The ‘postmodern’ phenomenon has been much written about lately, and some high claims are being made for it, notably by Ihab Hassan and Mas’ud Zavarzadeh, though both Susan Sontag and David Lodge in their work have been more cautious, each ending on a qualifying note.
Ihab Hassan’s Paracriticisms – Seven Speculations on the Times (1975) is a highly stimulating if disorderly study, itself a new type of ‘postmodernist’ criticism, using typographic juxtapositions, digressions and so on, and ending in a vision of a ‘new gnosticism’ (see end of this essay). Some of his modernist categories as developed by ‘postmodernism’ seem over-generalized and purely thematic: Urbanism, Technologism, Dehumanization, Primitivism, Eroticism, Antinomianism, Experimentalism (the only non-thematic one, which of course applies to all new art forms of any period).
Mas’ud Zavarzadeh’s The Mythopoeic Reality – the Postwar American Nonfiction Novel (1976) is naturally mainly about the non-fiction novel as a ‘postmodern’ phenomenon, which he calls ‘supramodern’ and which covers non-fiction and ‘transfiction’. The latter he divides into metafiction, surfiction and science fiction (that is, the ‘new’ SF), thus bringing a little more precision into the discussion. All ‘supramodern’ novels are united by what he calls a ‘nontotalizing’ sensibility or resistance to interpretation. In ‘transfiction’ this is achieved by means of a ‘baroque over-interpretation of the human situation.’ Metafiction (with which I am mainly concerned here) is ‘ultimately a narrational metatheorem whose subject matter is fictional systems themselves [. . . It] exults over its own fictitiousness, and its main counter-techniques are flat characterization, contrived plots, antilinear sequences of events, all foregrounded as part of an extravagant over-totalization, a parody of interpretation which shows up the multiplicity of the real and the naïveté of trying ‘to reach a total synthesis of life within narrative.’ Over-totalization thus ‘creates a work with low-message-value at the zero-degree of interpretation, thus freeing the narrative from an anthropomorphic order-hunting and insuring that, as Barthelme says, there is nothing between the lines but white spaces,’ echoing ‘Witold Gombrowicz’s concept of the mocking of meaning and his advice to readers (in Ferdydurke) to “start dancing with the book instead of asking for a meaning.”‘ None of which of course has prevented critics from interpreting these works.
Susan Sontag’s essay ‘The Aesthetics of Silence’ in Against Interpretation (1966) is too well known to summarize, but she was one of the first to sound the ‘postmodern’ note, without using that now current but meaningless term. David Lodge’s The Modes of Modern Writing – Metaphor, Metonymy, and the Typology of Modern Literature (1977) uses Jackobson’s fundamental distinction between the syntagmatic and paradigmatic axes of language to discuss ‘postmodernist’ fiction in a brilliant last chapter.
On this occasion, I would like to look at the work of a few of the ‘postmodern’ writers, giving, I hope, a clearer picture of their achievement, and I will conduct my analysis in the light of a broad but useful formal division, that between parody and stylization.
Most of the novels commonly regarded as ‘postmodernist’ are characteristically implausible but (technically) realistic representations of the modern human situation: they dramatize, that is, the theme of the world’s non-interpretability. John Barth’s long novels, The Sot-Weed Factor (1961) and Giles Goat-Boy (1966), would be the first manifestation of this, though perhaps only retrospectively, for at the time they were appreciated as uproarious satires. And of course The Sot-Weed Factor also stylizes, in the sense that it parodies seventeenth-century English, but I shall define stylization more precisely later.
Similarly, John Fowles’ The Magus (1966) is ‘about’ the individual’s construction of reality. Nicholas is lured into the rich magnate Conchis’s property on a Greek island, and at first does not know that his experiences are artificially concocted. Slowly he loses all his certainties, but each time he thinks he has understood what is real and what is illusion, the real is revealed as another illusion. This is Conchis’s ‘godgame’, so named because it is not ‘really a game and there is no God’ (except Conchis). David Lodge has called this a maze without exit, the plot of which we cannot unravel, but this is not so: there are explanations throughout and a final explanation, when Nicholas is told that all was organized, and how. His resulting rage, self-pity, and despair result not so much at having been tricked as at realizing that the godgame has ended; that Conchis and his ‘assistants’ have loaded the dice and quit the game; that he is back where he started but now lost, unwatched by them, stripped of significance, of spectators; that life is not a performance.
In a thoughtful article, Ernst Von Glaserfeld points out that as long as man acts for spectators he is neither free nor human.1 Further, that it is not the Magus who has loaded the dice that drove Nicholas nearly out of his mind, but the way Nicholas himself interpreted the events around him: he had loaded the dice long ago by accepting a commonplace and naive view of the world, thinking he knew what the world was like. ‘Fowles comes to the core of constructivist epistemology when he lets Conchis explain the idea of coincidence when he tells the two stories, of the rich collector in Paris and the farmer in Norway: “There was no connection between the events. No connection is possible. Or rather, I am the connection, I am whatever meaning the coincidence has.”’ As Glaserfeld notes, this amounts to an everyday paraphrase of Einstein’s revolutionary insight that in the physical world there is no simultaneity without an observer to create it. In the modern constructivist theory of knowledge, ‘not only coincidence are seen as arising out of the experiencer’s own activity, but also the events that are coinciding, the notions of space and time, of motion and causality, and even those experiential compounds that we call objects – they all come about through the experiencer who relates, who institutes differences, similarities and identities, and thus creates for himself a stable world of sorts’ (see Piaget, La Construction du réel chez l’enfant (1967), or, in physics, Heisenberg, Physics and Philosophy, (1958)). Fowles is concerned with the pragmatic and ethical aspects of this.
Von Glaserfeld admits that The Magus is ‘in many ways an old-fashioned novel’, and compares it to Fournier’s Le Grand Meaulnes or to Pirandello; but he also insists that ‘seen in the framework of the history of ideas, it belongs to the front of constructivist thought.’ The ‘theme’ is new (though a deconstructionist ‘theme’ would be ‘newer’), but the form is old-fashioned.
So there we have it, the old split between form and content. There is indeed not a line, not a formal device (or represented speech, thought, action, or scene) in the book that does not belong to the traditional realistic novel – which is why of course, it is so ‘readable’ despite its plot’s complexities. And many of the ‘postmodernist’ novels or, to use Zavarzadeh’s more precise term, metafictions, are of this type. Robert Coover’s The Origin of the Brunists (1966) is an ironic investigation of mystical sects in America; a local newspaper editor provides the ironic authorial eye, with all the paraphernalia of detailed description, description openers, narrator explanation in pluperfect analepse, lengthy free indirect discourse of the most fatigued kind, narrator comment to dialogue of the ‘participial phrase’, variety parodied by Barth, and so forth. The Universal Baseball Association Inc (1968) has a lighter, more slangy modern tone, but technically does not differ from the mainstream novels of the thirties, forties, fifties (etc.). The Public Burning (1976) is more ‘outrageous’ in subject matter: it imaginatively dramatizes a well-known contemporary political figure, Vice-President Nixon, during the week just before the execution of the Rosenbergs; in odd visionary moments Uncle Sam appears (who protects, scolds and guides him). But it is also deadpan realistic, and that is of course the point: all Nixon’s thoughts, worries, ambitions and ludicrous moments are imaginary, but set forth in what reviewers call ‘utterly convincing’, ‘forcefully realized’ terms. Only the ‘intermedia’ Intermezzo, in dramatic form (The Clemency Appeals – A Dramatic Dialogue by Ethel Rosenberg and Dwight Eisenhower) between President and Prisoner (Pres/Pris), is given full parodic treatment.
