:: Article

Another day, another dollar

By Marc Farrant.

Against the Event: The Everyday and the Evolution of Modernist Narrative, Michael Sayeau, Oxford University Press

“Every mere ism is a misunderstanding and the death of history” – Martin Heidegger, What is a Thing?

A good rule for good literature might be this: that the best writing is that which renders the inconsequential with the greatest consequence—since what else would be more worthy of merit? This logic appears to find its apotheosis in Gustave Flaubert’s striving to create an aesthetics of “nothing” (after all, “the finest books are those which have the least subject matter.”) That this impulse is not only perceivable through an investigation of the question of time, but that time itself (as both an experience and concept) structures this very impulse from the beginning, is precisely what Michael Sayeau sets out to prove in Against the Event. As such, Sayeau’s work can itself be considered timely, or representative of a contemporary ‘return to time’ in both philosophical and literary discourses (from Zizek’s and Badiou’s recent thinking of the ‘event’ to literary models of “everyday studies”).

This logic has often been associated with the various dynamics of modernism; that is, an acute and self-conscious sensation of cataclysmic change combined with an increased awareness of new forms and regimes of life dictated by repetition, instrumentalized progress, and subjective stasis. Modernism takes the form of a concatenating fervour of upheaval, laced with a bracing and ubiquitous numbness of affect and thought. The event, in Sayeau’s formulation, takes place on the plane of the everyday (it is marked as an event by being precisely not of the everyday) and, as such, the heightened events of modernism thus register an ever intensified engagement with the everyday (and, logically, vice versa).

Something of this modernist logic informs Nietzsche’s vehement attack on 19th century historicism, but takes on an aporetic quality as a reversal of the above. To disentangle ourselves from an endless articulation of the past-as-origin, Nietzsche promotes a sense of embodied animal life, defined through a capacity to forget. Yet this admonition to forget for the sake of a more radical modernity is paradoxically entangled within a sense of historical causality; one has to remember to forget what one wants to forget. This double-bind of ‘the event’ and ‘the everyday’ pervades Sayeau’s chosen authors as both a crisis and an opportunity, and is presented in a narrative that runs from Flaubert to H. G. Wells to Joseph Conrad and, finally, James Joyce. Throughout, Sayeau seeks to transform our canonical (and misguided) linkage between formal modernist innovation and actual (empirical, social, political) change. Modernity is defined just as much by what failed to happen as by what actually did occur. Indeed, the eagle-eyed reader will spot the central thesis appositely adorned on the book’s cover (which features an image of Pieter Brueghel the Elder’s Landscape with the Fall of Icarus).

The work opens with a masterful and expansive theoretical introduction which, à la Nietzsche, grapples with the sheer “ineffability” of the concept of the everyday. That the everyday evades the philosophical question ‘what is?’ (since “it is a concept that is coherent only when rendered in relation to what is not everyday”) helps to elucidate the originality behind Sayeau’s assertion that it is at base “a literary phenomenon, a type of temporal experience entangled from the start in the application of narrative models to lived time.” The everyday is, however, primarily explored in the subsequent literary chapters “through an analysis of that which opposes or negates it: the event”. The event is initially presented through a host of theoretical figures, from Heidegger’s Augenblick, to Benjamin’s Jetztzeit, and through the post-structural thinking of difference identified in the work of Deleuze, Derrida and Badiou. This is cleverly sketched out within a framework of modern thought itself, whereby, despite categorical differences between philosophies, this prolific engagement with the thinking of the event allows Sayeau to return to the very question of literature as that which embodies (rather than simply emblematizes) the difficulty of the central notions:

the philosophical struggle to instantiate a gap into the ‘plane of immanence’ or the quid-pro-quoing of the everyday, is not only symptomatic of a period in which grave doubts emerge about human agency and subjective intentionality, but further stands as a symptomatic outbreak of the very literariness that literature itself would turn against with modernism.

