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Daniel Martin's World-Making Capacity (essay and podcast)

PostPosted: Tue Jun 04, 2013 7:08 am
by drkellyindc
An essay I wrote about Daniel Martin has just been published by the literary journal Texas Studies in Literature and Language. The essay addresses a scholarly audience; I also condensed some of the main ideas into a 14-minute podcast for a general audience:

Here is a transcript of the podcast:

By Kelly Cresap

My intention here is to shoot the moon without necessarily getting NASA involved. My claim is that our current cosmology is expandable, and that a little-known novel from 1977 can help in its expansion. What follows is the preview of a new cosmology.

I’m using this term not in the astrophysical or microbiological sense but rather the human-scale myth-and-symbol sense that allows most of us, at least on a good day, to find meaning and establish order in our lives.

You might ask: don’t we need a new economy or ecology before we need a new cosmology? Still, people working on those things also need a system of beliefs, something to get them out of bed in the morning with a sense that it matters. Of late, the two recent contenders, existentialism and postmodernism, aren’t serving us as they once did.

I know this partly because of the novel I want to talk about: author John Fowles, title Daniel Martin. Now this may bring up, John who? and Daniel who?

John Fowles is from England, his dates are 1926 to 2005; his best-known works are The Magus and The French Lieutenant’s Woman. Like those novels Daniel Martin was a critically acclaimed bestseller. It was even a Book-of-the-Month Club main selection, though I get the sense that it mostly stayed on people’s coffee tables. In Daniel Martin the hero ages from adolescence to middle age. We see him as a preacher’s son growing up in remote Devon; we see him as a student at Oxford, involved with a close circle of friends; we see him at age 30 blaming these same friends for his personal problems—that’s bad enough, but he does it in a stage play, and when his friends get wind of it, everything goes south. We also see this hero at age 47, trying to make amends for what happened all those years ago.

More than any other book I know, this novel supports the idea from John Comenius about the history of civilization being reflected in the life-span of each individual. When Daniel Martin culminates in a scene set amid the ancient ruins of Palmyra, in modern-day Syria, something more than one person’s salvation is at stake. The novel is no less about Daniel than about his Oxford generation, about England after 1945, about the history of the 20th century, and about the extensive civilizational journey preceding it. For all of these entities, the novel asserts new growth emerging from a wasteland.

I first read this novel when I was 23. It was life-changing for me, and yet except in print, it was hard to find others who shared my passion. I had to face the prospect, Maybe it’s just me. Then I went to grad school. The message “maybe it’s just me” went supernova. Nobody wanted to read it, the author lacked cachet, winds were blowing in other directions. I was even chastised by my doctoral orals examiner; he said I had the wrong Fowles novel, it was The Magus, not Daniel Martin.

However, I continued reading it, about once every three years, and kept it close on my study desk. About five years ago I approached the scholarship systematically. What I found was hardly a consensus, of course; still, the “wilderness” years I’d spent with the book gave me a new drive and focus. Now I was working with the conviction, “maybe it’s not just me.”

So, what gives me the nerve to say that Daniel Martin isn’t just a good read but a new cosmology? And what might such a cosmology look or feel like?

In past writings I’ve tackled such questions by reading Daniel Martin through viewfinders supplied by other thinkers--psychologist Howard Gardner and holistic theorists David R. Hawkins and Ken Wilber. I’ve also shown how the novel’s treatment of time and culture contributes to the field of Big History, or history writ large.

Here I focus on a different set of viewfinders, and a pattern that emerged while I was burrowing into libraries. I noticed critics arranged in three basic camps: those claiming Daniel Martin as realist, in the tradition of Dickens, Thackeray, and Tolstoy; those claiming it as modernist, in the tradition of Joyce, Hardy, D. H. Lawrence, and Proust; and those claiming it as postmodernist, in the tradition of Borges and theorists such as Foucault and Derrida. I thought, These people need to get together. They’re talking about the same book.