Coover is concerned with history and our constant reinterpretation of it (though of course his over-interpretation is yet another interpretation), just as Fowles is concerned with man’s interpretation of the world. One can see Coover moving from both traditional and parodic dramatizations of contemporary problems to ‘stylization’. But in The Public Burning, the parody is intermittent; although it pervades the whole, there is no manifest difference between what I call ‘deadpan’ realism and realism, except where the topic (e.g. the meetings with Uncle Sam) make it clear. In a sense of course, parodic dramatization is one long stylization of realism, but the balance between parody and stylization is delicate. I shall return to this problem in a moment.
Similarly, Thomas Pynchon’s V (1963) and Gravity’s Rainbow (1973) are quests for meaning in a man-centred world where the multiplicity of interpretive systems makes it impossible to envisage a whole.2 Both novels draw on science fiction motifs (anti-utopia, the talking computer, radio-controlled characters, loss of identity and dehumanization generally). V, moreover, heavily parodies the spy story in all sections of the past ‘recovered’ by the main quester Stencil; while Gravity’s Rainbow, by making all the characters paranoiac, drugged and hallucination-prone, cancels even provisional realities: as Tony Tanner has said, ‘it is not always clear whether we are in a bombed-out building or a bombed-out mind’.3
Unlike The Magus and Coover’s or Barth’s books, V and Gravity’s Rainbow are not (and presumably not meant to be) ‘readable’ in the book industry’s sense of ‘entertaining’, chiefly because the ‘theme’ is considerably more blurred than in Barth’s social satire or Fowles’ ‘constructivist’ theme or Coover’s non-interpretability of history. It is blurred, first in itself: the object (or non-object) of the quest (or anti-quest) is couched in old-fashioned symbolic terms such as the phallus/rocket business in Gravity’s Rainbow and the ‘scratching the surface’ notion that pervades V, as for instance in the Vheissu motif paradigmatic of the whole work (Vheissu as a lost civilization but also a constantly changing surface, an aesthetic pleasure, a luxury). Symbolism of this kind is notoriously over-exploited in modern realistic fiction. Second, it is blurred in the over-interpretation which Zavarzadeh speaks of, which ‘creates a work of low-message value at the zero-degree of interpretation.’ And, lastly, it is blurred in the clogging traditional mechanisms of the realistic novel that inevitably go with interpretation, and, a fortiori, with over-interpretation.
One such blurring would have been enough, but the heaviest is the third. Even the present tense and the present participles used in Gravity’s Rainbow seem a mere pointless substitution for the past and pluperfects of other sections: the present is a historic present (as in the nineteenth-century novel), and the past would do just as well; despite the time shifts (clearly marked), it does not have the eerie effect we get from its atemporal use by Robbe-Grillet. Apart from the occasional present tense (occasional only in V, and used in a traditional way for generalization), and some ‘intermedia’ bad verse and songs (but one finds songs in realistic fiction) we get the whole realistic machinery, including the defocalized heroes and the constant shifts of viewpoint, parodied (within the parody of the novelist writing a novel) by Barth in ‘Life-Story’ (Lost in the Funhouse (1968)), with his letter characters: ‘D comes to suspect that the world is a novel, himself a fictional personage . . . Moreover E, hero of D’s account . . . called upon a literary acquaintance . . . C comes to suspect that the world is a novel . . . If I’m going to be a fictional character G declared to himself . . . How revolutionary J appears to be . . . If he can only get K through his story I reflected grimly’ (I being both a letter and a pronoun). Of course here the letter represents the author’s various versions (versions of himself and versions born up), but it also accurately reflects the formula of modern realistic fiction, whereby A is introduced, then B in the next section, then C, then back to A, then D and so forth in infinite permutations. In V for instance this technique apparently amounts to parody (new place/new person plus explanatory description, or vice versa):
As the afternoon progressed, yellow clouds began to gather over Place Mohammed Ali, from the direction of the Libyan Desert. A wind with no sound at all swept up rue Ibrahim and across the square, bringing a desert chill into the city.
For one P. Afeul, cafe waiter and amateur libertine, the clouds signalled rain. (52)
The bierhalle north of Ezbekiyich Garden had been created by North European tourists in their own image . . . but so German as to be ultimately a parody of home.
Hanna had held on to the job only because she was stout and blond. A smaller brunette from the south had stayed for a time but . . . (76)
Dudley Eigenvalue, D. D. S., browsed among treasures in his Park Avenue office/residence. Mounted on black velvet in a locked mahogany case, showpiece of the office, was a set of false dentures, each tooth of a different precious metal. (138)
In April of 1899 young Evan Godolphin, daft with the spring and sporting a costume too Esthetic for such a fat boy, pranced into Florence. (141)
Miss Victoria Wren, late of Lardwick-in-the-Fen, Yorks., recently self-proclaimed citizen of the world, knelt devoutly in the front pew of a church just off Via dello Studio. (151)
But when a parody of such a clumsy method is repeated throughout, almost as a tick, one starts taking it at face value, which is particularly unfortunate when one of the ‘counter-techniques’ (Zavarzadeh) is flat characterization.4 The defocalization is pushed to extremes to prevent us from identifying with any of the characters by staying too long with them, so that when we return to them and their supposedly absurd but flatly, realistically told activities (hunting alligators in New York sewers, having a nose altered by a plastic surgeon, getting drunk, having sex, stealing supplies from ship, etc.), we hardly care, as we hardly care in ‘real life’, with its ‘meaningless’ millions and their ‘meaningless’ activities; indeed we would, as in real life, have trouble remembering them were it not for their often highly motivated names (Profane the ‘schlemihl’, Stencil, McClintic Sphere, Schoenmaker the plastic surgeon, Eigenvalve, Pig, The Whole Sick Crew, etc).
This in theory does not happen with the model parodied, which tries (and sometimes fails) to make us identify and care, and it is a moot point whether parody of a model for its failures, in dead earnest and at such length, is true parody or simply the model in its fatigued aspect. For if we roughly summarize the determination of the Barthes codes in Pynchon, we find that the Action and the Hermeneutic Codes are underdetermined (as in realistic fiction), the Referential and the Symbolic over-determined (as in realistic fiction) and only the Semic (character) supposedly underdetermined (flat characters) yet in fact using the same techniques, parodied. Thus the one element of realistic fiction generally regarded as its crowning achievement (though essentially fantasmatic) is the only one supposedly parodied, but in a way which borders on (equally fantasmatic) imitation.
