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Novels and the Sociology of the Contemporary

Novels and the Sociology of the Contemporary. Arpad Szakolczai. Abingdon, Oxon and New York: Routledge, 2016.


Arpad Szakolczai is Professor of Sociology at University College Cork, and the first book’s subtitle is The Sociology of the Contemporary (hereafter NS) while the second occurs within a Contemporary Liminality Series. Still, all of Szakolczai’s work seems to effortlessly go beyond what’s conventionally regarded as sociology, since his “liminality” can encompass both closure and openness to transcendent reality.

While reading NS I was also working through Svetlana Alexievich’s Secondhand Time: The Last of the Soviets, subtitled by the publisher “an oral history.” I think it might better be understood as an interview-epic, where the epos covered is the non-violent revolution that ended the USSR, in its various spasms during the Gorbachev, Yeltsin and Putin periods (definitely qualifying for what Szakolczai would regard as “liminal,” experiences of massive change at a cultural level). In her 2015 Nobel Speech she said: “Flaubert called himself a human pen; I would say that I am a human ear.”

In these closely related studies, Szakolczai may surely be called “a human seismograph,” (a word we’ll see later applied to Vienna) for his capacity for detecting the fault lines and the shifting of the spiritual tectonic plates in Western culture from the mid 1500s to the mid-20th century—though earlier volumes in his ongoing project start long before the 1500s. Referring to his earlier works on “a sociology of the Renaissance”—Comedy and the Public Sphere and Sociology, Religion and Grace—he’s fully aware of other factors contributing to modernity: “the rise of the absolutist state and its disciplinary network, the court society, the ‘Protestant ethic’ and Puritanism, discussed extensively by genealogists of modernity like Max Weber, Michel Foucault, Norbert Elias or Eric Voegelin.” But Szakolczai highlights the influence of theater in this development (NS, ix), noting that “[t]his book, instead of using the technique of sociology to analyze novels, will treat novels as a ‘royal road’ to analyze a theatricalized reality in order to help find our way back to a genuine and meaningful life” (NS, x).


In his programmatic Introduction, Szakolczai sees the two books that founded the genre of the modern novel, Rabelais’ Gargantua and Pantagruel and Cervantes’ Don Quixote as instruments and diagnostic tools “of the problematization of reality that emerged as a central feature in the rise of the modern world” (NS, 1). He lists the three methodological orientations for his study: Firstly, in he’s “the footsteps of Nietzsche and Foucault, as well as Max Weber, who followed the spirit of Nietzschean genealogy, and those who followed the spirit of Weberian comparative historical research, like Norbert Elias, Franz Borkenau or Eric Voegelin.” Secondly, applying the “concepts developed in political anthropology” by, for example, van Gennep, Victor Turner, Kerényi, Girard and Mauss, such as liminality, trickster, schismogenesis, and so on. He notes that “the listed anthropological concepts became increasingly interwoven with the ideas of Plato’s philosophical anthropology . . .” Thirdly, his guides were “major contemporary thinkers who realized the centrality of novels as instruments for understanding the modern world . . . like Michael Foucault an Eric Voegelin” (NS, 2). René Girard and Mikhail Bakhtin are also included here.

A key notion throughout NS is set forth in the introduction, where Szakolczai outlines ‘The Sequential Structure of the Book”:

“The two central ideas of the book imply a clear sequential structure. According to this, reality must first be theatricalised, and then novels could come to analyse this ‘theatricalised’ reality . . . the book roughly follows such a chronological order as, from Don Quixote through Goethe up to Dickens and Dostoevsky it shows how the main modern novels present an increasingly theatricalised world” (NS, 7).

Since I’m sure Szakolczai’s earlier works explain more fully what this theatricalization means, my impression from NS is that it corresponds to Plato’s diagnosis of the reigning doxic or Sophistic unreality posing as reality in the Athens of his time—with the obvious difference that Western modernity’s unreality is its denial or suppression of the West’s roots in classic philosophy and Judeo-Christian revelation.

Part I of NS is headed “The Triple Origins of the Modern Novel,” and covers ‘The Don Quixote Chronotype,’ The Rabelais Chronotype,’ and ‘The English Chronotype’—where he explains Bakthin’s notion of chronotype as ‘a condensed combination of spatial and temporal liminality” (NS, 61n1). The notion of liminality was developed by Arnold van Gennep in his Rites of Passage, referring to the moment of transition undergone by participants in various rituals in archaic societies.

