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Postmodernism Literature Essay Topics

Robert Alter

SOURCE: "The Self-Conscious Moment: Reflections on the Aftermath of Modernism," in TriQuarterly, No. 33, Spring, 1975, pp. 209-30.

[In the following essay, Alter presents an overview of postmodern fiction, including works by Cervantes, Borges, Flann O'Brien, Nabokov, and John Barth.]

Our literature has been for a hundred years a dangerous game with its own death, in other words a way of experiencing, of living that death: our literature is like that Racinean heroine who dies upon learning who she is but lives by seeking her identity.

—Roland Barthes, "Literature and Metalanguage"

A book is more than a verbal structure or series of verbal structures; it is the dialogue it establishes with its reader and the intonation it imposes upon his voice and the changing and durable images it leaves in his memory. . . . Literature is not exhaustible for the simple and sufficient reason that no single book is. A book is not an isolated entity: it is a relationship, an axis of innumerable relationships.

—J. L. Borges, "A Note on (Toward) Bernard Shaw"

Over the past two decades, as the high tide of modernism ebbed and its masters died off, the baring of literary artifice has come to be more and more a basic procedure—at times, almost an obsession—of serious fiction in the West. The creators of self-conscious fiction in our time do not constitute a school or a movement, and the lines of influence among them, or to them from their common predecessors, often tend to waver and blur when closely examined. Some of these writers have tried their hand at shorter fictional forms, which, after the Borgesian model, one now calls "fictions" rather than "short stories"; but most of them, perhaps inevitably, have turned back to, or stayed with, the novel, attracted by its large and various capacity to convey a whole imaginatively constituted world. Scattered over three continents, they are an odd mixture of stubbornly private eccentrics, on the one hand, and promulgators of manifestoes, on the other; of powerfully evocative novelists or conductors of ingenious laboratory experiments in fiction; of exuberant comic artists and knowing guides to bleak dead ends of despair.

This mode of fiction is variously practiced by such diverse figures as Raymond Queneau, Samuel Beckett, Alain Robbe-Grillet, Michel Butor, Claude Mauriac in France; John Fowles in England; Robert Coover, John Barth, Thomas Pynchon, Donald Barthelme, Kurt Vonnegut in this country; J. L. Borges and Julio Cortázar in Latin America; and, of course, Vladimir Nabokov, perched on his height in Switzerland, working out of three literary cultures. The whole reflexive tendency in contemporary fiction has been reinforced by the prominence of selfconscious cinema since the early sixties in the work of directors like Fellini, Antonioni, Resnais, and Godard. Film, because it is a collaborative artistic enterprise involving a complicated chain of technical procedures, almost invites attention to its constitutive processes; and there is a clear logic in the involvement in filmmaking of several of the French New Novelists, or in the repeated recourse to cinematic composition by montage in a writer like Robert Coover. The close parallels between what is happening now in the two media suggest that the selfconsciousness of both may reflect a heightened new stage of modern culture's general commitment to knowing all that can be known about its own components and dynamics. Our culture, a kind of Faust at the mirror of Narcissus, is more and more driven to uncover the roots of what it lives with most basically—language and its origins, human sexuality, the workings of the psyche, the inherited structures of the mind, the underlying patterns of social organization, the sources of value and belief, and, of course, the nature of art.

If this is the moment of the self-conscious novel, that is decidedly a mixed blessing, as the spectacular unevenness of innovative fiction today would indicate. The growing insistence of self-awareness in our culture at large has been both a liberating and a paralyzing force, and that is equally true of its recent developments in artistic expression. In this regard, criticism must be especially wary. The kind of criticism that often has to be invoked in discussing a traditional realistic novel is in the indicative mode: yes, we know that a woman like Rosamund Vincy would act in just that way, with just such a gesture, toward her husband at a given moment in Middlemarch because it seems right, because it corresponds to some subtle, gradually acquired sense of human nature in our extraliterary experience, and to this we can only point, signaling an act of recognition we hope others will share. Most self-conscious novels, on the other hand, lend themselves splendidly to analytic criticism because they operate by the constant redeployment of fiction's formal categories. Is the critic interested in the narrative manipulation of time, the arbitrariness of narrative beginnings, the writer's awareness of literary conventions, the maneuvering of language to produce multiple meanings, the expressive possibilities of punctuation, paragraphing, typography? It is all laid out for him across the printed pages of Tristram Shandy, ready to be analytically described, with no apparent need for recourse to a touchstone of "rightness" outside this and other literary texts. For this reason an astute critic, impelled by his own professional concern with formal experiment, can easily make a piece of self-conscious fiction sound more profound, more finely resonant with implication, than it is in fact. None of Robbe-Grillet's novels really equals in fascination Roland Barthes' brilliant descriptions of them. Queneau's Exercices de style (1947) is an intriguing and at times immensely amusing book, but it is just what its title implies, a set of exercises; and to suggest, as George Steiner has done, that it constitutes a major landmark in twentieth-century literature, is to mislead readers in the interest of promoting literary "future shock."

The instance of Exercices de style is worth pausing over briefly because it represents one ultimate limit of the whole self-conscious mode. Queneau begins his book by reporting a banal anecdote of a young man with a long neck and a missing button on his coat who is jostled in a crowded bus. He tells this anecdote ninety-nine times, constantly changing the narrative viewpoint, the style, the literary conventions; going as far as the use of mathematical notation and anagrammatic scrambling of letters in one direction, and the resort to heavy dialect and badly anglicized French in the other; even rendering the incident in alexandrines, in free verse, as a sonnet, as a playlet. All this is extremely ingenious, and, I would admit, more than ingenious, because as one reads the same simple episode over and over through all these acrobatic variations, one is forced to recognize both the stunning arbitrariness of any decision to tell a story in a particular way and the endless possibilities for creating fictional "facts" by telling a story differently.

