Friday, October 17, 2008

Modernism and After in The Art Lover

This is another short paper written for a class that looked at how the concept of time worked in literature and theory. Every paper in the series takes up whoever we were reading and pairs them together. They aren't exactly haphazard pairings, but ya' know. It is an open question as to how forced brevity effected the efforts--good exercise; still not used to it. This one begins a critique of Fredric Jameson's idea of "postmodernism" that I continued in my final for the class. It also has a bit about metaphor that I hope to expand much more in the future.

You'll also notice the forced MLA. God I hate MLA.

*NOTE* The footnote links won't work unless you're on the specific post page (by clicking on the title link). You'll have to excuse my crappy coding.


In Geyh’s functional introduction to postmodern theory, she fleshes out the notion of antifoundationalism partially by reference to Lyotard. Lyotard defines “postmodern as incredulity toward metanarratives” (Lyotard xxiv, italics his). For Lyotard, the postmodern condition is basically a skeptical attitude toward “any philosophy or theory … which claims to provide a complete explanation of culture and society” (Geyh xx). In so doing, Lyotard eliminates the large, overarching foundations for situating ourselves in the world, leaving us adrift in uncertainty.

This instability is enunciated well by Jameson as he discusses the fate of the “self” at the hands of postmodernism. Jameson says that “the very concept of expression presupposes indeed some separation within the subject, and along with that a whole metaphysics of the inside and outside” (Jameson 11) and that postmodernism has made it central to itself to be “committed to the mission of criticizing and discrediting this very hermeneutic model of the inside and the outside” (12). This obliteration of the self is largely predicted by Lewis’ identification of the irony of romanticism—all this focus on the individual personality ends up eviscerating the notion of individuals: “…the more your particular personality … obsess[es] you, … the less ‘individualist’ you will be in the ordinary political sense. … Your ‘individualism’ will be that mad one of the ‘one and only’ self, a sort of instinctive solipsism in practice” (Lewis 8). What we have, in some sense, is a hyper-romanticism in postmodernism, a dissolution of anything substantive to be as a self by the elimination of the traditional hard edges (of metanarratives) and the relocation of meaning-inscription within each person as they swim through the bottomless stream of time. We begin blending into each other because we are never quite sure where we end and someone else begins because we ultimately only know ourselves.

This same irony, that hyper-individualism means the end of the individual, makes itself apparent in Maso’s novel. There are seemingly an infinite number of ways of drawing this picture (an effect I cannot draw into the discussion, but a stylistic maneuver very much apart of it), so I will choose but one. Caroline, our author’s author, says very early on that “I am a lover of detail, a marker—it’s a way of keeping the world in place. … Organize. Reorganize” (Maso 12). Details are bits of the world and Caroline herself must organize these bits so that the world remains in place, stable. On pages 50 to 51, Caroline describes a game her and her father used to play: “What the Light Looked Like.” The game is played by taking in the sensation of points of light and, because of a “love of simile and metaphor” (50), then saying they look like elephants, despite the fact that they are not elephants. This is similar to the more traditional activity of looking for constellations while stargazing, an activity which provides a dominant metaphor for the book. We see individual stars, but if you organize them just right, you no longer see the individual stars, but rather Hercules or Cygnus.[fn.1]

The line to be drawn between details and metaphor and seeing constellations is the sense in which they all repose on spatial metaphors, indeed even my attempt to organize them to help one see the connection: “line to be drawn.” This effect is predicted by Jameson: “our psychic experience, our cultural languages, are today dominated by categories of space rather than by categories of time, as in the preceding period of high modernism” (Jameson 16). Details are points of light that need to be organized into recognizable patterns, whether twin elephants or Orion’s belt. This act of organization and stability occurs in a metaphoric moment in which stars are treated—for this person’s purpose—as Hercules.

The moment of instability, however, occurs for us here in Jameson’s circle around an essential concept of postmodernism. The Maso I’ve drawn attention to has so far written along lines conducive to Jameson’s notion of the postmodern dissolution of self. The climax in my portrait occurs in a section entitled “Freud Speaks” (Maso 162-3). Caroline here dreams that she is swimming in a pool, but Freud keeps telling her, no, it really is something else.[fn.2] Freud is a prime example of both an arch-metanarrativist that Lyotard is incredulous of and a “charismatic Master” that Jameson says died with modernism.[fn.3] The figure Freud is using is metaphor: you say “pool,” but that really means “birth canal.” The troubling fact of this dream, however, is that it shows just the reverse of what Jameson has been saying about the death of the personality in postmodernism. On Freud’s account—indeed, in all metanarratives—the individual loses all substance in the face of an overarching, omnipresent gesture of transfiguration, i.e. metaphor. Freud: everything is about mom, dad, and sex. Caroline is here raging against this smoothing out of the unique detail of individuals by trying to assert her own personality in the face of Freud’s totalized, circumscribing all-knowingness.[fn.4] This doesn’t make sense, however, on Jameson’s account, because metanarratives and Masters seemed to have been what held up the self. On Lewis’s account, it makes some sense since the authoritative voice of the Master—inflicting his own navel-gazing personality on everyone else—must be what obliterates and homogenizes us: we have no voice of our own, we are just repeating the words of the Master. Except that, Lewis, and especially Eliot, were in favor of a little more authority in the face of romanticism’s love of novelty.


Works Cited

Geyh, Paula, Fred G. Leebron and Andrew Levy. Postmodern American Fiction. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1998.

Jameson, Fredric. Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. Durham: Duke University Press, 1991.

Lewis, Wyndham. Time and Western Man. Santa Rosa: Black Sparrow Press, 1993, 1927.

Lyotard, Jean-François. The Postmodern Condition. Trans. Geoff Bennington and Brian Massumi. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984.

Maso, Carole. The Art Lover. New York: New Directions Classic, 2006, 1995, 1990.


[1] This metaphor exudes from the pores of the book. The new edition contains constellations on the cover, the sections Spring, Summer, and Fall are closed with a snippet of “Sky Watch,” the family Caroline writes about are preoccupied with stargazing. See in particular conjunction, “‘Don’t you think these first leaves look exactly like stars?’ Candace says. ‘Yes, I do,’ I say, wishing I could see more often what Candace sees” (Maso 22).

[2] The “I” in this section is a suppressed identity, but given the ebb and flow of the book, I am going to suppose unargumentatively that it is Caroline who’s dreaming.

[3] Jameson says “the prophetic elitism and authoritarianism of the modern movement are remorselessly identified in the imperious gesture of the charismatic Master.” (Jameson 2)

[4] The close of the section reads (Maso 162):
He [Freud] smirks a little. He’s heard this all before.
“It really is a pool. I think it means I want to go swimming.”
“Don’t be ridiculous,” he says.
Significant is Freud’s knowingness, his incredulity, the repetition of “I,” and the emphatic “is,” the verb “to be,” which is the prerequisite for a metaphor, and the only way to short-circuit one. (“No, it doesn’t mean love, it is just a heart.”)

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