Victor Turner applied it to a much wider range within cultural anthropology, while in these studies Szakolczai generalizes it to apply to various instances of the massive cultural confusion engendered by a modernity turning its back on the classic philosophical and revelational roots of pre-modern Western society. Many but not all of the authors he’s studied experience this as a negative withdrawal or loss of those foundational experiences, while others, such as Diderot, Szakolczai diagnoses as contributing to it.

All I can convey here is a flavour of Szakolczai’s rich interpretation of the key novelists of NS—Cervantes, Goethe, Dickens and Dostoevsky.

Cervantes’ Don Quixote

For example, during his appreciative discussion of Unamuno’s reading of Don Quixote, he writes:

“[Unamuno’s] reading . . . seems evidently anachronistic—his reading of Don Quixote as a par excellence anti-modern work…Cervantes, just as Shakespeare, was living through a crucial liminal moment in the birth of the modern world and at its central places. . . . Furthermore, Unamuno was quite right to argue that Don Quixote forecast the nightmare of modern ‘rationalism’ . . . Don Quixote anticipated and forecast the absurd, even mad features of the modern world; this is the reason for the permanent play between his sane and mad conduct. Modernity for Unamuno does not represent the victory of reason in a Platonic sense but, rather, in a ‘collective delirium,’ based on the paradox that if a madness becomes collectively shared, it ceases to be a madness and becomes a social and popular phenomenon” (NS, 26).

Goethe’s Faust

There are many parallels between Szakolczai’s and Voegelin’s discussion of Don Quixote in Chapter 7 of Hitler and the Germans. I’ll move on to a few of Szakolczai’s comments on Goethe’s Faust, again diagnosing the inner fall of modern Western culture at one of its central nodes:

“The theme of the Faust, since the first versions of the legend, is knowledge . . . a tremendous, insatiable, limitless will for knowledge. Thus, knowledge is not simply its theme but also its problem, a problem that has thus been perceived way before such will to knowledge became central theme to Nietzsche’s and Foucault’s genealogy . . . will to knowledge and theatricalisation are close neighbours. This is visible in the closeness of sophistic rhetoric and theatrical play-acting . . . Yet, asserting their own reality and centrality, the world, life and nature take their revenge on knowledge and its “pure” practitioners….While Faust is usually identified with Prometheus, and the first version of the play grew out of the Prometheus fragment, in the final version it is Mephistopheles who assumes Promethean features . . .” (NS, 196–97).

Goethe not only identifies Mephistopheles with the Promethean position, but makes him “a par excellence modernist, always searching for the new, so that in the theatrical shows of the Walpurgisnacht . . . every night seven new plays are offered” (NS, 197). However, Szakolczai notes how in Faust II Goethe recovers the culturally forgotten sources of Western culture. Faust has been tied to false beliefs of modernity, and “fully accepted the contract he had made and was expecting to be damned.” Yet, he is saved, “above and beyond his expectations . . . while the modality of his hopes were false, at his heart he was still Christian . . . ” (NS, 212). Goethe didn’t want his last word, in Faust II, published in his lifetime, where in its last pages he spells out three beings which underlie his hope for the future of European civilization.

Szakolczai notes that:

“this force of Hope” is carried firstly “by the angels, winged beings . . . similar to Hermes . . . capable of pulling tricks for the good, thus stealing the soul of Faust . . . The second is the Virgin Mother, Mary Queen of Heaven, who dominates the end of Faust II . . . Goethe’s figure of Mary is Catholic, going against the context of the religion in which he was socialised in childhood. Thus, paradoxically, it is both orthodox and anti-establishment” (NS, 212–13).

Szakolczai concludes his chapter on “Promethean Modernity in Faust” by remarking that:

“The third figure is the great absentee for Goethe . . . Insofar as the force animating Hope is concerned, the solution is so simple it hardly needs to be stated: it is Divine Love, the Love that ruled the creation of the world and that evidently animates every living being—an evidence revealed through the beauty of the world in which we live, and which is offered as a gift” (NS, 213).

