N.B. I’d planned to post this as a comment on a friend’s site, but apparently my comment is too long. So I’ll just blog it here, and post a link to this blog posting on his site. Check him out here. A most insightful new Joycean.
When Stephen Dedalus is thinking about Shakespeare, never forget that Stephen regards himself already as one literary genius regarding another literary genius. It’s easy to overlook that.
In the case of Scylla and Charybdis there’s another level of irony you didn’t mention, and in part this is probably because you’re still new to Ulysses and Joyce, but all of Joyce’s writing is supersaturated with events from his own life. That doesn’t mean exactly, or necessarily, that Joyce wrote autobiographical fiction, but it does blur the denotations and connotations most of us bear in mind when we use the word fiction. For Joyce the separation between his real life and his writing was not even paper-thin.
In Ulysses we have Stephen Dedalus, a surrogate genius-writer and stand-in for James Joyce. Who would argue with the equation that James Joyce ≈ Stephen Dedalus? Within the text of Joyce’s novel Ulysses, the frustrated writer Stephen, who can’t quite get it together literary-wise, it may be, on 16 June 1904, encounters the characters and events who will inspire his own magnum opus that he will soon write: a variant of the novel known as Ulysses.
That being the case, the question of the degree to which we must consider the autobiography of the author with respect to his work takes on a deeper meaning, since in the literary object called Ulysses (and Portrait before it), we are examining (among other things) the fictitious autobiography of this fictitious genius-writer Stephen Dedalus, and considering the effect it will have on the fictitious work he will produce. Can fictitious Stephen be separated from his fictitious fiction?
I doubt it.
I myself have tried to hold Joyce’s works at arm’s length from Joyce the man, but increasingly I find that difficult, and probably quite impossible, to do: understanding of Joyce’s text commonly requires understanding of triggering events from Joyce’s life. Joyce obviously knew this as he was writing: he knew we could not understand what we were reading without knowing his personal story, and he shared much of his personal story with certain biographers, formal and informal, in order to leave us the necessary signposts. Joyce deliberately made his personal life a central part of his fictional life, and vice versa. I’ve never heard of any other author doing the same. Hollyweird actors, perhaps.
I don’t think there is “a theory” of Shakespeare in Scylla and Charybdis, and so one who racks his brain trying to find one must finally be frustrated. The closest to something approximating a “theory” I’ve come is unrelated to Shakespeare: it’s Stephen struggling to work out psychological issues in his own autobiography, caught up so potently as he is in the recent death of his mother, and thereby closely linked to his relationship to his father, his Freudian hero-enemy. John Stanislaus Joyce, the model for Simon Dedalus, provided from his own life a vast wealth of story material for his illustrious son: they two were and remain inseparably linked. Joyce is interested in Shakespeare because Shakespeare is Joyce’s greatest literary rival: he wants to know Shakespeare so he can best him at his game. Stephen sees in Shakespeare ― or is it in Shakespeare’s works? or both? ― distorted manifestations of the same deep psychological concerns which beset his own family and his own life. And although in your reading, David, you’re still far from it, probably the second greatest theme of Ulysses is the question of paternity, of the relationship between father and offspring. These interior psychological matters are of far greater, immediate concern to Stephen than are their reflections he finds in Shakespeare’s life. Does Stephen believe his own theory? He denies that he does. Because the internal questions are far more important than his external projection of them.
I once wrote a book about science fiction novelist Frank Herbert in which I sought to place all his writings within the context of the times and places in which they were written, and what was going on in Frank Herbert’s own life during those times. Is it fair or appropriate to do that, delving into the personal experiences of someone who just happened to write a given book? As a writer myself, I know that all of my own experiences affect the fiction I write, directly or no. It is inescapable. What captures us as readers? If we like one novel, don’t we seek out other works by the same author? Then it’s not just the product itself; it can’t be. The question lingers: is it the writer or his works? Or as Mick Jagger would have it, is it the singer or the song?
Now that your appetite for Joyce has been whetted by the last blog post, here’s the Want to Know More? critical link: Dubliners at 100 – The Greene Space. (Hint: click on it. Definitely.)
Why Read James Joyce:
On the Inspiration of James Joyce’s Writing:
Why is James Joyce’s ‘Dubliners’ so Cool:
The Music of James Joyce’s Writing:
Order of Battle, Northern Army, Battle of Wilson’s Creek.
10 August 1861
Brigadier-General Nathaniel Lyon, Commanding
Lyon’s Bodyguard (Commanding Officer unknown)
Major John McAllister Schofield. Acted primarily as Lyon’s Adjutant at Wilson’s Creek, although also said to have been a major in the 1st Missouri Volunteer Infantry and captain, 1st Artillery.