Sayeau’s examination of the “anti-evental turn of narrative” begins with a captivating diagnosis of the condition of bovarisme. Flaubert’s Madame Bovary exhibits precisely the formalistic subversion of entrenched realist mandates (notably the link between “tellability” and “eventfulness”) that characterises Sayeau’s “anti-evental” modernism. Yet it is precisely Flaubert’s rendering of too much ‘real’ (and the concomitant failure of the romantic occurrence) that provides the work with its anti-evental energy. Thus, Emma’s bovarisme reflects the double-bind of the central thesis: “Just as Flaubert is driven to terror by the call to conform to pre-existing models of literary genius and simultaneously to create works that are entirely new…his greatest character is likewise caught up in the abyssal teleology of an imperfectly—or all too perfectly—plagiarized life.” Bovarisme represents the affective parallel of ecstasy and numbness characteristic of Sayeau’s opposition between the event and the everyday. Emma’s malady is above all a reading disorder, yet as Sayeau argues, the way she reads has often evaded critical attention. This is to “erleben the Erfahrung”, to do the impossible, to grasp time itself (“the occurence becomes tangible only with and through repetition, by its transmediation from ineffable experience to masturbatory auto-narration”).

Nevertheless, Sayeau rightly articulates the manner by which Emma’s capacity to feel her predicament (a predicament dependent on a certain paradox of self-consciousness, defined by Sayeau as a central tenet of modernism proper: “the more subjective a discourse becomes…the more subjectivity, the self, is called into question”), reflects not only her victimhood but Flaubert’s artistic endeavour: “for there is something revolutionary in tying the strings of subjectivity and human temporality this tight—all the while still going on with the writing and reading of it.” Emma is both trapped within and “struggling against the currents of banality”, an aspect that marks Flaubert’s novel not as uneventful but anti-evental, and in so doing inaugurates literary modernism not only as a “deformation of the romantic impulse still remaining at the heart of realism”, but also as a testament to the “force of this logic’s mandates”. The anti-event of Against the Event is thus first and foremost the anti-event of the invention of modernism itself.

It is with Conrad that Sayeau’s argument begins to gather the traction and inflection of what was previously hinted to in the introduction, that of an oblique “politics of the everyday.” Heart of Darkness is seen as “a profound and timely meditation on the changing nature of work at the turn of the century”, which is centrally portrayed through the notion of unemployment: “unemployment…is not simply the absence of work…Rather, it is…a structural feature of modern economic life.” This sense of issuelessness, as with Flaubert, is methodologically examined alongside Conrad’s own career as a seaman (whereby writing-as-work emerges, for Conrad, when a position at sea becomes ever more unattainable), and is augmented not only via the novella’s ‘images’ but through the very formal constitution of the text: “Heart of Darkness forecasts a world in which consciousness itself—as well as its privileged home, the novel—have been served notice, have been deemed too inefficient to survive the irrational rationalisation that characterises capitalist modernity.”

The paradoxical formulation of the novella’s anti-evental structure is thus instantiated in the form of Marlow’s infamous ‘idea’ (“an idea that is never defined…but rather has only the empty availability of the fetish”), and the structure of what the historian M.E. Chamberlain called, ‘new imperialism’; the changing nature of work (unemployment as a category only emerged in economic and social discourses in the decade of the novella’s composition) thus mirrors an imperial period where Marlow’s “blank spaces” on the map of the world have all been filled in by the great powers of Europe. The novella thus follows the unfolding of a complex relationship between discourse and labour. This disregard for Eliot’s sense of the “objective correlative” is central to the uncanny dichotomy of distance and proximity that characterises Marlow’s predilection for an inexpressible expression of his voyage up the Congo.

Against classical readings, such as Chinua Achebe’s, that highlight the racism of Conrad’s text, Sayeau convincingly explores ‘work’ as a point of common experience between the African labourers and the novella’s white characters: “the Africans stand in Heart of Darkness not so much as avatars of a prehistorical past as of a posthistorical future”. As posthuman avatars of a “bleak future for all, one marked by a harrowing oscillation between unemployment and over-employment, and the temporalities that grow in the gap.”

However, if Flaubert and Conrad (and Wells also) are seen as instigators of a new novelistic art, representative of “the work of the modern writer straddling the line between plot-driven genre fiction and the psychologically penetrating novel associated with modernism”, it is the role of Joyce in Against the Event to flesh out modernism proper. Consequently, the everyday is put to work differently in the case of Joyce, and is primarily conceived through the tracing of the notion of epiphany: “the early development and later trajectory of this concept is grounded in a fundamental resistance to narrative event, and is perhaps the most vivid and significant instance of anti-evental technique to be found in modern literature.”