For Szakolczai, Goethe overturned the Promethean revolt against the order of the world which through the:

“technological products and the skills of modern ‘men of knowledge’ . . . uses all the available means of artistic persuasion to lull human beings into the belief that nothing exists beyond artificial technological constructs . . . This is a false hope of a Golden Age; the true hope lies through a return to beauty, a recognition of the animating force of love” (NS, 213).

I’ll now move on to say a few words about Szakolczai’s final chapters, in “Part IV: Beneath and Beyond Romantic Enlightenment,” where he discusses works of Dickens and Dostoevsky. His Dickens chapter is subtitled “Retrieving the Reasons of the Heart,” and I’ll focus on his treatment of just one of the novels here.

Dickens’ Tale of Two Cities

He comments on the famous opening lines of A Tale of Two Cities [hereafter TTC: Szakolczai is using the Wordsworth edition, Ware, 1999], “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times . . . we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way” that this was:

“an assessment whose validity, as he immediately hinted at, but could not yet fully know, extends way beyond the late 18th or 19th century. As the unfolding of the novel demonstrates, the promises that were present before and around the outbreak of revolution would soon be betrayed, giving place instead to despair . . . ‘You talk of desperation. We are all desperate here’ (TTC: 262) . . . The result, as Dickens already recognised in the very middle of the 19th century, is that we are increasingly living in a ‘mad world’” (David Copperfield: 176).

Very like Voegelin’s own critique of the law in chapter six of Hitler and the Germans, Szakolczai highlights Dickens’ treatment of the law—when, set loose from moral considerations it becomes a lethal proceduralism:

“A Tale of Two Cities is particularly significant concerning Dickens’s understanding of the workings, or rather machinations, of the law. The excesses of revolutionary tribunals, in revolutionary France just as in Bolshevik Russia, are usually considered as arguments in support of the ‘state of the law.’ This is not Dickens’s position, as he rather perceives that nothing is easier than to pass a new, and even particularly vicious law, fully in conformity with formal legal procedure—especially if it has the justification of the ‘interest of the people’ behind it” (TTC: 214) (NS, 266–67).

Szakolczai comments on how the newly developed language of seismology was used to express the cultural earthquake unleased by the French revolution (TTC: 152, 199). During this cataclysm, the people “changed into wild beasts, by terrible enchantment long persisted in.” “These metaphors, especially the earthquake . . . do not simply allude to liminality, but of a particular kind, the experience of a world turning upside down . . . ” (NS, 281). Szakolczai finds “the metaphors of the theatre and of the world turned upside down . . . explicitly used by Dickens” (TTC: 88–90, 218), where the references are: “closely connected by the word unreality, invested with strikingly powerful adjectives (“leprosy of unreality” in the first case, “crowning unreality” in the second). But perhaps the most “crowning unreality” of revolutionary France was what seemed most real in it:

“the massacres produced by the spirit of vengeance put into practice . . . People who previously were made to suffer now gratuitously made others suffer, as if that would represent justice, justifying their action by a very particular and highly significant expression: if the ‘people’ demand it, ‘sacrifice’ must be made . . . ” (NS, 281).

There’s a highly perspicuous diagnosis of a temporary switch from unreality to reality, with the prevailing unreality is once again restored, in Dickens’s treatment of the “revolutionary tribunal’s” trial of Darnay, when, as Szakolczai puts it, “a grain of sand got into the machinery”: “Dr Manette, himself a Bastille victim and respected by the revolutionaries, testified for the accused. As if waking from a bad dream, members of the tribunal regained their humanity, became filled with genuine feelings and unanimously absolved the accused” (NS, 282). However, the revenge-filled Defarges get Darnay retried, and with the discovery of an earlier writing of Manette, before his conversion in the Bastille, calling for death to all representatives of the ancient regime, “revolutionary madness was restored and the tribunal now unanimously voted the death sentence” (NS, 282).