Captain Gordon Granger, one of Lyon’s staff officers, came with Sturgis from Fort Leavenworth.
|First Brigade ― Maj Samuel D Sturgis|
|2nd Missouri Infantry Battalion (two companies; B and C) ― Maj Peter J Osterhaus|
|Regular Battalion [1st US Infantry (4 companies: B, C, D and I)] ― Captain Joseph Bennett Plummer|
|Captain Arch Houston|
|[2nd regiment, no known designation]|
|Lieutenant Henry Clay Wood‘s Company of Recruits (US Regulars)|
|Company I, 2nd Kansas Infantry (Mounted) [AKA Kansas Rangers, Mounted Company I, 2nd Kansas] [detached from 4th Brigade; see below] ― Captain Samuel Newitt Wood|
|Mounted Home Guard companies (Captain Theodore A Switzler and Captain Clark Wright)|
|Company F, 2nd US Artillery (6 guns) ― Captain James TottenCompany (Battery) F, 2nd U.S. Artillery|
|Company D, 1st US Cavalry ― Lieutenant Charles W Canfield|
|Voerster’s Pioneer Company ― JD Voester [The following month seemingly organized by Frémont as Voerster's Independent Company of Sappers and Miners]|
|Third Brigade ― Lieutenant-Colonel George Leonard Andrews|
|1st Missouri Infantry ― Lieutenant-Colonel George L Andrews (w), Captain Theodore Yates|
|2nd U.S. Infantry (4 companies; battalion of regulars) ― Captain Frederick Steele|
|Companies B and E, 2nd US Infantry|
|Lieutenant WL Lothrop’s Company of Recruits (US Regulars)|
|Lance Sergeant John Morine’s Company of Recruits (US Regulars)|
|Du Bois’s Battery (US Regulars) ― Lieutenant John V Du Bois|
|Fourth Brigade ― Colonel George Washington Deitzler|
|1st Iowa Infantry ― Colonel John F Bates (being sick, did not accompany the regiment when it took the field); Lieutenant-Colonel William H Merritt|
|“Governor’s Grays” ― Francis J Herron|
|1st Iowa Infantry ― Colonel John F Bates (being sick, did not accompany the regiment when it took the field); Lieutenant-Colonel William H Merritt|
|1st Kansas Infantry ― Colonel George Washington Deitzler|
|2nd Kansas Infantry [minus Samuel Wood's company; see 1st Brigade] ― Colonel Robert Byington Mitchell (w), Lieutenant-Colonel Charles W Blair|
|13th Illinois Battalion (21 man detachment) ― Lieutenant James Beardsley|
|Home Guards ― Captain Clark Wright [See entry for First Brigade]|
|Second Brigade ― Colonel Franz Sigel|
|3rd Missouri Infantry ― Lieutenant-Colonel Anselm Albert|
|5th Missouri Infantry ― Colonel Charles Eberhard Salomon|
|Company I, 1st US Cavalry ― Captain Eugene Asa Carr|
|Company C, 2nd US Dragoons ― 2nd Lieutenant Charles E Farrand|
|1st Battery, Backof’s Battalion, Missouri Light Artillery ― Lieutenant Edward Schuetzenbach, Lieutenant Frederick Schaefer|
|Reserves in Springfield|
|Company B, 1st US Cavalry (commanding officer unknown)|
|Company C, 1st US Cavalry (Stabley)|
|Green and Christian County Home Guards (Boyd)|
|Section (two guns), Backof’s battery (commanding officer unknown)|
It is my pleasure to announce to you the existence of this marvelous storehouse of recordings of Frank Herbert, made in 1980. These ten hours of recordings were made in interview situations and lectures, probably at science fiction conventions, I should imagine. The subjects covered are wide-ranging, including Herbert’s interests in politics, religion and ecology and the like. He also speaks at great length about the universe of Dune.
Part 1 Interviews and conversations with Frank Herbert.
Part 2 Interviews and conversations with Frank Herbert.
Part 3 Interviews and conversations with Frank Herbert.
Part 4 Interviews and conversations with Frank Herbert.
Part 5 Lectures by Frank Herbert.
Part 6 Lectures by Frank Herbert.
Part 7 Frank Herbert reading aloud from God Emperor of Dune with some interaction/discussion with others.
Part 8 Frank Herbert reading aloud from God Emperor of Dune with some interaction/discussion with others.
