NOTE: This is a
first draft, and will be revised shortly.
Well, first let me give you some background. About the time that I was dropping out of university, in 1976, Jacques Derrida and his minions were beginning to really have an impact on university English departments with their variants on Derridas "Deconstructionism." Postmodernism and deconstructionism, for the purposes of this essay are synonymous -- a non-hair-splitting that THEY would not appreciate, but we are not they, are we?
During the course of my writing career, academics, steeped in postmodernism basically moved into all available niches within the ecosystem of American Letters.
This is the first time in our history that the Academy has been not only openly embraced by the Writing/ Journalism fraternity, but given the keys to the castle. I maintain that the decline in our novels, our books, our magazines and our newspapers is causally and directly related to this fact. The sadder fact is that these "educated" writers had been educated in deconstructionist thought before being sent off to destroy literature.
The quickest way to explain deconstructionism is with this little quote I found on the net:
nåtes explanation is one of the best succinct versions Ive found, so lets go with it.
The interesting point about the above is that it SHOULDNT CHANGE the practical application of reason in any wise. The belief in "absolute" truth had been pooh-poohed in the 19th Century by Oliver Wendell Holmes from the bench of the Supreme Court. So, this formalization really represents nothing particularly NEW in aesthetic thought.
What it was USED for, however, was to unfairly control the written curriculum in Literature, Science, History, Psychology, Sociology, Ethics and Religion. In the "politicization" of the curricula, Postmodernism has been the battle tank, fearlessly blasting away at the old fuddy-duddies who believe in "truth" and "facts" and also at the naive student (whose parents are carrying crushing loans) who demands that the University TEACH HIM SOMETHING.
Deconstructionism tends, in university, to be invariably political. It is a weapon against reason when an impassioned argument is being lost, and a weapon against passion if an "unacceptable" argument is being won!
I would hope that the reader has enough personal experience to fill in the rest of the argument. This is not intended as a jeremiad against an overpriced and under-achieving educational system, but, rather, to illuminate the greatest underlying cause of the decline of American letters.
I could spend several very difficult and precise pages delineating in tedious detail the epistemological issues that are at issue in the description above. But this is not the point, since I spent a good while as a philosophy major and STILL love it, and most readers [and writers] wont ever have much use for the arguments. I WILL discuss these issues as they are germane, but what we are concerned with is not the THEORY of postmodernism, as much as the PRACTICE.
As PRACTICED, postmodernism has led to the "story without a point," as Ive commented on again and again. It starts nowhere, goes nowhere, and says nothing. Why? One might ask.
Because "its all relative." Several writers, a glut of professors and other untutored philosophers have thrown the baby out with the bathwater and accepted Hasan I Sabbahs hashishim dictum: "nothing is true, everything is permitted." (From Sabbah, we derive our words "hashish" and "assassin," of which, in his cult, the former was smoked by the latter before going to work.)
Its certainly been borne out in writing coming out of the Universities, and New York publishing houses.
But, the simple fact is, in these cases, it is the rationalization of the inferior writer for failing to produce art, much as the art world has been overtaken, in recent years by the "its utterly impenetrable, therefore it MUST be profound."
I will not soon forget the looks I received on the third floor of the Museum of Modern Art in New York City as I laughed heartily and openly at an "installation" that was comprised of some imbeciles drawing lines in pencil on the wall. He didnt even have the guts to draw in INK!
Then was the Emperor was truly naked. Do you for a moment believe that I was admired for my justifiable iconoclasm? No. We prefer the Naked Emperor adored by the crowd to the small voice of SEEING. Having lived and worked in the art world for several years, I can only say that, bad as it is in the world of letters, its worse in art, where conceptual art consists of an old shoe and a good story.
Which brings us back to postmodernist "standards."
Between 1994 and 1997, I reviewed literally hundreds of short stories for the WASHINGTON POST. And, nearly without exception, they were indulgent, untalented, infantile, unprofessional, un-navigable messes. But they LOOKED profound. Like those pencil lines on the wall, each proud buffoon was swaddled in breathless pre-publication prose (termed "blurbs") which ascribed, unashamedly, each author a a prosaic acumen that would have made Shakespeare blush.
And it was unrepentant garbage. No story. No characters. No beginning, middle or end (in whatever order). No reason to BE, frankly.
I have always held out the hope that if I could get some of the rabid environmentalists to appreciate that trees were killed for this garbage, theyd sit outside the Masters-In-Fine-Arts Creative Writing Pushcart Prizewinners apartment doors, DEMANDING that the prose they delivered for publication justified the death of our Leafy Forest Friends!
Alas, this has proven too convenient to be practical.