Szakolczai links the book’s title to St Augustine’s two cities, of man and of God, confirming “an intimate connection between Dickens and Pascal” and with Augustine, to “the Platonic rather than Aristotelian, scholastic-Byzantine Christianity” (NS, 287–88). He says A Tale of Two Cities as ‘the crowning achievement and corollary of Dickens’s work,’ and notes the radical contrast between life in the city of man and the city of God:

“A crucial, arguably central understanding of the book, carrying the narrative and the message in book III, is a striking contrast offered between two phrases, each of which is striking in itself—and each offering a contrast. The first part is ‘Liberty, Equality, Fraternity or Death,’ while the second is ‘I am the resurrection and the life.’ The former starts with the three famous guiding principles of the revolution, each a major liminal value—but here not revered as values animating modern politics and promoting human rights, but as ways of death . . . The second statement is a very prominent quote from the Gospel of John (11:25), (self-)identifying Jesus as the resurrection (anastasis), thus divine, but also as life (zoé), thus this-worldly. This second part of the contrast is thus resolved in—superhuman—harmony” (NS, 288–89).

Dostoevsky’s Devils

The subtitle for Szakolczai’s chapter on Dostoevsky is “Standing Up Again after the Demonic Splits of Reason,” and I’ll focus here on what he has to say about The Devils along with a few words on The Brothers Karamazov. He sees The Devils as “devoted to the genealogy of modern nihilism, the resurgence of ‘absolute evil’ at the inner core of modernity, just when liberal and other revolutionaries expected the unlimited blossoming of progress” (NS, 320). That genealogy can be traced wending its wicked way through Stepan Trofimovich Verkhovensky, his son Pyotr Stepanovich, and Stepan’s stepson, Stavrogin.

While Szakolczai, following Italian literary critic Pietro Citati, links Dostoevsky’s novels to Plato’s dialogues (see NS, 311), he could have found ample support in the Gorgias (with its sequence of increasing evil from Gorgias through Polus to Callicles) and in the Republic (Cephalus, Polemarchus, Thrasymachus). Szakolczai’s commentary chimes in with the contemporary delirium of opponents of President Trump’s election, along with the professional grievance-mongers and aptly called “snowflakes” who infest public life in our time:

“Stepan Trofimovich not simply mimes the bourgeois, but mimes the bourgeois revolutionary: miming the mime. The most important characteristic of this schismatic mode of existence is that it wants to be chased, harassed and persecuted . . . Permanently in a paranoid state, pretending to be a ‘persecuted man’ and ‘exile,’ he reacted to the slightest remark that could be taken as an offense by blowing his top…Yet, at the same time, he knows in his heart that he is only a mime, a clown . . . ” (NS, 312–13).

Unfortunately, due to Stepan’s position as a father figure, Szakolczai notes, “it is not surprising that the next generation ‘educated’ by him . . . only further exaggerates these features” (NS, 313). His son Pyotr, “modelled on Sergey Nechayev, the revolutionary anarchist,’ occupies ‘a crucial stage in [Dostoevsky’s] genealogy of nihilism and absolute evil” (NS, 313). While his father was “an authentic buffoon,” Pyotr is much more aware of how that buffoonery can by utilized:

“that in a modern state the revolution is a theatrical spectacle; and that the derisory wind of the speeches, if it is directed by an able manager, is stronger than the states, the armies, the bureaucracy and the churches. In this way he managed ‘to spread for some time in the small provincial city hatred, sacrilege, impiety, corruption, slander, scandal and destruction,’ through the perfect incarnation of the demonic spirit of parody” (NS, 314–15).

Still, though Pyotr is “the mastermind of the revolutionary plot” (NS, 315), it’s his “double” and step-brother, Stavrogin, who exemplifies (I’m sure Becket would say outworsts) the others in The Devils. If we draw on Plato’s understanding in his Symposium of the human condition as in-between divinity and mortality (where Plato’s in-between is an anticipation of Szakolczai’s notion of liminality), we’ll find many of Dostoevsky’s characters (Golyadkin in The Double, the Underground Man in Notes from Underground. Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment) diagnosed as unable to cope with that in-between status. Instead they aim at infinity, and when naturally they fail to reach their exaggerated goal, they fall into an exaggerated zero state instead. So Szakolczai’s understanding of Stavrogin is of this oscillation within an unreality he has already drawn on Voegelin to articulate.

Writing of Golyadkin he notes that the appearance of his exact copy literally represents the appearance of a “second reality”:

“. . . The term second reality was introduced into social theory by Eric Voegelin, based on 20th century Austrian novels, in particular The Demons by Heimito von Doderer, explicitly modelled on Dostoevsky’s novel. Amazingly, the appearance of the double immediately helps to bring in the second key concept developed by Doderer and taken up by Voegelin, Apperzeptionsverweigerung, or the failure to perceive reality as it is—a failure that identifies those living in a ‘second reality’ as sleepwalkers . . .” (NS, 299).