Part 9 Frank Herbert reading aloud from God Emperor of Dune with some interaction/discussion with others.
Part 10 Frank Herbert reading aloud from God Emperor of Dune with some interaction/discussion with others.
Part 11 Frank Herbert reading aloud from God Emperor of Dune with some interaction/discussion with others.
Part 12 Frank Herbert reading aloud from God Emperor of Dune with some interaction/discussion with others.
Part 13 Frank Herbert reading aloud from God Emperor of Dune with some interaction/discussion with others.
Part 14 Frank Herbert reading aloud from God Emperor of Dune with some interaction/discussion with others.
Part 15 Interviews and conversations with Frank Herbert, including The Jesus Incident and answering questions about Dune.
Part 16 Interviews and conversations with Frank Herbert, including answering questions about Dune.
Part 17 Interviews and conversations with Frank Herbert, including answering questions about Dune.
Part 18 Interviews and conversations with Frank Herbert, including answering questions about Dune.
Part 19 Interviews and conversations with Frank Herbert, including answering questions about Dune.
Part 20 Lectures by Frank Herbert.
Part 21 Lectures by Frank Herbert.
Contact Information: Paulina June & George Pollak Library, California State University, Fullerton, 800 North State College Blvd., Fullerton, CA 92834-4150, Telephone: (657) 278-2633, email: firstname.lastname@example.org, https://library.fullerton.edu/
Reflections Provoked by Terry Eagleton’s Literary Theory: An Introduction ― Concerning the Next Phase of Literary Expression and the American Political Landscape and Culture Into Which It’s Messily A-Borning
Bob R Bogle
Copyright © 2014 Bob R Bogle. All rights reserved.
* * *
Having recently finished reading the second edition of Terry Eagleton’s Literary Theory: An Introduction (copyright 1983, 1996), I find myself compelled to set down a few words about postmodern literary theory or, in a broader sense, about postmodernism and/or postmodernity as we experience them in this deconstructed, multicultural world, in all aspects of the arts and artistic expression: literature, music, theater, dance, architecture, graphic arts and film, and in philosophy or whatever passes for it these days, and in the oft-mocked inquiries and concerns of sociology, as manifested in the long-suffering practitioners thereof, and in colonialism or, rather, in the blasted residua of its miscellaneous widely-distributed shatterings, and in its knotty entanglements with the omnipotent advertising blitzkrieg that insanely stuffs my mailbox with uncounted pounds of throwaways (which I quite accountably and sanely throw away) and full-color promotions and circulars and fliers and assorted handbills which I dutifully discard day by day, year by year, and in the laboratories and lecture halls where science is under siege from anti-intellectual zealots in frank defiance of the many formidable gains humanity’s achieved since the dawn of the Age of Reason (“The saddest aspect of life right now,” Isaac Asimov is often reported to have aphorized, although I’ve never been able to track down the original source for the citation, “is that science gathers knowledge faster than society gathers wisdom”), and in interpersonal politics, marital politics, office politics, precinct politics, municipal politics, county politics, state politics, regional politics, national politics, the effortlessly repressed politics of who’s allowed to live and who’s chosen to die, the war-painted and bonneted boardroom charioteers whose rapid deployment forward bases waken and provoke the multitudinous, incestuous, hydra-headed manifestation of hyperhegemonic continent-spanning military-industrial complexes and foreign natural resource scavenging services (outsourced, of course, ethics unquestioned, for billions in profits and enthusiastic Wall Street plaudits ― check it out: yes, there it is on your very own 401(k), if you’re sufficiently blessed to have been born into a caste ― dare we call it what it is? no? socioeconomic stratum, then ― which can reasonably be expected to eventually lead you to a 401(k) plan, should you ever be lucky enough to break out of the minimum wage trap of the tertiary service sector ― Is that for here or to go? ― never before so hierarchically and rigidly stratified, praise be to the rightly idolized hyperwealthy job creators, you know who you are), yea, the never-ending cycles of cyclical (i.e., wheels within wheels and cogs within cogs, teeth breaking off, spat out, jamming up other cyclical systems; e.g., poverty/race/crumbled infrastructure/inadequate education/drugs bought/jurisprudence wheel-of-fortune game show court justice/guns guns and more guns/petty crime/drive-bys/trial delays/wholesale inner city plea-bargain punishment/private prisons/industrialized incarceration/unwanted children/drugs sold/three strikes/absent fathers/voter disenfranchisement/dog whistling up the rock-steady WASPY bigotry blocs/etc.) international political shenanigans and gazillion-dollar trade deals and internecine, genocidal wars and rumors of wars, and the sempiternal mindnumbing dopifying cabalistic cable networks who pitch us and sell us the same in an onslaught of bloody imagery and clamorous soundbiting by cynically grinning numbskulls in suits and flak jackets and official script-adherent stating/repeating/reiterating/retelling/unwavering/inhumanly robotic restating harlot-pancake-foundationed-Mount-Rushmore-cheek-carved-rouge-sculpted attack so-called journalistas unleashing their savage packs of frothy-foamed and fanged, drooly, sanctified, anointed