Cervantes on “Hysterical realism”
When James Wood penned that famous article where he coined the term hysterical realism (a catch-all phrase to describe —or perhaps circumscribe— the sprawling post-modern novel packed as it is with digressions, anecdotes, intertextual exegesis, social analyses, and so forth) I assumed that he had stumbled upon an original insight. He had found a way to say what we were all vaguely thinking and feeling but couldn’t articulate. He reminded us of Zadie Smith’s pronouncement that,
“…it is not the writer’s job “to tell us how somebody felt about something, it’s to tell us how the world works”. She has praised the American writers David Foster Wallace and Dave Eggers as “guys who know a great deal about the world. They understand macro-microeconomics, the way the Internet works, maths, philosophy, but… they’re still people who know something about the street, about family, love, sex, whatever.” 1
James Wood’s definition of hysterical realism is encapsulated, I think, when he says,
The DeLilloan idea of the novelist as a kind of Frankfurt School entertainer - a cultural theorist, fighting the culture with dialectical devilry…Nowadays anyone in possession of a laptop is thought to be a brilliance on the move, filling his or her novel with essaylets and great displays of knowledge. Indeed, “knowing about things” has become one of the qualifications of the contemporary novelist. Time and again novelists are praised for their wealth of obscure and far-flung social knowledge. (Richard Powers is the best example, but Tom Wolfe also gets an easy ride simply for “knowing things”.) The reviewer, mistaking bright lights for evidence of habitation, praises the novelist who knows about, say, the sonics of volcanoes. Who also knows how to make a fish curry in Fiji! Who also knows about terrorist cults in Kilburn! And about the New Physics! And so on. The result - in America at least - is novels of immense self-consciousness with no selves in them at all, curiously arrested and very “brilliant” books that know a thousand things but do not know a single human being.
It is therefore interesting to see that Cervantes made a similar observation almost four centuries prior, an observation that sounds uncanny in its similarity to a description of hysterical realism. In the preface to Don Quixote he notes:
Other authors can pass upon the public, by stuffing their books from Aristotle, Plato, and the whole company of ancient philosophers; thus amusing their readers into a great opinion of their prodigious reading…And then the method of these moderns is so wonderfully agreeable and full of variety, that they cannot fail to please. In one line, they will describe you a whining amorous coxcomb, and the next shall be some dry scrap of a homily, with such ingenious turns as cannot choose but ravish the reader…
He finds the extents to which authors go to show their erudition remarkable:
I have neither marginal notes nor critical remarks; I do not so much as know what authors I follow, and consequently, can have no formal index, as it is the fashion now, methodically strung on the letters of the alphabet, beginning with Aristotle, and ending with Xenophon, or Zoilus, or Zeuxis…
It seems as though in literature, education, and perhaps any other field glutted with youthful enthusiasms, the new complaints are practically the same as the old complaints. The world turns and everything stays the same.
Zadie Smith later decried her love for The Novel of Ideas (a love and ambition shared, as Wood noted, by many contemporary writers), and in interviews spoke of her wanting to put such novels behind her: “To be honest, I hope those ‘books of ideas’ as you put them are in my past. A novel shouldn’t be an essay. Its ideas, if it has them, should be a bit more diffusely spread. I don’t care about staging debates anymore. I don’t think I ever really did – it was just easier than writing properly.” However, from the early, and admittedly inconclusive comments on the book, it appears that she has written yet another Book of Ideas (Every early reader is apparently under an embargo and so there aren’t any reviews yet). ↩