The Good and the Bad in Postmodern Critiques of Literature

Aristotle’s On Poetics, which I talked about extensively in this post, was basically the first formal analysis of Western literature in history. Not surprisingly, it was also instrumental in the formation of the Western canon of literature. His definition of literature as having the power to change the reader is peerless. As long as writers kept, for the most part, to his principles, literature held a place of prominence in Western civilization.

Ironically, it was exactly this place of prominence that led to its downfall.

The Problem with RomanticismPostmodernism and Literature

With the rise of the Romantic movement, the role of the reader became secondary to the role of the genius-poet. Immanuel Kant argued that only the aesthetic genius could give meaning to a phenomenal universe by constantly “pulling down” beauty from the noumenon. Without getting too deep into Kant’s extremely difficult philosophy, what he said was this: It takes a madman to bring meaning to a chaotic universe. This new genius-madman-poet soon became a figure of respect, reverence, and, eventually, adoration.

This elevation of the artist to a figure worthy of near-worship was a fundamental betrayal of the principles of Aristotle’s Poetics, which focused less on the creator than on the effect of the creator’s art on the audience. What happened next was interesting. The artist, unshackled from the expectations of the reader, began to put a premium on originality, not classical form.

Initially, this led to some very affecting and even edifying literature. However, without the external limits placed by Aristotle’s rules, soon literature stopped concerning itself with ethics. By the twentieth century, literature became a self-referential orgy of style over substance. Not surprisingly, most “elite literature” of our time is read by a very small group of people who are less interested in the good, true, or beautiful, but more in the satisfaction of their personal desires. A good example of this is the recent Pulitzer Prize winner The Goldfinch, a work of beautiful language telling a banal story of self-pitying idiots making the same mistakes over and over again. Reading it provides no catharsis, only confusion.

Postmodernism’s Incisive Criticism

Postmodernism and literature

The postmodern philosopher Ronald Barthes summed up this problem beautifully by blaming not only the writer, but the critic who was created along with the genius-writer:

The author still rules in manuals of literary history, in biographies of writers, in magazine interviews, and even in the awareness of literary men, anxious to unite, by their private journals, their person and their work; the image of literature to be found in contemporary culture is tyrannically centered on the author, his person, his history, his tastes, his passions; criticism still consists, most of the time, in saying that Baudelaire’s work is the failure of the man Baudelaire, Van Gogh’s work his madness, Tchaikovsky’s his vice: the explanation of the work is always sought in the man who has produced it, as if, through the more or less transparent allegory of fiction, it was always finally the voice of one and the same person, the author, which delivered his “confidence.”

Barthes sees all the problems of modern culture incarnated in this transformation of literature into the worship of the Author. As though he were speaking with Aristotle directly, he wrote,

The true locus of writing is reading. Another very specific example can make this understood: recent investigations have shed light upon the constitutively ambiguous nature of Greek tragedy, the text of which is woven with words that have double meanings, each character understanding them unilaterally (this perpetual misunderstanding is precisely what is meant by “the tragic”); yet there is someone who understands each word in its duplicity, and understands further, one might say, the very deafness of the characters speaking in front of him: this someone is precisely the reader (or here the spectator). In this way is revealed the whole being of writing: a text consists of multiple writings, issuing from several cultures and entering into dialogue with each other, into parody, into contestation; but there is one place where this multiplicity is collected, united, and this place is not the author, as we have hitherto said it was, but the reader.

In many ways, Barthes is right. His problem, however, is that he isn’t interested in the restoration of literature to its proper place. All he can do is  suggest that its interpretation should depend on the individual reader. For the postmodernists, this is enough.

Postmodernism’s Dead End

Such a solution could (and already does) lead to an assertion that there is no absolute good to be gained from literature outside of the personal preference of each reader, conditioned by his specific cultural and ideological formation. This attitude leads to Barthes saying something typical of a Communist worldview:

Thus literature (it would be better, henceforth, to say writing), by refusing to assign to the text (and to the world as text) a “secret:’ that is, an ultimate meaning, liberates an activity which we might call counter-theological, properly revolutionary, for to refuse to arrest meaning is finally to refuse God and his hypostases, reason, science, the law.

As a deconstructionist, Barthes can’t offer us a new kind of literature that would help create culture for an increasingly divided and broken world.

The Logical (illogical) Conclusion

Postmodernism and literature

It would perhaps be enough to leave it at that. Let every reader decide what defines good literature. That’s exactly where we are as a culture right now. Taste is not argued over, and no one dares make pronouncements about what is good or bad literature. But this is not a stable state of affairs. And we’re beginning to see its natural conclusion. Spoiler: it’s not pretty.

Recently, I read an astonishing article from a so-called scholar of folklore that insists that any attempt to unify people on the basis of common human experience as expressed in folk tales and epic poetry is not only useless, it’s nationalist (maybe even fascist).

The implicit assumption of this author is frightening: any ideology or system of belief that claims that humanity can find a principle or story around which to unify is inherently dangerous. It will always lead to nationalism and atrocities against “the other.”

