- Unknowing: The Work of Modernist Fiction
The title may surprise. "Unknowing" is a rare word, probably first used in an anonymous mystical treatise published in the fourteenth century, and very seldom used ever since. One would hardly expect it to occur in contemporary literary theory or literary history, and yet it eloquently sums up what is at stake in Philip Weinstein's latest book.
What he means by unknowing is a process rather than a condition: a way of undoing or unknotting the metaphysical, epistemological, and scientific assumptions underlying two centuries of realistic [End Page 624] fiction. That from its rise into prominence in eighteenth-century England to its ultimate triumph in nineteenth-century Europe, literary realism developed in the wake of Enlightenment is by now common knowledge, but Weinstein is probably the first to attempt the demonstration that for a long time Western fiction has been conditioned in its very texture by the philosophy (or ideology?) of the Lumières. His inquiry begins with a genealogy of realism, focusing on four major figures of Western thought—Descartes, Newton, Locke, Kant— all of whom contributed decisively to the emergence of the rationally ordered Weltbild of the Enlightenment: a not yet fully known but knowable world of sovereign, self-transparent, Cartesian subjects living in a homogenous and measurable space and in a linear, irreversible, and progressive time. The anatomy that follows traces the fictional enactment of these premises in the realistic novel from Daniel Defoe and Samuel Richardson to Leo Tolstoi and Fyodor Dostoevsky.
By contrast, the novels of Franz Kafka, Marcel Proust and William Faulkner—three writers with whom Weinstein has been familiar for many years, and whom he has come to admire as "the supremely haunted modernists" (261)—refuse the Enlightenment concepts of subjectivity, space, and time. In the works of these writers, the realistic project of knowing is not only questioned, but turned upside down to become the project of unknowing. The central part of the book is devoted to the implementation of this project and focuses on the shift from the reassuring certainties of the Lumières to the discomforting uncertainties of uncanny space and unbound time and to the hazards of dismantled selfhood. Primarily concerned with the latest developments of what is no longer purely Western fiction, the third part moves beyond realistic knowing as well as modernist unknowing and attends to the slippery space of postmodern writers such as Thomas Pynchon, Italo Calvino, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and Toni Morrison.
Unknowing is an ambitious book, with all it takes for the ambition to succeed. Allying the intelligence of literary texts with a wide-ranging and perfectly mastered philosophical culture, Weinstein's approach to his vast subject is at once subtle and rigorous, highly competent and truly illuminating. Never before have the close connections between the realistic novel and the philosophy of the Lumières been scrutinized as methodically, and seldom has the originality of the modernist project been defined with as much vigor and lucidity.
Weinstein, however, does not claim to tell the whole story. Much is at stake in his book and many important questions are raised. As might have been expected, not all of them find an answer. One of these questions has to do with our understanding of the novel as a genre. Most Anglo-American critics and theorists will draw a sharp [End Page 625] distinction between novel and romance, with the assumption that what distinguishes one from the other is its allegiance to realism. In French, however, there is only one word to designate both novel and romance, which is roman, and the roman has come to be perceived as the genreless genre capable of accommodating any subject, any mood, and any style. Weinstein does well to remind us that realism dominated Western fiction from the eighteenth through the nineteenth century and to stress the opposition between realism and modernism, but if the tradition of the roman can be traced back to Heliodorus and Chrétien de Troyes, the hegemony of realism has perhaps been little more than an episode...