Kundera on the Novel’s Powers of ‘Incorporation’

In ‘Notes inspired by The Sleepwalkers(by Hermann Broch), Milan Kundera writes:

Broch…pursues ‘what the novel alone can discover.’ But he knows that the conventional form (grounded exclusively in a character’s adventure, and content with a mere narration of that adventure) limits the novel, reduces its cognitive capacities. He also knows that the novel has an extraordinary power of incorporation: whereas neither poetry or philosophy can incorporate the novel, the novel can incorporate both poetry and philosophy without losing thereby anything of its identity, which is characterized (we need only recall Rabelais and Cervantes) precisely by its tendency to embrace other genres, to absorb philosophical and scientific knowledge.

The modern novel is often said to begin with Miguel CervantesDon Quixote, but as Kundera’s sweeping claim and the history of the novel suggests, precise markers of provenance do not do justice to such a polymorphous entity. For Kundera is right about the novel’s well-known and enduring ‘powers of incorporation’: the philosophical novel is a commonplace as are novels in verse.

But I am not sure he is correct about the incorporation going in just one direction.

The novel that seeks to provide a coherent statement of a philosophical doctrine–either through its main narrative, the actions or pronouncements of its characters or even by its form–has incorporated philosophy into itself, but it is just as plausible to suggest the philosophy in question has compelled the choice of the novel as the form for its statement. That is, the philosophical doctrine has ‘incorporated’ the novel into the various forms necessary for its statement. The novelist could have after all, written a philosophical tract, but chose the novel instead; it is the chosen vehicle for the delivery of the doctrine.  And perhaps that is because the nature of the statements, arguments and conclusions at hand, indicate to the novelist that this is the correct choice to make. It is no coincidence that certain philosophical doctrines–such as existentialism, for instance–have such extensive flirtations with the novel; their central principles are often best expressed and illustrated by its form and structure. (The novelist appears as a philosopher, one obliged to turn to the novel’s form.)

Similarly for a poem in novel form. The poet’s statement is such that it demands the novel as its form; in doing so, poetry incorporates the novel into the various forms of its expression.

What these remarks suggest, I think, are two things. One, that both poetry and philosophy are perhaps not as well defined–in either form and content–as might be imagined by some. Second, an insistence on the unidirectional nature of the inclusive capacities of the novel runs the risk of rendering it an entirely indeterminate entity. (The experimental efforts of avant-garde and postmodern novelists might have already done that, of course; more to the point, that might not be such a bad thing for the novelists that lie in our future.)

Postscript: In a comment on Facebook, my friend Maureen Eckert offered the following perspicuous comment:

This “incorporation direction” issue applies in a very interesting way to Plato’s texts, too. At this point, these texts are typically assumed to be Philosophical – literary works: their philosophical content has incorporated the literary form and content. And yet (in historical context of 4th century BCE Athens) the dialogues are, well, a literary genre that has incorporated philosophical content. The Socratic logoi as a genre ended up having a participating writer, Plato, and we now perceive the texts as predominantly philosophical. It seem that the direction of incorporation not only goes both ways, but also that our perceptions of these directions varies and switches. There’s very little stability, just as you say.

Note: The essay on Broch is included in The Art of the Novel, Perennial Library, Harper & Row, New York, 1988.   Excerpt on page 64.

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