I need not point out the corrupting nature of this sort of editorial choice. If there is no rational basis for selection, then other issues become the determinants: will the author plug my book, baby-sit my children, kick back her advance? The corrosion of New Yorks editorial corps by this standardless buying is another writers purview, however.
I have seen the universities attain hegemony over literature with their writing programs and MFAs. And I have seen them move into the commercial world of writing, and all but destroy American letters. Modern literature -- as Ive noted elsewhere runs screaming from technology (the single salient social engine of the century!) and still attempts to produce stories of manners a là "Uncle Wiggly in Connecticut," (Salinger, 1950s) save that even the conventions are gone. There are no "normal" people, nor are there even "neurotic" people. And so our modern tales are peopled with monstrosities.
Think of any book by John Irving surely the most conformist of modern novelists. A litany of monsters and freaks and, always, a bear (preferably on a bicycle). I could continue for pages in this vein, but its clear enough.
We write about abnormal people in monstrous situations without moral or ethical choice, without hope, without resolution, damnation or salvation. The closest that we come is with salivation, which, even as I write, is being blue-penciled back into nothingness. In the midst of monsters, even sexuality must go back into hiding.
Dont tell me: the books pile up in my living room the best "literature" that can be sent me, and as I read it I am appalled at both its emptiness and at its sameness.
Of course. What else could you expect?
The problem is that none of the academic postmodernists, nor the deconstructionists is really a philosopher, nor, truth be told, are the modern philosophers.
I will start with Wittgenstein, if only because it is convenient for me, and also because Ludwig is the spiritual father of the empty novel, the pointless sentence not even ennobled by absurdity.
Wittgenstein, in the early portion of the century, really was our language philosopher. He analyzed the very basis of language, found it wanting, and began to analyze the very meaning out of language. At the end of this process, his fundamental thesis might be stated thus, vis a vis Western Culture: "Not only can you not know what is the Good and the True, but you cannot possibly formulate the Question!"
Wittgenstein is followed by the Existentialists. The great moment in Existentialism came with the TIME magazine cover, "IS GOD DEAD?"
The Existentialist position (and it is an honest one) traces its roots back to David Hume, who realized that Cause and Effect were not demonstrably and provably, not necessarily linked. This had the effect of breaking the back of Logic, but it took from the 18th Century to the 20th for the shock to kick in.
Humes solution was tradition and sentiment. As we come to the 20th Century, the solutions offered by Existentialists to the death of Logic are fundamentally the same. Camus, in "The Myth of Sisyphus" claims that only by living without hope are we spared the terror of the black void of Nothingness that weve come to. Beckett, in Waiting for Godot maintains that only WITH hope can we be spared from the horrors of the NOTHING. And without reason, theyre both right.
But the error there, as with postmodernism, is that the baby is thrown out with the bathwater. Logic cannot solve all problems!
Let me say that again, because this is the essence of Existentialism: LOGIC CANNOT SOLVE ALL PROBLEMS.
But this is NOT the same thing as saying, LOGIC CANNOT SOLVE ANY PROBLEMS.
So, too, with postmodernism. The proposition that perfect meaning cannot be imparted in a story is NOT AT ALL the same as stating that NO meaning can be imparted in a story.
And yet, many postmodernists claim precisely this. All meaning in a story is created by the READER, say they, not the WRITER.
Pshaw and bullshit, kiddies.
Huckleberry Finn and Nigger Jim going down the Mississippi in a raft can NEVER be the Sheik of Araby romancing the Sultans daughter. The Mississippi remains fundamentally water, while the Sahara must be sand. Huck is an adolescent white boy, and Jim a black slave. They are in context within a historically identifiable era, and at this point, the only questions the Postmodernists can raise are on the FINE points of the interpretation.
I do not disagree that perfect, rigorous logic cannot hold the world. But I cannot accept that logic and meaning therefore exist NOWHERE in the world, and this is the deconstructionists unstated, unelucidated presumption. A presumption that is, fundamentally, a very superficial and unsophisticated reading of the current crisis of epistemology in philosophical circles.
But I studied for 12 years at a Tibetan Buddhist school, and note with a slight snort of derision that the philosophical problems of the current age were solved in a modernistic, positivistic manner by non-technological Buddhists nearly two millennia ago. This is an aside, however. This is a subject for a much less casual work than this.
Lets take a different approach: There is an unwritten, unspoken contract between reader and writer. The writer is OBLIGATED to make sense to the reader. Generally this is enforceable through the simple outcome that books that say nothing and go nowhere sell no copies, and the uncommunicative author starves to death; it is a form of literary Darwinism.
But in areas of writing not subject to these proscriptions, as in law or textbooks, very often the contract is flung on the ground and danced upon. Teacherships, grants and artist-in-residencies have done much to not merely take the profit motive out of telling a good story, but to make the writer SOUND academic, knowing that the judges will either BE English teachers, or write like them.
