Critical Inquiry Critical Inquiry

Michael Clune reviews The Art of Being

Yi-Ping Ong​, The Art of Being: Poetics of the Novel and Existentialist Philosophy. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2018. 304 pp.

Review by Michael Clune

26 June 2019

Anyone interested in the debates that have convulsed the study of the novel in recent years should read this book. It does more than any other piece of writing I’ve encountered to clarify the underlying stakes of the arguments about close reading versus distant, analog versus computational, depth versus surface. With almost no explicit reference to these debates, Ong shows how nothing of value about the novel can be gleaned from a distance, because the novel lacks a surface. She describes something everyone knows, but almost no one knows how to theorize: novel-reading is a very strange thing. Her careful description of its dynamics must be grappled with before any question of the value of ‘objective’ sociological or historical perspectives on the novel can be judged.

When I am absorbed in a novel, who am I? Where am I? Ong shows that much criticism of the novel has understood the reader’s participation in the imaginary lives of characters in epistemological terms. The novel gives us access to the thoughts and feelings of others. But she points out that this approach misses what is most distinctive about the first person. I am aware of (some) of my current thoughts and feelings. But I also have a special relation to the contents of my mind. Some impulses I might feel ashamed of, and wish to suppress. Other thoughts might inspire me to share them with others, or to act on them. Drawing on the neglected tradition of existentialist criticism, Ong argues that my responsibility for, or ‘ownership’ of, my thoughts and feelings is ultimately what makes my relation to my own thoughts different from my relation to Emma Woodhouse’s.

The “empirical reader” differs from the “readerly subject” (p. 4). In reading Austen’s novel, I have access to Emma’s thoughts, but I lack any responsibility for them. To the extent that I become absorbed in a novel, my empirical self is eclipsed. The character’s life arises on the condition that my own existence be suspended. Ong describes this suspension accurately by calling it impossible. “The impossibility of the novel, or, to put it differently, its necessity qua fiction—consists precisely in its being a narration, a making known, of the fantasy that it might be possible to have knowledge of a life from within it without assuming the unavoidability of existential choice that this knowledge entails” (p. 10).

The realist novel works by convincing us that something that can’t happen, is happening. This impossible happening defines novel-reading. I pass through my own disappearance into the experiences of Isabel Archer or Dorothea Brooke. As Ong shows, this feature shapes every aspect of plot, character, and world. When critics approach a novel from a distance that collapses this impossible suspension of oneself, they miss absolutely everything that’s distinctive about a novel.

The other side of the nonexistence of the reader is the existence of the character. How do characters come to life? Ong quotes Sartre, who writes that the novelist “must hollow out a space of time that looks like mine . . . in which there is no future” (p. 66). A key difference between myself and a character in a novel is that I have a fundamentally different relation to tense. The future is different from the past for me, in that the former appears open, while the latter appears closed. But for a character in a novel, of course, the future does exist, as a part of the narrative’s artistic whole. Thus to convince me of a character’s reality—that conviction that steals over me in and as the waning of my empirical existence—a novel must block my awareness of the closure of the character’s future. 

Another way to put this is to say that the novel must limit my capacity to observe the structure of the whole narrative. The novel’s “chief poetic strategies” thus consist of techniques that make it appear as if the novel is shaping itself from within, “independently” of any external perspective (p. 23). This accounts for the formlessness of the novel, first rigorously theorized by Bakhtin. Ong’s brilliant readings of marriage plots in James, Austen, Eliot, and others show in detail too rich to summarize here precisely how authors skillfully “hollow out a space of time that looks like mine,” while enclosing it within a literary artifact.

If characters in the novel are parasitic on the imaginary nonexistence of readers, the things depicted by novels are bound up in the curious reality of characters. A certain approach to the novel has imagined that it might mine the novel’s rich depiction of things to gain sociological knowledge about an age. Ong shows that novelistic things simply aren’t amenable to objective analysis. In a stunning sequence, she extracts passages of description from several different novels. She then reproduces the passages purged of their detailing of things, in order to show how each thing in a novel represents a crystallization of a character’s presence within a world. Rescuing another term from existentialist criticism, Ong shows how Elizabeth’s first encounter with Darcy’s house, or Isabell’s with Lord Warburton’s, consists not of subjects and objects, but of “situations” in which things concretize evanescent constellations of thought and matter. The delimited objects prized by historical and sociological accounts of the novel are quite literally not there.

Ong’s masterful book raises questions that I suspect students of the novel will be grappling with for a long time. I wish to conclude by briefly noting a certain tension in her argument. Implicit in The Art of Being are two distinct criteria for judging a realist novel, linked to two different conceptions of the kind of thing a novel is, and the kind of effect at which it aims. We might call the first the existentialist criterion. A novel is successful insofar as it convinces me, in Sartre’s sense, that a character occupies a time-space that is not unlike mine. 

But there is a second, and opposing, criterion. Ong argues that the magic of the novel consists in opening perspective on a world “completely other than the perspective that we ordinarily have upon what is represented” (p. 192). When I read Emma, from what point of view am I experiencing Emma’s thoughts about Harriet? One might be tempted to answer this question with reference to the narrator. But discerning the narrator’s position is harder than it has looked to many. Ong skillfully explodes the idea that the narrator occupies an “omniscient” perspective, which would, if true, destroy the absorptive quality of Austen’s prose by revealing the the narrative temporal structure within which the character is lodged. I would then gaze at the character as a subject gazes at an object, as opposed to undergoing the strange participation of novelistic absorption. 

Still less can I be said to experience Emma’s thoughts from my own perspective. I lack what Ong, following Richard Moran, calls a “deliberative relation” to Emma’s thoughts, a relation definitive of the first person. In fact I appear to experience Emma’s thoughts from no perspective. Existentialist philosophy values the novel’s avoidance of subject/object dualism in its representation of situation. It also values the novel’s compelling representation of character’s responsibility as undetermined by structures visible from an external perspective. But existentialists might find it harder to value the novel’s capacity to give us an experience not possible in life, an experience stripped of responsibility.

Ong shows Flaubert praising the special beauty of ordinary things viewed from the otherworldly viewpoint opened by novelistic prose. She refers to “the impossibility of identifying the one whose knowledge of fiction’s other-world survives the journey between here and there” (p. 152). Who is this “one?” The novel’s precipitation of this being suggests a different criterion from that of the existentialist. In her conclusion, Ong argues that the novel engages the kind of problems raised by the existentialists at the level of form. But I think this understates the originality of her own thinking. Ong does show part of the work of the novel to involve elaborating situations of the kind described by De Beauvoir or Sartre. But she also shows the novel as routinely revealing possibilities of existence, and of consciousness, which leave existentialist philosophy behind.