Interiority Combustion Engine


by Ed Simon

And I’m writing a novel / because its never been done before.
—Father John Misty

Ann Radcliffe’s 1794 best-selling novel The Mysteries of Udolpho, containing as it does all of the stereotypical accoutrement of its gothic genre, from perfidious Italian counts to dark castles, also has a scene which indicates the very means by which the book may have found itself commonly read among an enthused 18th century audience. Radcliffe’s virtuous and noble protagonist Emily St. Aubert reflects on how her suitor Valancourt would often read aloud to her from dog-eared books, the author writing that the character “sat and worked, while he conversed or read; and she now well remembered… he used to repeat some of the sublimest passages of their favourite authors; how often he would pause to admire with her their excellence, and with what tender delight he would listen to her remarks.” For Emily and Valancourt, reading is a social activity which happens between companions, not simply a static, locked-away silence happening between covers.

At times in The Mysteries of Udolpho Emily found herself in domestic situations not dissimilar to that of her literary forerunner, the titular character of Samuel Richardson’s 1740 Pamela; or, Virtue Rewarded. Both Emily and Pamela are ingenues pursued by worldly men, both are figured as exemplars of feminine virtue, and as the former thrilled at being read aloud to, millions of readers thrilled at reading the story of the later aloud. The 19th century British astronomer and botanist Sir John Herschel recounted that he’d been told by an inhabitant of Windsor that in 1777 the village blacksmith had “got hold of Richardson’s novel… and used to read it aloud in the long summer evenings, seated on his anvil, and never failed to have a large and attentive audience.”

Scholar Abigail Williams in The Social Life of Books: Reading Together in the Eighteenth-Century Home explains how “People shared their literature in very different ways: reading books together as a sedative, a performance, an accompaniment to handiwork, a means of whiling away a journey or a long dark evening.” The rise of the vernacular, the proliferation of printed books, and the development of more portables ones are all causes of increased individual reading, but while in the 18th century “Reading could be about isolation and retreat,” it could also still be about “the foundation of sociable interaction.” Emily and Valancourt read not just to learn or be entertained, or to meditate and reflect, but rather as something shared audibly and publicly. What must be understood is that such a scene is not Radcliffe’s affectation, but rather reportage on how novels were often consumed.

The Mysteries of Udolpho is a youthful example of the “English Novel,” predated by Daniel Defoe’s 1719 Robinson Crusoe, or Aphra Behn’s 1688 Oroonoko, or even earlier curios such as William Baldwin’s bizarre 1561 Beware the Cat (with of course even earlier continental antecedents). But in England, Richardson’s Pamela marks the moment when the very literary form became a genuine writerly possibility and not just an experimental mutation of older romances. That door-stopper of an epistolary, which for the contemporary reader comes across as exemplifying the dry, slow, boring 18th century affectation of synthesizing Puritan scolding with the poor-man’s version of titillation (despite Richardson’s objective talents), was phenomenally successful when it was serially released.

Pamela is the sort of book with prose best described as purple, where characters can declare that they will “bear any thing you can inflict upon me with Patience, even to the laying down of my Life, to shew my Obedience to you in other Cases; but I cannot be patient, I cannot be passive, when my Virtue is at Stake!” Richardson’s prose is a cacophony of exclamation and anaphora. Such language (and narrative) lends itself to a certain sociability, and as urbane 21st century television viewers organized watch-parties for the finales of Breaking Bad and Mad Men (our most novelistic of television entertainments), so too did Richardson’s readers approach Pamela in a spirit of neighborly communion. Herschel explained that during happy scenes of Pamela, its reader’s audience was “so delighted as to raise a great shout, and procuring the church keys, actually set the parish bells ringing.” We may think of reading novels as exercises in isolation, where either the site of study must be quiet and singular, or where the psychological space of imagination is within our mind’s interior, but in the 18th century the novel was often as social as ancient Greek drama or a modern Hollywood movie.

Novels had of course been written before; there is a tired literary critical parlor game of identifying what protracted narrative of prose fiction is “novelish” enough to qualify as the first, be it Miguel de Cervantes’ 1605 Don Quixote, Murasaki Shikibu’s 11th century The Tale of Genji, or Apuleius’ 2nd century The Golden Ass. What’s clear is that the Whig historiography that classifies the novel as a firmly early modern invention is woefully inadequate, as Steven Moore writes in his brilliant The Novel: An Alternative History, Beginnings to 1600. Most earlier examples of the form, Moore writes, “have been the victims of antiquated nomenclature.” Moore provides ample evidence for hundreds, arguably thousands, of texts that are centuries if not millennia older than Cervantes and which could be credibly called “novels.”