Sukenick also plays with defocalization in Out (1973), in which the hero changes names in each chapter (and the chapters are numbered backwards, starting with 10; and, from 9 down, consist of paragraphs of 9, then 8, then 7 (etc.) lines. It is possible also that Sukenick may be parodying the mystery of V in 98.6 when the central character vomits in the bathroom and feels jerked up by the neck: ‘Something is holding him by the neck shaking him like a doll something huge but invisible. It has long v-striped fingernails many parallel stripes red and white and blue surprisingly Hallmark with horizontal continuations out from the top to the v . . . V why v what is is is the question. What does it want he wants it to leave him alone he can’t take any more of this.’ And later in Israel a specific character has v-striped fingernails. If this does refer to Pynchon then the whole parody business is becoming ultra-incestuous.
Zavarzadeh defines writing of this sort (parodies of interpretation) as metafiction, and the writing frequently poses some serious problems: is it really achieving everything it sets out to do? If only the topic distinguishes Coover’s deadpan realism from realism; and if, as in Pynchon, the very topic is drowned in a parody of realism that fuses with traditional realism, just where or how does the reader feel the difference between interpretation and over-interpretation (or parody of interpretation), between realism and the parody of realism? If the parody so fuses with its model as to become the model, the parody must cease.
For Bakhtin who has done much to clarify the various types of dialogical utterance (the degree to which the ‘other’ discourse is heard in the first), parody appropriates an existing discourse as object, but introduces into it an orientation diametrically opposed to its own. In contrast, imitation appropriates and takes seriously another discourse. Between the two he places stylization, that ‘slight shadow of objectivization’ thrown upon the series of procedures used by the other’s discourse. The stylizer is careful not to confuse the other’s voice with his own (as does the imitator), nor does he set off a clash between the two voices (as does the parodist). He simply lets the presence of another voice (another style) be heard beneath his own. Stylization however can tip over into imitation ‘if the stylizer’s enthusiasm for his model breaks down the distance between them and weakens the deliberate sensation that the reproduced style is indeed that of another person.5
But why then do we experience this tipping over into realism in these parodic dramatizations of a modern theme? Why does the distance continually collapse? This is partly because of certain difficulties inherent in the novel as genre and partly because of the nature of the ambition. There is parody of interpretation: that is, over-interpretation. But over-interpretation is not, as technique, sufficiently opposed to ‘interpretation’ to stop the discourse from tipping over into imitation, although the basic thematic orientation (the non-interpretability of the world) is diametrically opposed to that of the model.
It is all very well to talk of the ‘zero-degree of interpretation . . . freeing the narrative from an anthropomorphic order-hunting and insuring that, as Barthelme says, “there is nothing between the lines but white space.”‘ But this hardly differs, as view, from the New Criticism notion that, in Macleish’s words, ‘a poem should not mean, but be’. A huge novel is unfortunately not a poem, and the concrete result, with its sheer weight of realistic techniques and over-interpretation in Pynchon’s case, is that one cannot, in fact, follow Gombrowicz’s advice and ‘start dancing with the book instead of asking for meaning’: the book is too clumsy; it keeps treading on one’s toes.
There is of course no reason why we should not appreciate these novels ‘straight’, that is, not as metafiction but as realistic and/or satirical dramatizations of serious contemporary problems. But in that case there is no essential difference (except, precisely, the ‘counter-techniques: flat characterization, contrived plots’) between them and earlier such novels (and the best): Musil and Mann also dramatized problems that were highly contemporary, so did Lawrence, or for that matter Tolstoy or Balzac (The Magus is then a modern version of A la recherche de l’absolu or Les illusions perdues and its sequel, Splendeurs et misères des courtisanes). And there is only the power of the controlling intelligence, the abiding interest of the central idea, to distinguish these from more popular versions (Galsworthy down). To take the difference between dramatization of a theme and stylization further back, it is like the difference between Langland and Chaucer, or between the second part of Le roman de la rose (by Jean de Meung, who didacticized and philosophized it) and the first part (by Guillaume de Lorris, who used the allegorical ‘style’); or, more extreme both ways, between Bunyan, who used the by then moribund allegorical form to dramatize the Christian ideal, and Lyly, who in Euphues stylized á outrance; or, to raise the level again both ways and to show that this is not an issue of ‘realism’ vs ‘fantasy’, between Swift or the philosophical novel generally, and Defoe, who ‘stylized’ documentary style for fictional purposes and thus laid the basis for the rise of the realistic novel.
Lodge calls The Magus (wrongly), Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49 and Robbe-Grillet’s Le Voyeur ‘labyrinths without exits’, and certainly the labyrinth is a powerful image in modern writing (Borges’s library in ‘The Tower of Babel’, Robbe-Grillet’s Dans le Labyrinthe, Butor’s mysterious itineraries, Lacan’s Moebius bands and other puzzles). But the important qualification is ‘without exits’. As Clement Rosset points out, the labyrinth is not at all a place of non-significance, one exit, however hidden and hard to find.6 To this he opposes, as paradigm of the modern situation, the confusion of paths in the famously ambiguous line in Sophocles’s Antigone (1.360) which, although it ‘means’ having all paths, pathless he walks towards nothing, a situation which is not only that of Oedipus (that enigma on two feet; that deluded man; that self-styled detective who uncovers the true murderer, himself; that double man whose double vanishes progressively, at first certain, then probable, then improbable but still possible, then impossible), but also that of modern man. Thus one can hardly ‘dance’ through or with a labyrinth, but one must get out of it or die. But pathless at the forking of many paths one can but ‘stand and stare’. But, in the end, Oedipus is blind. And Pynchon’s reader is blinded by his own attempt to play detective.
Rosset’s general thesis in this short but remarkable book is that all reality is both necessarily determined (in virtue of the identity principle that A = A) and necessarily fortuitous in the sense that it is not necessarily this or that, but cannot escape the necessity of being something (i.e. anything). This property inherent to all reality he calls the non-significance of the real, and what makes reality tip over into nonsense is precisely the necessity we impose on it of being always significant. There are however privileged moments in which we have access to the real, when an occurrence or object seems to us both necessary and fortuitous, but these are isolated perceptions, at once sanctioned by laughter (in certain types of humour) or by irritation (as when losing a game of chess, the moves of which are both necessary and fortuitous), or when drunk (the drunk’s seeing double is a superficial optic phenomenon; he in fact see things in their prodigious ontological singularity – or ‘idiocy’ – and it is we who see double) or when suddenly bereft of love (coffee exists, washbasins exist) or through a work of art. Or finally through philosophy, which sums up the last three in the sense that the philosophic state, in Plato’s words, is a state of being perpetually drunk, in love and an artist. All other perceptions pass through the Double, the ‘value-added’ of significance.