experts and professional warmongers and dignified profiteers (certain famous if dilettante waterfowling/former vice presidents come to mind, as do senators and congressmen and talk radio authorities ― authorities on vital matters of direct bearing on your life and the lives of your family members, matters that you can’t be bothered to engage your own brain to think about, and after all why should you when you can simply “ditto” them instead ― and flyaway marmalade-orange-golden-honey-toupeed multitrillionaires famous mostly at this point for being multitrillionaires and therefore being automatically eminently quotable, and befuddled cut-rate phony plumbers and shrill, empty-headed plastic surgery poster child bimbos whose sense of history begins and ends with remote memories of their treasured Ronald Reagan coloring books and washed-up has-been discredited unindicted White House flunky traitors and economic sector working girls and boys just out the revolving door chute and entering into the ring) droning endlessly and stoking up the flames of wars, of rumors woven of nothing more than the wind, rumors, or counterintelligence-inserted lies long fed like flashing silvery dead sardines to trained seal flunkies at the papers, long-since disgraced and disproved, discredited, their barnacle minds steadfastly epoxied to dangerous illusions, and in the flagstrip-blindfolded paranoids urgently stocking their home arsenals against a hypothetical, tyrannical government of the very kind they’d be most prone to elect, and in the sweeping and insidious, ubiquitous intrusion of soulless multinational corporations upon the collective unconscious, peremptorily, unquestionably confident in the propriety of doing anything they like, anything at all, by simple virtue of the fact that they’re not proscribed from doing so, stridently (and not so stridently) penetrating drip-drop-dreary-drabwise into our reluctant and transiently roused awareness, tugging at every string and thread and microfibril that might, just might, lead to a successfully concluded business transaction (how exactly can such perverse behavior be twisted into an honoring, or sanctifying, of the human condition after those millions of years of biological evolution or even, if you prefer, thousands of years of Divine Creation?), them hunched like gargoyles drooling over mountainous megabytes of metadata, targeting and testing and refining and retargeting their nano-needle finely whetted and honed marketing weapons of mass subjugation, and in the momentous and ponderous passage of the industrial juggernaut, sniffling and snuffling with all the impeccably acute perceptivity of a truffleswine’s ultrasensitive schnoz, with likewise undistractable devotion, after as-yet untapped slave wage market niches thousands of miles removed, reflexively clubbing to death any upstart who should accidentally (or at least inadvisably and openly) mumble the words “collective bargaining” out loud, or commit the tasteless faux pas of actually petitioning for, or even confidentially requesting, an employment benefit package (“benefit” being, after all, nearly as obscene a word as “liberal”: oh, that George Orwell could be with us now), and in the imperative, desperate bailing out of foundering globe-straddling banking conglomerates, and in millions of private home mortgages left abandoned, pale and lifeless as forsaken and weed-strewn Ophelia under water, and in poor people (just lazy, were the truth to be known, and parasites on the body politic, their pigmentation a mere phenotypic coincidence ― peppercorns for dark capitalism’s exploitive grinding mills: money is power is money is power is money is power is) drowning in their attics while money-hungry political candidates are coerced into proudly and publically pledging their rejection of the odious “science” (ditto, ditto) of climate change, and in the most bombastic sanctity-of-marriage hypocritical elites who adamantly refused to consider conceding that the most basic of civil rights due human beings might be granted under civil unions duly executed in courts of law to citizens who happen to be gay, and in the teeming legions of those who are not racist, but―, and in the seething multitudes of those who are not sexist, but―, and in the emergency rooms with eight hour waits and the insurance companies steadily amassing yet more billions of dollars in sucker profits, and on the multimedia battlefields where insurgencies and counterinsurgencies are being launched and waged, won and lost, to define and control what constitutes proper education or indoctrination of blossoming vernal minds, and in the repressive tirades of unrighteous religionists clamoring for freedom of faith ― wellll, for the right faith, that is ― boldly advancing the will of God to which they are privileged to be privy, His will coincidentally and conveniently being in perfect accord with their personal desires no matter how incommodiously inconsistent with cherished sacred text, and in the blithering talking-head- vampire-summoning, carefully choreographed publicity stunts of cheap (but fervent and ultranationalist) political theater (secretly funded by deep pocket special interests and PACs: connected PACs, non-connected PACs, leadership PACs, Super PACs, and 501(c)(4) organization hacks, and 527 group creepers, and the emptied out menageries of feral lobbyists and backroom boys and whisper campaigners and soft money dole-outers ― hush, hush ― and black bag funds never appearing on the books or above the boards, distributed through the sieves of nested shell organizations snarled together with reams