Yet propriety must force us to admit that it was in the 17th and 18th centuries that the mode moved from the periphery to the center, forever supplanting the epic poem as the most exulted type of “serious literature.” Helpful here to keep in mind Raymond Williams’ terminology introduced in Marxism and Literature, where the critic explicated the difference between the culturally “dominant, residual, and emergent.” Moore’s examples of Akkadian or Latin prose aside, the novel as literary form was emergent for a very long time and has been dominant for a few comparatively short centuries, and in the 21st century we’re living in its long decline. All of these matters have certain implications, ones which are personal, social, economic, psychological, and even metaphysical and theological

Because if the reading of novels was social in the era that Williams describes, such an activity is substantially less so in the 21st century. Today, the public reading of literature remains that of dramatic performance. Novels are barely read aloud at all, certainly not in their entirety, with the exception of audiobooks, where the discerning listener can encounter Nick Offerman giving a manly take on Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, or Alan Cumming narrating Bram Stoker’s Dracula in his urbane, Scottish brogue. Audiobooks may be the descendants of Windsor’s Richardson-loving blacksmith, but they lack in the aleatory, participatory element embodied by those earlier performances.

Reading novels aloud is different when experienced through your iPhone rather than in a village square, with contemporary live recitations limited to excerpts as read by the author (where the audience is normally on their phone engaged with a different form of social communion), or the performance of books to children. Despite some attempts to revive the lost art of reading novels aloud, such as the New Bedford Whaling Museum’s annual marathon for Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick or Harvard’s Houghton Library with its marathon of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein this past Halloween in honor of that book’s 200th anniversary, novels in the 21st century are either experienced in the static confines of the audio-book, or in that isolating room from which the form has most thrived – that of the individual head.

Public reading in past centuries had several materials causes, from the relative rarity and expense of books, to higher rates of illiteracy, and even the need to preserve the candles by which books were to be read. Williams’ study emphasizes that the transition from an oral to a literate culture was not seamless, and while we’d do well to remember that the novel’s ascendance doesn’t clearly demark a fluid motion from one age to the next, there is still much truth in acknowledging the conventional perspective which sees the novel’s reign as marking a new individualism, a new singularity, a new isolation, a new privacy, and a new interiority. That final concept, related as it is to all of those which I listed before it, goes not uncontested. “Interiority” is perhaps a wooly theoretical term, one of those phrases bandied about in graduate seminars with more conviction than definition, and yet it still offers us a helpful way to parse what makes the novel, well, novel. Generally, the word is used to mean some nebulous “inwardness” in the mimetic depiction of the characters, the sense that when we read about Madame Bovary or David Copperfield that these are beings which in some mysterious way display an inner life, a subjectivity, a consciousness.

Sometimes it’s taken as a critical truism that the novel is the preeminent means of representing personal consciousness, that where the static surface representations of epic poetry and pre-modern drama display human beings as broad types, it’s only with these novel engines of interiority that literature becomes truly capable of displaying individual subjectivity in all of its complexity. Homer’s Achilles, in short, seems much less real than Jane Austen’s Emma. Eric Auerbach writes in Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature that the “basic impulse of the Homeric style…[is] to represent phenomena in a fully externalized form, visible and palpable in all their parts.”

Reading The Iliad and The Odyssey, or Virgil’s Aeneid for that matter, leads one to observe that regarding psychology “nothing must remain hidden and unexpressed,” as the editors of N+1 write. By way of contrast, they argue that the “novel is unexcelled at one thing only: the creation of interiority, or inwardness… No better instrument than prose fiction was ever developed” for that purpose. Moore’s correction of the record concerning the genealogy of the form may be an important one, but even if novels (of a type) have been written into deep antiquity, they didn’t become omnipresent until relatively recently, and there are certain conclusions that must be teased out concerning interiority, especially as the novel perhaps once again retreats to the margins.

Interpreted in one way, we could see the public reading depicted in Radcliffe and Richardson as a residual holdover from performative literature, the early modern public not yet fully congruent with the interiority exemplified by the novel as a form. The interiority of the novel cannot be separated from the material conditions which regulated the relationship between the individual and the social during this time period, for if the novel has come to be anything, in both their writing and reading, then it is the form which exemplifies Virginia Woolf’s celebration of a “room of one’s own.” Novels are indicative of the architecture of privacy; I’d suggest that it’s not a mistake that the novel’s ascendance is simultaneous with developments like separate hallways in 17th century homes, or the emergence of widespread private bedrooms from that same century. The technology of the printed codex itself facilitated a type of interiority, so much so that it’s sometimes unclear when we speak of that term if we mean its representation in literature, or of its actual existence within human experience.