A quarter century later, Frank Herberts words still ring in my ears, as we talked in an upstairs suite at WESTERCON on July 4, 1976 that, while he was happy to have moved from the ghetto of SciFi to visiting guru status at universities, he was constantly hounded with technical grammatical and linguistic questions that he didnt understand. "I just smile, nod and take their money," quoth the author of DUNE - certainly no intellectual slouch.
Artist-in-residencies represent a particularly odious version of this situation, in which, the "writer" being paid to attend the university is expected to "produce" some great work while standing as a living example to the stooges on the faculty and staring up from the desks, and is it any wonder that the AIRs start SOUNDING like college English papers very quickly? Instead of influencing Academia (and when has Academia ever been in FRONT of art?) Academia begins to act as a corrosive influence on the writer.
Ernest J. Gaines' A Lesson Before Dying always springs unbidden to my mind, because he was writing it while he taught at a university in Louisiana, and towards the middle of the book, Gaines style begins to vanish, and he begins to sound, more and more LIKE THE STUDENT PAPERS HE WAS GRADING!
The fault however, still lies with the writer. If the textbook was undecipherable, it was the stupidity of the writer, not the reader. This harsh judgment is somewhat ameliorated in specialized writings, but not so much as one would think. The inability to communicate clearly is the fault of the writer.
On the other hand,, postmodernism attempts to formally reject this compact by claiming that life makes no sense, that there is no point, that it doesnt matter because no matter what the writer says, the reader will only create the meaning the reader wants anyway.
Does this stink to high heaven of rationalization?
Of course it does. To read a "postmodernist" paper randomly generated by the Dada Engine is not much different than to read a postmodernist paper genuinely creaked out for consumption by an effete class of fellow postmodernists. The language exists to confuse and bewilder, as most jargon does, but the philosophical principles, when understood, are terrifically mundane.
But, worse, postmodernist thought and writing has been used as an excuse to wedge in the professors favorite political agendas, and, if one peruses the length and breadth of modern postmodernist writing is it very often associated with political monomanias feeding the voracious maw of feminism, ethnicism, racism (in the sense that anyone disagreeing with the propounder is a racist) with environmentalism, radical communism, anarcho-syndicalism, &c. &c. &c.
Huckleberry Finn is a good example of this, inasmuch as students far and wide raise the hue and cry that the term "Nigger Jim" is inherently racist, (and threfore the novel itself) when Huck was one of the most advanced racial views in literature at the time of its publication, revolutionary in its view of the "negro" and literally decades ahead of its time. The postmodernist would have us belive that the imbecilic students who would decry this, among the greatest of American novels, are in some wise "entitled" to their misinterpretation -- where the misinterpretation is quite probably due entirely to the tyranny of postmodernist ideologues among the clerisy.
The irony that these harangues and tirades can only, seemingly, flourish in an atmosphere of anti-logic, anti-meaning and anti-thought seems entirely lost on the postmodernists. Indeed irony seems lost on them.
The question that we will eventually have to answer is how did this school of become so influential and destructive? In the meantime, however, I maintain that whatever positive advances we are going to make in the arts, in writing, in social justice and law will come through an acceptance of the proposition that reason, while not Omniscient (which is really the hangover were recovering from the 19th Century belief that reason and its step-child technology would create a Paradise on Earth, and solve ALL problems) that reason is still a pretty good way to solve problems. Certainly it is better than solving them via the passions, which is the practical result of post-modernism: the beastliest wins.
Fiction - GOOD fiction - is rooted in a careful observation of life. And, careful observation will soon overwhelm the observer with the realization that our lives DO tend to form into stories, into modules of meaning. We meet a person. A time passes. The relationship comes to a true dénouement. This is picked up as a thread in the tapestry of our lives, as we trace it through the warp and woof of our experience, but whether through Kantian a priori filtration, or because of Destiny is not important. It is how we perceive life, and stories proceed from this very organic observation.
The postmodernist school attempts to throw this out the window. But, without justification. I cannot throw out all the lines of inquiry in this short space, but I hope that you have a starting place for yourself.
I have made a pact with you to provide meaning in this piece, and I hope that I have fulfilled that compact. If we are to continue with a viable literature, that compact must once again be honored.
We simply cannot tolerate another generation of say-nothing. go-nowhere novelists who write pieces devoid of meaning about non-humans and expect the ancient tradition of storytelling to survive as a profession. We will be reduced to listening to local storytellers at bars and around campfires. The storyteller will survive. It is, perhaps, the second-oldest profession inasmuch as storytellers spread the word about the oldest profession. But the postmodernists will not survive.
Let us hasten them to their graves.
(This last is metaphor. It is not to be taken literally.)