The epiphanic is explored through Joyce’s earlier work, including the manuscript epiphanies, and their re-iteration, mutation and supplementation in the texts that followed, such as Dubliners, Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and Ulysses. Against the canonical consensus and reading of the epiphanic in Joyce along Freudian lines of surface and depth, Sayeau argues: “if the everyday is a form of time defined by collapsed potentiality…the epiphanies represent a raw distillation of that temporality. One after another they enact a stalling of narrative logic, a static dialectic.” If Joyce stands as apogee of the everyday, this is because his work marks the terminal crisis of the romantic occurrence through the corrosive influence of quotidian reality.

Sayeau concludes by following Eric Auerbach in Mimesis by observing that, from this impasse, modernism presents a “very simple solution.” This solution is in part announced in the introduction through the adaptation of Adorno’s conception of ‘moderate modernism’, which, for Sayeau, stands metonymically for the very structure of literature itself in the wake of modernism, caught between realist imperative and avant-gardist necessity.

The literature and social thought that has come in the wake of modernism has failed so far to listen carefully enough to the subtler messages of the period and its forms, focusing as they did, and continue to do, on complexity rather than simplicity…perhaps we are now in a position to come to terms with the challenging simplicities of the everyday, the open secrets made available by the secular epiphanies of modernism, and the unification and levelling they prophesize.

Nevertheless, significant questions remain, and come to light by tracing Sayeau’s allusion to Auerbach’s Mimesis to another critical text that bears more than a passing audible relation: Jacques Ranciere’s recent Aisthesis. Ranciere appears at the end of Sayeau’s chapter on Flaubert as the theorist of a materiality in excess of an event-driven model of narrative meaning. The everyday in Ranciere’s wider work, however, represents not only a defining feature of the modern heteroglossic novel form, but of literature itself. Although the significance of this change in emphasis is not central to the overall validity of Sayeau’s argument, it is a complete reversal of Sayeau’s conception, at the beginning of Against the Event, that the “everyday…stands as a symptomatic outbreak of the very literariness that literature itself would turn against with modernism.” Rather, for Ranciere, it is literariness itself that emerges, as a specifically historical aesthetic mode, in relation to the everyday.

Anachronism, however, is not the issue. Instead Ranciere helps reveal the methodological affinity of Sayeau’s argument shares with a fairly orthodox model of the history of the novel (from Watt to Moretti). So, just as Sayeau’s argument attempts to collapse the centrality of the event, Ranciere’s concept of the ‘aesthetic regime’ makes the collapse of the distinction between art and non-art (life) central to the meaning and being of literature. Similarly, the Conrad of Sayeau’s “issuelessness” is comparable to Ranciere’s insouciance. The question becomes, then: does Sayeau’s everyday dissociate itself enough from the causal relation that Ranciere’s insouciant ‘aesthetic regime’ seeks to challenge? (that is art as an organic and hierarchical totality, complete so as to pre-empt its own effects). Ranciere’s rendering of modernism thus transfers the event to one of reading (to one of aesthetic experience): does this yield a more substantial politics than ‘moderate modernism’?

Sayeau’s conclusion that realism persists, however, is more than a reactionary attack on an outmoded theoretical sensibility (itself often associated with the spirit of ‘high’ modernism). The future of the avant-garde, or more emphatically, literature itself, does not reside in proliferating formal experimentation (or not only). As such, the future of literature resembles its modernist past, mirroring the Adornian dialectic of autonomy and tradition, or—we might say—event and stasis. The persistence of realism does not denote a failure of art, either. It is not in Beckett’s work (taken, typically, as the end of modernism), for instance, that what is so estranging is what is un-readable, but on the contrary, the difficulty of the works lies precisely in their being readable and, therefore, transforming our understanding of the relation between reading and knowledge. Indeed, the idea that reading equates to understanding is all too often assumed in the practice and pedagogy of literary studies. In this regard, Beckett’s aesthetic practice—indeed, modernism’s—stands in stark opposition to contemporary aesthetic study, both mocking and mourning from a historical distance the turn away from a theoretical criticism that would seek to advance according to this simple fact. This is a criticism Sayeau’s work goes some way to rejuvenating and accommodating in the contemporary scene. After all, and as he makes clear, the persistence of realism in modernism and after is always also a singular interrogation of what constitutes reality. To paraphrase Terry Eagleton, to declare that something is realist is to declare that it is not the real thing!

Marc Farrant is a PhD candidate based in London and a Contributing Editor at the online literary review website, Review 31.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Friday, May 2nd, 2014.