At a certain point the Tolstoy and Proust elements came to the fore. Tolstoy, partly because of a famous rave by John Gardner, and Proust because of a growing number of scholars I found—nine to date--who likened Daniel Martin to Proust’s great work À la recherche du temps perdu.

What I found as I reflected on Daniel Martin was a novel Tolstoyan in its historical sweep and social and ethical concern, Proustian in its psychological and artistic beauty, and postmodern in its self-reflexivity and formal playfulness.

A little more on my terms of comparison. Tolstoy and Proust are vastly different, and yet both are engaged in a world-making enterprise. With Tolstoy we see world-making primarily in an external sense, as in War and Peace: all major classes and types of society, from peasants to aristocrats, soldiers to debutantes, together with the passions and ideas that animate them, are treated with rich descriptive texture and carried across a momentous historical period. The characters are vividly realized types, the full effect of which is a cross-sectional, morally probing treatment of a place and time. With Proust we see world-making in a more internalized sense. One recent commentator calls him a neuroscientist. Proust’s great novel takes the individual figures in a French aristocratic set, and through recurring words and motifs, subtle echo-chamber effects, he anatomizes the processes of memory itself. You might say his novel is the most brain-like entity we can access other than the human brain.

If Tolstoy and Proust are about world-making in this complementary sense, what does postmodernism contribute? You could say it gives a pushback. It says, Don’t so lose yourself in this created fictional world that you forget it is created and fictional. The German playwright Bertolt Brecht formalized this concept in theater. He had clear political views about waking audience members as if from a trance lest they identify excessively or naively with the spectacle and its players on stage. In this vein, postmodern literature typically includes gestures of subverting or unmasking.

Now, can a work be Tolstoyan, Proustian, and postmodern at the same time? What could possibly result except for a big mash-up or train wreck?

Yet what I found in Daniel Martin was a narrative crucible in which these three great fictional modes—representative of their literary and historical periods--interacted in a way that enriched the novel at hand, and gave a new angle on what was missing from the three worldviews considered separately.

Now let me be rude and ask, what is missing from these three main outlooks? I have to say, on an average day I don’t sit around thinking about the flaws in Tolstoy’s worldview. However, critics have noticed he lacks skepticism about his masculine authority and claims to metaphysical truth. The cornerstone sentence that begins Anna Karenina, about happy and unhappy families, is readymade for framing, and isn’t overtly questioned in the book’s pages. The author left himself open—everywhere you look these days someone wants to dispute him on the point.

With Proust, the great effort to anatomize memory involved a retreat from the political fray. Instead of the comprehensive treatment of class found in Tolstoy, Proust narrowed the focus to one class in one tribe. Missing also are questions about the fate of civilization, as well as the 19th-century commitment to broad-based accessibility.

With postmodernism, the emphasis on irony and self-mirroring effects tends to crowd out the ethical and social concerns of the realist novel, with its amplitude of character and setting; it also diminishes concern for the psychological texture and aesthetic richness of the modernist project. The narrator in postmodern works often turns out to be the most important character, as in novels by John Barth, who was famously described as a “narrative chauvinist pig.” Many of the works themselves shrank to short-story length, as in Donald Barthelme and Julio Cortázar, where characters are reduced to mere stick figures, stripped of heroic and archetypal dimensions that were once the life-blood of fiction.

What would happen if a new novel brought together these outlooks in a robust way that served as a corrective to what they’re missing individually? Such a synthesis would not be a matter of simple addition, 1+1+1; it would exact a kind of sacrifice. Fowles himself wrote, “In atoms as in men, complexification causes loss of energy.” Picking up on this metaphor, I began to see Daniel Martin’s dynamics as akin to what happens electrostatically between atoms reaggregating to form a new chemical compound. You can say that Daniel Martin moves more slowly than most novels, and is more inclusive than may at first seem needed, but by analogy, every element on the Periodic Table, if it had a voice, could say this about every other element of greater number.