Interestingly enough, modern attempts at stylization are remarkably short (often short stories), while the parodies, or parodic dramatizations, are all remarkably long. This may be a coincidence of my reading, but I think that the type of stylization I have in mind is difficult to sustain (Pynchon’s new place/new person, for instance, is simply repetitive). As I said, the novels which take the theme of the world’s non-interpretability and dramatize it are in a sense long stylizations of the realistic novels which interpreted the world; there is, however, a fragile frontier between that stylization and the literary model. Parodic dramatization of a theme works on the principle of expansion. Stylization, on that of reduction.
Pure stylization, when successful, is always clear as stylization of a model. I have already spoken of Barth’s Lost in the Funhouse and its variations of tone, and Coover’s stories are similarly varied, rather like experiments in the true sense, which may or may not come off. ‘The Magic Poker’ in Pricksongs and Descants (1969) is perhaps the most obvious (and so the most discussed) stylization of the writer’s creative act, and also visibly influenced by Robbe-Grillet in its present tense time-shifts and incidents repeated but changed (here explicitly by the writer’s creative act), and has the same uncanny poetry. Others are more concerned with the illusion/reality shift and the games people play, with themselves, with each other; but ‘The Gingerbread House’ and ‘Seven Exemplary Fictions’ are clear stylization of literary models.
Olga Scherer, who has most closely studied the Bakhtinian ‘voices’, has recently turned her attention to William Gass in a remarkable essay (‘William Gass: Instances de la stylisation’).7 Without taking up her detailed typology, I shall merely recall a few points, the first being that there are of course innumerable models, ‘prototexts’ being infinite; secondly that the semantic value of the reiterable sign in the chosen model must be infallible, that is, limited and coherent, not containing another value, from another model (though there can be several models), nor contain just any old value, which would weaken the distance either by introducing a potential contradiction or by reducing the value to irrelevance.
In Omensetter’s Luck (1966), we find the idyllic model, ‘one of the most tenacious in American literary tradition’, for instance in the descriptive introduction of Omensetter:
Brackett Omensetter was a wide and happy man. He could whistle like the cardinal whistles in the deep snow, or whirr like the shy ‘white rising from its cover, or be the lark a chuckle at the sky. He knew the earth. He put his hands in water. He smelled the clean fir smell. He listened to the bees. And he laughed his deep, loud, wide and happy laugh whenever he could – which was often, long, and joyfully.
And, later: ‘A bee flew by his face. Omensetter was a wide and happy man. Fact.’ Similarly the minister Furber’s ‘secret polemic’ (Bakhtin’s term) is itself very Dostoevskian, but also contains an imaginary interlocutor called Horatio. This does not, as Scherer points out, refer back to any actual dialogue between Hamlet and Horatio, ‘but to a more abstract notion of Hamletism’, or a literary model of hesitation and tragic conflict, ‘of which Horatio is one of the infallible and reiterable signs’.
Another model in Gass is that of the narrator. In ‘The Pedersen Kid’ (In the Heart of the Heart of the Country, 1968) the stylization of the ‘naive’ or ‘unconscious’ narrator tends to fuse into imitation of the model, whereas in ‘Mrs Mean’ the opposite happens, the omniscient narrator is stylized almost to the point of parody. Thus, although clearly only an outside observer of Mrs Mean (he knows what towels and doilies she has only because he has seen them on the line or through the windows, etc.), he is an over-informed voyeur, sure of his conclusions about the mentality of his neighbours (‘I rest my stories on their backs. They cannot feel them’) and boasts of his superiority. He even intensifies his authority by giving himself an assistant narrator, his wife – (‘My wife and I find it strange that they should’ . . .) – an impossible procedure for a serious omniscient narrator who, even if he burdened himself with a wife, could hardly invoke her to affirm himself as true interpreter of the world’ (Scherer). I should add, however, that the wife does not merely affirm or duplicate him, for, insofar as she is given any role, she is the one who has the ‘nice’, the ‘charitable’ interpretations; she is as it were the ‘ordinary’ man in him, not the transcendent omniscient one:
My wife maintains that Mrs Mean is an immaculate housekeeper and that her home is always cool and dry and airy. She’s very likely correct as far as mere appearance goes but my description is emotionally right, metaphysically appropriate. My wife would strike up friendship, too and so, as she says, find out: but that must be blocked. It would destroy my transcendence. It would entangle me mortally in illusion.
Gass fluctuates between parody and a stylization so undistanced that it fuses with the model. In the long central part of Omensetter’s Luck, entitled ‘The Reverend Jethro Furber’s Change of Heart’, the model is the stream of consciousness, and through this the ‘secret polemic’; but ultimately both refer back to an original single and total model, that of ‘puritan hypocrisy’ (Scherer). The familiarity of these models, together with the serious tone, tend to make the entire section (the main part of the book) tip over into a secret discourse taken seriously (i.e. the same problem we found in parody). As Scherer observes, Gass, in his war against genres (see interview in the same number of Delta), is aware that all forms, and even the polyphonic discourse discovered by Dostoevsky, however revolutionary at the time, degenerate. Hence the present strong impulse towards parody and stylization is a form of regeneration via self-consciousness. The remedy, according to Scherer, would be ‘either to inject the model with new strength by abandoning’ . . . ‘the more or less deterministic philosophical positions and rediscover the original inspiration of polyphonic discourse; or to avoid the infallible and reiterable marks of the model that are most tired, by reducing them to the conventional. Gass has opted for this second solution, with unequal success.’ And obviously the second solution is more liable to the danger of tipping over into imitation, since the marks are ‘reduced to the conventional’. But at its best it is particularly subtle.
This can be seen in ‘Icicles’, the hero of which, Fender, is a real estate salesman, from the start crossed by two primary models: the first a contemporary, socio-economic one (publicity discourse), where the relation between being (a man) and having (a property) is reversed into possession of the man by the property; the second, a literary model, goes all the way back to the early nineteenth century: the inefficient office clerk whose living is nevertheless his job (see Scherer for examples). The fusion of these two models is particularly rich, and well demonstrated by her. But personally I feel that the ‘narrator’ model is also lurking in the boss Pearson’s admonitions to Fender: ‘Keep your ears to the ground, Fender. Listen. Listen with all you’ve got, with the whole business – hard – with your eyes, with your nose – with the soul, Fender’ . . . ‘That’s how you get on in this business.’ And later: ‘People pass on . . . but property, property endures. That’s why it’s called real, see? . . . People are property. Does that seem like a hard saying, people are property? Not even real?’ Pearson (a person), the boss (a figure for a narrator), runs a ‘business’ which involves listening hard, with all his being (itself a business, ‘the whole business’, i.e. the narrator’s being, which is listening, is his business); but being is having, possessing (being possessed by), and his ‘business’ is ‘real’ property (reality/represented reality), which will survive (a literary work). In contrast, are people who are unreal, mere Fenders, who fend off reality or defend themselves badly in the system but get owned by the ‘real’ property, or rather by the melting aspect of it, the icicles that ‘go with the house’, and who become characters in a work that survives. The paradoxical complexity is much richer than that of ‘Mrs Mean’ (‘to see, to feel, to know, to possess’), but it would take too long to demonstrate here. In any case, if this third model is also present, it is subtly, almost surreptitiously introduced, and would add to the already subtle crossing of the other two.