The controlling perception, however, of Exercices is one that goes back to the generic beginnings of the novel; and to see how much more richly that insight can be extended into fictional space, one has only to think of Sterne, where a "Queneauesque" passage like the deliberately schematic "Tale of Two Lovers" is woven into a thick texture of amorous anecdotes that critically juxtapose literary convention with a sense of the erotic as a cogent fact of human experience. Precisely what is missing from Exercices de style is any sense—and playfulness need not exclude seriousness—of human experience, which is largely kept out of the book in order to preserve the technical purity of the experiment. I don't mean to take Queneau to task for what he clearly did not intend; I mean only to emphasize that criticism need not make excessive claims for this kind of writing. Queneau, of course, has written full-scale novels of flaunted artifice, both before and after Exercices de style, that do involve a more complex sense of experience. One of the great temptations of the self-conscious novelist, however, is to content himself with technical experiment, trusting that in these difficult times (but then the times are always difficult) the only honesty, perhaps the only real profundity, lies in technical experiment. This is the chief limiting factor in most of Robbe-Grillet as well as in Coover's collection of fictions, Pricksongs & Descants. In both, one can admire the virtuosity with which narrative materials are ingeniously shuffled and reshuffled yet feel a certain aridness; for the partial magic of the novelist's art, however self-conscious, is considerably more than a set of card tricks.

The other, complementary fault of the self-conscious novel, also much in evidence among its contemporary practitioners, is to give free rein to every impulse of invention or fictional contrivance without distinguishing what may serve some artistic function in the novel and what is merely silly or self-indulgent. After all, if in an old-fashioned novel you have to describe a petulant, spoiled young woman like Rosamund Vincy, you are obliged to make her as close a likeness as you can to observed examples of the type, and so some commonly perceived human reality provides a constant check on your inventiveness. If, on the other hand, you are writing a novel about a novelist who invents still another novelist who is the author of bizarrely farfetched books, there is scarcely any piece of fabrication, however foolish or improbable, that you couldn't put into your novel if you set your mind to it. The Irish writer Flann O'Brien, in one of the earliest postmodern novels of flaunted artifice, At Swim-Two-Birds (1939), has devised just such a book. The second-remove novelist invented by the first-person narrator-novelist gives birth to a full-grown man (that is, a new character); but while this writer, fatigued with parturition, is asleep, his characters rebel against him, resenting the roles he has assigned them. In the end, they subject him to the most hideous torture and maiming, recounted in detail page after page—by writing chapters of a novel (within the novel-within-the-novel) in which he suffers these horrors. This scheme of recessed narratives also involves an amalgam of different kinds of fiction, starting with domestic realism in the frame story and running through the gunslinging western and the novel of erotic sensationalism to fairy tales and Irish myth.

"A satisfactory novel," the young writer who is the narrator tries to explain to a friend at the outset, "should be a self-evident sham to which the reader could regulate at will the degree of his credulity."1 At first glance, this might seem a perfect capsule definition of the self-conscious novel, but upon consideration the formulation makes it too easy for both the writer and the reader. If one thinks of the history of the self-conscious novel from its early masters down to Gide, to the parodistic or overtly contrived sections in Joyce and the Nabokov of Lolita and Pale Fire, "sham" becomes far too crude and demeaning as a synonym for artifice or imaginative contrivance. The artifice, moreover, should not be flatly "self-evident" but cunningly revealed, a hide-and-seek presence in the novel, a stubbornly ambiguous substratum of the whole fictional world. To imagine, then, the reader regulating his credulity at will is to reverse the whole process of the self-conscious novel, in which it is the writer who tries to regulate the reader's credulity, challenging him to active participation in pondering the status of fictional things, forcing him as he reads on to examine again and again the validity of his ordinary discriminations between art and life and how they interact.

Flann O'Brien, however, following the formula he attributes to his own protagonist, in fact produces a hodge-podge of fictions in which nothing seems particularly credible and everything finally becomes tedious through the sheer proliferation of directionless narrative invention. At Swim-Two-Birds is a celebration of fabulation in which novelistic self-consciousness has gone slack because fiction is everywhere and there is no longer any quixotic tension between what is fictional and what is real. I am not aware that it has influenced later books, but it has certainly proved to be a novel ahead of its time, for its faults of conception and execution provide a perfect paradigm for those of much contemporary fiction, especially in this country, where a new literary ideology of fabulation has too often turned out to mean license, not liberty, for the novelist. In reading many of the voguish new writers, one is frequently tempted to invoke the words of the narrator at the end of John Barth's story "Title": "Oh God comma I abhor self-consciousness."

Those inclined to argue that the novel today is in a grave state of decay often draw evidence from the current popularity of self-conscious fiction, which they tend to see as a dwarfed offspring of the modernist giants, turned away from life, dedicated to the onanistic gratifications of the artist pleasured by his own art. It would of course be foolish to claim that we are now in anything like that extraordinary period of innovative literary creativity of the 1920s when modernism was in flower, but the opposite inference, that narrative literature has reached some terminal stage of sterility, is by no means necessary from the facts of contemporary writing. I have dwelt upon the two chief temptations of the self-conscious novelist—arid exercise and indiscriminate invention—precisely because they should be recognized as dangers, not taken as the inevitable results whenever a writer determines artfully to expose the fictiveness of his fiction. In fact, the prominent flaunting of artifice has led to some of the most impressive successes in the contemporary novel as well as to some of its most evident lapses, and the successes are by no means restricted to elder statesmen like Beckett and Nabokov. (In America, one might mention Barth, who in different books has been both an impressively original writer and an embarrassingly puerile one; or Coover, who has gone beyond manipulations of technique to a vividly imagined satire where fantasy and reality enrich one another.) The old question of the death of the novel, which seems as doggedly persistent as the novel itself, is in the air again, and I believe an understanding of the self-conscious tradition in the novel which stands behind many contemporary novelists may help set that hazy issue in clearer perspective.

One of the newly prominent American novelists, John Barth, has himself given a new twist to the death-of-the-novel argument in a widely read essay first published in 1967, "The Literature of Exhaustion."2 Barth settles on Borges, Beckett, and Nabokov as his exemplary figures to expose the condition of narrative literature now, and that condition as he describes it proves to be thoroughly contradictory—apocalyptic and elegiac, at the end of an ultimate cultural cul-de-sac yet somehow reaching toward exciting new possibilities. The "exhaustion" of the title is defined as "the used-upness of certain forms or exhaustion of certain possibilities," and the work of Borges is taken to be the clearest model of this contemporary literature of exhaustion. The Argentine writer "suggests the view," according to Barth, "that intellectual and literary history . . . has pretty well exhausted the possibilities of novelty. His ficciones are not only footnotes to imaginary texts, but postscripts to the real corpus of literature." The characterization of Borges' fiction is memorable, and not without cogency, but Barth has worked himself into a corner by following Borges in this fashion, and he is constrained to use the last two paragraphs of his essay in a rapid maneuver to get out of the trap. For even if reality has come to resemble for the writer the library of a Borgesian fable where all the books that can ever be written already exist, even if Borges' Pierre Menard is an emblem of the modern writer's wry destiny, "creating" the Quixote by laboriously reconstituting it word for word in a version identical verbatim with Cervantes'—Barth himself nevertheless writes novels which he hopes have some novelty, and he is not willing to dismiss the literature of our age as a mere postscript to a completed corpus.

