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Against "the postmodern novel"

A postmodern novel

[Here's an excerpt from a book on 'humanism' I wanted to write back in 2006. It's from a passage in which I was arguing against postmodern forms of literature, with their skepticism of old-fashioned narrative and all the other elements of a traditional literary aesthetic. Juvenile in some respects, this passage might at least contain a few thoughts that are defensible.]

...I’d advise optimism to writers of fiction and poetry—serious fiction, not Dan Brownian crap. But Dan Brown’s popularity shows that, despite what I wrote earlier about the demise of narrative, people still enjoy reading books for the plot. And they still like to identify with a protagonist, and have the world interpreted for them by the narrator, and experience a Beginning and an End despite the supposed childish simplicity of that notion, and in general to escape once in a while from the oppressive spirit of “seriousness”. That is, people like to play, to enjoy themselves, and they always will, no matter at what age and in what era. To fantasize, to be taken to a different place and time by a narrator manipulating your consciousness into temporary forgetfulness of stress and time and all cynicism, is a delight. There are plenty of novels that are neither purely commercial nor purely intellectual (i.e., on the “cutting edge” of literature) yet borrow elements from both the high and the low—for instance, the beautifully constructed sentences and thematic significance of the high, but the so-called “inauthentic” narrative elements of the low—plenty of novels with these features that become popular, critically acclaimed and commercially successful. There is no need to despair, then, if you’re a writer. Fiction is indeed held in more contempt [implicitly] by our culture than by any in centuries, perhaps millennia, but it is still enjoyed. It has to be, and it always will be.

A great writer, a writer on the order of Tolstoy or Dostoyevsky, who is not merely ‘challenging’ but also suspenseful and enjoyable, epic and universal, can still exist in this society. Such a writer would necessarily have contempt for the postmodernist’s contempt for narrative; he would reject the self-consciousness of a novel like The Unbearable Lightness of Being as being symptomatic of a societal malaise and as such parochial; he would reject opinions like Richard Gilman’s, that narration is “precisely that element of fiction which coerces and degrades it into a mere alternative to life, like life, only better of course, a dream (or a serviceable nightmare), a way out, a recompense, a blueprint, a lesson”—or rather accept them but reject their hostile undertone, saying in response, “The conviction of the inauthenticity of narrative and most fiction arises precisely from the inauthenticity of the culture whose conviction it is, from the self-consciousness and universal doubt of a self-hostile age, which doesn’t realize that life itself should, so to speak, be an alternative to life, that philistine ‘seriousness’ is in the spirit of death, that life, with all its unhappiness and joy, should be grounded in the spirit of play—of luxury, of superfluity—and not in any sort of mimesis of the dull nihilism of the universe or of life ‘as it is in itself’, ‘as it really is’—‘absurd’, ‘senseless’, ‘meaningless’, ‘fragmentary’—and that fiction in the grand old style, from this perspective, is indeed the fulfillment of life!” The fragmented, self-skeptical postmodern novel has its strengths, but it is something that has to be superseded. Its insights have to be taken up and transcended, in the Hegelian fashion. A great writer in this post-postmodern age would make allowances for our self-consciousness, our ‘sophistication’, giving it its due, but ultimately in the epic sweep of his novel would leave behind its nihilistic implications. He would, that is, abandon postmodern fragmentedness—with its solipsistic wordplay, its indeterminate meanings, its competing and irreconcilable voices, its unstructured structure—in favor of a vast unity (though not necessarily a “univocal” unity) that includes fragmentedness as a “moment” in the whole.

Narrative can never really die, the novel can never die. They’re too essential to the good life. They may suffer temporary eclipse in a culture characterized by the eclipse of humanistic confidence, but even then they’ll enjoy a sort of underground popularity, as they do now—a popularity outside elite culture. A writer who would reclaim the primeval nobility of his vocation would not be ashamed of his instinct for narrative, nor of his instinct for synthesis. For synthesis is the imperative in all spheres of life. Analysis, yes; rebellion, yes; but ultimately synthesis. Unification, self-unification (one of the manifestations of which, I've noted elsewhere, is self-diversification). When reading literature, one doesn’t necessarily want to be reminded of one’s inauthenticity (the inauthenticity of one’s society), i.e., one’s lack of self-unification, one’s “decenteredness”—one’s doubts about selfhood, about the comprehensibility of life, about the existence of truth; one may, instead, want to partake in the imposing of order on life. Order is ultimately the only real ‘authenticity’, for the alternative to order is doubt—chaotic self-consciousness—which, as Hegel said, “alienates” one from oneself, separates one from one’s free nature. Order is true freedom, in the old Goethean formula. This is not just a meaningless humanistic slogan; it expresses a profound truth. For freedom is self-control, self-appropriation, the owning of one’s acts and consciousness; it is feeling-at-one-with-oneself, not being coerced by either an external or an internal force. Freedom amounts to mental health, which is just self-integration and self-order—having an intuitive ‘core’ self that can assimilate experiences and sort them out, relate them to one’s sense of self and thus appropriate them, making them one’s own and ‘explaining’ them by reference to the schema that one’s psyche imposes on the world.

My point is that, in literature, narrative—i.e., the relating of a succession of events from a perspective that at least partially ‘transcends’ them, from which they can be interpreted and sorted out, their interrelations remarked on, etc.—is analogous to real authenticity in the self, to freedom and autonomy, self-determination. The ability to enjoy narrative is an indication, though not proof, that one is not divided against oneself—that one can step outside oneself [...].


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