of half-burned scraps of shredded documents linked to outrageous perjured congressional testimony followed by immunized testimony ― Lady Liberty never ceases to weep anymore for when he knew it and what he knew ― and altered official records with all damning evidence scrupulously purged, not to mention drug-trafficking-funded international arms transport manifests and and and) in which patriotic galoots like coarsely trained gorillas wrapped in flags, posturing like sacred and oppressed, tortured and tormented martyrs, these poor, unjustly wounded baboons, before clusters of microphones and cameras, demand freedom from a government whose laws they recognize no duty or civic obligation to obey or respect, and so on and so on and scooby dooby doo-bee, and most of all in the relationship of each our very own cherished innermost contemplative little jewels of private sentience, individual nodes of final perfect privacy, verily, the nirvana-seeking missiles of our holy atmans, that precious human commodity, our sensitive, cognitive mindfulness that the postmodern world has hemmed in, blockaded, encircled and assailed, Vicksburged it is, you might say, and Atlantaed, and Petersburged as it were, Leningraded even, by all these demanding, squalling modalities of existential insistence which we can’t turn off no matter how noisy and brutish and dispassionately dehumanizing they are, as everyone knows; and yet rather, I doubt that this is truly what I most desire to talk about, as Eagleton’s book, first written in the early 1980s, concerned itself most particularly with the creation, designation and evolution of English literature until it commenced to be toppled by the advent of modernism beginning in the mid-1800s, reaching a crescendo (I’d suggest) with the publication of Ulysses in 1922, followed by a long period of ferment leading to its deconstruction through the late 1960s and early 1970s and onward, and in the additions amended to the second edition by which Eagleton provided better perspective on how the essential framework of that which, for a few centuries, had been regarded as a grand literary theory was assailed to the point of demolition with no ready means of reassembly in sight, so that what we know as postmodernism only being recognizable in respect or contrast to modernism (modernism itself, regrettably, a poorly-chosen term, as any of us living in the ever-advancing present must inevitably consider our own times to be modern, while in the literary or artistic sense “modern” is now consigned to the period of roughly the mid-19th century to the early 1970s), we must ponder when postmodernism ended and postpostmodernism began or, giving up on that unhelpful terminology, we must wonder how to signify whatever edifice may be raised on the razed ruins littering the literary landscape in the wake of deconstruction and moreover, taking into account an appreciation that literary eras do not arise in a political or cultural vacuum, ought we not consider the conditions external to the narrow interest in question and endeavor to discern, if we might, whether or no some guidance in the matter might be suggested by a closer consideration of recent history?
But be cautious. We’re all well-advised to remind ourselves periodically that history is far more complex and subject to distortion, displacement, self-serving dissimulation, reconfiguration and parallactical interpretation than the radicalized, flaming and domineering monocular reductionists on any side of any political or economic or religious divide would have us believe. Premature conclusions often follow snap judgments solidly founded on a high school understanding of history. Commonsense verdicts are always far more common than sensical.
If the Firesign Theatre taught us anything useful, it’s that everything we know is wrong. Contemporary politics has been dumbed down to an unprecedented level, whether we mean politics at the governmental or personal level. (I’m limiting my comments here to politics American-style as I’m most familiar with that sordid drama; no doubt non-American readers of this essay can make their own parallels and draw their own corresponding conclusions.) Our minds are so cluttered with false analogies and bankrupt doctrines that we’re scarcely capable of independently formulating coherent concepts that have any connection at all to a phenomenological reality, which I posit exists if for no other reason than for argument’s sake. The signs and symptoms of the political puppet show (the puppets themselves being jerked about not by masters, but by a hierarchy of other puppets, and more puppets yanking more puppet strings in the successive echelons of power ― or of the food web) suggest a more inclusive discourse that has been serially distilled and condensed, devolving finally into an ultimate dichotomous and highly stylized and fictionalized morality play enacted between two warring parties, or tribes, of what are deceptively signified as “liberals” and “conservatives,” although these tags are less significantly meaningful than would be the badges “blues” and “reds” to indicate declared ideological status. And although it’s true that symptomatology of this condition was quite apparent during, for example, the Reagan administration, and the manifesting prodrome is retrospectively suggested as early as the Nixon administration, I’d like to suggest that the malaise might very well have spontaneously resolved itself in the immediate aftermath of the end of the Cold War, given the great peace and economic surpluses that prevailed as the Clinton era wound down. This did not happen. Why not?