The possibility of reaching a vital new synthesis of realism, modernism, and postmodernism appears as a similar aspiration in other contemporary writers—A. S. Byatt, Salman Rushdie, Don DeLillo in Underworld, Denys Johnson in Tree of Smoke—but to me, John Fowles in Daniel Martin goes the furthest toward its realization. How this happens--in terms of sentences, characters, and themes—I develop in an essay titled “The World-Making Capacity of John Fowles’s Daniel Martin,” now available through the journal Texas Studies in Literature and Language.

Let me take a step back and say, I realize how irritating it can be for everyone else when one player in a card game decides to go all in or shoot the moon. In this case it’s as if I hold all the cards, since I’ve had years to develop a special connection of familiarity and trust with a book which most people haven’t read.

So let me retrain my sights from the moon back to Earth. Can a novel that’s been neglected for more than 35 years support a cosmological advance today? Clearly no. Not today. Nor tomorrow either, or even next year. It takes a while for people to grasp the full cosmological dimensions of Daniel Martin–-most first-time readers are like I was at 23, reading for character and plot. Besides this, new cosmologies, when they emerge, do so with painstaking slowness. What keeps me going in this reassessment project is a sense of how greatly needed such a cosmology is. Something more hangs in the balance than most-favored-author status for John Fowles or a newly redrawn list of the World’s Greatest Books.

At stake, as I see it, is a worldview more sustaining, in both the political and psychological senses of the term, than the other recent contenders. This novel speaks to as well as past the anxiety and despair that many people feel today about global sustainability on a number of fronts; and it isolates a source of hope more substantive than any recent political formulation of the term. To me it’s worth making a fuss about.

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This is a citation for the full essay:
Cresap, Kelly. “The World-Making Capacity of John Fowles’s Daniel Martin.” Texas Studies in Literature and Language 55:2 (Summer 2013): 159-183. Print.

The essay is available online via the database Project Muse.


Re: Daniel Martin's World-Making Capacity (essay and podcast)

PostPosted: Sat Jun 08, 2013 7:11 am
by drkellyindc
Here’s the abstract for my TSLL essay:

The World-Making Capacity of John Fowles’s Daniel Martin

This essay argues that John Fowles’s 1977 novel Daniel Martin represents an innovative synthesis of epic realism (epitomized in Tolstoy), aesthetic modernism (epitomized in Proust), and self-reflexive postmodernism. Close textual analysis of one chapter reveals these modes kinetically interacting in a manner indicating the presence of a new literary compound. This tripartite synthesis, prefigured in Fowles’s 1969 novel The French Lieutenant’s Woman, reveals a postmodernism newly relieved of its habitual adjudicating or “one-up” position in relation to realism and modernism. Fowles’s synthesis permits the culminating moments of Daniel Martin to achieve a unique deep-focus perspective on issues of civilization and sustainability. Although the implications of Daniel Martin’s synthesis are not yet fully traceable, what I reveal is a full-spectrum reading experience that incidentally points up flaws in the intellectual outlook of Roland Barthes and Jacques Derrida, and offers vital clues about what may follow postmodernism.

Keywords: Fowles, Daniel Martin, Tolstoy, Proust, postmodernism


Re: Daniel Martin's World-Making Capacity (essay and podcast)

PostPosted: Tue Apr 15, 2014 5:01 pm
by drkellyindc
Some people said they couldn’t access the soundcloud link on my previous posting. Here’s the same sound recording done as a low-tech youtube video:


Re: Daniel Martin's World-Making Capacity (essay and podcast)

PostPosted: Mon Nov 27, 2017 1:18 am
by AndyPi
drkellyindc wrote:`
Some people said they couldn’t access the soundcloud link on my previous posting. Here’s the same sound recording done as a low-tech youtube video:


Yep, that works. Great video Dr Kelly!