postmodernism

The Defining Moment of Modernist Literature

There are certain literary works about which it is universally agreed that everyone should read them once in their lives.  The traditional classics, of course: Homer, the other Greeks, Virgil and certain other Romans.  Dante and Beowulf.  Then there are the more modern works such as Cervantes and Chaucer and Shakespeare.  Voltaire.  There are books among the Romantics and Victorians that are considered mandatory: Austen, two of the Brontë sisters (probably the wrong ones, but that’s a post for another day), Dickens and Thackaray.  Melville.  After that, perhaps Hemingway and Fitzgerald, maybe interspersed with some Salinger and Woolf to keep people honest.  The list above does not attempt to be comprehensive, it’s just off the top of my head… but most people know which classics they should have read by now.

Ulysses by James Joyce - First edition

There are some gaps in my own reading, even of the limited list above.  I haven’t read enough of the non-Homer and Virgil classics.  And I’m missing a boatload of poets and dramatists, mainly because I prefer prose (which made reading Chapman’s Homer and Longfellow’s Dante a chore).

But I can finally hold my head up high despite all of this.  You see, I read James Joyce’s Ulysses from cover to cover.  In fact, I enjoyed it much more than I thought I would.

Why, I can hear people asking as they scratch their heads, is Ulysses so significant?  It won’t change the fact that I’m woefully lacking in Yeats and Cicero, after all.

Well there are a couple of answers to that one.  The first is perhaps more banal: even among people who self-describe as extremely well-read, there are many who only pretend to have read the thing.  No one likes to admit that they haven’t cracked a significant volume open, but unless it was specifically mandated in college, most won’t have.  That, alone, makes me happy to have taken the effort.

The second reason is because Joyce was anointed as the absolute master of modernist literature and, since the Modernists (note capital M), like all -ists believed that their movement was the be-all and end-all of artistic relevance, he was therefore the greatest writer to ever live.

I wouldn’t go as far as that, but it’s fair to say that, by  adopting a number of then-revolutionary techniques, modernism (unlike its successor, post-modernism, which has contributed little to anything but irrelevant and impractical political stances) did help to mold what we consider contemporary prose.  If nothing else, stream-of-consciousness has become a perfectly valid modern-day tool.

And which book is the standard-bearer for stream-of-consciousness?  Well, it has to be Ulysses, doesn’t it?  An argument might be made for Woolf, but it would be a short one, mainly because most people agree that Joyce was the writer who epitomizes this technique, and Ulysses is the novel where he shows it off.

Joyce Ulysses Period REview Clipping

OK.  So the book is relevant.  But how is it to read?

That answer also has two facets.  The first is that of a reader approaching it for the first time.  The amount of ink dedicated to explaining how to go about that is astounding (it’s a good thing we don’t get our ink from squids, or mass extinctions would have ensued).  They tell you to first familiarize yourself with homer, then read the manuals and commentaries and then…

No.

If you’re a reader of this blog, then you are likely to be pretty well-read and of above-average intelligence and culture.  In fact, the mere fact that you’ve heard of Ulysses and are thinking of picking it up probably means that you don’t need to do all that to read a mere novel.  No matter if that book is the vaunted champion of the modernist world.

Pick it up.  Turn to the first page.  Read to the end.  You will catch some of the allusions.  You will miss others.  But, crucially, you will have formed your own opinion about it.  The book will have a shape inside your head unaffected by what others have said or thought.  It will be your reading.  And that is priceless.

Only afterwards does the second facet of the answer come into play.  Only once read and digested should you go back through it and understand its relationship with the classic material and the underlying irony of the comparative faithfulness of the two Penelopes, as well as the differing attitudes of the parallel Odysseuses.  And all the rest of what is hidden below the surface.

But whether that effort is worth your time must come from your first reading.  Does your mind get pulled in by the dangerous undertows of the underlying narrative?  If so, it is a book worth studying.  If not, onto the next.  Ultimately, the book needs to stand on its own.

Does it?  Well, I’m not going to answer that.  If you want to find out, you’ll have to take join the honorable ranks of those who have finished Ulysses.

As for me, I’ve read the supposed bugaboo of the twentieth century.  But we all know that this one is just the famous sibling.  The true elephant in the room is Finnegan’s Wake.  Kind of like Ulysses, but at night, while in a fever dream.

Hmmm…

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The Single Biggest Issue with Postmodernism

It’s interesting to note that, of all philosophical trends in history, only modernism was declared dead due to a failure of architecture.  The demolition of the Pruitt-Igoe complex in St. Louis was hailed by everyone from serious sociologists to literary critics as the end of one era and the beginning of the next, which they imaginatively called “postmodernism”.

pruitt-igoe implosion

Pruitt-Igoe complex demolition – hailed as the end of Modernism.