Brautigan and Barthelme are much more overt stylizers. Brautigan’s The Hawkline Monster (1974) is subtitled A Gothic Western, thus declaring its two models. The Abortion (1971) is subtitled An Historical Romance 1966, and Willard and his Bowling Trophies (1975) is a hilarious take-off of pointless Mafia murder. The Gothic, the Western, the Gangster film have of course often been parodied, even by the same medium as the model, but Brautigan’s take-offs are not parodies in the usual sense of exaggerating the features of the model for an opposite purpose. On the contrary, there is rare reduction, in simple, factual sentences (statement for utterance, éconcé for éconciation) expressed by a deadpan, omniscient narrator (who has made a big comeback in both metafiction and surfiction), who ‘dips’ into every character’s mind in a way that would shock the post-Jamesian school. The minds into which he dips, however, are almost empty:
During supper Greer and Cameron casually watched the Hawkline Monster about the throats and in the hair of the Hawkline sisters.
The monster was very informal during the meal. Its light diminished in the necklaces and the shadowy moving colour in the sisters’ hair was motionless, fading almost into the natural colour of their hair.
The meal was steaks and potatoes and biscuits and gravy. It was a typical Eastern Oregon meal and eaten with a lot of gusto by Greer and Cameron.
Greer sat thinking about the monster and thinking how this was still the same day they had awakened in a barn in Billy . . .
Cameron counted random things in the room. He counted the things on the table: dishes, silverware, plates, etc . . . 28, 29, 30, etc.
It was something to do.
Then he counted the pearls that the Hawkline Monster was hiding in: . . . 5, 6, etc.
The chapter (28 lines) is called ‘Counting the Hawkline Monster’. The tone throughout is casual, inconsequential. Similarly in Willard and his Bowling Trophies we follow the sex life of two separate couples in two separate apartments of the same house in San Francisco, one couple playing (badly) at sadism, the other having a room full of bowling trophies under the watchful eye of a huge papier mâché bird, Willard. Elsewhere, the Logan brothers have had their bowling trophies stolen. They set out to find them, for three years, from one state to another, living on filling stations hold-ups and in dingy hotel rooms, one drinking beer, one reading comics, the other waiting for a phone call with information about the bowling trophies. Eventually, the Logan brothers locate the house and kill the wrong couple, shouting ‘BOWLING TROPHY THIEVES DIE!’ We never know how the trophies got to that room or whether the Logans find out their mistake or get the trophies back. The stylization is one of tone (the deadpan Bogart style) and reversal: the unreal world of the cinema, which has spread to and is being overtaken by ‘real life’, is treated, not with the whipped up and quickly forgotten sensationalism of the media, but with arbitrary images of buying cornflakes or opening a can of peas. As in Trout Fishing in America (1967), In Watermelon Sugar (1964) (idyllic models), and A Confederate General from Big Sur (1965) (idyllic dropout model), the extravagant is stylized into the norm.
Barthelme also uses reduction to bare, factual sentences, statement for utterance, but his stylization is much more mysterious. The Dead Father (1975) for instance is a mythic, heroic quest, but treated with consummate irony: the giant quester is ‘dead’ and eventually buried in a quarry-sized hole dug by bulldozers; that is, as R. Davis has pointed out, he is psychoanalytically dead but in fact, (during the mythic journey) alternately comatose and frenetic.8 His fits of slaying (e.g. ‘in a grove of music and musicians’) are both biblical in tone and wildly implausible:
First he slew a harpist and then a performer upon the serpent and also a banger upon the rattle and also a blower of the Persian trumpet . . . The Dead Father slew a cittern plucker and five lyresmiters (long list of more and more absurd instruments). The dead Father resting with his two hands on the hilt of his sword, which was planted in the red and steaming earth.
My anger, he said proudly.
Then the Dead Father sheathing his sword pulled from his trousers his ancient prick and pissed upon the dead artists, severally and together, to the best of his ability – four minutes, one pint.
Moreover, the Dead Father is drawn by a cable (chained, like Prometheus) and his assistant-quester-son is highly suspect in his attitude. The son’s story of his ‘imitation’ is also treated with irony, and of course the ‘father’ is itself both a literary and a psychoanalytical model. The point is, however, that the mythic quest and the mythical elements are not the ‘key’ to the meaning (as in ‘modernist’ writing and as R. Davis appears to think), but are stylized as in themselves meaningless, or rather as meaning no more than what the text literally says, nothing ‘in between the lines’.
Another model is the fairy tale glass mountain (‘The Glass Mountain’, in City Life, 1976), which ‘stands at the corner of Thirteenth Street and Eighth Avenue’, climbed by the narrator as crowds watch. The climb is told in one hundred numbered paragraphs, ranging from one word (’11. “Shithead”. /12. “Asshole”‘) to eighteen lines (80), but more often one simple sentence, and ends: ‘100. Nor are eagles plausible, not at all, not for a moment.’City Life also plays with visual models in a most intriguing way (e.g. ‘At the Tolstoy Museum’). Similarly the Jamesian and post-Jamesian complexities are stripped bare: ‘Where is the figure in the carpet? Or is it just . . . carpet?’ (Snow White, 1968). Meaning is itself one of our many fictions.
Barthelme’s stylization is not only more mysterious than Brautigan’s or Gass’ but also more varied, and so, inevitably, a hit-or-miss affair, to use Lodge’s term about postmodernism in general. Some of his pieces have a certain New Yorker smartness that leaves one with the emptiness, not of the ‘stare’ but of disappointment (relative to his other texts).
Finally I have chosen as illustrations of postmodern stylization two books by writers whom Zavarzadeh mentions under Surfiction, Ishmael Reed and Ronald Sukenick. They are utterly different from each. Zavarzadeh says that surfiction lays bare the conventions of narrative but less incestuously that metafiction, and prefers to ‘engage’ the reality outside (rather than inside) the fictional ‘discourse’, refusing ‘to make any claim to interpreting reality’ (not even in the parody of ‘over-interpretation’). But since Surfiction also stylizes (as opposed to dramatizing the theme of non-interpretability in basically realistic form), I prefer my broad division, (stylization and parody) for surfiction is not essentially very different from the stylization considered here: Reed is as whacky as Barth and as zany as Brautigan, while Sukenick is as directly engaged with ‘the reality outside’ as Gass, and only the stylization in each is individual.
