Introduction: Modernism and Postmodernism:
Before trying to explain what literary postmodernism is or what the salient features of postmodernist literature are it is necessary to understand the basic significance of the following two sets of words:
(i) “Modern” and “Modernism”
(ii) “Postmodern” and “Postmodernism”
Of these four words the least easy to explain is “postmodern.” “Modern” means what is alive, prevalent, or available today. So “postmodern” is something that will come later, that is, in the future. In other words, nothing which has ever existed or is existing now can be “postmodern.” Real “Postmoderns” are, in Shelley’s phrase, in the womb of futurity.
“Postmodernism” is, however, a very different kettle of fish. Being “modern” does not necessarily imply being a “modernist.” “Modern,” as we have said, has a temporal signification, but “modernism” signifies a set of aesthetic tendencies associated chiefly with writers like Joyce, Eliot, and Pound who wrote around the 1920s in defiance of the decadent Victorian and Edwardian tradition replacing it with what is now called “High Modernism.” Like “modernism”, “postmodernism” was also something like a “movement,” but a far more amorphous one. It was not self consciously directed against “modernism” or against any other “ism.” More than a movement it was a newly developed mind-set which cut across national boundaries and cut across academic disciplines and aesthetic arts as also schools of criticism (such as the Freudian, Marxian, etc.). The amorphous nature of “post modernism” can be easily proved by citing the case of Samuel Beckett who twenty or thirty years ago was deemed a great “modernist” but is now hailed as a great “postmodernist.” Likewise, the theatre of the absurd (of which Beckett’s Waiting for Godot is a locus dassicus) as a whole is deemed to be “postmodernist” for almost the same reason for which it was considered “modernist” earlier-its violation of categories and dismantling of dramaturgical conventions. Absurdist plays are the perennial delight of “post modern” deconstructionist critics.
When exactly postmodernism came into being is another difficult question. Formation of a mind-set across nations is a gradual process which cannot be dated precisely. There is bravado in awrence’s claim in Kangaroo that “the old world ended” in 1915. Virginia Woolf is equally daring in asserting that “On or about December 1910 human character changed.” The “world” or “human character” does not change so suddenly and so completely.
Roughly speaking, postmodernism may be related to what Drakakis calls “a transformation of European culture at the end of World War II. This war produced the death camps and the atomic bomb, and thus generated a new sense of man’s propensity to evil, of the destructive potential of scientific knowledge, and of the perils of political totalitarianism. The end of Empire and the post- war changes in the world economy and power-structure involved new relationships between Britain and other cultures.”
Non-recognition of Boundaries: Hybridism:
One important feature of postmodernism is its non-recognition of boundaries of all kinds. In life, cultural boundaries and hierarchies ensure order and discipline, and in the field of creative writing generic boundaries ensure decorum. Neither the modernists nor the postmodernists overly observed such boundaries, but there is a difference. Whereas the former willfully transgressed them (to achieve the required effects), the latter just do not recognize them at all. Joyce and Eliot devised new techniques for their fiction and poetry respectively, knowing fully well that they were reflecting or subverting the old ones. The postmodernist’ new technique consists in mixing up the old available ones. And not only techniques, they mix up disparate genres as well, producing works which carry the specific mark of postmodern hybridism. Let us consider a few examples of generic hybridism.
Since Plato, creative literature and literary criticism have been recognized as very different kinds of discourse not to be intermixed in a given work. Of course, there have been a few examples of a little departure from the rule-such as in Dryden’s Essay of Dramatic Poesy and Swift’s The Battle of the Books, the former of which is more criticism than creation and the latter more creation than criticism, but either combines both discourses. As exemplars of postmodernist practice consider such works as Roland Barthes’ 577(1974) and Julian Barnes’ Flaubert’s Parrot (1985)- “creative criticism” of Balzac’s novella Sarrasine and Flaubert’s life and works respectively. Both these works employ a medley of techniques in an unprecedented manner.
In Balzac’s novella Sarrasine is a sculptor in love with a castrated opera singer with a female name, taking him to be a woman. He discovers his real identity at their first meeting and ends up being killed. Barthes makes a very perceptive, line-by-line analysis of Balzac’s story and discovers that castration (with which Balzac plays around but never mentions) with all its symbolic suggestions of want, imperfection, incompleteness, loss of wholeness, deadness and so on is invariably present as a thematic positive. The real interest of S/Z lies in the numerous digressions, whimsical punctuation and capitalization and, what Barthes himself calls, “a number of fictive elements.”