Of course, the aspiring postmodernists had were simply using a fortuitous event to further their cause and ignoring inconvenient truths.  While it’s true that Pruitt-Igoe was undoubtedly designed on modernist principles, its failure had more to do with mismanagement and public policies than with modernism itself*.

In the long tradition of social reformers, however, the postmodernists ignored the facts and pushed their way of thinking forward – successfully.

In its original form, postmodernism was a typical adolescent rebellion by social theorists against what had come before, turning a skeptical eye towards both antique institutions and modernism itself.

So far, so good.  They say nothing is more predictable for intelligent people than the avant-garde, and postmodernism was living up to that truism from the outset, and would soon settle down to become the established norm with new rules and values.

They did this admirably.  Nowadays, if you know what is particular pet topic is, you can write a postmodernist scholar’s paper for him before he knows he is going to write it**.

And therein lies the problem, and ultimate barrenness of postmodern thought.  At some point, postmodernism began searching for tools with which to give form to what began as a rejection of what came before, and they seem to have taken a wrong turn.

The central tenet they ended up embracing is, in layman’s terms, that there is no such thing as a “big picture”, and that it is perfectly valid to analyze individual elements separately – and in a separate, but ultimately equally damaging turn, that the observer is a critical part of the analysis.

While subjectivists were alive in Ancient Greece, the idea that single-element analysis is valid it’s called deconstruction, BTW) has been particularly detrimental in combination with it, damaging fields as disparate as History and Architecture.

We can dispense with the architectural elements easily – all one needs to do is to envision a building where the elements are meant to be viewed individually with no concern for the whole.  There are some out there (you can see one below – and it isn’t even the ugliest), but most architects have a grounding in art history, and an appreciation for aesthetics, so they have, on the whole, rejected the idea that the big picture is irrelevant.

k2_building_tokyo

The K2 building is Pure postmodernism.

Where things do get unfortunate, however is in the softer sciences such as history or literary criticism (I won’t repeat the XKCD joke here – go find it yourself!).

History students suffering the postmodern wave of revisionism (every movement has its revisionist wave) are being taught that unimportant groups and people were just as important as the movers and shakers of their era.  That slaves were historically important in societies where they were just used as human cattle, or that minority groups were politically influential in ancient India, or whatever.  The justification seems to be that the history of anyone who ever existed is important, so it must be taught as important.

The reality is that the suffering of minorities, slaves, or any other disenfranchised group is only important in times when the group managed to get some kind of power… if not, their suffering actually was in vain.

And yet, historians today are telling a different story.  It’s all very democratic, but will ultimately prove as damaging to the science as any other philosophically-based prejudice (see Eugenics for another 20th century attempt to fit history to philosophy – that one didn’t turn out so well either).

Criticism is often a butt of jokes about the academic worth of its practitioners, but we have to admit that, lately, the discipline has earned the scorn.

The problem is that with deconstruction allowing one to choose the focus one wants, it becomes easy – nay, obligatory – to focus on a single dimension when evaluating a work of art.

Warhol Campbells Soup

Soup Can: very pretty, but how does it speak to animal rights?

So a novel that touches the human spirit can be attached for not being feminist enough, a beautiful sculpture is worthless because it doesn’t address the plight of oppressed minorities.  Postmodernism’s obsession with minutiae blinds it to everything other than minutiae, to its own detriment.  Political arguments in the early 21st century seem to be imbibed with the same kind of narrow-gauge thinking.

It ends up feeling like postmodernism is the whiny self-absorbed teenager of philosophical movements…  Even to the point where there are already rumblings of a post-postmodernism.

However, like whiny teenagers, it will be hard to steer this one to a good port.  You see, the death blow to postmodernist thought has already been dealt, nearly two decades ago.

In 1996, physicist Alan Sokal submitted an intentionally flawed, parodical academic article to peer-reviewed postmodern journal Social Text.  Not only did the ridiculous piece pass the peer review process, but, after Sokal came forward to announce the hoax, some of the journals defenders actually said that (and I paraphrase) “Sokal didn’t understand the actual depth and significance of the piece he had written”.

Now that is more embarrassing than a simple demolition, don’t you think?

 

 

 

*Modernism clearly had its moronic moments, but Pruitt-Igoe wasn’t its fault.

**For example, that last sentence would be rewritten by a feminist post-modernist using “her” in place of “him” and “she” in place of “he”.  A multi-gender postmodernist will attempt to use an invented gender-neutral word in its place, etc.