Now, two paragraphs are not much space to get out of such a quandary, so Barth resorts to a kind of literary intervention of divine grace: confronted with a labyrinthine reality of exhausted possibilities, the writer of genius finally can rely on his genius to achieve the impossible, to create a new literature when there is nothing left to create. "It's the chosen remnant, the virtuoso, the Thesean hero, who . . . with the aid of very special gifts . . . [can] go straight through the maze to the accomplishment of his work." (The italics are Barth's.) This strikes me as a peculiarly elitist and miraculist notion of literary continuity and renewal. Good writing has of course always required gifted writers. Now, however, Barth seems to be saying, we have come to such a pass that it is virtually impossible to write anything at all. Nevertheless a few geniuses, having recognized that difficult fact, will somehow manage to create.

Borges himself, as we shall see, is far from agreeing with this idea, but in any case the choice of Borges as the paradigmatic postmodernist is in one respect misleading, precisely because Borges the prose writer is an inventor of parables and paradoxes, not a novelist. That is, Borges of the ficciones is concerned with a series of metaphysical enigmas about identity, recurrence, and cyclicalty, time, thought, and extension, and so it is a little dangerous to translate his haunting fables into allegories of the postmodern literary situation. Books, real and imaginary, and books about books, of course figure very prominently in Borges' fictions; but he is after all a remarkably bookish man, and the contents of a library are the aptest vehicle he could have chosen for writing about knowledge and its limits, the ambiguous relation between idea and existence, language and reality, and many of his other favorite philosophical puzzles. The fact that Borges is a fabulist, not a novelist, hardly suggests that the fable is all there remains for fiction to work with now. Were he a novelist, his prototypical protagonist would not be a meditative wraith wandering through the hexagonal mazes of the infinite Library of Babel, but a man or woman—one glimpses the possibility in his most recent stories—with a distinctive psychology living among other men and women, acting against a background of social values, personal and national history. Such a figure, it seems safe to assume, would have a rather different relationship to the written word, past and present, than does the inhabitant of the great Library or the assiduous Pierre Menard.

Borges, it should be noted, has argued trenchantly against the whole idea of exhausting artistic possibilities in a brief essay, "A Note on (Toward) Bernard Shaw"3—which, not surprisingly, is hardly at all about Shaw. He begins with a list of fanciful notions, from the thirteenth century to the twentieth, of combinational reservoirs that would encompass all books, systems of ideas, or art works. One of these, "the staggering fantasy" spun out by the nineteenth-century popularizer of science Kurd Lasswitz "of a universal library which would register all the variations of the twenty-odd orthographical symbols, in other words, all that is given to express in all languages," is nothing less than the scheme of Borges' "The Library of Babel." But, he immediately goes on to say, such writers, by reducing art and philosophy to "a kind of play with combinations," forget that a book is not a flat, fixed entity composed of combined letters making an unchanging design in language. Every book exists through a collaborative effort with the imagination of each of its readers—the controlling idea of Pale Fire is not a trivial one—and so it changes with its readers, with their life experience and their accrued reading experience. Literary tradition, in other words, does not and cannot exist as a mass of determined data in the memory-bank of a computer. "Literature is not exhaustible, for the sufficient and simple reason that no single book is." The more books that are written, the more complicated with meaning are the books that exist before them, and the more possibilities there are for creating new works out of old books and new experience.

Nothing could demonstrate this more forcefully than the inherently allusive structure of the novel as a genre. Don Quixote becomes more than it initially was after its transmutation into the "Cervantick" Tom Jones and Tristram Shandy, after The Red and the Black, Madame Bovary, Moby-Dick, Ulysses, and The Castle, Each successive creation—to follow the implicit logic of Borges' plausible notion about a book's existence—does not foreclose future possibilities but rather opens up new vistas for creation out of the common literary tradition. A book is not an integer but "a relationship, an axis of innumerable relationships," which of course grow with the passage of historical time and literary history; and so "The Library of Babel" must be, after all, a metaphysician's nightmare, not a novelist's.

But let us return to the relation Barth proposes between Borges' own practice in his ficciones and the foreseeable possibilities of imaginative writing. Without begrudging Borges the general acclaim he has recently received, both in America and in France, I think one may resist the implication of Barth and others that he represents the future of fiction. Robert Coover, although he does not mention Borges by name, seems to have an idea of this sort in mind when he takes up where Barth's essay leaves off in his Dedicatoria y Prólogo a don Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra, the bilingual preface to his "Seven Exemplary Fictions."4 Unlike Barth, Coover applies the notion of exhaustion not to literary forms but to a general contemporary sense of reality and to the whole legacy of cultural values today: "But don Miguel, the optimism, the innocence, the aura of possibility you have experienced have been largely drained away, and the universe is closing in on us again. Like you, we, too, seem to be standing at the end of one age and on the threshold of another.... We, too, suffer from a 'literature of exhaustion'" A quiet version of apocalyptic thinking is very much in evidence here. We love to think we are on the threshold of a radically new era, but in fact the continuity of much of contemporary fiction with its literary antecedents is too substantive to be dismissed as mere vestigial reflex. Contemporary novelists resemble Cervantes (as Coover recognizes further on) because of the underlying operations of their imaginative enterprise, not because our historical moment parallels his in marking the beginning of a new age. And the proposed contrast between Cervantes and the contemporaries seems overdrawn. The least innocent of writers, Cervantes ironically undercuts the innocence and optimism of his hero, and through the strategies he devises for doing that he invents the novel. In any event, Coover goes on to argue from the supposed draining away of optimism in our age the conversion of the novelist to fabulist:

We seem to have moved from an open-ended, anthropocentric, humanistic, naturalistic, even—to the extent that man may be thought of as making his own universe—optimistic starting point, to one that is closed, cosmic, eternal, supernatural (in its soberest sense), and pessimistic. The return to Being has returned us to Design, to microcosmic images of the macrocosm, to the creation of Beauty within the confines of cosmic or human necessity, to the use of the fabulous to probe beyond the phenomenological, beyond appearances, beyond randomly perceived events, beyond mere history.