If S/Z is nominally a critical work, Flaubert’s Parrot is, as nominally, a novel. Geoffrey Braithwaite, the narrator, gives an account of his obsession with the French novelist both as man and fictionist. Much of the interest of Barnes’ book, like that of Barthes, lies in digressions of all sorts, such as a dictionary of the prevalent ideas about Flaubert, chronologies of good and bad incidents in his life and a collection of the animal metaphors used by him. Robert Ray observes: “Officially neither biography nor criticism, Flaubert’s Parrot achieves the effect of both: a knowledge effect enhanced by erudition’s passage through the novelesque.”
So far as literary works are concerned, postmodernist British literature has several examples to offer of works making deliberate use of a hodgepodge of techniques and/or several kinds of discourse. A fine example is Doris Lessing’s novel The Golden Notebook (1962) which deals with the African problem as also the problem of being a woman in a man’s world. The diaries of the protagonist Anna, who wants to be a “free woman” occupy a substantial part of the book. The novel, in Andrew Roberts’ words, “exemplifies the post-modernist experiment in Lessing’s work, in its use of multiple narratives and its concern with fiction and the reconstruction of the self.” Bolder than The Golden Notebook is John Fowles’ The French Lieutenant’s Woman (1969)-a pastiche combining passages from Darwin, Marx, Arnold, and Tennyson, quotations from sociological reports, frequent authorial comments and narrative passages in the nineteenth-century novelistic style. Further, in the course of the novel Fowles himself becomes a character. And, last but not least, Fowles offers two alternative endings, inviting the reader to choose either.
B.S. Johnson has been an avant-garde postmodernist writer of recent times. His See the Old Lady Kindly (1979) is a “non-fictional novel” which makes a generous use of authentic documents and photographs. Another path-breaking novel, The Unfortunates (1969) comprises twenty-seven loose-leaf sections, twenty-five of which may be read in any order! Johnson’s intention is the familiar postmodernist one of highlighting the arbitrariness of the structure of fictionality and the radical circularity of the mind.
A Return to Representationalism and the Pleasure Principle:
This welter of postmodernist techniques or rather combination of techniques, genres, and discourses must not be allowed to overshadow a distinctive element of postmodernism-a return to representational ism and the pleasure principle which had been rejected by the modernists. Mellarme, Flaubert, Eliot, Pound etc. were against the vulgarization of art. They were for difficult literature inaccessible to the masses. When Mellarme’s publisher came to collect a poem, Mellarme said: “Wait till I add a little obscurity.” Mimetic or representational art, being easy to understand, is the common people’s cup of tea and a source of pleasure. Even Brecht, who had Marxian leaning, spoke like a modernist: “I am at an extremely classical, cold, highly intellectual style of performance. I’m not writing for the scum who want to have the cockles of their hearts warmed.” Later on, however, he made some concession to what he called “fun,” i.e., the pleasure principle.
Thus one movement of postmodernism is from elitist intellectuality and obscurity to enjoyable lucidity for mass consumption. Pop art of today is as postmodernist as complicated experiments with pastiche.
Postmodernist Literary Criticism:
The distinctive features of postmodernist criticism are much more easily identifiable than those of postmodernist literature. As the postmodernists are inclined to ignore the conventional boundaries, postmodernist criticism tends to be interdisciplinary. The purity of old critical approaches is now a thing of the past.
The centre field of critical activity today is occupied by structuralists and poststructuralists. Structuralists (such as Saussure, the Russian formalists, Barthes, etc.) reject the idea that atext represents the author’s meaning or reflects a society. They treat it as an independent unit but a part of a structure comprising other texts as well. They have a propensity for linguistic analysis to arrive at the idea of the structure of the text which animates its parts. In short their search is not for an inherent meaning of the text but for the literary and cultural structures (which are outside it) which generate meaning. Poststructuralists focus their attention on the ways in which texts themselves undermine structures. The theory of the most eminent poststructuralist Jacques Derrida is known as “deconstruction.” Derrida denies the existence of specific structures built around centres. According to him “there are only contexts without-any centre or absolute anchoring.” Thus a text has no meaning, only “play” of linguistic elements which keeps the hypothetical meaning defeated forever. A deconstructionist dismantles the text-and studies the “play” among its bits which subverts all meaning or keeps it perpetually deferred.