- Myths of Modern Individualism
A new book by the distinguished author of The Rise of the Novel arouses anticipation. He is one of the righteous remnant, scholars who take it for granted that language is actually capable of communication. What a pity that such solid scholarship and excellent prose have come to seem anomalous and old-fashioned.
Focusing on the principal source texts, the book examines four characters who have become mythic and who exemplify the modern trend toward individualism: Faust, Don Quixote, Don Juan, and Robinson Crusoe. A pivotal point in this study is Jacob Burckhardt’s idea that the free individual personality began flourishing in Renaissance Italy, whereas before, man was, as Burckhardt said, “‘conscious of himself only as a member of a race, people, party, family, or corporation—only through some general category’” (p. 120). The Renaissance developed “a new emphasis on the values of private life” (p. 121). The four myths and characters are examined as exemplars of this new cultural development.
As to the concept of myth, Percy S. Cohen’s seven types of interpretation are glanced at, but we are spared most of his finicky analysis. Professor Watt generally works with a few simple but efficient criteria. Myth involves narrative and character that almost everyone knows and that have persisted over time. Robinson Crusoe has firmly entered the world’s consciousness as evidenced by the numerous allusions, imitations, and new versions such as Michel Tournier’s Vendredi or Muriel Spark’s Robinson. The characters are not imprisoned in the work, but range freely in other cultures and times. The mythic heroes are in the past, but they are in some sense present and persist in us. We have internalized them, recognized in them some salient feature of ourselves. We savor the delicious solitude of Crusoe, free of the hell of other people, a solitude in which we could master and shape our world. Mozart, Byron, Zorilla and others have evoked male fibrillations at the thought of Don Juan fiouting social conventions in erotic euphoria.
The myths of individualism show characters who are self-centered and [End Page 476] pursue independent actions at any cost. They live without regard to party, family, or community—Don Juan lacerating and destroying women, serenely thinking of damnation as coming much later. They tend to be “solitary nomads” (p. 123), inveterate travelers: Faust in the Faustbuch or Marlowe in the whole wide world, even to hell. They tend to exist in a domestic vacuum. Women are missing in Robinson Crusoe’s thoughts. “Even when he returns to civilization, sex is strictly subordinated to business” (p. 169). Don Quixote pursues the phantom of chivalric love, content that it remains in the realm of amatory rhetoric; Sancho Panza suffices as a form of human relationship. “‘. . . our dear self is, in one respect, the end of living,’” declared Robinson Crusoe, asserting a “necessary solipsism in the human condition . . .” (p. 151).
A stimulating book such as this is likely to evoke in the reader moments of hesitation or “yeah, but . . .”. One of the pleasures of reviewing is the opportunity to articulate these moments. I had one or two of these while reading the section of Don Juan. I wondered if Tirso de Molina’s El Burlador de Sevilla was about someone we would be inclined to call an individualist. Was he not, perhaps, simply a clever debaucher, a vivid example of the natural man driven by Satan—the universal human condition. He was more firmly in Satan’s grasp than most of us, but we recognize him as a fellow sinner. On these terms, we could even think of Eve as the original individualist. Professor Watt suggests that a self emerges from a dialectical relationship with others, but for Don Juan others exist only to be tricked or so that he can relish their pain. I wonder how individualism can be attributed to what seems more like a feral creature than a human self.
Faust, too, of course, gives himself to the devil, but he is driven...