Writing the Last Novel
I have written the last novel. Yes, I have. Benjamin, in his famous analysis ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’, tells us that origins and authenticities are mutually imbricating. The very presence of a singular original work is not a necessary variable for, but rather is the essence of, the aesthetic object. He uses the religious term ‘aura’ to describe such a presence, something which any reproduction notoriously lacks. “Even the most perfect reproduction of a work of art is lacking in one element: its presence in time and space, its unique existence at the place it happens to be. This unique existence of the work of art is determined by the history to which it was subject throughout the time of its existence.” (1955:220). It is of immense interest that Marx borrows the concept of the ‘fetish’, also from religious discourse, to describe in turn the inauthenticity of the commodity relation. Art is understood as part of the expression of the character of humanity as a whole work in itself, self-created after being put together from and by evolutionary materials. The question of an absent Creator as itself a ‘third party’ need not be broached, for evolution is also merely a process and not its own genius. Other objects within capital are at their highest quality as a product when they attempt to mimic an art work or more widely, an art form. But like charisma, the existence of which in modernity is doubted, religion too, the source of both aura and fetish, can be seen only in a faint echo of its original presence. Just so, the work of art supplants religion in our modern age, but only because art and religion were once one thing.
And just as all prophets and messiahs have come and gone, the cowardly mimesis of religious innovators that is a symptom of mass politics and hardly of massive belief – indeed, more inspired faith can be found in UFO religions than in those sectarian; a pressing and all consuming desire to believe animates these forward-looking marginal cults, their very ‘being-ahead’ carrying them alongside the original Christian cults of the Eastern Mediterranean – carries on within a closed circle. It is not portable, in the eminent manner that is the aura which emanates from a work of art. The work of religion that was the messianic has fulfilled itself long ago. The work of art that is novelistic has done the same, but much more recently. Now a novel has been written that cannot be a novel. Its function exceeds its form, its expectations herald a new art form. It seeks the new because it in itself has no tradition from which to generate the necessary aura that elevates the work into the work of art. “The uniqueness of a work of art is inseparable from its being imbedded in the fabric of tradition. This tradition itself is thoroughly alive and extremely changeable. An ancient statue of Venus, for example, stood in a different traditional context with the Greeks, who made it an object of veneration, than with the clerics of the Middle Ages, who viewed it as an ominous idol.” (ibid:223). What then of the ominous veneration that attaches itself to the new?
To worship the novel for the sake of its newness is suggestive of youth. The commodity, once again in its turn, plays on this original and essential sense of wonder that a new human being brings into the world, and collapses its aura into a fetish. A novel experience is one that I have not previously had. But ‘having’ an experience is not limited to something I do ‘in’ the world, an action, an adventure, an observation. Beyond this, and yet occurring sometimes prior to, sometimes after, a worldly experience, is the interpretation, the anticipation, the wonder and the bemusement that such an experience will generate on both sides of itself, as it were. And in each of these other experiences I do find myself altered, as if I were my own tradition, ‘alive and changeable’, sometimes indeed to extremes, and this especially so in my youth. The ‘priority’ of the new, its invocation of desire, strikes us as does the premonitory aspect of the work of art. T.S. Eliot once had it that poetry begins to communicate long before it is fully understood, or better, comprehended. This is meant to convey the presence of presence before one is oneself present to it. This is the effect of the aura, and in this, it separates itself quite bodily from the affect of the fetish, which can only begin to alter my sense of reality once the object is itself fully present and I have ‘understood’ it to be present. To tradition, the new is always ominous. Youth venerate such changing presence, while the old in any culture tend to worship the tradition. But tradition was once itself new, and thus also new to me, who thence grows older within it and notes that along the way, ‘the’ tradition was not what it once was, or no longer can be identified with what I originally imagined it to be.
But since tradition cannot be separated from the work of art while at the same time travelling alongside the commodity, itself bereft of all traditions – which is the chief reason why advertisers attempt to contrive a ‘tradition’ out of a commodity; hence the idea of ‘marque’ or even ‘brand’ and such consumer loyalties that may or may not adhere to it – the push and pull between tradition and wonder, between the old and the new, between experience and astonishment and so on, suggests to us that whatever the aura which the work of art presents to us as its signature presence, between the aesthetic object and myself there is a splitting of differences. This is not to be taken as glibly as the commonplace phrase implies. At once we must be immersed in the tradition in order to fully appreciate the significance of this or that work of art, while as well we must be able to leap out of said tradition in order to do the same. Art is the only human product in the world wherein ambiguity is the goal. If Eliot is correct, this essential uncanniness, at once familiar and yet strange to me, is an experience that cannot be resolved until much more of my own life has intervened. Akin to returning to a book and reading it once ‘again’ after many years, with the expectation that I will gain a different insight from it, note different themes and moments as being more or less of import, and also, one would hope, noting the same things about myself as a human character in the historical drama, the presence of the work of art cannot be said to be truly ‘present’ in the way all other objects in the world appear to be. In fact, we are led to comprehend the fetish of the commodity along precisely these lines: it cannot exert any suasion over us unless it is there in its wholeness, form and function aligned, the one pleasing to the casual eye, the other vouchsafed in its mechanism, producing our desired outcomes. In no way does art presume to be present in such a cut and dried manner. And just as we do not purchase commodities for their perduring ambiguity, we find ourselves adoring them for their very consistency and ease.