Let’s rewind a little bit to the collapse of the Soviet Union. When was that? 1991. Already forgot? Don’t remember the great victory parades after the end of America’s real longest war (so far), dragging out from 1947 to 1991? No?
That’s because there weren’t any victory parades. No matter that the psychic pressure on America, both conscious and unconscious, due to the continuing threat of the possibility of nuclear annihilation at any moment, had been sustained for such an intolerable span of time. No matter the national treasure tied up in fighting the Cold War. No matter the enormous social changes this war wrought: the shifts in our education system to emphasize mathematics and science and engineering for example, to the detriment and severe devaluation of the humanities, leaving us less Athenian and more Spartan. No matter that the military-industrial complex arose exactly because there was a Cold War: Eisenhower warned us all about this in January 1961, but it was too complicated to understand then, and perhaps it was never adequately perceived as a clear and immediate danger to freedom ― until now. No, by the time of the formal transfer of power from Mikhail Gorbachev to Boris Yeltsin (and there’s always Google if you can’t remember who they were), Americans could hardly recall that there was a Cold War at all: it had simply been overtaken by a doctrinal hatred of communism for theoretical or ideological reasons that were no longer terribly clear, although it had something to do with long bread lines in Russia and the pirating of blue jeans; possibly with the Yugo, too, although that connection was pretty nebulous. Of course the absence of victory parades wasn’t just because Americans couldn’t remember they were at war. The fact that the cave in of the USSR took American politicians and military strategists completely by surprise (remember the helpless, blank-faced stare of George H Bush as more and more of the Soviet bloc collapsed?) ought to have warned us of other misplaced faith in our intelligence-gathering capacity in the decades that followed, although the truth is we still haven’t learned that lesson very well.
If the government and the military and the general citizenry failed to appreciate the implications of the end of the Cold War, wandering about bleary-eyed in the aftermath of hard-won victory, big business certainly did not. All that ink spilled on the balance sheet represented vast amounts of wealth that desperately needed reinvesting. If we no longer had a titanic international enemy, how could we get away with continuing to indefinitely pour so much loose change into the guns-and-tanks-and-fighter-planes-and-battleships jukebox? Many Democrats, at least, were beginning to think they didn’t want to.
Megacorporations playing hopscotch across the continents began coming into their own during the Clinton administration, about which time it began to become possible for these economic colossi to brazenly buy and sell politicians and Supreme Court justices. It was also now that the two-party system, which had polarized under Reagan and relaxed again a little under George HW Bush, sought out new extremes in dysfunction, as the “reds” spent eight years focused almost exclusively on personal attacks directed against Bill Clinton even as the prosperity of the country rose to new heights. And here let’s introduce some candid truth into the mix: the polarization was never because one party went further left while the other party went further right: the polarization has always been far, far more unidirectional than that, with the Democrats striving to remain in place while the Republicans raced away toward a remote rightward horizon unimagined in American history. In fact, the so-called liberals are now essentially centrists in comparison to the positions they staked out in the 1970s.
By the time Al Gore was elected President and George W Bush was escorted into that office by the Supreme Court, the groundwork had been laid for a new cultural era which also, I assert, must correspond to a new literary epoch as well ― indeed, a new aesthetic era ― although its classic texts and other artistic benchmarks seemingly have yet to be created or recognized. I don’t know what it will be called, but I know the moment it began, and so do you, although you may not have thought about it yet. This new literary era we’re in began on the morning of September 11, 2001. This does not mean that the crucial literary texts will have anything directly to do with that day, or with political turmoil in Afghanistan and Pakistan and Iraq and the Middle East. But history involuted that morning, pushing back through itself. The world we inhabit today is discontinuous with the one that existed before that morning. Necessarily this will be recognized in retrospect to have put a final end to deconstruction and postmodernism and to have birthed Something Else.
So we know what eras have passed away forever, and we know when the new era started, although it so far lacks a name. Reflecting on the conditions laid out in the opening of this essay, it’s clear that our cultural experiences today often seem more primitive, or even prehistoric, than modern. The obvious exception is in omnipresent and cheap high technology. Perhaps the designation for our new era will reflect the great democratizing capacity of small digital devices. That would be nice.
