Post Your Opinion
Global Collision
by Lorrie Clark

The sweeping title of this challenging study of what its author calls "the posthistorical novel" captures the scope of the book as a whole: to interpret and apply the Hegelian thesis of "the end of history" (as adumbrated in particular by Alexander Kojčve in his Introduction to the Reading of Hegel) to a selection of First and Third World novels by Thomas Hardy, Joseph Conrad, Chinua Achebe, and Mario Vargas Llosa. Most simply put, the Hegelian thesis argues that with the French revolution and the Napoleonic wars "the end of history"-the ideal of the liberal democratic state, of universal liberty, equality, and fraternity-has in principle been realized. However many struggles for that ideal are being fought (or are yet to be fought), it is the ideal that has won universal recognition. Less idealistically described, this universal end of history signifies the complete modernization, homogenization, or "globalization" of cultures-the inexorable "progress" of history towards modernity.
In defending and applying this thesis, Michael Valdez Moses faces considerable opposition, not least a "vehement" hostility-which he rightly observes can hardly be overstated-from most contemporary intellectuals. Quite apart from the naive objections ("But of course history hasn't ended-look around us!") so deftly parried by the most sophisticated defender of this thesis after Kojčve, Francis Fukuyama, such critics protest, first of all, against the implicit (however secularized) theocentrism of any notion that history is proceeding toward a discernible telos, and, second, against Hegel's "totalizing" point of view, which swallows up and flattens cultural differences. To the first of these objections, Moses responds that most if not all intellectuals in practice subscribe to a progressive, linear conception of history in so far as they cannot conceive of (or think desirable) a return to "pre-modern" political and other practices: to monarchic or aristocratic government, to slavery, to an abandonment of modern technology, medicine, science, etc. And while they insist on the partial, provisional, limited character of their multiple human points of view-as opposed to the "Olympian detachment" of the Hegelian overview at the end of history-Moses reminds them that this is itself an Hegelian insight, since it is only from the "end", from the holistic point of view, that all others can be recognized as partial. Further, he expresses his own reservations about "the grandiose and Olympian philosophic historicism of Hegel and Kojčve", in so far as they do not focus on "the tragic events that constitute the substance of history". Seen from the perspective of the individual, history is indeed, as Hegel famously observed, a "slaughter-bench": a series of repeated, tragic collisions involving enormous pain and suffering for the participants in its cosmic drama.
The real focus, Moses argues, of the writers his study explores is the intersection of Hegel's theory of history with his theory of tragedy: his brilliantly illuminating observation that tragedy is the conflict not of good with evil (mere melodrama) but of two equal but incompatible ethical "goods". All these writers, he says, recognize (in the least controversial form of the end-of-history thesis) that a "homogenizing worldwide process of modernization becomes irreversible"; all recognize that the fundamental engine of history is the tragic collision of pre-modern and modern ethical systems. And "by dramatizing the violent and destructive process by which...archaic societies are transformed by and incorporated into the modern world [they]...testify to the havoc wreaked upon individual human lives in the name of progress."
The danger of such a single, monolithic interpretive key is that it could yield simple, predictable, and all too similar results. But Moses's readings of individual works are richly complex, various, and (most notably those of Conrad and Vargas Llosa) highly original. His introduction begins with a short reading of Stendhal's The Red & the Black as a work that sets "the problem" for the posthistorical novel: if history has ended-as indeed it has for this newly post-Napoleonic hero, Julien Sorel-then the possibility of tragic action, the engine of history, has ended as well. Faced with "the artificiality and inauthenticity of his posthistorical existence", Julien realizes that he can only imitate, rhetorically and theatrically, the grand heroic and political actions no longer available to him. In getting himself sentenced to die, Julien commits a kind of suicide that Moses (following Kojčve) describes as "the gratuitous suicide of posthistorical man, an act of snobbery by which Julien demonstrates his superiority to his fellow bourgeois." Such an act, while not tragic, poignantly articulates another of Moses's themes: far from achieving universal happiness, "the triumph of modernity leaves certain human types, perhaps even the most interesting types, profoundly dissatisfied."
The four novelists Moses explores all attempt with varying degrees of success to write posthistorical novels which are at the same time posthistorical tragedies-an apparent contradiction in terms. They do so by positing an anachronistic place out of modern time, which seems to offer the possibility of an escape from modernity but invariably comes into conflict with it: Hardy's Casterbridge, "a remote corner of Victorian England, whose pre-modern features seemed to offer the sort of dramatic possibilities that the advent of modernity had foreclosed"; Lord Jim's Patusan, a remote settlement in the Malay archipelago; Achebe's Igboland in Things Fall Apart; and Vargas Llosa's Canudos, the nineteenth-century Brazilian backwater in The War at the End of the World.