Critical consensus concerning Renaissance humanism’s discovery of the individual waxes and wanes; if you’ve ever listened to a rightly chagrined medievalist react to Harold Bloom’s assertion that William Shakespeare invented the human you’ll get a sense of the regard in which scholars hold that old-fashioned triumphalist view claiming that individualism is a Renaissance development. If novels are both representation of and evidence for interiority, then Moore’s point that Apuleius depicts an inner life ever bit as complex as those of Gustave Flaubert should disavow us of the fallacy that the ancients were merely sleepwalking through history. But here again (Raymond) Williams’ critical terminology becomes helpful, for an argument could be proffered that while interiority and intersubjectivity were always phenomenological states humans had access too, they were in many cases only emergent with Renaissance individualism.

The consciousness of the unitary narrator (whether of the first or third person) is thus an aesthetic reflection of Rene Descartes’ “Cogito;” for that matter it’s an aesthetic reflection of the fact that many people finally had rooms of their own to laugh, cry, sigh, sleep, fart, and fuck in, not to mention to read and write in. Conditions of privacy inculcated conditions of interiority, so that psychology could become an internal and not just a social affair, with the novel as both the dominant literary expression of that reality, as well as a reciprocal cause of that reality. Our lips were simply still moving for a few centuries before we realized we could actually hear those words on the page within our own heads. In the novel, there is the mimicry of consciousness, an enshrinement of ambiguity, and the rapture of negative capability.

If interiority is a concept long emergent, alongside its fullest expression in the form of the novel, then we can rather easily trace its evolutionary twists and turns. Consider that silent reading was long regarded as an aberration, the idea that words could mysteriously exist in your head without an equivalent speech act stretching the credulity of most people. Observing Ambrose of Milan in the 4th century, and Augustine would write in his Confessions that when the saint read “his eyes ran over the columns of writing and his heart searched out the meaning, but his voice and his tongue were at rest… I have seen him reading silently, never in fact otherwise. I would sit for a long time in silence, not daring to disturb… and then go on my way.”

Augustine asked himself “why he read in this way.” Ambrose, it would seem, had constructed an imaginative kingdom within his own skull, listening not to his mouth murmur words under his own breath, but rather reading as anyone on a flight from JFK to Heathrow or on the Q Train ideally does – quietly and internally. Arresting to learn that the ancients, as complex as their thought was, could be flummoxed by something we take as second nature, and hard to conclude that the interiority of the novel’s form has nothing to do with our own experience of consciousness, an explanation for the relative dearth of novels before the early modern period. Envision the scriptorium of an Irish monastery during the middle ages, the monks copying out those very words from Confessions, the stone hall containing the gentle din of dozens of calligraphers mumbling those words aloud to themselves.

Alberto Manguel in A History of Reading writes that “Until well into the Middle Ages, writers assumed that their readers would hear rather than simply see the text, much as they themselves spoke their word out loud as they composed them.” Starting in the 7th century, it was those same Irish monks who grew tired of the scriptio continua of transcribing all writing with no concern for the spaces between words (and which incidentally made silent reading almost impossible, save for the prodigious), and who resuscitated the idea of punctuation from its forgotten origins with an Alexandrian librarian of the 3rd century B.C.E. named Aristophanes. Partially inspired by musical notation, the middle ages would see the development of punctuation marks like the punctus elevatus, the punctus versus, and the question mark’s ancestor the punctus interrogatives. Manguel quotes St. Isaac of Syria, who drew the connection between punctuation and interiority, of the practice of silence. Isaac claims that “I practice silence” in reading so that the verses and prayers “should fill me with delight.” He continues by explaining silent, solitary reading “as in a dream, I enter a state when my senses and thoughts are concentrated… the turmoil of memories is stilled in my heart, ceaseless waves of joy are sent me by inner thoughts… suddenly arising to delight my heart,” so that in the 6th century a monk in Nineveh could describe the rare experience of interior reading which, unless you’re declaring this to some startled passenger on a crosstown bus, you’re doing right now.

By the 15th century invention of the printing press commas, colons, dashes, periods, and a whole host of diacritical marks were invented or evolved to facilitate silent reading, with the semicolon making a late 1494 appearance in the Venice print shop of the great Aldus Manutius. A different version of this essay would spend time arguing, without irony, that the semicolon in and of itself has the pathos of a great novel, a space carved out for a pause in which whole narratives can be implied, punctuation as a microcosm of reality with room enough to contain an entire little universe. Without conjecture as to if punctuation facilitated interiority, or if interiority necessitated punctuation, I will simply observe that the development of such “weird little marks” as Cormac McCarthy calls them evidences that reading was moving from audible to silent, from communal to private, even if sometimes readers like a certain Windsor blacksmith felt the spirit move them to declare novels aloud.