But something deeply disturbing is also unfolding in our lives, and it has everything in the world to do with the seizure of political power by multinational corporations. Recall that this continues to be a consequence of the seldom-voiced triumph of capitalism over communism in the Cold War. A conclusion derived from this victory ― a false conclusion, as I believe it to be ― is that communism’s defeat proves the moral superiority of capitalism and provides rationalization for a new world order founded upon capitalistic market forces unleashed and unchecked. I propose that what is at stake in our new era is the struggle between unchecked capitalism and democracy. It seems likely to me that the literary era, or the aesthetic era, of Something Else-ism will be grappling with this struggle and its sequelae, whether directly or symbolically, for a long time to come.
In the last ten years unbridled capitalism has done more to wreck American democracy than communism managed to achieve in forty-four years. The political sphere is in the process of being completely hijacked by the corporate equivalent of a global mecha invasion. The takeover was facilitated in the global financial crisis of 2008 during which considerable political power was openly surrendered to the market forces ― offerings made to a golden calf ― effectively crippling the next Presidential administration, whether it might be that of John McCain or Barack Obama. Bailout after bailout followed for the financial sector and other corporate interests, coupled to an ever diminishing appetite for providing a dime for the public welfare. It’s as though in 2008 we handed over the keys to the car to the financial sector without even an admonishment to be back by ten o’clock. Nevertheless it was the Democrats, not the Republicans, who won the Presidential election: if not an outright enemy of the corporate state, then Obama at least did not resemble the reliable, supplicatory paid lackeys that now comprised the right wing. Obama’s defeat of McCain guaranteed an escalation of the pattern previously seen during the Clinton administration: now the Republicans would adamantly refuse to cooperate with the Democrats no matter how openly ludicrous their anti-democratic stance demonstrated them to be. You may consider this anti-democratic, pro-corporate, pro-capitalism feeding frenzy to be fascist behavior or not. I don’t mean to suggest that the extremely successful thrusts of the Republicans in that direction would have made Mussolini blush, but doubtless their achievements would have made him envious.
Many times I’ve wondered, in the last few years, how well those who inhabit the world beyond our shores understand the degree to which radicalization has ravaged American politics. As I write this essay, the American political future is more obnubilated than it’s been since the lead-up to the Civil War. Deep, seemingly irreconcilable gulfs now separate close friends and families concerning political, religious and social matters which were recognized as tolerable differences of opinion only a few years ago. What were once minor flaws and cracks in belief systems have been opened up and exploited by political and religious instigators, exploiting them for their own benefit. It’s worth recounting, in a few sentences, how this state of affairs came to be.
Oddly enough it started with the successes of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1950s and 1960s, with the subsequent Great Migration of Southern blacks out of the deep South and into the North and Midwest. For the whites who were left behind ― generally angry, bigoted and undereducated ― the end of Jim Crow meant that slavery, or all its illegal stand-in continuances, were finally truly over a century after the war’s end. In a real sense much of the political turmoil we see in America today still represents the failure of this country to ever have dealt fairly and openly and honestly with African slaves and their descendants. For a hundred years Southerners passed and enforced illegitimate discriminatory laws to curtail the rights and privileges of American citizens, and for a hundred years the federal government did nothing about it and white citizens from outside the Southern region expressed no moral outrage. This is why for white Americans to continue to insist we have no responsibility for what our ancestors did “hundreds of years ago” is not only daft, but continues to perpetuate racial problems and mistrust, and to pass these conflicts on to successive generations. In the wake of the Civil Rights movement the Democrats provided a political home for blacks, and Southern whites were left with no political voice . . . until the Republicans, promoting Nixon, launched their Southern Strategy in the late 1960s, directly and purposely pandering to and enflaming Southern racism in order to win votes, ultimately resulting in a flip between the social principles that the two parties allegedly embraced. Republican race-baiting coincided with a tidal wave of genuine liberalism that swept over the country during the Viet Nam War, represented by the leftist successes of the baby-boomers taking politics to streets and street theater to the campuses, and the hippy movement that overwhelmed the entire culture. In the South the Republicans deliberately sought out and won the votes of undereducated bigots to raise a stalwart legion against an unprecedented force of knowledgeable, well-spoken liberal radicals.