Some judgments it may be wise on principle to decline making at all, and I see no way of knowing at this point in history whether we are in fact witnessing the death of the humanistic world view. To base an argument for a new form of fiction on such a sweepingly prophetic historical assertion must in the end compromise the persuasiveness of the literary argument. In any case, of Barth's three exemplars of the literature of exhaustion, only one, Borges, really corresponds to this description of Coover's. In regard to Beckett, all that strictly applies is the pessimism and the sense of a closed universe, and it is Nabokov who once tartly observed that "cosmic" is but a slippery "s" away from "comic." Both Beckett and Nabokov are by intention, in their radically different ways, comic rather than cosmic writers; both are novelists rather than fabulists in their concern with the naturalistic textures of experience, whatever various structures they make of them. Both resemble Cervantes in deriving Design not from an image of eternal Being but, on the contrary, from a sense of the contradictions between traditional literary practice and their immediate perception of human reality.

The most questionable of Coover's claims, however, is that the writer of fiction is now moving "beyond mere history." Borges the fabulist does just that, but unless the novel is really dead, the one thing it ultimately cannot dispense with is history. The pressing actuality of historical time, or of an individual lifetime, or of both, is the stuff of all good novels, including self-conscious ones, the perennial subject that the medium of the novel—a sequential narrative use of unmetrical language extended at length in time—seems almost to require. Cervantes initiates the genre by using parody and the translation of literary criticism into narrative invention to juxtapose a literary dream of a Golden Age with real historical time. On the plane of individual experience, Sterne in his ultimate self-conscious novel makes time so much his subject that the printed text becomes a maze of intersecting, mutually modifying times—the time of writing and the time of reading, the actual duration of an event, time as a literary construct, time as an ambiguous artifact of memory or consciousness.

Perhaps the most reliable index to whether a piece of self-conscious fiction is closed off from life is whether it tends to diminish the actuality of personal and historical time. Queneau's exercices are only exercises because time doesn't really exist in them; it is only a necessary hypothesis to move the skinny young man from the beginning of the anecdote to the end. Robbe-Grillet's cinematic use of the present indicative, together with his constant shuffling of versions of each narrative incident in order to destroy all sense of causal sequence and of time, is a technical tour de force precisely because it goes so strenuously against the grain of the medium, which is, after all, prose fiction, not film. As a result the virtuosity of his achievement is inseparable from its marked limitations. The same could be said of the composition by montage in Coover's shorter fiction or, on a cruder level of technical skill and imagination, of Barthelme's satirical collages. It is instructive, however, that Coover is now working on a novel involved with public events in the Eisenhower years, a book he describes as "an historical romance." And, to judge by a published section, his reentry into history, cannily seen through the revealing distortions of fantasy, can produce energetically engaging fiction.

In the case of Robbe-Grillet, the one really striking success among his novels is the book in which his ubiquitous technique of suppressing temporal progression has a powerful psychological justification. Jealousy is a compelling novel because its imprisonment in a present indicative that circles back on itself again and again is the perfect narrative mode for a man whose consuming obsession has robbed him of any time in which things can unfold. The jealous husband, always the excluded observer peering at his wife and her supposed lover from oblique angles through a hatchwork of screens and obstacles, can only go over and over the same scanty data, reordering them and surrounding them with conjecture, describing them with a seemingly scientific objectivity that is actually quite maniacal. Consequently what is often felt elsewhere in Robbe-Grillet as an anomalous mannerism is here firmly grounded in the novel's peculiar facts of character and fictional situation.

Queneau's Exercices de style, as I intimated earlier, is a limited experiment that explores the most extreme possibilities of an underlying practice of his novels while deliberately omitting what is ultimately most essential to them—the potent force of time, analogous to the time of real experience, that sweeps along the imaginary personages and events. Over against Exercices one might usefully set a novel like Le Chiendent (1933), Queneau's remarkable fictional farce in the self-conscious mode. At the center of this grand display of verbal highjinks, parodistic ploys, hilarious stylizations, and satiric illuminations, stands a death—that of Ernestine the serving-girl, which, for all its abruptness, improbability, and absurdity, has large reverberations in the novel. "When a tree burns," says Ernestine, dying on her wedding night, "nothin's left but smoke and ashes. No more tree. That's like me. Nothin left but rot, while the li'l voice that talks in your head when you're all alone, nothin's left of it. When mine stops, it ain't gonna talk again nowhere else."5

The last section of Le Chiendent takes off on a zanily fantastic extrapolation from destructive modern history. At the very end, three of the protagonists, among the handful of survivors of a long bitter war between the French and the Etruscans (!), meet again and openly share the awareness that all their actions have been relentlessly tracked down and recorded by a book—the one we have been reading and are about to finish. Not pleased with all they have done, they wonder whether it might be possible to erase—raturer—or, rather, "literase"—littératurer—certain episodes. But no, the thing cannot be done: as one of them observes, even in these literary circumstances "time is time, the past is the past." Then, in a final paragraph, Queneau dissolves his joined characters into separate and unconnected entities, concluding with a single silhouette, not yet a realized character, one among thousands of possible alternatives—which was precisely the image of the novelist-artificer's arbitrary choice in the making of fictions that began the whole novel. And yet the arbitrary invention is one that has been elaborated in order to reveal something about the real world. The whole farce is in fact a sustained metaphysical meditation on the dizzying paradoxes of being and nonbeing, in life and in fiction; and that meditation culminates in these last two pages, where the characters are finally shuffled back into the shadowy pre-world of fictional beginnings but are not allowed the more-than-human luxury of reversing, altering, or erasing the particular experiences they have lived out in the time allotted to them.

