The Synthetic Spirit of the Modern Novel

A post by Valter at a blog called Surreal Documents: Doctrines, Fine Arts, Ethnography, Variety got me thinking about Proust in the context of modernist novels in general:

[Proust] thus likened the work of a writer to a architect, organizing the least parts of the text into an interdependent whole. Both Proust's text and the cathedral are the products of a synthetic spirit, binding together diverse domains of knowledge into a coherent edifice. Panofsky: "The classical cathedral, in its imagery, seeks to embody the totality of Christian knowledge, theological, natural, and historical, by putting everything in its place and by suppressing whatever no longer found a place". For Proust, the cathedrals of France were not only the most beautiful monuments of French art, but also the only works of art which still lived a life of completeness ("...leur vie intégrale...").

What Proust's novel shares with many others of its generation is precisely what Valter calls a "synthetic spirit." Modernist prose is often fragmentary in style, which might give the surface impression of an analytic spirit. But the poetic structuring of those fragments forms a new kind of synthesis that many modernist writers were trying to discover.

Interestingly, so many novels of the early 20th Century, especially during and after the Great War, contain Edenic imagery as a cry for unity and integrity in the face of the anxieties and upheavals of the time. Virginia Woolf's The Waves features the house at Elvedon where the children grow up, disperse into the world, and to which they long to return. William Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury tells the tragic history of the Compson family after the downfall of the Old South; only their African-American maid, Dilsey, is able to transcend the vanity of modernity through singing at church, an activity that connects her to the Old South. Many similar elements can be pointed out in Joyce, namely the close relationship of the Eden and Einstein motif clusters (i.e. the synthesis of time/space in the eventual unity of Shaun/Shem, tree/stone) of Finnegans Wake.

Proust's composing the Recherche like a cathedral fits with the general conception of the novel genre as a synthetic whole -- one whose poetic structure connects disparate parts such as personal/historical past/present in one experience. And it uses all the media available to the novelistic imagination to do so, which correspond to those presented in churches: pictorial images, sculptural images, narrative, music, interior and exterior emplacements, even food.

A search in the archive on the Novel association recalls a passage that metaphorically compares the notions of architecture, churches, the novel, and the sources of modern European life.

It was, this "Guermantes," like the setting of a novel, an imaginary landscape which I could with difficulty picture to myself and longed all the more to discover, set in the midst of real lands and roads which all of a sudden would become alive with heraldic details, within a few miles of a railway station; I recalled the names of the places round it as if they had been situated at the foot of Parnassus or of Helicon, and they seemed precious to me as the physical conditionsâ€â€in the realm of topographical scienceâ€â€required for the production of an unaccountable phenomenon. I saw again the escutcheons blazoned beneath the windows of Combray church; their quarters filled, century after century, with all the fiefs which, by marriage or conquest, this illustrious house had appropriated to itself from all the corners of Germany, Italy and France; vast territories in the North, powerful cities in the South, assembled there to group themselves in Guermantes, and, losing their material quality, to inscribe allegorically their sinople keep or castle triple-towered argent upon its azure field. (3 1 1 7-8)

Unfortunately, I don't have time to expand on this further so I will have to return to it soon.