magic and positivism. This spot is bewitched…” A superb formulation: but wrong. Contingent as forms are, some of their elements may easily achieve a certain autonomy, and analyzing them in (near-)isolation is perfectly legitimate; besides, what captures our attention and fixes itself in our memory is seldom a work’s entire structure; more often, it’s something on a much smaller scale, like Vinteuil’s “petite phrase” for Swann, or Vermeer’s “petit pain du mur jaune” for Bergotte (and notice those two “petit/e,” with which Proust unobtrusively implies how little is needed to trigger our emotional response). Whence a recurring aspect of “Literary History,” and now of this book: isolating “conspicuous individual features” (a metaphor, an episode, a grammatical structure) from the work under discussion; analyzing how they work; and then trying to imagine how they had reacted—“immediately and perhaps even causally”—to a specific historical “dissonance.” If this reconstruction felt convincing, the “total social process” could wait.

Diagram of forces. Far Country, reads the title of this book: far in space, obviously enough, for someone who grew up in Europe and has now returned to live there. But just as distant in time: Weber, Simmel, the early Lukács, Russian Formalism, Benjamin, Spitzer, Adorno: these pages could (almost) have been written a hundred years ago. One reason was certainly my growing intolerance for the “presentism” (a dismal word, but appropriate to its object) of the American academy, which inevitably undermines all sense of the past. But the deeper reason had to do, once again, with the concept of form: more precisely, with the “anti-chaotic function” Aby Warburg had associated with it in the Introduction to The Atlas Mnemosyne.5 Faced with the incessant turmoil of the empirical world, artistic form operates a selection of the materials to be represented, and fixes them into a structure; and it does so through an agonistic process: anti-chaotic: “an objectivizing conflict […] between a forming power and a material to be overcome,” as Panofsky put it in his essay on the “will-to-art.”6 It’s the Realpolitik of form: the gray zone where beauty comes into contact with power, and even with violence. “We both like working with hard materials,” says Ibsen’s last hero, the sculptor Rubek, to, of all people, a bear hunter: “and both of us force our material down under control at last. Become lord and master over it. We never give up till we’ve overcome it, no matter how much it fights back.”7 Force, control, master. From the opposite end of the cultural spectrum, here is D’Arcy Wentworth Thompson, formulating the project of his morphological masterpiece, On Growth and Form:

The form of any portion of matter […] may in all cases alike be described as due to the action of force. In short, the form of an object is a “diagram of forces,” in this sense, at least, that from it we can judge of, or deduce the forces that are acting or have acted upon it.8

Deduce forces from forms: it could be the motto of the great Wilhelmine sociologists. Whether reflecting on aesthetic phenomena, administrative systems, conceptual structures, or the norms of individual conduct, the concrete power of abstract patterns—the force of forms—was a constant theme in the work of Weber, Simmel, and Sombart. Nor is it a coincidence that these were the great theorists of modern capitalism and bourgeois existence: the specificity of Germany’s late industrialization, with the dominant role played by banks, the state, and scientific research, revealed to this generation of thinkers how thoroughly could social existence be shaped by external forces. Form was power in the act of imposing a stable order onto modern societies. Form as force, then—but also force as form: as a capacity to shape and organize, and not only coerce. It is the awareness of this double perspective that we need, today just as much as a century ago.

Autonomous factor. As these initial pages have made clear, in this book “form” mostly means: style. Extracting short passages from a work, and analyzing their language, worked well in class, and it became a “practice” before I realized it was happening. (Later, I made it explicit with two lectures on “Style and Socialization.”) Style—and in fact styles, plural, because each age generates a whole spectrum of them—allowed me to compare texts with each other (they all used nouns, verb tenses, tropes, sentences of varying length and complexity), thus sharpening the sense of how varied literature can be. “As long as we know only a single style,” Simmel once observed, we inevitably perceive it “as being identical with its contents”; it’s only when we become familiar with many styles that we can see each of them “as an autonomous factor.”9 What he meant was something like this: there were many ways of representing colonialism, in late nineteenth-century Europe: Kipling’s melancholy and whimsical sense of duty was one of them, as was Haggard’s adventurous brutality, Verne’s para-scientific curiosity, or Salgari’s melodrama—plus, of course, all kinds of nonliterary discourses. Each of these styles was “an autonomous factor” in the sense that it did not concide “with its contents,” and in fact—to merge Simmel’s and Panofsky’s formulations into a synthetic statement—was bent on “overcoming” such contents with its own specific “shaping power.” Peculiar to, say, Conrad’s style in Heart of Darkness was the way in which aesthetic elegance—Marlow’s web of similes, litotes, polyphony, digressions, irony …—could cautiously come to terms with pure and simple ferocity. Form and force, again: where, by reverse-engineering “technicalities” such as Marlow’s digressions, the analysis of style can open a window into a past—into an ideology from the past—that would have otherwise remained forever closed.10

Belle époque. Beginning with the opening lecture, on the first installment of Our Mutual Friend, most of “Literary History” dealt with narrative texts of one kind or another; so, something felt vaguely wrong in the complete predominance of stylistics over the analysis of narrative structures. In part, this reflected the weakness of contemporary narratology vis-à-vis the results of linguistic analysis; in part, it was a consequence of the disparate genres I had chosen for the course (novels, novellas, short stories, films, plays…), and of the difficulty of finding a common denominator among them. But the main reason had to do with literature itself: with the fact that, in the last two centuries, the balance between story and style had slowly but steadily tilted towards the latter. A week after Our Mutual Friend, where the two aspects had still the same weight, the structure of Heart of Darkness—where the plot of Kurtz’s exploitation of the Congo, though obviously important, was thoroughly “overcome” by Marlow’s ironic mediation—had already indicated the direction of the process; one more week (“The Beast in the Jungle” and “The Dead”), and the primacy of “meaning” over narrative had become even starker. With Modernism it became extreme, and not only in those obvious cases like Ulysses and Endgame in which “nothing happened,” and focusing on style rather than plot seemed virtually inevitable. Even where a strong plot was present, writers seemed to do all they could to counter its force: the destinies of the heroines of Three Lives would have an even greater impact if they were not concealed behind the impassable façade of Stein’s repetitions; the calamities of To the Lighthouse would remain more memorable if they weren’t “struck into stability”—stability: the opposite of narrative—by the painting that concludes the novel. The exceptions confirmed the rule: only in fiction produced with a large market in mind—dime novels, detective fiction, Westerns, film noirs—did plot continue to matter; in the “autonomous” space of high literature, it was style that ruled. In some cases (James, Conrad, Woolf), a class element was also unmistakably present, as stylistic subtlety duplicated the “refinement”—tact, ease, reserve, taste, elegance—with which fin de siècle elites tried to endow bourgeois existence with an aristocratic patina: the last, vain attempt at forging a modern European ruling class.

Copyright © 2019 by Franco Moretti