It may seem a bit odd to insist on a connection with historical or personal time in a kind of novel devised to mirror its own operations, but the contradiction, I think, disappears upon close consideration. Language is of all art media the one most thoroughly and subtly steeped in memory, both public and private. It is not easy to use language for the length of a novel, out of a self-conscious awareness of its function as the medium of the fictional artifice, without in some way confronting the burden of a collective or individual past that language carries. Language through its layer upon layer of associations opens up complex vistas of time, and these tend to reveal—ultimately for cultures, imminently for individuals—loss, decline, and extinction. The continuous acrobatic display of artifice in a self-conscious novel is an enlivening demonstration of human order against a background of chaos and darkness, and it is the tension between artifice and that which annihilates artifice that gives the finest self-conscious novels their urgency in the midst of play. Tristram Shandy's wild flight from death across the pages of Volume VII in Sterne's novel provides the clearest paradigm for this general situation. In the two major novelists of our own century who magisterially combine the realist and self-conscious traditions of the novel, Joyce and Proust, it is again death and the decline of culture into ultimate incoherence that powerfully impel the writers to the supreme affirmation of art. The void looms beyond Bloom's Dublin and Marcel's Paris, as it does beyond Biely's St. Petersburg, Virginia Woolf s London, and the invented lost realms of Nabokov; and that is why art is indispensable.

Perhaps this may make every novel with self-conscious aspects sound like a version of Sartre's Nausea, but that is only because Sartre provides an emphatically defined, programmatic formulation of the general pattern. What I would like to stress is that even a novel worlds away from any intimation of existentialist views may tap this tension between the coherence of the artifice and the death and disorder implicit in real time outside the artifice. The tension is present even in Fielding, with his fine old eighteenth-century confidence in the possibilities of coherent order and his meticulous preservation of the purity of the comic world. An example may be helpful here. In Book V, Chapter XII, of Tom Jones, after a bloody brawl in which Tom has laid Blifil low only to be vigorously battered by the redoubtable Thwackum, the narrator, surveying the bruised combatants, takes off on one of his so-called essayistic excursuses:

Here we cannot suppress a pious wish, that all quarrels were to be decided by those weapons only with which Nature, knowing what is proper for us, hath supplied us; and that cold iron was to be used in digging no bowels but those of the earth. Then would war, the pastime of monarchs, be almost inoffensive, and battles between great armies might be fought at the particular desire of several ladies of quality; who, together with the kings themselves, might be actual spectators of the conflict. Then might the field be this moment well strewed with human carcasses, and the next, the dead men, or infinitely the greatest part of them, might get up, like Mr. Bayes's troops, and march off either at the sound of a drum or fiddle, as should be previously agreed on.

The narrator spins out this fanciful hypothesis for another paragraph, then brings himself up short: "But such reformations are rather to be wished than hoped for: I shall content myself, therefore, with this short hint, and return to my narrative." What is all this doing in the middle of Tom Jones? To dismiss it as mere casual banter or extraneous digression is to ignore the integrity of Fielding's art and of his vision of life. The passage is a virtuoso aria set in the optative mode. It turns from The History of Tom Jones to history proper, but with a series of careful indications of a condition contrary to fact. It begins and ends with an explicit stress on "wish," and all the verbs are subjunctive or conditional. The emphasis through anaphora on "then" ("Then would war . . ."; "Then might the field be . . .") points to an era that exists not now or soon but in the imagination alone. This condition is underlined by likening the weaponless battles to those of a popular Restoration farce, The Rehearsal ("Mr. Bayes's troops"), and by proposing that war should be conducted like theatrical convention, by previously agreed-upon signals.

Within the comic frame of Tom Jones's fictional world, we know very well that no fate much worse than a bloodied nose will be allowed to befall any of the personages who matter. Fielding, by proposing for the space of two paragraphs that this frame be extended into real historical time, is doing something more than make a suggestion for "reformation," as he pretends, or a satirical comment on historical man's irrationality, as is evident. What the excursion into optative history points up is that the whole comic world of the fiction is beautifully arranged, sanely humane in its essential playfulness—and ultimately unreal. The age-old impulse of the storyteller bespeaks a basic human need to imagine out of history a fictional order of fulfillment, but when the narrative is a novel and not a fairy tale, one is also made aware of the terrible persistence of history as a murderous realm of chaos constantly challenging or violating the wholeness that art can imagine. By the time we arrive at the narrator's explicit signal for the end of the excursus, "I shall content myself . . . with this short hint, and return to my narrative," we see with renewed clarity all that stands outside the artful narrative, inimical to it.

I have chosen from many possible texts, old and new, an example from Fielding in order to emphasize certain underlying continuities of concern between the novelists of our own age and the early masters. A clearer recognition of such continuities, which more often than one would suspect manifest themselves even on the level of fictional technique, might make us less inclined to see ourselves at the decisive end of an era, our writers footnoting with fables a literary corpus that has used up all the possibilities of primary creation. Looking over the actual production of living novelists in both hemispheres, I find it hard to believe that it is inherently more difficult to write a good novel now than in earlier periods. The realist mode of fiction that attained such splendid achievements in the nineteenth century may by now largely have run its course (though that, too, might be a presumptuous conclusion), but the self-conscious novelistic dialectic between art and reality initiated by Cervantes seems abundantly alive with new possibilities of expression, perhaps even more than ever before as the self-consciousness of our whole culture becomes progressively more pronounced. To write a good self-conscious novel today one does not have to be a unique "Thesean hero" finding a way out of some impossible labyrinth, but simply an intelligent writer with a serious sense both of the integrity of his craft and of the inevitably problematic relationship between fiction and life.

A case in point is Claude Mauriac's The Marquise Went Out at Five (1961), one of the most interesting novels to come out of the fervor of fictional experiment in France during the past fifteen or so years. Mauriac's book might be especially instructive as a concluding example because in both its design and its execution it ties up many of the major themes we have been considering, and because Mauriac, a gifted writer but surely no Borgesian wonderworker defying the limits of nature, achieves what he does, not through impossible genius, but simply by an imaginative and keenly critical management of the self-conscious mode.

