09 May 2006

Pastmodernism Manifesto

Now, What. The title of a Beckett novel I never read.

Now What? Another demand on my time?

Now What. The activity we are presently engaged in.

Now What. It’s strange to me what we do. We are forward-looking in an activity plainly our culture is leaving behind.

Cultural conditions gave rise, if not to the form of the novel itself, then certainly to its popularity. 18th century, printing presses, the invention of middle-class leisure – all that. It subsequently became an art form, and retroactively grabbed things that had come before as harbingers and examples. Now the novel is inconceivable without, say, Cervantes.

Cultural conditions may no longer be on our side. I'd say, from what we've been saying so far, that they're not. (That is, they are in helping us produce books, but are not in terms of finding readers. You've seen the stats -- the younger you are, the less likely to read.)

I found it curious that Lydia’s (Blonde’s) asking of What Now, 2006, also involved an act of casting backward: “i have a memory, and in this memory there were writers whose souls and perfect vision were to make readers think, struggle, visit the discomfort of imagination, dream, taboo. in other words, visit the place where art is born and dies and rebirths perpetually.”

I approve and agree. I’m not being ironic or catty. I think it is now useful to get rid of the forward-looking-or-else formulation, or rather to think of Making it New as those guys, those old Modernists conceived it. That is, as simultaneously an act of saving the culture. I shore these fragments against my ruin.

I’ve been thinking for a while about being in a Modernism that is intensely involved in old texts, in texts themselves, which by their very nature root us in the old.

And I don’t mean old in a bad way.

Now What? All nows contain thens.

Now What.

I’ve called this tendency, this orientation in the present toward sustaining a past that is unfinished, as a joke, to friends, Pastmodernism. At a party one time back in the eighties (yeah, I’m that old, and I do mean that in a bad way), I poured a bottle of beer over my head to inaugurate the Age of Pastmodernism.

I didn’t know what the word meant then. I hadn’t made up a definition for it yet. I just liked the idea of the word.

Now I think of its definition as: the necessity to continue the work of Literature and of Art. I mean, for Chrissakes, thinking itself is under attack. World-wide. I mean, I’m just an old hippie in Buffalo and even I knew there were no WMDs in Iraq. A lot of people knew. The inspectors who had been there themselves, and whose job it had been to find them, told us. Now we’ve spent billions of dollars borrowed from China, and continue to spend them, because of the reign of stupidity.

Jesus Christ, don’t get me started.

Reading fiction, real fiction, is antithetical to all of this, though. Reading real fiction forces one to consider other worldviews than one’s own. Reading such forces us into an understanding of the world that shows us, again and again, how ill-equipped we are to control it, chastens us against even wanting to do so.

I am engaged in an act of attempted salvation, no not in any Jesus way, but just as a person, doing what I can do. Saving our means of understanding ourselves. Saving the ability to be thrilled without resorting to the TV prescription of flying off a cliff on a child’s bicycle; rather, simply by being led toward reflection by printed words.

Words brings with them the hope of saving us from madness.

That’s Now What.


Pastmodernism is not against Postmodernism. It seems to me it comes after Postmodernism.

The question of being Postmodern is one I encountered when I first started undergraduate schooling 25 years ago. Postmodernism, let’s face it, is old. Beckett is dead, Calvino, Borges, Creeley, Dinesen, Angela Carter, Olson, Hawkes, Sarraute.

(Sarraute’s dead, isn’t she?)

My point is that how long is one supposed to cling to something and say it’s new and the world isn’t yet catching on, when it seems instead the world doesn’t give a shit?

Then you are in the position of salvaging, of casting backward, of recovery, of withstanding erosion.

And it’s a good thing.