You are on page 1of 4

Matrices of the Modernist Time in the Western Discourses on the Novel and The Mahabharata Arnab Bhattacharya

Time is a recurrent motif in the Western discourses on the novel, especially those written in the early half of the 20 th century. Here I am not talking about the narrativised time of the novel as against the span of time in real life in which the events portrayed are supposed to have taken place. This is the topic dealt with in Mikhail Bakhtins idea of the chronotope (1) and books on narratology like Gerard Genettes The Narrative Discourse. The time that concerns me in this paper is the one in which the novel came into being and started developing by leaps and bounds. The discourses I will consider here are the ones which explore the ontological dimensions of the novelistic time as part of a contrastive design pitting it against the epical time and the time of the ancient storytelling, highlighting features specific to the novel as expressions of the time it embodies. The three representative early 20th century discourses which I have selected for discussion here are Georg Lukcs The Theory of the Novel, written as a draft in the summer of 1914 and was revised into its final version in the winter of 1914-15, Mikhail Bakhtins article Epic and Novel in his book Dialogic Imagination, and Walter Benjamins article The Storyteller in his book Illuminations. My aim will be to show how all these three discourses in their very specific conceptualizations of modernist novelistic time and premodernist epical/storytelling time are found wanting in explaining the dissipative and, in many ways non-conjugated time, which are usually conceived as characterising the modernist narrative like the novel, which inheres in and collaterally exists with the premodernist time of the Indian epic The Mahabharata.

The Theme of Immanence of life inLukcs The Theory of the Novel Lucacs The Epic and the Novel begins with a strong note on the historio-philosophiocal distinction between epic writing and novel writing. InLukcs words:

the epic and the novel, these two major forms of great epic literature, differ from one another not by their authors fundamental intentions but by the given historico-philosophical realities with which the authors were confronted. The novel is the epic of an age in which the extensive totality of life is no longer directly given, in which the immanence of meaning in life has become a problem, yet which still thinks in terms of totality. It would be superficiala matter of a mere artistic technicalityto look for the only and decisive genre-defining criterion in the question of whether a work is written in verse or prose. (2)

It is thus not a question of form which differentiates the epic from the novel, rather the realities in which these genres were nurtured in two different ages, and the philosophies which informed them which, according to Lukcs, were the motive forces behind the development of their distinguishing features. It is, however, not immediately obvious what point Lukcs is driving at when he uses the phrases immanence of meaning and extensive totality. He certainly cannot mean lack of fissiparous elements in the epic society, because these were superabundant in epical texts for which no scholastic insight is needed. It probably indicates a self-sufficiency, not obviously in economic terms (for that would be a ludicrously nave analysis), but in a cosmic sense which was reflected in the epic characters interpreted the world and internalized the spirit of the time. This perception engendered a sense of totality which the individual characters did not conceive themselves as fragments of, but embodying it in their personas. It is a sense which is there in the epic as a given form which the epic action sprang, and the epic

characters derived their motivation, courage and strength. There is no questioning it, no doubting it, nor even a quest for it. Lukcs elucidates a little later in that article:
The epic gives form to a totality of life that is rounded from within; the novel seeks, by giving form, to uncover and construct the concealed totality of life. The given structure of the object (i.e. the search, which is only a way of expressing the subjects recognition that neither objective life nor its relationship to the subject is spontaneously harmonious in itself) supplies an indication of the form-giving intention. Thus the fundamental formdetermining intention of the novel is objectivised as the psychology of the novels heroes: they are seekers. (3)

Thus for Lukcs the novelistic time is a struggle for finding a totality which is now no longer given, nor rounded from within, but concealed, in need either to be uncovered or constructed. The search is a kind of manifestation of Heideggerian homesickness towards a wholeness. As Heidegger explains,
What is all this, taken together: world, finitude, individuation?