You understand what that means, right? Christianity’s message of universality is not only impossible, it’s dangerous.

This is where we are now, people.

And this is why good storytelling may be the single most important thing any culture creator learns. And it’s also why I’m going to be speaking exactly on that topic this Saturday at Doxamoot, a conference for Orthodox Christian lovers of Tolkien. If you’re in the area, come by and let’s chat!

7 comments:

  1. Deacon Nicholas,
    Another great article! I read the linked article The Good Guy/Bad Guy Myth, and it worries me as well. I myself fell into that trap at one point, so I can see some of the concerns of the good guy/bad guy dichotomy. However, I think the author is cherry-picking examples to bolster an ideological agenda. To interpret the Iliad through a postmodern lens is intellectually dishonest, one cannot simply superimpose a 21st century frame on a three thousand year story . The ancients didn’t have the same set of values as the contemporary world, they were subject to fate and the capricious nature of the the gods–of course, modern conceptions of good-evil did not come into story telling, it took until the time of Christ and the teachings of the Church before those ideas permeated the known world. One can saw that there were foreshadows of this in Greek philosophy, but it didn’t come to fruition till later. I also thought it interesting that the author didn’t even mention the Aeneid, which is essentially an epic myth centered on the superiority of Rome. So there was classic story telling with the idea of an Us (the surviving Trojans) and Them (Etruscans, Latins). As far as I know, this wasn’t framed in terms of morality, but it still had as a premise “nationality.”

    Where the author really misses the point is the complete disregard (or maybe ignorance of) the nature of story-telling. You’ve mentioned this multiple times. We as human beings have a capacity to tell stories, and these stories evolve and change over time. One can say that they reflect the concerns and sometimes even fears of specific cultures. Naturally, as folktales are passed down over generations they will take on new iterations reflecting cultural norms, but often the underlying message is still there. So to denigrate contemporary story telling as a reduction to good buys vs. bad guys is to miss the point of how story telling has gotten to this point. There is obviously a need or concern that these stories are trying to address. And I speak here about the stories mentioned in the linked article. I agree wholeheartedly with you that much modern, academic literature is self-indulgent and orgiastic. I think this is why there has been such a insatiable interest in Tolkien, Lewis, et al…and superheros and the like…because they are retelling ancient stories that resonant deep within us. We want a hero! And we want evil defeated because the conquering of evil and the redemption of human persons in storytelling are echoes of the Gospel.

    1. Yes, I agree with pretty much everything you said 🙂 I’m especially struck by the brazenness of the cherry-picking. I think what’s going on is actually something very insidious–an attempt to manufacture a new kind of mythology for post-modern man. The end of that is scary. I think it’s all leading to wholesale transhumanism.

      1. I very much agree. Transhumanism is one of the great evils of our time and so many people are unaware of its pernicious affects on culture. I’m glad that there a few Orthodox in the English speaking world speaking against it and modernism (and subsequently postmodernism), I haven’t come across too many. Fr. Stephen Freeman and the Pageau brothers being a few. Unless you are aware of more…? I know a guy that is Roman Catholic that has an interest in body modification and transhumanism…when I heard this I was flummoxed. But if you really think about the underlying ontological and anthropological differences between us and Western thought, it really comes at no surprise. What we’re witnessing is the inevitable result of Scholastic sacramental theology and later Cartesian Dualism. So the need for the Church as a creator of culture is becoming even more important in our time, because if we remain on the sidelines then essentially we’re handing over culture to those who have no interest in goodness, truth, and beauty.

  2. “Recently, I read an astonishing article from a so-called scholar of folklore that insists that any attempt to unify people on the basis of common human experience as expressed in folk tales and epic poetry is not only useless, it’s nationalist (maybe even fascist).

    The implicit assumption of this author is frightening: any ideology or system of belief that claims that humanity can find a principle or story around which to unify is inherently dangerous. It will always lead to nationalism and atrocities against “the other.””

    I’m going to have to disagree with your conclusion about Catherine Nichols’s essay because I think you may have misunderstood the thrust of her argument, and therefore the implications for Christian story-telling and creation. Her essay is documenting and contrasting the shift in story narratives away from tales about people who were not clearly on good or evil sides towards tales where, by necessity, everyone is on the side of either good or evil (and is often either innately good or evil in themselves), and how and why that has both affected and reflected our culture. Her conclusion is not that “any ideology or system of belief that claims humanity can find a principle or story around which to unify is inherently dangerous,” but actually something quite different – the problem is in “any”. Her argument is not that unifying humanity around any story or narrative is wrong per se, but that the particularly polarizing ones she addresses in her essay are.

    And on that I tend to agree. Peoples unifying and thinking of themselves in relation to deeply polarized stories, where there is a clear and clearly good hero or heroic cause (or struggle, or ideology, race, ethnicity, etc.), and a clearly evil villain (or ideology, nation, race, ethnicity, and so forth) are trapping themselves into a mindset where those of the “other” are less than human, for if they were fully human they would obviously be on the side of good. This is why these tales often contain story arcs where rogue characters or noble villains see the light and redeem themselves through eventually alignment with the good, while the only characters going the other way are those with corrupt or weak souls, lust for power, or some other flaw that demonstrates they were never really “good” in the first place.

