On Narrative and Prophecy

Continued from Monday’s entry

Of the twelve works dealt with this year, it’s no accident that eight were novels. Even as history continuously struggles to establish itself as unalloyed nonfiction, historians and novelists share a meaningful preoccupation with narrative.

The novel, an old art form, but one that reached a kind of zenith during the 20th century, turned out to be an exceptionally good portal on the past, in part because, in the words of Arnold Bennett:

[T]he novelist has poached, colonised, and annexed with a success that is not denied. There is scarcely any aspect of the interestingness of life which is not now rendered in prose fiction – from landscape-painting to sociology – and none which might not be.

Bennett’s words may also possess something of the “clear-eyed self-confidence of the Victorian Age,” but he’s on firmer ground than Lord Acton.

Whether we read novels or not, the same practice of narrative upon which the novel depends also forms the framework by which we find meaning in our lives and our reference point for the lives of others.

In his novel of the 20th century, Any Human Heart, the contemporary English author William Boyd refers to “narrative needs that you feel are essential to give rough shape to your time on this earth.” Stories aren’t just something we enjoy; they’re who we are and how we make sense of ourselves and our world.

We tell stories about the past and the future both to justify ourselves and to caution each other. And we reserve a singular awe for those people who seemed to slip the bonds of their own time and glimpse something of ours.

In this first year of the 20th Century Project, and first decade of the century, we began with one prophet and concluded with another: Rudyard Kipling and H.G. Wells both predicted immanent world wars (among other phenomena) with a wordiness favored by posterity.

Kipling argued for sweeping revisions to society (e.g. militarization) that would then serve as a bulwark against catastrophic change, defending the sanctity of the British Empire even as the bitterness of his own prescience overcame him: “I hate your generation,” he told a young lawyer, toward the end of his own life. He then explained: “Because you are going to give it all away.” Indeed, they did.

Wells, in contrast, put his faith in the inevitability of revolutionary change and argued that society had to transform itself (e.g. world government) so as not to be overwhelmed. In a 1919 article for The Atlantic, he wrote:

Under the lurid illumination of the world war, the idea of world-unification has passed rapidly from the sphere of the literary idealist into that of the methodical, practical man, and the task of an examination of its problems and possibilities, upon the scale which the near probability of an actual experiment demands, is thrust upon the world.

Prophets, then, are those men and women who emerge from the gloom of the past, Prometheus-like, bearing torches by which we recognize them as our comrades, perhaps our guides. Their light, however, may obscure as much as it illuminates. Do we continue to venerate Kipling because his genius stirs our ambitions or because we have yet to surrender his comforting faith in the superiority of Western civilization? In the words of Jorge Luis Borges, “Inside the mirror an Other waits in ambush.”

Prophets can only be canonized after the fact when some or all of their predictions have come to pass. At this point, we who canonize them risk becoming captive to a static exchange in a dialogue that – so long as it depends also on the ever-changing present – must itself continue to evolve.

Come back for this year’s final entry on Friday…