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A Condo of one's own
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MLN 112.5 (1997) 944-957

Essay Review

Franco Moretti, Modern Epic: The World System from Goethe to García Márquez, translated by Quentin Hoare. London: Verso, 1996. 256 pages.

Macondo as a m[ac]ondo [world], in short. The story of Buddenbrooks--in the context of the world-system. No wonder Europe went crazy over One Hundred Years of Solitude. (238)

In the eyes of some, the novel is either dying, already dead, or, in either case, not worth much of an obituary. Although Franco Moretti would declare such views themselves dead on arrival, his book on continuity, discontinuity, and experimentation in Europe's epic tradition, modern novel and long poem seems figuratively involved with death: with the evolutionary life of literary genres and their narrative devices in relation to closure, exhaustion, renewal, and obsolescence.

After reviewing Moretti's history and geography of world texts, I will respond to his critique of the European or 'Western' view and reception of magical realism in the fiction of García Márquez and other Latin American writers by way of balancing his historical and theoretical insights with some regional perspectives of my own. In following such a partial approach, I will not be able to give the book's entire curriculum all the attention it deserves. I say 'curriculum' because Moretti's 'essay' or 'saggio' reads like an open workshop of indefinite interactive length on the modern historical evolution of prose, poetry, drama, and opera music in reference to fiction, ideology, power, open and closed intellectual spaces in public life, modernity, archaism, and ambiguities in the way myth lends legitimacy to socially shared meanings.

Written in a spoken style marked by frequent asides and thought provoking ruminations, the sequence of nine chapters includes three each on Faust and Ulysses and one each on The Nibelung's Ring and One Hundred Years of Solitude. Moretti combines a previously established indebtedness to Marx with a deeper though more hypothetical recourse to Darwin in search of a "materialist history of literary forms" (5). Taking as analytic target the "discrepancy between the totalizing will of the epic and the subdivided reality of the modern world" (5), he turns to Darwinism's scientific interest in how imperfections in organic morphology among species may offer the best proof of a given evolutionary path. Going against current fashion and biology's own compromised background in social ideology, Moretti starts from Darwin's scrutiny of "random variations" and "natural selection" in the natural world and then suggests a literary analogy with, on the one hand, "rhetorical innovations, which are the result of chance," and, on the other, "social selection, which by contrast is the daughter of necessity" (6). Literary history is thus fashioned with random creative loopholes somewhere in the fabric of the examined texts. Attention is paid to literary genre as "the true protagonist" of the history of literature, but mainly in terms of how a specific device, such as "polyphony, monologism, the commonplace, [or] allegory" (74), may transform the text into an object amenable to the study of morphological evolution in literary creation.

Instead of a sense of historical determinism and formal closure, what emerges from this kind of history is a sense of creative uncertainty, of (dis)closure punctuated by doubts and interrogations, concerning the emergence and evolution of textual devices and rhetorical experiments in the role of "'unforeseen ideologies'" (55). Such is the case with Goethe's stage-shattering mythologies (in Faust II), in which, through a device called "non-contemporaneity" (55), different and distant epochs "meet and mingle" in polyphonic chaos:

Instead of Bakhtin's dialogic polyphony, critical and intelligent, just an incredible din. Voices that talk and talk without paying any attention to one another, as almost everywhere in Faust Part Two, or in the chapter 'Midnight. Forecastle' of Moby-Dick, or in the Basilica of Heresies in The Temptation of Saint Anthony. (58)

Beginning with Faust, Moretti readjusts the concept of polyphony, taking it beyond Bakhtin, and shows how it progressively upstages stream of consciousness narration in Ulysses. He redefines polyphonic textuality by removing heteroglossia and discursive pluralism from their Bakhtinian genre-specific sites in the novel and giving them a...


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