Reed’s Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down (1969) is a strongly stylized send-up of the Wild West, to the point of parody in Bakhtin’s sense of an orientation diametrically opposed to that of the model. The hero, for one thing, the Loop Garoo Kid, is the baddy, and he is black, a black cowboy being inconceivable in the racist model. The only Indian is one solitary leftover, Chief Showcase, who flies in his private plane to and from Paris to pick up the latest Cardin ‘jacket with fur in the hood’, dropping off in mid-desert to save the Loop Garoo at one point, or in Washington to talk to Field Marshall Theda Doompussy Blackwell, an elderly queer in a wig, and Pete the Peke, Congressman. There is complete anachrony since the President (Frenchy) is Thomas Jefferson, who ‘likes niggers a whole lot’ and appropriates $2,500 to add to his collection of mammoth bones at Monticello. Loop’s enemy is Drag Gibson, who has close-circuit television in his room to spy on his own gang, and who is more and more defeated by Loop’s voodoo, although a last minute visit from the Pope slightly restores his prestige. The Pope (dropping his American Italian accent) tells Drag how to catch the Loop Garoo, by bribing his stray artist supporters to steal the mad dog’s tooth around his neck, which Loop, pretending to sleep, allows them to do. The Pope visits Loop in jail and has a very funny pope-to-devil dialogue with him (‘You’re his Son too, Loop’), Loop refusing to ‘end this foolishness and come on home’, for ‘even martyrdom can be an art form, don’t you think?’ And when the Pope says, ‘So you think by allowing yourself to be humiliated by mortals he’ll respect you too, huh?’, Loop answers, ‘No, I just wanted to show the world what they were really up to. I’m always with the avant-garde.’ Loop’s execution is inevitably stopped at the last minute by the Field Marshall, ‘dressed like a Dresden doll’; Drag falls into the swinepit he used for punishing others (the pigs later discuss this unexpected dessert); and almost everyone is massacred by the sudden spears from the children who have survived an earlier massacre and formed their own community (‘We decided to create our own fiction’). ‘They all ignored the Loop Garoo Kid left standing and cheated out of his own martyrdom.’ He rides off on his green horse and rushes after the Pope, reaching the coast to see the ship on the horizon and plunging in after it. ‘Well I’ll be damned, and hallelujah, here comes the Loop, the Pontiff smiled. Thomas Jefferson was out of a job but that was O.K. too’ (last sentence).
The story is told in a racy ‘western’ vernacular and brief paragraphs with spaces in between (even in dialogue) like separate film shots. Almost every page is a parody of cultural archetypes, Europeans, African, and American, but chiefly the latter: and, as we have seen above, there are also ‘art’ models. When Loop wakes to find himself surrounded by ‘a shabby crew’ of horsemen: ‘It was Bo Shmo and the neo-realist gang.’
So Sympathetic Americans sent funds to Bo Shmo which he used to build one huge neo-realist institution in the Mountains. Wagon trains of neo-social realist composers writers and painters could be seen winding up its path.
Ronald Sukenick seems almost neo-realist in contrast, but again in such a stylized way that the effect can be unreal. Up (1968) – despite a couple of tales with the tale (Strop Banally), a mock review of The Adventures of Strop Banally, by Ronald Sukenick (a self-indulgently and implausibly long review), and the author appearing as Ron or Ronnie or ‘our hero later called Suchanitch Subanitch Sockenack Bookenack Sackanook and so on’ – is straight-faced narrative of scenes and dialogue between people, with a lot of sex, mildly funny but no more interesting than many reportage-of-daily-life novels. Out (1973) has diminishing paragraphs and changing names; ultimately, however, the deadpan stylization of reportage is in constant danger of fusing with the model, and unless one is particularly fascinated with sex and violence, the model is uninteresting.
In 98.6 however (1975), Sukenick seems to find the more subtle balance between realism and its stylization that the ‘slight shadow’ requires. The first part, ‘Frankenstein’ (a place which could be San Fransisco, but which later acquires the sense of America during ‘the Dynasty of the Million Lies’ and ‘the Slaughter’ and, on another level, monster building modern civilization) is told in the third person, present tense, and unpunctuated sentences: as a reportage collage of sex scenes, dialogues, poetic moments, and frank narrator comment which (being in the present tense) tends to fuse with free indirect discourse. Each chapter starts with a double figure (times or American style dates, it doesn’t matter which, the precise but arbitrary notation being itself a stylization of diary writing): 12/25 the blond comes in two parts. One part comes in a red Triumph 500 . . . 1/7 the blond comes in two parts here comes the second part she falls in love with him (30,32). Or:
10/23 he has a thing and that is that he’s only interested in the extraordinary. He thinks that the extraordinary is the answer to The Problem. For example he’d rather sit at home and watch the hummingbird at the feeder outside his window than go through the motions of a common seduction with nothing special about it . . . He believes in powers meaning the extension of the ordinary to the point of the incredible and he believes that these powers are real though they can’t be willed and they belong to everyone who isn’t blinded by the negative hallucination of our culture. A negative hallucination is when you don’t see something that’s really there.
And there is a very funny ‘chapter’ in which his car, first called a canoe, then a boat, ‘sailing down 7th Avenue’, having lost its brakes, metamorphoses sentence by sentence, as does the place:
The car hurtles down the street . . . turning off the ignition he finds he can slow the careening motorcycle in fact he manages to stop the Harley pretty fast for such a heavy machine. He gets off tinkers with the mechanism isn’t able to fix it luckily a motorbike like that is just light enough to carry though it’s no bag of feathers especially when you’re not even sure which direction to take in a city like this. It’s discouraging but still he can think of worse situations than carrying a broken ten speed bike through the streets of Paris. In fact he feels it’s a good thing that all he has to lug around with him is his pogo stick even though it’s sadly wilted and he feels terribly deserted being so completely lost in a city whose name he even forgets.
Similarly the notion that nothing visible is real or unique but a spectacle, a duplication which is the mask of the unreal, was the basic philosophy of Surrealism, of which American ‘postmodernism’ often seems a late and diluted version. The lateness, then is itself a naïveté.
But these are occasional moments, and mostly we’re in the reportage style of Up. In the second and longest part, ‘The Children of Frankenstein’, the ‘he’ at first seems to have become Paul, one of many in a settlement, who try to reinvent life, to become ‘mutants’, among whom is Ron, the original ‘he’, a writer. The third person shifts to anyone of them: ‘Ron is writing a book. He has a novel idea as a matter of fact it’s an idea for a novel. His idea is to write a novel by recording whatever happens to their group so that they’re all characters in his book including himself.’ But later: ‘Hi Ron. How’s the novel about us going says Paul. I’m not writing it.’ And later still: ‘What chaos. Cloud (as Ron has become clutches his head. Cloud no longer believes any of this is happening. This is not real life. What was happening is now all over. It lacks credibility. Cloud is writing a novel again. It’s almost finished.’ That is, when things lack credibility, he can start writing again. Or, more self-reflexively still, and as rather an in-joke: ‘Cloud has tried up and he has tried out. Neither of them works. Maybe nothing works,’ which refers within the fiction to one of his many philosophies (‘all the horizontal things are interchangeable, the vertical ones unique’) and outside the fiction to his previous fictions. The whole style in fact is partly an imitation, partly a stylization and further extension of Gertrude Stein’s, without the repetitive aspects of what she called the ‘continuous present’, not in fact a present tense but constant minute variations of repetitions to insist on the uniqueness of each episode.