The Marquise Went Out is the third of four interlocking novels aptly called Le Dialogue intérieur. The title of the novel is taken from Breton's "First Surrealist Manifesto," the relevant passage appearing as the epigraph. Breton quotes Valéry on the imbecillc beginnings of most novels. Valéry would never permit himself, he once told Breton, to write a sentence like, "The Marquise went out at five." We then turn the page of Mauriac's novel and of course find it begins, "La Marquise sortit à cinq heures. The Marquise went out at five." At first, in the kaleidoscope shifting of interior monologues—perhaps a hundred different characters become posts of observation—with no indication of transitions, the reader has difficulty orienting himself; but gradually a fictional novelist, Bertrand Carnéjoux, emerges distinctly as the principal point of reference. As Carnéjoux stands at his window looking down over the Carrefour de Bucis, where all the events of the novel take place, one begins to suspect that all the interior lives exposed in the book are finally what he, the writer as distanced observer, projects onto the figures he sees. He is the fictional writer acting out his author's own literary impulse, in a contemporary version of the old quixotic pattern, by making a novel out of the world he inhabits:

. . . Express the double brilliance, orangeish red bright yellow, of the bouquets, no, they're potted plants. Add to these two patches of bright color the movement transporting them, not fast but jolting, and the black mass of that old lady carrying her nasturtiums—they are nasturtiums, I think. I'm no different as an author from all the authors who ever existed since men first began to write. Using other devices, but analogous ones. Making use just as fallaciously, as arbitrarily, of the world I claim—quite insanely—to possess. At best I've tried to explain and justify the increasing presence, considered ridiculous by some people, of writer-heroes in the works of writers. . . .6

The sense of the writer's predicament as a perennial, not peculiarly modern, difficulty is notable: all serious novelists must confront the arbitrariness, the necessary falsification, of the worlds they invent through words. In his critical writings, Mauriac has coined the term alittérature to describe this intrinsic problematic of literature. All literary creation worthy of the name, now and in previous ages, is seen as a reaction against the inevitable falsity of antecedent literature, a restless devising of strategies to escape being "just" literature. I think the idea is more historically accurate than the notion of a contemporary literature of exhaustion, and The Marquise Went Out at Five is a persuasive demonstration of its efficacy as a rationale for the continual renewal of literature.

By the conclusion of the novel, Carnéjoux, the novelist as self-observing observer, imperceptibly gives way to the author of The Marquise Went Out at Five. The evoked world of fiction, revealed as fiction, shrivels up, and, as at the end of many of Nabokov's novels, the fabricator of the fiction himself stands in its place. Mauriac now describes precisely what he has given us: "A novelist animated by a novelist whom I (myself a novelist) have put into a novel in which, however, nothing was invented, a labyrinth of mirrors capturing some of life's sensations, feelings and thoughts" (p. 310). Cervantes' emblematic image of the mirror—it is of course also Nabokov's favorite—is complicated in Borgesian fashion by a labyrinth not because the old quixotic probing of reality through fiction has changed in nature, but only because our sense of the complexity of the enterprise has been many times multiplied by both historical and literary experience. (One might observe that as early as 1913 Andrey Biely was using the image of the labyrinth of mirrors in his St. Petersburg.) Mauriac, it should be noted, does not in the end make the facile gesture of some contemporary novelists who simply shrug off their own fictions as, after all, mere fictions: he avows the artifice but affirms it as a means of mirroring "life's sensations, feelings and thoughts," fiction seen as perhaps the only way to get at a whole range of real human experience.

After a paragraph of reflections on the Parisian square that has been the scene of the novel, Mauriac goes on to summarize and make even more explicit this baring of artifice as the basic procedure of his book: "Thus the novel has in its penultimate pages gradually faded away, and disappeared, without masks or make-believe, giving way to the novelist who, if he has put himself directly into his book, has at the end purified it of its last traces of fiction by granting it a truth in which literal exactitude was preferred to literature" (p. 311). The literal exactitude is of course necessarily a pretense, still another novelistic gesture (as Cervantes first shrewdly saw in his play with supposed documents), literature passing itself off as alittérature in order not to seem "literature" in the pejorative sense. In any case, the edifice of fiction that engaged our thoughts and emotions for a good many hours has been swept away, and the novel can conclude in the very next sentence by setting on its head that beginning borrowed from Valéry by way of Breton: "The Marquise did not go out at five . . ." Much earlier, we learned that the Marquise of the initial sentence was no marquise at all, and now the predicate as well as the subject is torn from its apparent exactitude and cast into the shadowy realm of fabrications.

All this might be mere cleverness if the novel did not have the impelling sense it does of the urgency, the philosophical seriousness, of its enterprise. What drives Bertrand Carnéjoux, and behind him Claude Mauriac, is an acute perception of two concentric abysses beneath the artifice of the novel—history and death. The Marquise Went Out, set between five and six on one warm afternoon in a few thousand square feet of the Carrefour de Bucis, attempts to exhaust the human experience intersecting that carefully delimited time and place. But as Carnéjoux and his inventor realize, such an undertaking is "doomed to failure" because "the unity of actual time . . . [is] surrounded, penetrated, absorbed .. . by the infinite pullulation of innumerable past moments" (p. 270). Though Mauriac explicitly compares the achronological method of composition here through a long series of separate "takes" with the methods of a film-maker, the effect is precisely the opposite of cinematic composition in Robbe-Grillet because Mauriac accepts and works with the essentially time-soaked nature of language as a medium of art.

Each of the interior monologues gives us glimpses of a deep tunnel into a private past, while Carnéjoux, overviewing the scene, weaves into the texture of the novel substantial quotations from actual historical documents of life in the Carrefour de Bucis from the middle of the thirteenth century to the post-World-War-II era. The documents reveal what in the poesy of a blurb one might call a "vivid panorama" of Parisian existence from medieval artisans to activists of the Revolution to the literary dinners of the Goncourt brothers. What is actually revealed, though, is the raw realm of chaos on the other side of Fielding's ironic observations about history—a long catalogue of rape, murder, torture, theft, perversion, brutality. Contemplating these documents, Carnéjoux is simultaneously aware of the senselessness of history and of the incomprehensible brevity of all human life. As he writes, he is rapidly, irrevocably, rushing toward the point where he will be no more than a few scratches on the historical record, like Mestre Giles the tile-maker and Richart the baker, listed as residents of the Rue de Bussy in the Tax-Book of Paris for the Year 1292. At the end, the author draws particular attention to this perception: "Bertrand Carnéjoux records in his novel, and I record in the novel in which I have given life and speech to Bertrand Carnéjoux, that impossibility of conceiving what seems so natural in others, what one has spent one's life fearing, knowing oneself ineluctably threatened by it in the beings one loves and in oneself: death" (p. 309).

Some readers may feel that Mauriac is too explicitly direct in the way he reveals these fundamental matters of motive and design in the making of his novel, but the fiction itself bears out in concrete detail what otherwise might seem portentous assertion. A writer, about to vanish like every human being born, has only words to grasp with at some sort of tenuous, dubious permanence. Words console, words are the most wonderful of human evasions; but the writer, using them as truly as a writer of fiction can—which is to say, with a consciousness of how their enchantment transmutes reality into fiction—comes to perceive profoundly what words help us to evade. The seriousness and the ultimate realism of the novel that mirrors itself could have no more vivid demonstration.

