January 8, 2009

Evasive Postmodernism

The fiction writers of the generation following the Second World War and the Korean War were haunted by a suspicion that language had somehow grown stale. This suspicion had varying origins and took different forms, including a reaction against the "genteel tradition," a naive belief that hipster argot and improvisation would get better results than stuffy correctness, and the belief that language had somehow been exhausted. The prose writers associated with postmodernism, including John Barth, Robert Coover, Donald Barthelme, and William Gaddis among others, were closely identified with the view that language had become some kind of problem. It was a problem with different causes, not all well understood in the 1950s and 60s. One was the increasingly clumsy, intentionally vague and obscure, evasive, or dumb-sounding language of the government, which by the time of the Vietnam war had become purposeful distortion and outright lies. Almost as important was the very clever emptiness of advertising language, which was all around, all the time. Hertz declared "We're number 1," and the clever admen of David X's firm retorted "We try harder." This was great stuff. "Number 1" meant (on another level) the biggest dick, and Avis came right back with an implicit admission of smaller size, but claimed finesse made all the difference. Or, in the idiom of a few years later, "It ain't the meat, it's the motion." The blankly banal language of self-help was still in the future, but psychotherapists were preparing a great wad of jargon, much of it new labels for familiar ideas. Still, it  seems a little strange that this generation of writers thought they had a special problem with language. Hucksterism in some form has always been present in American life, and Mark Twain's satire was pointed against that as much as anything. The idioms of genteel evasion were long established. Politics had always been dirty. If anything was new it was the sense that banality was now all but inescapable. From nobly trying to rise above the sea of cliche, writers by the 1960s turned around and sank into it up to their armpits. I don't have a cause to suggest for why so many writers were so anxious about language. It's obvious that they were a nervous bunch.

Donald Barthelme, always very articulate, wrote (in an essay  called "After Joyce" in the posthumously  published Not-Knowing) that "However much the writer might long to be, in his work, simple, honest, and straightforward, these virtues are no longer available to him. He discovers that in being simple, honest, and straightforward, nothing much happens: he speaks the speakable, whereas what we are after is the as-yet unspeakable, the as-yet unspoken."

"Language, Barthelme said, had been "contaminated," by being put to "manipulative" use. "The not-knowing [what to write next] is not simple, because it's hedged about with prohibitions, roads that may not be taken." This sentence has the striking ring of inhibition, of neurotic self-censorship. Could it be that, whatever was wrong with various ways language was being used in public by anonymous commercial and political persuaders, the fiction writers and poets were inventing problems for themselves? Is it possible that they were, unknowingly in this "not-knowing," practicing evasion? Of course, as Barthelme was well aware, an ironic stance gets in the way of resolution.

There was no novelty in the idea that language was contaminated by dishonesty:

And the betrayers of language

........................n and the press gang
And those who had lied for hire,
The perverts, the perverters of language

Ezra Pound had written in Canto XIV, in the 1920s. Orwell's 1984 was published in 1948. His famous essay "Politics and the English Language" was well known. Was there something uniquely different in the situation of writers of the first post-modern generation? One clue is in the label, which made Barthelme, at least, uncomfortable. They were aware of coming after modernism, so whether or not public "abuses" of language were a problem for them, not being Joyce, or pick your favorite major figure of modernism, was a problem: for all the big names of modern literature were masters of language, each wrenching it heroically to his own purposes. (One obvious result of postmodernism is the diminution of the generations; if to Mailer Hemingway was a giant, as to Barthelme Joyce and Beckett were, the postwar generation of writers seem to my generation giants: Bellow, Salinger, Vonnegut, Updike, Roth, Kerouac, Pynchon, even Richard Yates--all self-supporting full-time novelists who wrote at a time when the novel was still important, never mind that people still read books.) The sense of having arrived late on the scene was extremely widespread in the fifties generation, more than it was for boomers or their children. Here again I can't pinpoint the cause; I can only describe the symptom and its effect on writing.

For Barthelme, who was as aware of trends in the visual arts as he was of new writing, the great shift had been in the relation of the work of art to the world. (This point is important about Barthelme because the postmodern writers are so often said to be writing about the fictiveness of fiction, and he was not attracted to that game.) From being a window on the world, art had become an object in itself, and Barthelme was among the very first to notice--and this would be the true postmodernist note distinctive in his work--that by making art works into things, they were then on a par with all other things instead of occupying somehow some higher realm. Claes Oldenberg, an early pop artist who had a storefront studio on the Lower East Side, turned it into a literal store, with objects made of plaster and painted crudely, all with price tags. The monumental, dumb, boring repetitiveness of Warhol's soup can painting rationalized and ironized the urban grid that had supplied the armature of so many abstract expressionist painting. Jasper Johns devoted himself to doing paintings of "things the mind already knows."

The language of fiction took a steep slide in the direction of speech, partly as a way to eliminate outworn diction in the spirit of the early modernists, partly because some writers found it more expressive. Barthelme began to look at language itself, sentence, fragments of sentences, as being more interesting in itself than for anything it might mean. He walked around the city, listened to conversations, and read newspapers and magazines with his ear cocked for some strange new idiom, and took it home with him, wrote it down, and placed it, as if surrounded by scare quotes, into some inapposite context, just as Kurt Schwitters had taken torn pieces of paper and pasted them together to make something new. Instead of a picture of something that existed, something that had not existed before. This approach appealed to Barthelme.

His hope was that the friction between the collaged items would generate new meaning. History was against him there; the world was becoming increasingly opaque and uninterpretable, whether or not banal or exhausted language was itself responsible for leaching meaning out of the world. Not only Barthelme, but most serious artists, had to come to grips with the fact that their work was meaningless at the same time that it had achieved status as a thing among other things. It was a promotion in one dimension, since it was no longer secondary to the world, but a demotion in another direction because it was now just one mnore thing. It was a thing added to the world, but without higher status.

Barthelme's example is a hopeful one, for his work suggests that even if many people feel like they've fallen into an appendix of the universe and can't get out, it's not a dead end. Though he is not likely to have imitators, since the result would be inadvertant parody, his methods may be influential for many years to come.

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