The characters as we can see decide to change their names after a potlatch or other sexual or ritual experiences. Ron becomes Cloud, Evelyn his girlfriend becomes Eucalyptus (and when she leaves him for a rival community, Eve), Joan becomes Valley, Paul becomes Wind, Ralph (after resisting) becomes Quasar (but it doesn’t stick), etc. The settlement is Earth, a neighbouring one is Trypton (The Superman Planet), etc. Ron’s settlement, like all Utopias, disintegrates, Cloud eventually ‘bursts’ and becomes ‘he’ again, and even ‘I’, and even (once) ‘Someone’. The poetic idyll is interrupted brutally by the third part, ‘Palestine’, where ‘I’ takes over, in a curiously shifting way, in an unreal conversation with Bobby Kennedy, who is both assassinated and still alive, at the White House and apparently at the same time on a beach or with a rabbinic figure of a sage. In fact all the figures in the novel, but particularly Ron, ‘filter’ a general commentary on life, so that the ‘narrator-filter’ problem, apparently resolved by the style, is as much present as in the realistic novel.
Cloud for instance has invented ‘psychosynthesis’, as opposed to psychoanalysis, and psychosynthesis is based on the Mosaic Law (parts in the absence of wholes), an absurd contradiction since synthesis means making a whole out of parts. But the contradiction seems not to be a joke, for the context continues apparently in earnest. Eucalyptus has ‘dropped psychoanalysis not because it did no good but because she didn’t want to spend the rest of her life preparing for the rest of her life.’ ‘Cloud feels that life is a lot like a novel you have to make it up,’ while Blossom
no longer has to filter events through the particular distortions of her psychology psychology was the mark of a previous era. What we have instead of psychology is imagination. In any case psychology was always the science of the imagination but as a medical science was obliged to treat it like a sickness. For Bud and Branch imagination is a cure what does it cure why itself of course. It cures psychology. Which is to say it cures nothing it’s just a beginning but a beginning has one great advantage it allows us to proceed.
This somewhat Beckettian last sentence inverts the whole notion as expressed in Todorov that the themes of the fantastic left literature because they were taken over by psychoanalysis, and Sukenick is obviously serious here, filtering his own ideas through the characters, as indeed the narrator voice does throughout.9 But unfortunately his ideas are often more naive. The imagination is much less rich than Brautigan, Barthelme, or Reed, closer to fancy in the Wordsworthian distinction.
Yet the book is much more than ‘slice-of-life’. For what Sukenick is ultimately concerned with is the uniqueness of the real, the uniqueness of the ‘ordinary made extraordinary’, of the real made unreal. And if he doesn’t always succeed, that is part of the ‘hit-or-miss’ character of the task, which is quite unusually difficult, and is being tackled in many ways.
If we imagine a circle, the upper half representing parodic dramatization, the lower half stylization, with a fluctuating dividing line and the content of the circle representing the ‘task’, then the writers I have discussed could be noted round the circumferences, representing various segments or slices of the circle: at the top of the upper half (parody of realism), Fowles (almost straight dramatization); to the left, Barth (pure parody, towards stylization, but satirical, light of touch); to the right, Pynchon (ostensible parody, towards stylization, but less so, and still heavily realistic in manner; then Coover (further towards stylization). Beneath Coover, in the lower half (stylization), Gass (still tipping back into realism), then Brautigan (stylization), then Barthelme (pure stylization); moving up to the right, back towards parody, Reed; then almost realistic dramatization again but in a highly individual style, bordering on imitation rather than stylization of a specific (Steinian) model, Sukenick. But such imaginings arc ‘schemas’, anathema to these writers, which is why I don’t dare draw it, but give it discursively, that it might get lost.
Where Do We Go from Here?
Towards silence, exhaustion? Or a new beginning? A good ‘theory’ should be able to ‘predict’, not in the futurological sense, but in accounting for all the theoretical possibilities. But I am not a pure theorist, and even less a prophet, and critical prophecies have a way of being undone by artists. Apocalyptic prophets can be pessimistic (total destruction) or optimistic (death and renewal).
One absurd fallacy should perhaps be got out of the way: the ‘death of the novel’ has been announced for half a century or more, and journalistic critics always mock this and point out that thousands of novels go on getting published and read, because people will always want ‘stories’. That is entirely beside the point. Stories of one kind or another (even stories about stories) will indeed always continue, but they have always found and will continue to find their home in different forms. When the medieval verse romance got exhausted it became prose romance, and when that got exhausted, roughly in the fourteenth century, romances went on being written for at least a hundred years, and even well (Malory), just as Chaucer wrote an excellent verse romance (but in stanza form) a century after its heyday. But stories eventually found a more vivid form in the theatre, which regalivanized storytelling later into epic, then satire and the novel. The great nineteenth-century novel has continued, in both diluted and revivified forms, right through the twentieth, but it has for a long time shown sighs of exhaustion in its turn, so that stories have escaped into the new media, film and its younger, as yet babbling offspring, television. Hence the ‘elitist’ wave of experiment and iconoclastic deconstructionism and stylization of various kinds. The new wave itself, in its concern about non-interpretation and its self-reflexive ways of dealing with it, is a sign of decadence and apocalyptic premonitions, like the multiplication of rhetorics and their concern for systems of meaning.
It is true however that iconoclasm as such cannot last (I mean the individual works may last but not the deconstruction). As Lodge says in a more specific context, ‘it would truly abolish itself, by destroying the norms against which we perceive its deviations.’ Similarly Susan Sontag:
The present prospect is that artists will go on abolishing art, only to resurrect it in a more retracted version. As long as art bears up under the pressure of chronic interrogation, it would seem desirable that some of the questions have a certain playful quality. But this prospect depends, perhaps, on the viability of irony itself.
I have postponed the problem of irony, and clearly I shall not solve it here, it would require a book in itself, and has had, from others. Barthes dismisses it as just another code that merely shows the superiority of one voice over another, which closes off the plurality of codes; and he insists that it has disappeared from modern writing, thanks to the degree zero of tone, already nascent (as uncertainty of irony) in Flaubert – for the idol must be disculpated. Sontag also casts doubt on irony, for although it has been valued from Socrates on as a serious method of seeking and holding one’s truth and saving one’s sanity, ‘as it becomes the good taste of what is, after all, an essentially collective activity – the making of art – it may prove less serviceable.’ She adds that we need not judge it as categorically as Nietzsche, who equated the spread of irony throughout a culture with decadence and the approaching end of that culture’s vitality, but:
There still remains a question as to how far the resources of irony can be stretched. It seems unlikely that the possibilities of continually undermining one’s assumptions can go on unfolding indefinitely into the future, without being checked by despair or by a laughter that leaves one without any breath at all.