Perhaps the most basic paradox of this mode of fiction, which functions through the display of paradoxes, is that as a kind of novel concentrating on art and the artist it should prove to be, even in many of its characteristically comic embodiments, a long meditation on death. Myth, folktale, fable, and romance, all the archaic forms of storytelling from which the novel was a radical historical break, overleap or sidestep death as an immediate presence in the timeless cyclicality of divine lives or in the teleological arc from "once upon a time" to "lived happily ever after." The great realist novels of the nineteenth century, though they may be filled with scenes of disease and dying, are in another sense also an implicit evasion of death because, as the paradigmatic instance of Balzac makes clear, behind the vast effort to represent in fiction a whole society, the spawning of novel after novel with crowds of personages overflowing from one book to the next, was a dream of omnipotence, the novelist creating a fantasy-world so solid-seeming that he could rule over it like a god.

When the writer, on the other hand, places himself or some consciously perceived surrogate within the fiction's field of probing consideration, his own mortality is more likely to be an implicit or even explicit subject of the novel. It was Diderot who observed that one should tell stories because then time passes swiftly and the story of life comes to an end unnoticed. The novel as a genre begins when Don Quixote, approaching the grand climacteric or fiftieth year, which was old age in his time, realizes that his existence has amounted to nothing and proceeds before it is too late to make his life correspond to a book. The knight's peculiarly literary quest is a revealing functional analogue to that of the novelist, the literary man who invented him, and so Cervantes is not merely mocking chivalric romances through the don's adventures but contemplating, in the most oblique and searching way, the unthinkable prospect posed by his own imminent end.

I suspect that death in the novel might be a more useful focus for serious discussion of the genre than the death of the novel. What I have in mind is of course not the novelistic rendering of deathbed scenes but how the novel manages to put us in touch with the imponderable implications of human mortality through the very celebration of life implicit in the building of vivid and various fictions. This is the ultimate turn of the Copernican revolution in the making of fictions that Cervantes effected. The impulse of fabulation, which men had typically used to create an imaginary time beautifully insulated from the impinging presence of their own individual deaths, was turned back on itself, held up to a mirror of criticism as it reflected reality in its inevitably distortive glass. As a result it became possible, if not for the first time then surely for the first time on this scale of narrative amplitude and richness, to delight in the lifelike excitements of invented personages and adventures, and simultaneously to be reminded of that other world of ours, ruled by chance and given over to death. The mirror held to the mirror of art held to nature, in Cervantes and in his countless progeny, proved to be not merely an ingenious trick but a necessary operation for a skeptical culture nevertheless addicted, as all cultures have been, to the pleasures and discoveries of fabulation. Ongoing literary history is always modifying our vision of earlier stages of literary development, and the course of the novel from Joyce to Nabokov and beyond may to some degree require a shift in perspective upon what happened in the novel during the three centuries before our own. Today, as varieties of novelistic self-consciousness proliferate, the mode of fiction first defined when a certain aging hidalgo set out to imitate his books appears far from exhausted. On the contrary, in the hands of gifted writers it comes to seem increasingly our most precisely fashioned instrument for joining imagined acts and figures with real things.


1 Flann O'Brien, At Swim-Two-Birds (New York: Pantheon, 1939), p. 33.

2The Atlantic Monthly, 220 (August 1967), pp. 29-34.

3 J. L. Borges, Labyrinths, ed. Yates and Irby (New York: New Directions, 1964), pp. 213-216.

4 Robert Coover, Pricksongs & Descants (New York: Dutton, 1969), pp. 76-79.

5 Raymond Queneau, Le Chiendent (Paris: Gallimard, 1933), p. 206.

6 Claude Mauriac, The Marquise Went Out at Five, tr. Richard Howard (New York: George Braziller, 1962), p. 69.

Gerald Graff

SOURCE: "The Myth of the Postmodern Breakthrough," in Literature Against Itself: Literary Ideas in Modern Society, The University of Chicago Press, 1979.

[In the following essay, which was first published in slightly different form in 1973, Graff identifies postmodernism as both visionary and apocalyptic, and asserts that despite claims to the contrary, postmodernism derives from Romantic and modernist literary theory.]

The postmodern tendency in literature and literary criticism has been characterized as a "breakthrough," a significant reversal of the dominant literary and sociocultural directions of the last two centuries. Literary critics such as Leslie Fiedler, Susan Sontag, George Steiner, Richard Poirier, and Ihab Hassan have written about this reversal, differing in their assessments of its implications but generally agreeing in their descriptions of what is taking place. What is taking place, these critics suggest, is the death of our traditional Western concept of art and literature, a concept which defined "high culture" as our most valuable repository of moral and spiritual wisdom. George Steiner draws attention to the disturbing implications of the fact that, in the Nazi regime, dedication to the highest "humanistic" interests was compatible with the acceptance of systematic murder.1 Sontag and Fiedler suggest that the entire artistic tradition of the West has been exposed as a kind of hyperrational imperialism akin to the aggression and lust for conquest of bourgeois capitalism. Not only have the older social, moral, and epistemological claims for art seemingly been discredited, but art has come to be seen as a form of complicity, another manifestation of the lies and hypocrisy through which the ruling class has maintained its power.

But concurrent with this loss of confidence in the older claims of the moral and interpretive authority of art is the advent of a new sensibility, bringing a fresh definition of the role of art and culture. This new sensibility manifests itself in a variety of ways: in the refusal to take art "seriously" in the old sense; in the use of art itself as a vehicle for exploding its traditional pretensions and for showing the vulnerability and tenuousness of art and language; in the rejection of the dominant academic tradition of analytic, interpretive criticism, which by reducing art to abstractions tends to neutralize or domesticate its potentially liberating energies; in a less soberly rationalistic mode of consciousness, one that is more congenial to myth, tribal ritual, and visionary experience, grounded in a "protean," fluid, and undifferentiated concept of the self as opposed to the repressed Western ego.