Art is inconsistent. Art is uneasy. It reminds the modern human being of his own Ungeheuer, my ownmost dis-ease and existential homelessness. At the same time, it brings me back into the essence of what I am as a human being; ambiguous, resolved and completed only in mine ownmost death. “One of the foremost tasks of art has always been the creation of a demand which could be fully satisfied only later. The history of every art form shows critical epochs in which a certain art form aspires to effects which could be fully obtained only with a changed technical standard, that is to say, in a new art form.” (ibid:237). In the case of the last novel, this new form is interactive digital media. The seal which binds text to itself has been broken through. The characters who populate a narrative can no longer tell their own story to themselves, by themselves. No, instead, these non-human humans require a player, just as does the painting require a viewer. And what was once the expression of sacred presence in the secular world, its aura being the lingering atmosphere of an irruptive presence that placed the extramundane inside the mundane, the uncanny into the otiose, carries itself forward without self-explanation into our own time as solely faith and without belief.
So while one is compelled to believe that belief is itself moribund, to act within a faith that recognizes faithlessness – we now disbelieve in the tradition of the previous art form and we must do so as a prescience, ominous or no, of the immanent next of the new art form – we also do not abandon the more essential tradition of outgrowth, of evolution, of simple change. Indeed, it is this last thing, the only constant, so we are told, that insulates us against the mistaken stasis that commodity as a fetish seeks to contrive. All things novel within commodity relations are a fraud when placed beside the shocking scandal, even evil, of the art form and its ‘representative’, the aesthetic object. The fetish is that which adheres to a produced object through our veneration thereof. An aura is that which detaches itself from a created object to imbue us with its uncanny and yes, ominous, scandal. Was it ever the same in the epochs of religion? We may well imagine the worshipper, prone in oblation but also prone to disillusion. The oracle might fail, the priest misinterpret, the shaman lose his magic, the church empty itself. This is what the history of tradition teaches us: what is customary is genuinely present only to prepare for its own completion in the advent of the new.
What is novel about ‘the novel’ is of course not as profound a world-historical shift as that which has taken place between religion and art or, for that matter, religion and science, over the previous four centuries, and it can never be so. But what it does suggest, at least to me, having just written the last novel, is that from now on narrative will move along a third axis and no longer be hitched up at merely two poles, the beginning and the end. In this, the story of our species takes a novel turn. It is no longer about origins and destinations, but rather immersions. Only in interactive media does this z-axis come into play. The formula for a novel presents itself as a diagram, with introduction, rising action, climax, and denouement. But interactive narrative thrusts one into an action ongoing, wherein the notion of climax no longer holds, and there is no conclusive conclusion. As such, the new art form of interactive digital media at once supplants the novel and other linear textualities; it transports it into an uncanny space within which living human beings find themselves actors, characters, forces, and all of these in a novel manner.
On a personal note, my latest novel was a failure, but precisely due to it no longer being able to cleave to the tradition of what makes a novel ‘work’. It showed me that as a writer, I was already thinking immersively and interactively and no longer ‘analogically’. Even so, it exists, an almost 700 page document which, fitting to its plot and major heroine, is also a testament to a now lost form and forgotten formula. It is a book without a binding, it is a story without an ending, it is a desire which overcomes itself in both its own grief and ecstasy. Its epigraphs, from Bataille and Goethe respectively, abjure all judgment, mixing good and evil as one marries light and dark. Bataille speaks of yoga and torture creating an ecstasy not merely aesthetic. Goethe speaks of desire and love creating that which must betray our conceptions of both in order to mature in its own way. And just as Jesus was simultaneously the last Hebrew and the first Christian, ‘St. Kirsten’ rests uneasily and ambiguously along the delicate threshold between analog and digital, between imagination and immersion, between action and interaction. Its characters surpass their own traditions and remake themselves anew, alter the narrative from the inside out, in a way only a digital player could do. In this startling movement, we come to understand the presence of the truly novel in the shift from one art form to another. For within ‘St. Kirsten’, one can no longer distinguish between good and evil, light and dark, and most crucially, beginning and ending. It is as if we have been thrown into a world wherein none of these conceptions apply, and it is only with a sudden scandalized shock that we realize that this is, in fact, our own world after all.
G.V. Loewen is the author of over fifty books in ethics, aesthetics, education, social theory and health, and more recently fiction. He was professor of the interdisciplinary human sciences for over two decades.