Notes from New Sodom

... rantings, ravings and ramblings of strange fiction writer, THE.... Sodomite Hal Duncan!!

Monday, October 29, 2012

Faut vous dire, monsieur

Arthur Krystal points to Lev Grossman's Time article:

"Literature, Grossman believes, is undergoing a revolution: high-voltage plotting is replacing the more refined intellection associated with modernism. Modernism and postmodernism, in fact, are ausgespielt, and the next new thing in fiction isn’t issuing from an élitist perch but, rather, is geysering upward from the supermarket shelves. In short, there’s a new literary sheriff in town, able to bend time, jump universes, solve crime, fight zombies, perform magic, and generally save mankind from itself."

But with the odd exception of a writer like Guy Davenport here and there, wasn't modernism ausgespielt near three quarters of a century ago, its uncompromising elitism seen as, well, rather tasteless in the wake of the fascism it, in places, flirted with? Wasn't the real reigning aesthetic in Western literature post-WWII fairly straight realism in its various flavours, historical or contemporary, drawing room or kitchen sink? The radical strangeness of Kafka, Yeats, Lorca, Stevens, Apollinaire, Rilke, Pound, Stein, Joyce may survive in the satirical absurdities of Heller or Vonnegut, more purely in the surreal absurdities of Pinter, but the revolution happened decades ago.

In parallel with, if not part of, the civil rights movement, Late modernism was rendered late in another sense entirely -- deceased -- its hoary spectre exiled to the ivory towers, postmodern prisons of irony shackles and ludic irrelevance. As long as it forsook sincerity it could construct all the grandiose metanarratives it wanted. In the new Germinal, angry young men claimed the field for a fiction about as modernist as Zola. Some of them were not even middle class! Some of them were even not-white, or not-straight, or even... not-men! Either way, the reigning spirit actually under challenge from Grossman's revolution is realist, an aesthetics and ethics of observation and insight, of social awareness, the watchword: relevance.

It's under challenge because it failed, was co-opted by the middle-brow as class tourist travel literature. Pillion passengers of Ginsberg's saintly motorcyclists, an audience of the eternally vicarious updated their mores with the times but never their mindset of propriety. They appreciated the machine between their legs, missed the whole point of the fucking in the ass, and over time recuperated the entire aesthetic to the old enterprise of edification, returning us to fiction by the bourgeois for the bourgeois. See James Kelman's Booker acceptance speech from 1994 for one last snarl of defiance.

Those people there, Jacques Brel called this petit-bourgeoisie, channeling a lovelorn drunken cat-killer. Faut vous dire, monsieur, he might have sung. You see those people there? They don't read, monsieur, don't read.

They review.

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5 Comments:

Blogger Trip said...

Well, Modernism did bequeath an extensive arsenal of literary techniques to all writers after it happened and pretty much, in the eyes of most of them, made earlier methods of writing obsolete. But I do find Krystal's simplifications rather grating.

The connection I see between social realism and modernist - and which Krystal doesn't make because he apparently lumps them together, - is more of a downward progression, a simplification of the tools modernism left behind - both those of prose and those of drama , - even if they were indeed used exclusively.

Many modernists loved (and actually adopted as their fictional enterprise) swimming with the micro-currents of thought and sensation, working with an extremely fine-tuned verbal microscope. For that sort of thing setting is pretty much irrelevant. You can do that to a fantasy general or a middle-class housewife, and I suppose someone like Joyce was aware of that, juxtaposing a day in Dublin to ten years of heroic adventure.

Most socially aware realists, - or at least the run-of-the-mill ones, who are always the majority in any literary current, - be they of a contemporary or a historical persuasion, didn't really take to heart what was basically the thing that most mattered to modernists and instead borrowed "themes" and "setting".

They took the kitchen sink but forgot to look closely at the swirl of stuff draning from it and how it smells and that cut on the housewife's finger stinging in cold water, then going numb and the shiver crawling upwards on her neck and downwards to her pubis, etc., etc.

It's funny though that Krystal would see the similarity in the quotidian nature of crasser components like plot and subject matter and remain oblivious - at least in his text, - to the chasm between the quotidian nature of much social realist verbal structure, from sentence to novelistic architecture, and that of modernist writing.

What I'm making my way to with all this is, I suppose, that the quotation does nothing more than document some time spent in front of a screen, hitting keyboard keys. Otherwise, it has zero contribution to the pool of literary thought.

1:29 pm  
Blogger Hal Duncan said...

... a downward progression, a simplification of the tools modernism left behind...

Agreed. Seeing modernism as bridging the opposition of Romanticism and Rationalism, I reckon the realists, in throwing their oar in with the latter, had to lose the rhapsodic awe of the quotidian that's bound up with the former, all "the micro-currents of thought and sensation," the "swirl of stuff," as you say. And the structural complexity required of effective rhapsody -- digression, nesting, collage. I can appreciate the political idealism in those who ended up, one might say, stripped to the waist and armed only with a knife. It's saddening that this could be so thoroughly co-opted.

5:43 pm  
Blogger Trip said...

I'd add that there *were* some apostles of Modernism later on, like Updike and Nabokov, but neither attempted broad social commentary, and of those fine stylists that did try it - Lawrence Durell, John Gardner, for example - I can't think of someone who gained a significant following, popular or academic.

Gardner did write Grendel though, so at least the paraliterary genres gained something out of it :)

And anyway, come to think of it, I can't even make sense not only of how realism and modernism get stuck together, but how *post-modernism* gets stuck with them, especially since it's full of the "Low" and of often sensational material.

6:51 pm  
Blogger Hal Duncan said...

For sure. My other favourite "odd exception" is Edward Whittemore -- who might even (might!) qualify as social commentary in his Jerusalem Quartet. Though he certainly didn't get a following.

I have a somewhat "pffft!" attitude to post-modernism, I must admit: "Pffft! This is just another flavour of modernism, metanarrative and all. It's just that the metanarrative is the abolition of the notion of essential objective meaning-of-life. The overthrow of metanarratives? Like that's not just nihilism/existentialism!"

So I do see how pomo gets lumped in with modernism. I think it just segregates itself out with its bad faith stance of irony.

Though, yeah, that does beg the question of why the fuck one would lump that in with realism.

3:14 pm  
Blogger Trip said...

Yeah, well, I guess that's why postmodern thought flourished better in other fields, not so much in literature.

Basically, it thrived as *thought*, not so much as set of fictional techniques, which were, as you say, almost the same as those of Modernism, probably with the exception of the wry self-reflexive detachment that oozes of basically everything post-modern.

About the lumping together thing - I find it a plague upon popular writing about literature, that constant easy drift towards glib, smooth parallelism and neat analogy, that ordering of the web of signifiers into successions, hierarchies and dichotomies.

In that, I find it rather like a 6th grader's history texbook, that sort of writing, to be honest.

4:01 pm  

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