I’ve yet to tell anyone what my PhD research question is without boring them. In the interests of brevity, key in not murdering conversational rhythm dead, I’m not above lying about what it involves, so I tell people I’m counting which authors use full stops and how many, and what that might mean. I suppose that I can’t blame them, just the word ‘modernist’ turns people off.
So, what it is that I am actually doing is utilising an open-source programming language (R) to ingest and index a large corpus of modernist prose authors, (using a wide-ranging definition of ‘modernist,’ to bring us beyond the tens and twenties of the nineteen hundreds to the fifties, in order to include people like Doris Lessing, for example) and compare them on the basis of a largely arbitrary range of stylostatistical indices (richness of vocabulary, sentence length, punctuation usage, among others) with a number of living authors who have, at one time or another, identified themselves as writing within the modernist tradition, as re-vivifying a presumably extinct ethic of novel-writing. These contemporary modernists will be Eimear McBride, Will Self & Anne Enright.
My hope in doing so is to move beyond the essentialistic critical reception of Anne Enright and Eimear McBride as existing within a canon of Irish modernism, consisting only of Joyce, Beckett and Flann O’Brien, which reviewers are always keen to broach in analysing their works. Who’s to say Gertrude Stein might not be a better comparison? Or Proust? Or Woolf? Via computation and pseudo-formalistic analysis, I hope to focus my comparisons, and the comparisons of others, a bit more accurately.
All this justifies the Hegelian trajectory sometimes imposed on discussions of the novel as a genre; as if there was the modern novel, then there was the post-modern novel and now there is what we have now, the execrably named post-post-modern novel, or the newly sincere novel, which isn’t much better. How are we draw these lines, and are literary scholars doomed forever to cut the timeline of literature into ever thinner slices?
It is David Foster Wallace I think, that offers us the two best means of segmenting the modern from the post-modern in literary terms, by shaking his head and refusing to answer. But then he does answer, in two ways, though the first answer is Foster Wallace’s way of not answering, while still mounting a very astute point.
Answer the First
Answer the Second
‘…there are certain, when I’m talking about post-modernism, I’m talking about, maybe the black humourists who came along in the nineteen sixties, post-Nabokovians, Pynchon, and Barthelme, and Barth, De Lillo…Coover…’
What engages Wallace about these authors, as he goes onto explain in the interview, is the fact that they wrote novels that were absolutely bristling with self-conscious possibilities; of the text as a text that is mediated, constructed, conflicted, created in the act of its reading, writing and post-mortem discussion(s), the writer as historically constructed, discursive persona and the reader as persona. So we have two things we can probably say about literary postmodernity. It is a temporal phenomenon, kicking off after whenever it is that modernism petered out, and secondly, that a post-modern text is more self-conscious than a modernist one.
My own take would introduce a third encapsulation, and that is that post-modernism is an outgrowth from, and potential response to, modernism, rather than a rejection. This will come as a surprise to exactly zero people, and gets me to the fault line of this issue; that it is impossible to speak in broad terms about any literary grouping worth discussing that wouldn’t be essentially true of any other one. Literature’s pesky way of valuing ambiguity, referentiality and innovation ensures this.
As I was reading Katherine Mansfield’s Collected Short Stories, and Virginia Woolf’s novel The Voyage Out, I was trying to locate some qualitative phenomenon that one would not find in a post-modernist novel. And I was unsuccessful in doing so. I might say that post-modernists are more prone to textual experimentation than the modernists were; I’m always disappointed by modernist writers’ words appearing in a linear, left to right, up to down way. You’re more likely to find an image, a font change, or interruptive clause in the counter cultural writers coming in Gaddis’ wake.
But, self-consciousness is not a quantifiable phenomenon, and to say that it increases or decreases is at least a little futile. (In the context of a literary discussion that is. Given a wide enough scope of inquiry, everything is futile.) To say that post-modern novels are self-conscious to an extent that was impossible before the sixties is untrue; Don Quixote encounters a counterfeit version of himself during one of his sagas, which was Miguel de Cervantes’ clever method of criticising those who were distributing pirated, unofficial and non-canonical versions of the Quixote. Laurence Sterne also provides a blank page in The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy; a Gentleman, so that the reader may draw a character according to how they think she might look. As always, far more valuable literary discussions operate in the range of the qualitative rather than the quantitative. As such, back to Mansfield.
One could turn to a story such as ‘Psychology’ for example, which appears in Bliss and Other Stories. It is a story of about six pages, deriving its title from a pseudo-scientific movement that was then disrupting the notion that the self was knowable, and that we acted according to rational impulses. It’s a bold title, and by choosing it, Mansfield promises us much about what it is that motivates us, how we judge, how we interpret. But, rather than calling the story something like ‘What It Is To Be Human,’ she calls it ‘Psychology,’ shifting the focus from some Platonic realm wherein such lines of enquiry are easily defined, to the discipline or institution of psychology itself. Which is of course, carried out by a human agent, just as flawed and prone to unreason as the subject, and, in Mansfield’s time at least, male. And no one writes about how stupid men can be better than Mansfield.
The story represents two unnamed characters, male and female. The narrator makes it clear that they are deeply attracted to one another, perhaps even in love, but something, whether it be their own defensiveness or social convention, prevents them from expressing it. Mansfield represents this by doubling the presences in the text, providing each character with a ‘secret self.’ Significantly, these secret selves, at one or two points speak with the same voice:
‘Why should we speak? Isn’t this enough?’
Their ‘real’ conversation is stilted and awkward. The male character makes up an excuse to leave and in response, the female character inwardly rages:
‘You’ve hurt me; you’ve hurt me! We’ve failed!’ said her secret self while she handed him his coat and stick, smiling gaily.’
In her despair, the female character is overly affectionate and glad to receive a normally unwelcome friend, then writes a letter to the departed object of her affection, in which she is far more at home with expressing herself, almost as if the mediated, imaginative space of a letter is far more comfortable than the ‘real’ social encounter, in which both of them flailed.
The subject they discuss, is the ‘psychological novel,’ which I have seen practicing modernist authors use as a term which refers to the work that they and their contemporaries are doing with the novel form. (Joyce refers to Proust taking it as far as it can go in Á la récherche.)
It might not be a stretch to see Mansfield as doing some meta-commentary in referring to the psychological novel and in having here two characters, explicated in terms of their inner, imaginative psychology far more illustrative than in their outer, social one. So, we have a story that is pointing to its ‘about-itselfness,’ throughout, a narrative concerning the discontinuity of self-hood and the intractable crevasse that separates our inner being from the outer world. The contours of the inner/outer are perhaps more clearly drawn than you’d get in something written today, but were double-blind test to be arranged, adjusted for historical changes, (appearance of trains, telegrams v. planes & the internet) the emphasis upon social convention, the use and meaning of the word ‘gay,’ I’m not sure that a reader could be relied on to tell the difference between a modernist and a post-modern text.
Maybe it might be more useful to say that post-modernism is like modernism, only more so.