Similarly Ihab Hassan talks of a self consuming irony.
As we have seen, the writers I have surveyed here depend a great deal on irony, on more than a humdrum collusion with the reader (for collusion there must be). Some of the irony is naive, curiously mingled with earnestness and sometimes (if it is irony) astonishingly regressive in character, for instance in the treatment of sex, which is often ludicrously, limitedly, and it seems unconsciously phallocratic in most of the writers examined here (with the exception of Barthelme and Brautigan). But the healthy signs are surely the very element of naïveté I have here and there commented on, not by way of carping but to bring them out as such. If Northrop Frye is right, an exhausted literature turns to more popular forms either directly, in the sense that they are themselves taken more seriously by the ‘central’ tradition, or indirectly in the sense of parody and stylization by the ‘serious’ artists of that ‘central’tradition.10 The fact that this is happening so late, so long after the forms have become stereotypes, oft-parodied, and even declared moribund, is one of the paradoxes of American literature: its naïveté, its vigour, as well as the undeniable fact that it is now sometimes over-rated simply because it is American, and the culture of a great power always has more sway (for itself, for others) than that of a minor country, especially if its language becomes quasi-universal. But perhaps European experiments against realistic fiction, in the early part of the century (Gide, Pirandello, Surrealism on) were themselves part of an exhausted tradition. Sukenick has pleaded for an even more radical breakaway of American literature from its European roots, since America, with its many and enriching non-European elements, is culturally far wider than Europe, and certainly all dead and dying models are grist to its parody-mill: Westerns are no longer made, the Gothic is over a century old, the gangster film long overtaken by life, SF weighed down by clichés and only here and there renewed, the realistic novel, by now a popular form, long declared dead, and only its most tired and nineteenth-century features parodied or stylized, etc.11
Similarly the notion that nothing visible is real or unique but a spectacle, a duplication which is the mask of the unreal, was the basic philosophy of Surrealism, of which American ‘postmodernism’ often seems a late and diluted version. The lateness, then, is itself a naïveté, which should regalvanize procedures, more vigorously perhaps than their more sophisticated European antecedents. Just as Don Quixote, a mock-romance long after the romance had died, was the beginning of modern fiction, or Tristram Shandy the end and the beginning of the modern novel, so the result now should be a new strength, new forms, even realistic ones, stripped of their tired formulas and interpretive mania, merely showing the real, in its unique ‘idiocy’, as the fantastic which it is. For ultimately all fiction is realistic, whether it mimes a mythic idea of heroic deeds or a progressive idea of society, or inner psychology or, as now, the non-interpretability of the world, which is our reality as its interpretability once was (and may return). A fantastic realism. A new classicism perhaps: ‘nous vivons peut-être un pre-classicisme’, as Gaetan Picon said of Robbe-Grillet.
But not, I think, the romantic ‘New Gnosticism’ Ihab Hassan rhapsodizes, whereby, according to McLuhan, Buckminster Fuller and others including of course Teilhard de Chardin who sparked it all off, the old gnostic dream and the new technological dream, after the present period of transition or disjunction, would converge toward a universal consciousness, the consciousness of God in Susan Sontag’s terms, or the noossphere in Chardin’s. Hassan admits that the radical insufficiency of the human condition still offers intractable resistance to the old gnostic dream; and this resistance, he says, whether we call it evil (ananke) or The System, must be acknowledged, without assent.
At the risk of siding with ananke or The System, I am less optimistic about the gnostic dream. This consciousness that is to wrap the planet seems to me dangerously like the pollution that may stifle it. For every work of incomparable genius in all fields there are millions of tons of paper wasted in garbage, in the same way as that every benefit of civilization is paid for not only in entropy but in pollution and extremely ugly politics to get hold of raw materials – what’s left of them, not to mention the thousands of children’s brains atrophied from lack of protein. The gnostic dream of the best scientific, technological, and artistic brain stuff enveloping the earth seems to me essentially an elitist dream, akin to J. D. Bernal’s (ironic, SF) suggestion that mankind may eventually divide into two species, the scientists and the others, the scientists colonizing the heaven but reverencing the earth as a sort of zoo (The World, the Flesh, and the Devil, 1929), or else not far removed from Wells’ collective mind or worldwide information service (World Brain, 1938), which presupposes an unprecedented harmony of minds: a mad and perhaps naive fusion of oblivion and Utopia one could call oblitopia. Let the artists dream their gnostic or other dreams and produce verbal or other structures of them, but why, if art is to be regarded as ‘no more nor less than anything else in life’ (Hassan’s words), should these dreams at the same time be given the supreme power of enveloping the planet (conquering the world), when neither those dreams nor man have shown the slightest capacity for solving the world’s real problems, only a brilliant capacity for displacing them? At any rate, that envelope of brain stuff, more and more words and formulas and forms, continuous or discontinuous, theoretical or intuitive, not only seems to me yet another displacement, but also has me dead scared, even if like everyone else and in my infinitesimal way I am contributing to it, or to the garbage.
I prefer to struggle more humbly inside that paradox, which to me is nevertheless the fundamental one today and the true symptom of mutation: the paradox of the liar who says he is a liar, the paradox of using words to say meaninglessness, the paradox of letting everyone prendre la parole when everyone knows that real power, whether political, economic, social, psychological or even mystical, functions silently and has no need of the semblance of speech, even though it never ceases to use that semblance to persuade that we participate. If art can cope with that kind of terror and humour, it has a long future yet.
1 Ernst von Glaserfeld, ‘Reflections on John Fowles’ The Magus and the Construction of Reality’, Georgia Review (Summer, 1977), pp. 444-48.
2 See Melvyn New, ‘Profaned and Stenciled Texts: In Search of Pynchon’s V‘, Georgia Review (Summer, 1979), pp. 395-412.
3 City of Words: American Fiction 1950-1970 (1974), p.51.
4 Problems of Dostoevsky’s Politics, R. W. Rotsel trans. (1973), p. 157.
5 La réel: Traîté de l’idiocie (1977).
6 In Delta (May, 1979), 8, pp. 65-86.
7 ‘Barthelme: Post-Modern Paternity’, Delta (May, 1979), 8, pp. 127-140.
8 The Fantastic: A Structuralist Approach to a Literary Genre, Richard Howard trans. (1975).
9 S/Z, Richard Miller trans. (1970).
10 In The Secular Scripture: A Study of Structure of Romance.
11 In ‘Eight Digressions on the Politics of Language’. New Literary History (1979), X, 3.