    (I will now apologize in advance for injecting politics into this, but please hear me out)
    This danger should be abundantly evident in the US political culture today, where partisans of both sides have coalesced around competing narratives that paint themselves as heroes on the side of good, and the other pole as evil, corrupt, dishonest, and lying about its motivations. Grace is neither given nor received – one cannot any longer be wrong without also being on the side of evil.

    The Left has adopted a heroic narrative under various names (“resist” being the most popular) telling itself the tale that it is somehow fighting against evil people who want to repress and enslave the nation. This has led, at its worst extreme, to actual violence against “the other” (or anyone perceived to be so aligned), and at less intense levels to examples such as an attempt to post a boycott list in the Pittsburgh area of anyone who contributed money to Trump’s campaign in 2016. And in such a moral framework, how is violence against a dark overlord *not* justified? And those of clearer eyes who decry the violence, intimidation, and dehumanizing of the other face reprisals from their peers for being of weak moral character, and are accused of selling out.

    The situation on the Right is actually not that much different. No, there is no antifa-style rioting, but the rhetoric is often not much different. It’s not enough that the Left be wrong, but anyone on the left is either a fool, a traitor, or out and out evil. The narrative here is still one of heroic battle against an evil threat, and of such magnitude is the threat that absolute unity is demanded, on-side criticism is evidence of betrayal, selling out, aiding the enemy, and weak moral character (“Oh, so-and-so must never have been truly on our side in the first place…”).

    I know personally whereof I speak – I’m a moderator on a political site. Everything is bound with a heroic narrative, and trapping oneself in such a narrative is toxic over the long term. I have seen too many friendships (not just online friendships, but friendships of people who have broken bread together) disintegrate because either the friends have adopted different conflicting heroic narratives, or because one person has gone headfirst in while the other steers clear.

    Nichols is correct when she says “When we read, watch and tell stories of good guys warring against bad guys, we are essentially persuading ourselves that our opponents would not be fighting us, indeed they would not be on the other team at all, if they had any loyalty or valued human life. In short, we are rehearsing the idea that moral qualities belong to categories of people rather than individuals.”

    So where does that leave the Christian story teller? How should we read Nichols’s essay in light of Christ? I’ve been overlong here already, so I’ll save that for a 2nd comment.

    1. I don’t agree, Skip. Clearly, there is serious polarization going on in the political sphere. But the author of this article claims (without much in the way of proof) that people have been consciously changing folk tale narratives to suit ideological purposes. That’s simply not true. You can try to change a folk tale, but if you fiddle with its narrative structure, it loses its power. The whole point of fairy tales is that they are products of centuries of storytelling and have gained a certain rhythm and structure that people respond to intuitively. You change all that to your detriment and to the detriment of the story. So the entire premise of the article is wrong. To suggest that the good guy/bad guy dichotomy is a modern invention is just nonsense. That would have been bad enough. But then to suggest that any such attempt to tell stories with a strong moral center reflects a nationalist bent–that’s just incendiary! And it’s very typical of postmodern thought. And it’s wrong.

  3. “You understand what that means, right? Christianity’s message of universality is not only impossible, it’s dangerous.”

    It is the very universality of Christ should give us hope, for it is that very universality that lifts the message of Christianity beyond the dehumanizing nature of the polarized story telling. Christianity does not do as Nichols observes in so many modern tales, “rehearsing the idea that moral qualities belong to categories of people rather than individuals”. We are all of us sinners, after all, and it is possible for all of us to repent while we still draw breath.

    “Finally, my brethren, be strong in the Lord and in the power of His might. Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this age, against spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places. Therefore take up the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand.” (Eph 6: 10-13)

    Christianity is a message for all of humanity. We do not (or at least I hope we do not) call non-Christians evil or morally defective, and Christ’s story, His Passion, is not a heroic narrative of opposite poles of good and evil people, being of self-sacrifice and divine redemption for all Mankind. Our battle is ultimately not with other people, it is not with “fless and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rules of the darkness of the is age.” Christianity does not put some of us as true human beings against the rest who are somehow other. Christianity is entirely outside the scope of Nichols’s criticism of the polarized (and entirely Manichaean) good guy / bad guy narrative – it is immune.

    Nichols targets the modern Manichaean stories as being dangerous foundations for cultural unity. I do not see how Christianity, being something singularly different, or older folk tales and narratives, as being her target.

    1. Christianity is not immune to her argument. Well, true Christianity might be. But all you need is a large percentage of a population to associate Christianity with some dangerous form of manichean dualism with a violent underbelly (which many people are doing, by the way!), and you’re setting up a very dangerous cultural situation, in which stories that eschew hard moral truths for the sake of “moral grayness” are considered inherently superior. There’s certainly a place for them, but they do not reflect the vast majority of classic fairy tales, which are very, very moral at their heart.

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