Much of the interest of Moses's readings derives from his bold critical evaluations of the novels' successes and failures, evaluations argued both on thematic and on aesthetic or formal grounds. He shows, for instance, how Hardy builds up the thickly layered archaeological texture of Casterbridge, for instance, to contribute to Henchard's supposedly pre-modern character; how he tries to give Casterbridge the character of the ancient polis; and how he adds a "patina" of Greek tragic effects and allusions. Moses also points out the often-noted lack of any causal relation between the disasters that befall Henchard in his private and in his public life. All these artistic "sleights-of-hand", according to Moses's argument, fail to disguise Henchard's fundamentally modern bourgeois character, which prevents his clash with his distinctly modern, progressive business partner and rival, Farfrae, from constituting a truly tragic conflict of the old and the new.
Conversely, the supposedly flawed bipartite formal structure of Lord Jim-which Moses uniquely characterizes as belonging to three distinct genres: the modern bourgeois novel (in the Patna episode), epic (or heroic) romance (in the brief idyll in Patusan), and finally tragedy (when the idyll is shattered)-succeeds in elevating Jim to truly tragic stature. His iconoclastic reading of the novel as a "kind of posthistorical recapitulation of outmoded literary genres" is directly at odds with received critical opinion. Most critics attend almost exclusively to Jim's "cowardly" behaviour on the Patna, dismissing Jim as a sham and the Patusan section of the novel as "wish-fulfilling imperialist fantasy". But Moses brilliantly argues that the Patna episode, like Stendhal's The Red & the Black, dramatizes the paralysis of posthistorical man; that Patusan offers Jim the opportunity to combine the best of modern and pre-modern regimes, which he temporarily achieves (in a heroic romance); but that, unable to sustain what is finally an irreconcilable conflict of competing goods, he and his adopted people end in tragedy. In the Patusan sections, Moses says, Conrad anticipates the postcolonial novel, in which the Europeanized elites of newly independent nations attempt to modernize their traditional societies; and he offers historical evidence that Conrad knew of just such elites in northeastern Borneo.
Attention to genre-in this case, Hegel's distinction between classical, "objective" tragedy and modern, "subjective" tragedy-similarly informs the readings of two books by Chinua Achebe. In Things Fall Apart, we see how Christianity serves as "a prototype of Western rationalization and the vehicle of political democratization" versus traditional Igbo ways of life. And in No Longer at Ease, we see how what Achebe calls the "clear and momentous confrontations" give way to a "succession of messy, debilitating clashes"-a reversal of the generic modulations in Lord Jim.
As for The War of the End of the World, Moses argues that by focusing on a unique moment in Brazilian history, Vargas Llosa writes "an antihistoricist historical novel", which lets him compare different simultaneously existing pre-modern and modern political alternatives to the liberal democratic reforms Vargas Llosa himself espouses: a centuries-old feudal and aristocratic order; a theocracy; and (these are the modern alternatives) authoritarian dictatorship and utopian socialism. "The extraordinary range of Vargas Llosa's epic novel thus provides a synoptic account of the rise and spread of modernity and a panoramic view of the political alternatives to liberal democratic society." At his most compelling, Moses argues that Vargas Llosa's modernist techniques-his thoroughgoing perspectivism, and the "strangely inconclusive" and insubstantial character of the anonymous journalist who seems to represent the author's liberal democratic sympathies-serve as "the structural embodiment of the political principles of democratic pluralism". Other characters in the novel self-destruct precisely because they are passionate and charismatic ideologues. By contrast, Vargas Llosa deliberately presents the journalist as a neutral, liberal reformist whose dispassionate, formalized stance allows the anti-liberal perspectives to cancel one another out.
This is an exemplary book of literary criticism: comprehensive yet suggestive far beyond its scope, combining aesthetic, philosophical, and genuinely politically informed-as opposed to politicizing-criticism. The author presents reasoned disagreements with the received wisdom of self-described anti-Hegelians (including, remarkably, Achebe and Vargas Llosa themselves), with anti-foundationalists such as Stanley Fish and Richard Rorty, and with those who see Conrad as an apologist for Western imperialism. These refutations are a good example of a return to reason, such as Moses calls for at the end of this book. It is time, he says, to overcome the irrational and divisive "cultural Manichaeanism" which insists on seeing the world in terms of "the West and its Other"; it is time to recognize that "modernity is not merely a transient or provincial Western phenomenon, but instead has become the universal and perhaps permanent condition of humanity." As such, it is "the inevitable subject of any literature that would represent contemporary existence."

Lorrie Clark is associate professor of English at Trent University and the author of Blake, Kierkegaard, & the Spectre of Dialectic (Cambridge University Press, 1991).


Home First Novel Award Past Winners Subscription Back Issues Timescroll Advertizing Rates
Amazon.ca/Books in Canada Bestsellers List Books in Issue Books in Department About Us