Postmodernism + Convictions – Vulnerability = ?

07Aug08

So, I’m going to start this with a lengthy quote from Kurt Vonnegut (Breakfast of Champions) because that’s generally a good idea, right?

I thought Beatrice Keedsler [a novelist character in the book] had joined hands with other old-fashioned storytellers to make people believe that life had leading characters, minor characters, significant details, insignificant details, that it had lessons to be learned, tests to be passed, and a beginning, a middle, and an end.

As I approached my fiftieth birthday, I had become more and more enraged and mystified by the idiot decisions made by my countrymen. And then I had come suddenly to pity them, for I understood how innocent and natural it was for them to behave so abominably, and with such abominable results: They were doing their best to live like people invented in story books. This was the reason Americans shot each other so often: It was a convenient literary device for ending short stories and books.

Why were so many Americans treated by their government as though their lives were as disposable as paper facial tissues? Because that was the way authors customarily treated bit-part players in their made-up tales.

And so on.

Once I understood what was making America such a dangerous, unhappy nation of people who had nothing to do with real life, I resolved to shun storytelling. I would write about life. Every person would be exactly as important as any other. All facts would also be given equal weightiness. Nothing would be left out. Let others bring order to chaos. I would bring chaos to order, instead, which I think I have done.

If all writers would do that, then perhaps citizens not in the literary trades will understand that there is no order in the world around us, that we must adapt ourselves to the requirements of chaos instead.

This is, as I’ve been telling everyone who’ll listen to me lately, probably the clearest and most persuasive rationale for postmodern fiction (which is what this is)–and postmodernism as a response to our fucked world (which seems to be Vonnegut’s stance)–that I’ve ever read. It renews my faith in postmodernism as ultimately a humanizing and totally rational way of approaching “reality.”

Matt and I were talking on the way back from MN about how postmodernism really isn’t so satisfying all the time, though. It seems that, to be considered a writer of any merit in our postmodern world, one has to totally reject any sense of meaning (which I don’t think Vonnegut does, but maybe that’s for later) and meaningfulness in their work. What this usually results in, in my opinion, is a lot of cleverness, a lot of irony, and ultimately a great deal of self-conscious posturing. We play with language without attempting to say anything with it (because it’s not possible to, right?). We refuse to take ourselves, or anyone else, seriously, and cannot deliver a line without couching it in self-effacing sarcasm. We make ourselves invulnerable by never admitting that we might be even the slightest bit important.

Literature that comes from this place is so unsatisfying for me. This is part of why I ultimately loved The Rainbow, because it’s totally unironic and grandstanding and disgustingly self-important–but totally, charmingly, embarrassingly vulnerable. No one dares write like that today–they’d be laughed right out of any literary circle they pretended to belong or aspire to.

I read this today in the most recent issue of English Journal in an article by a writer named Kohn about trying to teach in a modernist school system couched in a postmodern world (Did you make it through all those prepositional phrases? Good, because I’m not caring to revise that sentence.):

In the end, postmodern teachers may wonder if any knowledge at all is reliable. If nothing can be certain, it may seem sensible to accept bureaucratic conclusions and accede to power: at least someone is willing to lead. Teachers unwilling to do so must rigorously search for and find individual, provisional truths while allowing others to do the same.

The problem for me with postmodern fiction seems to be clearly articulated by that last sentence. If we are unwilling to submit to a (mendacious) modernist ideology, we maybe oughtn’t simply throw our hands up and say, “Bah! There’s no truth! Pass the tequila!” Doing so spawns the crapola that makes it hard for me to defend postmodernism to others–namely, the philosophical, spiritual, and intellectual (et cetera) dead-end that that sort of thinking leads us to. Nihilism is so not fun.

Instead, we *have* to try to make our own truths–and not haphazardly, but as Kohn puts it, “rigorously.” This means that, as writers, we oughtn’t to hide behind elaborately, ironically constructed personas, but might want to work instead on trying to harness our subjectivity in a positive way. To me, that means being vulnerable. Trying to be honest. Not clevering our way out of our own humanity, culpability, frailty… the stuff that makes us interesting to be around.

Matt and I pieced it together like this, when I was first trying to articulate a coherent thought about my uneasiness: Subjectivity is maybe our only way of accessing meaning today. Some postmodernist assumptions rely on the idea that subjectivity negates our ability to access meaning (since it makes absolutes–measurable, fixed truths–impossible). It’s a question of our truths vs. no truths. To me, it seems a little more generative to embrace, rather than bemoan, subjectivity. It’s maybe the only way of navigating the chaos. After all, each of us is going to choose the way we assemble and make meaning of what we read. Vonnegut knew that. I *think* he just wanted us to stop wanting others to tell us *how* to assemble our worlds, what the *right* way to make meaning is. We have to decide that for ourselves.

Extremely relatedly: I decided to stop reading Lolita, despite tons of reviews proclaiming its genius. I know, I know, it’s very well-written, and it’s so morally squishy, and so cleverly done…yeah, I get it. But for me, it was an exercise in shirking the responsibility of admitting one’s own subjectivity, in refusing to “rigorously search for and find individual, provisional truths.” I got disgusted with myself for actually supporting the idea that we ought to respect a book meant to get readers to be charmed by a fucking pedophile predator (and no, Lolita doesn’t have any significant “power” in this situation, I don’t believe, so the whole “But is Humbert predator or prey?” question isn’t compelling for me). It’s all very interesting and delightfully morally flippant and, for me, meaningless in the dead-end-iest and most irresponsible way. It shirks meaning so thoroughly that I can’t piece together anything, which, why do I bother reading it, then?

So… I guess I’m leaving this one open for now. I’m not even entirely sure I’ll agree with it later, but that might just be me trying to make myself invulnerable by being noncommittal (By the way, I think this is something we get better at over time–I remember being incredibly bombastically D.H. Lawrence-y in high school…now there’s, what? Too much at stake?). Well, right now, meaning is important to me. So there.

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4 Responses to “Postmodernism + Convictions – Vulnerability = ?”

  1. 1 L

    we maybe oughtn’t simply throw our hands up and say, “Bah! There’s no truth! Pass the tequila!”

    What.

  2. 2 J

    That’s not a question? Love you!

  3. 3 L

    One does not NOT say, “Pass the tequila!” FAILLLLL.


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