IS THE AGE OF THE -ISM FINALLY OVER?

This cartoon appeared in 1912.  How did the silly old Bee Gees put it?  “I started a joke, which started the whole world crying.”

Modernism, Post-Modernism—is it time we just get rid of these pompous terms, once and for all?

Recorded history is limited, like a football field, or a room; the literary icon Homer is far enough back in time that we don’t know if that Greek epic poet is one author or many, or whether the Iliad and Odyssey were even written down—but the uncertainty of this border of origin doesn’t change the fact that students of literature are dealing with a length of string that is a mere 2800 years in length.

Recorded history, however, gets longer each year, and every year will be more modern than the last; soon Modernism, as an era, will be in the distant past, centuries old—as a literary designation it will seem more quaint and ridiculous each day.  Of course, historians will find a reason why the Moderns called themselves “modern” so long ago—they (these moderns) were caught up in great changes in technology and thought—yes, just as every era was!  You should have been there when the bronze age dawned.  And what of Post-Modernism?  As the years pass, this term is sounding even more quaint and ridiculous—a compounding of the original error.  In retrospect, post-modern as a descriptive term has a ‘fools rush in’ quality: we’re even newer!

The window is closing on publishing “modern” or “post-modern poetry” anthologies that would interest anyone at all.  Would anyone buy an anthology of bronze age poetry, in which the poets take themselves seriously and self-consciously as “modern” poets?  No reader would get the joke—even if there were a joke to get.

An anthology of Romantic poets, for instance, could sell as “love poetry,” and so Shelley will never grow old, but Ashbery, Pound and the Moderns/Post-Moderns will die as soon as the joke ripens and falls off the tree; fans of Ashbery and/or Pound will protest that Ashbery isn’t just “a joke;” Ashbery contains linguistic density and a highly self-conscious intelligence and sense of fun, and this will keep Ashbery-ism and Post-modern-ism alive forever.  But “linguistic density” is not enough—in fact, the very weight of that linguistic density will contribute to its demise, as soon as it becomes separated from its reason—a “reaction” to what is accessible and efficient and coherent.

Time saves only what is beautiful or efficient, and buries everything else.  Love, for instance, helps further the race through procreation, and relates to beauty—it has those characteristics Time likes.   Shakespeare’s Sonnets grapple precisely with this problem, and Shakespeare, acting like a grownup, accepted he was going to die, and threw his lot in with future readers, whereas the Moderns and Post-Moderns are obsessed with the present and the new in what can only be called cultural self-indulgence.   There’s a darker, Nietzschean, end-of-history aspect to all this Modern/Post Modern rhetoric, as well.  Arnold Toynbee, the British historian, who was involved in 20th century British policy in the Middle East, a cynical Realpolitik thinker, coined “Post-modern” as it applied to history, and claimed Post-modern began with the First World War.  “Late Capitalism” is a related term, of course.  Utopians—and tyrants talk this talk.  The aesthetic issue, which we see in various genres (architecture most prominently) is all part of it, of course.

The modern or post-modern cultural self-consciousness that ridicules and obliterates art is really this: the unspoken revenge of Plato—art is erased, not by decree, but by ‘blank canvas,’  post-modern curators and experts. Once culture advances towards self-consciousness, it naturally comes to a Platonic awareness that what is important to society is not the sentimental or snobby delusions of a Sir Joshua Reynolds.  But because this so-called revenge is unspoken, it’s a revenge gone terribly wrong—an unselfconsious self-consiousness, which is the worst kind.

Shall we indulge in these categories before we bid them adieu at last?

Romanticism:  Culture Defined by the Best
Modernism:  Culture Defined by the Mass
Post-modernism:  Culture Defined by Itself

Romanticism: The Slave
Modernism: The Wage Slave
Post-modernism: Snoop Dog

Romanticism: Statesman
Modernism: President
Post-Modernism: Politician

Romanticism: Byron a best-seller
Modernism: H.G. Wells a best-seller
Post-Modernism: Alfred Kinsey a best-seller

Romanticism: Incomprehensible works of Coleridge
Modernism: Incomprehensible works of Joyce
Post-Modernism: Incomprehensible works of Pynchon

Romanticism: A lover gets killed in a war
Modernism: A friend gets killed in a war
Post-modernism: A stranger gets killed in a war

Romanticism: Sin and Beauty
Modernism: Sex and Ugly
Post-Modernism: Gender and Race

Hey, these are funny.  Maybe it’s too soon to get rid of these categories?

3 Comments

  1. October 23, 2011 at 3:04 pm

    Speaking of MFAs — were you speaking of MFAs? — here’s something pertinent:

    http://entertainment.salon.com/2011/10/22/why_critics_of_mfa_programs_have_it_wrong/

    • thomasbrady said,

      October 23, 2011 at 10:46 pm

      No, I wasn’t really talking about MFAs, but I enjoyed the excellent Elif Batuman review of the “Program Era” by McGurl, linked in the Iowa Workshop Director interview. Thanks. The chief problem with MFAs is that ‘Creativity’ is an excuse not to know anything about the past—and McGurl himself is a good example in his defense of the MFA.

      As for the “Salon exclusive” interview itself: I agree with most of the comments below; new Iowa Workshop director defends the Iowa Workshop—amazing! I couldn’t believe how many times Chang said, “I mean…” when the interviewer asked her about MFA criticism. And those “prongs” at the beginning of the interview. Chang’s prongs.

      40% of poetry Pulitzers in the last 20 years were Iowa students or faculty. Small world.

  2. Nooch said,

    November 2, 2011 at 10:38 am

    An acquaintance gets killed in a war: Modernism
    You get killed in a war: Postmodernism

    A president faces impeachment for a burglary: Modernism
    A president faces impeachment for a blowjob: Postmodernism

    ‘Portnoy’s Complaint’ becomes a best-seller: Modernism
    ‘The Corrections’ becomes a best-seller: Postmodernism


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 118 other followers

%d bloggers like this: