The Novel, the Individual, and the Public

Don Quixote, published in two parts, 1605 and 1615, is generally considered the first novel, or at least the first European novel. The novel, as a genre, tells fictional stories of individual lives. Novels are also read by individuals (often sitting alone in a room), which sets this genre apart from plays that also deal with the lives of individuals. Histories (which includes biographies and autobiographies) tell the stories–purportedly true–of people, civilizations, nations, or cultures, wars, etc. But fiction provides details that don’t interest the typical historian. Only in fiction do we read about what someone ate for breakfast two hundred years ago.

Novels require a public readership, and they are accessible to non-elite audiences. Thus the novel is part of the mass media.The public is a product of the and mass media.

Some people might try to trace to novel back to Homer’s Odyssey because the work tells the fictional story of an individual named Odysseus, but The Odyssey is an epic poem and it was performed before an audience; it wasn’t generally read until it came out in modern-language translations in the 17th century. A Latin translation was completed in the 16th century. 

The novel didn’t really establish itself as a legitimate art form until the late 18th century, which was when functional differentiation took off in the Western world.

In a primarily stratified or centralized society, there can be no individuality in the modern sense. The same can be said for the public. There was no public in premodern society because there was no individual. The individual/pubic distinction arose together as a result of functional differentiation, which legally separated the individual off from the family Only when a man does not own his wife and children and laborers, do concepts like human rights make sense. So functional differentiation gave rise to concepts–or topics of communication–like the individual person and human rights, as well as the novel. We could also argue that the novel is incompatible with a slave-owning society. Of course, novels were written in the United States before the Civil War, but the significant novels (e.g., the works of Washington Irving, James Fenimore Cooper, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Hawthorne, Melville, William Wells Brown ) from those years were written in northern states. I can’t think of a single novel written in the antebellum South.

The dark side of functional differentiation, where social systems develop operational closure, is shown best in Kafka. In Kafka’s work the individual cannot communicate at all with machine-like bureaucracies. The Castle and the Law are impervious to K’s communicative efforts. And knowledge becomes so fragmented, with each person only understanding a small part of what’s going on, no one is forced to take responsibility for anything. This is “the tragedy of culture.”

Kafka’s work seems to mark a break from the traditional novel because in his novels the individual is caught without a clear adversary that a protagonist can do battle with. While in Don Quixote the protagonist has clear adversary in the windmills, in books like The Trial and The Castle there are no clear adversaries that can be confronted. It’s like fighting the dark. It isn’t a far leap from Kafka to Don DeLillo, whose Mao II opens with a mass wedding among cult members in Yankee Stadium–an illustration of the willful renunciation of individuality. At this point, the individual isn’t even trying to maintain its autonomy.

It’s interesting that in DeLillo’s narrative people don’t seem to read literature. Rather than the private activity or reading, people are immersed in TV, radio, and film. Media like TV and film might be said to imitate life, but in DeLillo’s narratives people imitate TV and the movies–they imitate an imitation.



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