The nihilism Dostoevsky is diagnosing is not a merely theoretical, but an existential nihilism, so that Stavrogin’s own personal nothingness effectively destroys most of those who come in touch with him, till he eventually commits suicide himself. Szakolczai writes, in answer to his question how a person can have no genuine aims in life:

“this happens if a person ignores boundaries and limits. Our modern world with all its might suggests . . . that there should be no limits to the satisfaction of our deepest desires; all taboos are to be destroyed . . . Dostoevsky knew . . . that the opposite is true: unlimited desires are identical to no real desires. This is due to the basic truth of spiritual mathematics, where infinity and zero are identical, meeting in the void . . . , Stavrogin circles around and is imprisoned into the web of closely connected demonic numbers, infinity and zero” (NS, 318).

However, as in Crime and Punishment and the later Brothers Karamazov, Dostoevsky is himself no artist of the absurd, and eventually Stepan Trofimovich has a kind of conversion, surely pointing towards Dostoevsky’s hopes that the Russian intelligentsia would turn away from the terrible fate Russia’s 20th century versions of Pyotr and Stavrogin would lead to. He’s fled the town without any plan or destination, and having met a simple bible-seller, he carried a copy of the Gospel, a book he did not have in his hands for at least three decades, which gave him the idea to use his free time to “mend the errors of the Gospel.”

The result, however, turned out to be the opposite. He rethought the life he was leading, offering a chance companion the confession that he “lied throughout his entire life, even when he told the truth.” The core of this lie was the divinisation of humankind, just what he managed to instill in the younger generation, especially his ‘sons,’ with disastrous results. His conversion recalls Nietzsche’s Zarathustra: a misconception must be eliminated by returning to its roots (NS, 320).

Szakolczai’s interpretation of The Brothers Karamazov outlines how Dostoevsky comes to a similar resolution to the nightmare Ivan Karamazov’s Grand Inquisitor accurately prophesied for what became Soviet Russia. As at the end of Crime and Punishment. Dostoevsky’s last major work ends with the theme of Resurrection and genuine education (that “preservation of the memory of a loved one . . . offers the best possible education”). So Karamazov’s conclusion offers “a thorough and most significant refusal of the very heart of the Enlightenment” (NS, 330):

“This, on the last pages of his last book, Dostoevsky adds a communal dimension to ‘Resurrection,’ which becomes not simply a way of bringing back to life a dead person but, at the same time, a way to revitalise community. In this way the individual and communal dimensions of Resurrection become inseparable, a way not only to heal death but separation itself” (NS, 331).

In his “Conclusion,” Szakolczai remarks on the similarity between Goethe, Dickens and Dostoevsky, “helped by the times in which they were living—after the Enlightenment and the French Revolution but before the radical and absurd disasters of the 20th century: the World Wars and the ‘revolutions,’ genocides and totalitarian regimes they engendered”:

“Their basic common stance was a rejection of the false promises of the Enlightenment and the Revolution, thus modernity . . . their concern was a renewal and a restoration of the central values of European culture, which . . . could be characterised as the never realised—but much attempted: see Augustine, Bonaventure and Rabelais—harmony of Plato and the Gospels” (NS, 334).

And his final remark notes how, since the First World War “we entered a new stage of permanent liminality . . . constituting the sacrificial carnival that is increasingly our daily reality.” For Szakolczai this is “the central theme of the great novels of the 20th century, from Franz Kafka and Thomas Mann through Hermann Broch and Heimito von Doderer up to Mikhail Bulgakov and Béla Hamvas” (NS, 335), which is the theme of Szakolczai’s next book. For this reviewer, Szakolczai’s “permanent liminality” seems to refer to a state where, in the modern period, human beings’ orientation towards a transcendent fulfilment is trapped through misdirection in a world-immanent state—in Catholic language, something like a permanent this-worldly purgatory without catharsis.

Brendan PurcellBrendan Purcell

Brendan Purcell

Brendan Purcell is a Board Member of VoegelinView and an Adjunct Professor in Philosophy at Notre Dame University in Sydney. He is author of several books, including From Big Bang to Big Mystery: Human Origins in the Light of Creation and Evolution (New City, 2012).

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