I want here to raise some critical questions about the postmodern breakthrough in the arts and about the larger implications claimed for it in culture and society. I want in particular to challenge the standard description of postmodernism as an overturning of romantic and modernist traditions. To characterize postmodernism as a "breakthrough"—a cant term of our day—is to place a greater distance between current writers and their predecessors than is, I think, justified. There are distinctions to be drawn, of course, and both here and in the final chapter of this book I shall try to draw them. But this [essay] argues that postmodernism should be seen not as a break with romantic and modernist assumptions but rather as a logical culmination of the premises of these earlier movements, premises not always clearly defined in discussions of these issues. In the next chapter I question the Utopian social claims of the postmodernist sensibility by questioning the parallelism they assume between social and esthetic revolution.

In its literary sense, postmodernism may be defined as the movement within contemporary literature and criticism that calls into question the traditional claims of literature and art to truth and human value. As Richard Poirier has observed, "contemporary literature has come to register the dissolution of the ideas often evoked to justify its existence: the cultural, moral, psychological premises that for many people still define the essence of literature as a humanistic enterprise. Literature is now in the process of telling us how little it means."2 This is an apt description of the contemporary mood, but what it neglects to mention is that literature has been in the process of telling us how little it means for a long time, as far back as the beginnings of romanticism.

It is clear why we are tempted to feel that the contemporary popularity of anti-art and artistic self-parody represents a sharp break with the modernist past. It does not seem so long ago that writers like Rilke, Valéry, Joyce, Yeats, and others sought a kind of salvation through art. For Rilke, as earlier for Shelley and other romantics, poetry was "a mouth which else Nature would lack," the great agency for the restitution of values in an inherently valueless world. Romantic and modernist writing expressed a faith in the constitutive power of the imagination, a confidence in the ability of literature to impose order, value, and meaning on the chaos and fragmentation of industrial society. This faith seemed to have lapsed after World War II. Literature increasingly adopted an ironic view of its traditional pretensions to truth, high seriousness, and the profundity of "meaning." Furthermore, literature of the postwar period has seemed to have a different relation to criticism than that of the classic modernists. Eliot, Faulkner, Joyce, and their imitators sometimes seemed to be deliberately providing occasions for the complex critical explications of the New Critics. In contrast, much of the literature of the last several decades has been marked by the desire to remain invulnerable to critical analysis.

In an essay that asks the question, "What Was Modernism?" Harry Levin identifies the "ultimate quality" pervading the work of the moderns as "its uncompromising intellectuality."3 The conventions of postmodern art systematically invert this modernist intellectuality by parodying its respect for truth and significance. In Donald Barthelme's anti-novel, Snow White, a questionnaire poses for the reader such mock questions as, "9. Has the work, for you, a metaphysical dimension? Yes ( ) No ( ) 10. What is it (twenty-five words or less)?"4 Alain Robbe-Grillet produces and campaigns for a type of fiction in which "obviousness, transparency preclude the existence of higher worlds, of any transcendence."5 Susan Sontag denounces the interpretation of works of art on the grounds that "to interpret is to impoverish, to deplete the world—in order to set up a shadow world of 'meanings.'"6 Leslie Fiedler, writing on modern poetry, characterizes one of its chief tendencies as a "flight from the platitude of meaning."7 As Jacob Brackman describes this attitude in The Put-On, "we are supposed to have learned by now that one does not ask what art means."8 And, as Brackman shows, this deliberate avoidance of interpretability has moved from the arts into styles of personal behavior. It appears that the term "meaning" itself, as applied not only to art but to more general experience, has joined "truth" and "reality" in the class of words which can no longer be written unless apologized for by inverted commas.

Thus it is tempting to agree with Leslie Fiedler's conclusion that "the Culture Religion of Modernism" is now dead.9 The most advanced art and criticism of the last twenty years seem to have abandoned the modernist respect for artistic meaning. The religion of art has been "demythologized." A number of considerations, however, render this statement of the case misleading. Examined more closely, both the modernist faith in literary meanings and the postmodern repudiation of these meanings prove to be highly ambivalent attitudes, much closer to one another than may at first appear. The equation of modernism with "uncompromising intellectuality" overlooks how much of this intellectuality devoted itself to calling its own authority into question.


The nineteenth century's elevation of art to the status of a surrogate religion had rested on paradoxical foundations. Though in one sense the religion of art increased enormously the cultural prestige and importance of art, there was self-denigration implicit in the terms in which art was deified. Consider the following statement by Ortega y Gasset, contrasting the attitude of the avantgarde art of the mid-twenties, that art is "a thing of no consequence" and "of no transcendent importance," with the veneration art had compelled in the previous century:

Poetry and music then were activities of an enormous caliber. In view of the downfall of religion and the inevitable relativism of science, art was expected to take upon itself nothing less than the salvation of mankind. Art was important for two reasons: on account of its subjects which dealt with the profoundest problems of humanity, and on account of its own significance as a human pursuit from which the species derived its justification and dignity.10

Ortega attributes the prestige of art in the nineteenth century to the fact that art was expected to provide compensation for the "downfall of religion and the inevitable relativism of science." But the downfall of religion and the relativism of science were developments which could not help undermining the moral and epistemological foundations of art. Once these foundations had been shaken—and the sense of their precariousness was a condition of the romantic glorification of the creative imagination—art could scarcely lay claim to any firm authority for dealing with "the profoundest problems of humanity" and for endowing the species with "justification and dignity." It is only fair to add that Ortega's own philosophical writings are profound commentaries on this crisis of authority in modern experience.

From its beginnings, the romantic religion of art manifested that self-conflict with its own impulses which Renato Poggioli, in The Theory of the Avant-Garde, identifies as a defining characteristic of avant-garde thought.11 The ultimate futility and impotence of art was implicit in the very terms with which romantic and subsequently modernist writers attempted to deify art as a substitute for religion. The concept of an autonomous creative imagination, which fabricates the forms of order, meaning, and value which men no longer thought they could find in external nature, implicitly—if not necessarily intentionally—concedes that artistic meaning is a fiction, without any corresponding object in the extra-artistic world. In this respect the doctrine of the creative imagination contained within itself the premises of its refutation.

Recent literature forces us to recognize the precariousness of the earlier re

(The entire section is 37107 words.)

Коммандер отпустил Сьюзан и повернулся к своему детищу стоимостью два миллиарда долларов. Глаза его расширились от ужаса. - Нет! - Он схватился за голову.

 - Нет. Шестиэтажная ракета содрогалась.

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