A whole raft of theorizing remains to be done on the ways in which a consensus on both how to correctly punctuate sentences and how to spell words triggered a transition from medieval Aristotelian scholasticism to Renaissance Platonist humanism, of the ways in which caring about the correct arrangement of letters signals an assault on phonocentrism, or a valorization of the idea of written language. Jacques Derrida writes in Of Grammatology that there is a historical privileging of oral communication, so that writing is commonly understood as a “servile instrument of speech dreaming of its plentitude and its self-presence.” I’m curious how much of that sense of speech being privileged over the written word was altered in the era when book printers decided that spelling had to have some uniformity?

Keith Houston writes in Shady Characters: The Secret Life of Punctuation, Symbols, and Other Typographical Marks that “Before the advent of the printing press, the imprecision of manual copying meant that punctuation evolved as it passed from scribe to scribe,” but by 1640 the poet and dramatist Ben Jonson’s English Grammar built on two centuries of humanism to advocate for punctuation as not just a means of facilitating oratory, but in conveying the proper interpretation of a work based on the author’s individual intent, a seeming victory in the battle between speech and writing. Curious, but outside of the scope of this essay, other than to obverse that it was telling that the technology of Johannes Guttenberg’s printing press standardized punctuation and eventually orthography, for regardless of its origin no account of interiority can ignore technology.

Without venturing as to the causal relationships, and always personally loath to reduce explanations to mere material conditions, the emergence of spaces between words, punctuation, and uniform spelling are merely given as evidence for the ascendancy of silent reading, and that in turn silent reading is evidence of interiority’s growing importance, not just in its literary depictions, but in reality, as well. Manguel describes this reality, where women and men could “exist in interior space… And the text itself, protected from outsiders by its covers, became the reader’s own possession, the reader’s intimate knowledge, whether in the busy scriptorium, the market-place or the home.”

I’d suggest that a useful vocabulary for talking about the emergence of such subjectivity is something which I call the “interiority axis.” By this schema, I’d propose that we have to understand that concerning the rise and fall of interiority there is an intrinsic connection between literary form, the idea of the author, the idea of the narrator, and the idea of the reader. Pre-modern literature, often oral in both composition and reproduction, favored the poetic over prose, and there has never been a novel written and recited as only oral literature. In such circumstances, the author has little authority, and the work is rather a collaborative social act, just as the consciousness of the narrator is more collective than individual. Such a model of authorship endured well into the early modern period as a type of residual culture, as exemplified in moribund forms such as the commonplace book, a type of individual compendium whereby readers would mix and match unstable texts which moved them, sometimes writing new ending to old stories. Commonplace books didn’t necessarily respect the authorial intention of some individual creator, rather it was a form that relished in the collaborative nature of literature across individuals; commonplace books were a type of open-source technology.

What the novel signals is the ascension of a form which most fully encapsulates subjectivity, and signals the parallel emergence of individualism in all of its glory, excess, and detriment. The novel as a written form of literature fixes in relationship to one another the concept of the author as primogeniture of literature, the authority of the narrative voice, and silent reading. All aspects of the interiority axis are in some way related to one another, so that the shift of anyone of these concepts from an an emergent into a dominant discourse must by necessity affect the rest. Novels are defined not just by length, or form, or subject, but by the model of how we understand their creation and consumption, by how we write and read them, and where we identify the voice that narrates them as ultimately coming from. Bards no longer sing epics, rather disembodied voices within our own heads weave tremendously complex fictions, worlds born from their own imaginative space, creating the ability by which you can experience the individual consciousness of another person, and thus marking the novel as the most tremendous engine for empathy yet conceived.

But in inculcating this experience of an atomistic consciousness, as well as expressing it, the novel reflects a final category along the interiority axis, which is a theological one. No coincidence in the reality that the author, as complete master of a novel’s narrative, bears such a striking resemblance to the emerging Protestant God, with His complete sovereignty and radical freedom at the expense of all of His creatures’ individual agencies. Such is my extension of Joseph Bottum’s argument in Books & Culture: A Christian Review that the “novel was an art form – the art form – of the modern Protestant West.” True enough that there are scores of antecedents long before the 18th century, and that indeed the book most commonly proffered as the first novel was by a Spanish Catholic (even if occasionally imprisoned by the Inquisition). Yet what shifts the novel as a form from being perennially emergent to finally dominant is a model of individuality in the form of the supremely sovereign Protestant God, who controls everything down to the minutest detail and leaves nothing up to fortune as He uses the writing workshop tool known as double-predestination. The novel as a form was ultimately the result of Protestantism and positivism, its actual fathers being John Calvin and Isaac Newton, both independent codevelopers of an orderly universe governed by deterministic rules, the exact model by which the novel understands itself.

Michael McKeon in The Origins of the English Novel, 1600-1700 notes that the form is “coextensive with the early modern secularization crisis,” yet secularization is simply another name for a specific type of Protestant heresy. The novel is a product of the Reformation because every category of the interiority axis for literature produced under its aegis is reciprocal, so that an absolute God implies an absolute author implies a solitary narrative voice implies a private reader. The novel’s metaphysical basis is such that we conceive of the author as a type of God, in complete control over every detail of plot and character, so that even the multiplicity of voices implied by collaborative writing, by the voice reading the book aloud, is rather eliminated in favor of the single voice of the Lord alone in your head. As Richardson would declare in Pamela, “O! what a Godlike power!”

It’s as if the social nature of oral literature was a cacophony of pagan gods eliminated in favor of the monotheistic, omnipresent, and omniscient God of the Author. Such a metaphysic is of course older than Protestantism, being ultimately Hebraic in origin, with Auerbach writing that by contrast to the Homeric aesthetic the Jewish ethos was such that God was “not fixed in form and content, and was alone; his lack of form, his lack of local habitation, his singleness, was in the end not only maintained but developed,” so that by the time the novel is in its ascendancy we discover that the words narrated in the third-person omniscient voice is the very language of the divine. As the Lord is alone, so is the silent reader, enraptured by the powers of the Author.

Such a perspective is glorious in its way, for in privacy there is the possibility of regenerative self-creation. Humans may be limited by God’s sovereignty, but in the creation of a novel every author is offered the Faustian illusion of being a deity, and so is every reader who joins them in the story. In the ersatz Calvinism offered by the novel, both author and reader can experience the consciousness of being God, for though liberty is precluded by that theology there is the most radical of freedom in the ability to flit between the consciousness of various people, to experience a multitude of minds, to be able to see the world from a potentially infinite number of eyes. In a Calvinist universe the only freedom is to become God, and the novel was the technology developed to help women and men do this. But there can also be a profound loneliness in this solipsism, a rarefied state that’s impossible if you’re among that audience listening to a reader intone words aloud.

Bottum writes that as the “main strength of established Protestant Christendom began to fail in the United States in recent decades, so did the cultural importance of the novel.” Friedrich Nietzsche killed God in 1882, Roland Barth killed the Author less than a century later in 1967, and now it seems as if the reader is on life-support. I come not to burn the Novel, but to praise her, for it seems that she has become more and more residual. The interiority axis which was dominant for the past few centuries is waning, so that though no variety of human consciousness can ever fully dim, our models of subjectivity, privacy, individualism, and agency still seem to be in eclipse. Novels will always be written of course; after all, somebody is still writing epic poems as well.

Such is the case that the interiority axis is once again altered by material conditions, by technology, as the solitary reader is replaced by the frantic chorus of the internet. The Calvinist-Newtonian God faces deicide by polytheistic collaborations of open-source digital literature and the novel itself is now a million tweeted fragments. If the metaphysical implications of the novel are privacy, then the emergent forms of our new interiority axis return us, for better and worse, to siting in a crowd listening to a delivered story; though this time our shouting at the speaker is instrumental to the development of that plot. This is what Walter Ong in Rhetoric, Romance, and Technology: Studies in the Interaction of Expression and Culture referred to as the “secondary orality.” In 1971, well before a public internet, Ong was able to describe communication which would depart from the “individualized introversion of the age of writing, print, and rationalism.” What new visions may this post-secularity promise, what new enchantments, what rich paganism enabled by technology? What prayers crafted by crowdsource, by algorithm, by artificial intelligence? God is dead, as is the author, as is the reader, so that now we are all once again squabbling gods.

About the Author:

Ed Simon is Editor at Berfrois, the Editor-at-Large for The Marginalia Review of Books, a channel of The Los Angeles Review of Books, and a frequent contributor at several different sites, having appeared in publications such as The Atlantic, The Paris Review Daily, The Washington Post, Newsweek, and Jacobin among others. He can be followed on Twitter @WithEdSimon, his Facebook author page, or at his website. His collection America and Other Fictions: On Radical Faith and Post-Religion was released by Zero Books in 2018.