Failure and defeat of American liberalism ― and its cousin-movements which had briefly known successes in Europe as well ― ensued during the era of Nixon. By the mid-1970s most of the baby boomers had entered the workforce, where steadily they surrendered their intelligence and autonomy to personal subjugation to the System and the Man and the Almighty Dollar. As disillusionment took hold and direct political action gave way to introversion and a prevailing preoccupation with home economics, modernism fell to postmodernism and deconstruction. In the 1980s under Reagan the former liberal radicals surrendered the last of their values and emerged as tasteless, amoral, despicable yuppies. Even then they could have, with supreme effort, resurrected their ideals and championed justice from within the system. This they failed to do: memory of youth’s idealism was dead within them. Now well on the road to retirement or already there, they’re sentimentalist burn-outs who occasionally, perhaps, revel in their glory days (i.e., memories of pot parties and good acid trips, or what they imagine might have been good acid trips, and Jim and Jimi and Janis, maybe of JFK and MLK if they exert the deepest concentration) without acknowledging that although they once posed the greatest threat that’s existed to the pro-corporate forces, they themselves were the ones who let it all slip away, to the lasting misfortune of all. The greatest hope flamed out into the greatest disappointment.
In the succeeding years the Republican Party, for so long so masterfully organized and a paradigm of discipline and control, became beholden to the growing political clout of this constrictive demographic and geographic slice of narrow-minded white voters, pro-gun, pro-life, pro-right wing Christianity, pro-Confederate flag, pro-Creationism, pro-libertarianism (i.e., an ideological belief in freedom of thought and speech, provided that said thought and speech do not contradict their own thoughts and speech; also, no drugs, unless it’s them making and selling and/or taking the drugs; see also: METHAMPHETAMINES), anti-everything and everyone else (special mention: legendary welfare queens, Islamofascists, Goddam liberals, fags and Mexican invaders). Elected Republican officials found that their emotional constituents, unlikely to think for themselves or to acknowledge the ever-changing world around them, clung all the more tightly to the traditions of their fathers and grandfathers, ignoring completely the inconvenient truth that they inhabited a world of high technology made possible only by the creative work of well-educated citizens. With its allies across the country, the Southern white voting bloc was keenly loyal to the Party, inexhaustibly parroting its talking points on talk radio and from walls of offensive bumper stickers across their tailgates, provided their social concerns were addressed ― often crudely ― in fiery rhetoric by their candidates and elected officials, which they always were. Thus reinforced by the legions back home, the Republican Party could steadily promote the cause of international business which, of course, had little to do with the concerns of the unlearned masses, who nevertheless kept reelecting them.
It’s helpful to grasp this little bit of history because it accounts for where we are today and where we may go tomorrow. Looking for solutions to today’s problems by the fantasy of a return to the past accounts for the political choices made by Southerners and their now widely-distributed comrades, but the actual consequence of such an unenlightened perception of the world is never a return of the good ol’ days, but rather more profits for the wealthy. Nevertheless, this ever elusive, will-o’-the-wispy, idée fixe fantasy remains unshakably in place. How is this? Because a vital tenant of the good ol’ days myth is that if any American works hard enough, he can win great reward. It’s the same kind of mythology that keeps the uneducated buying lottery tickets: the chance for a big win because, after all, aren’t they hard-working and therefore deserving Americans? Thoughtful reflection demonstrates that the most reliable route to American success is through education, but then, acquiring an education requires a good deal more effort than does buying a lottery ticket. And besides, the undereducated mind can only view education with deep suspicion, thinking it’s an anti-Christian, liberal trick. For educated persons, as experience teaches, often directly contradict the beliefs of one’s fathers and grandfathers, and especially deeply-cherished (if seldom eloquently expressed or practiced) religious precepts.
Barack Obama is not despised by the corporate warlords because he is black but because, as a Democrat, he is not allied with the international corporate structure as reliably as the Republicans are. His policies are not universally in line with corporate interests. Many right wing voters are poorly educated and bigoted, it matters not one whit whether consciously or not. Republican candidates must appeal to those voters by speaking to their desires. Being fully vested in the myth of the lottery, that since they are hard working white men their good deeds will be repaid while the lazy blacks will continue to be punished, these voters elect Republican candidates who promptly fail to improve their lot in life, instead enacting legislation to insure that bankers and businessmen can rule the world well beyond Constitutional restraint.
Lest I be accused of attempting to seek out the sociopoliticalpietisticalmartialeconomic touchstone of our time, to accordionize our concepts and concerns and hopes and fears into a compacted Weltanschauung and enforce a Procrustean Utopia of my own fantasy’s design upon the world, I protest that instead of endeavoring to redirect the prevailing shabby, cocksure lemming caucus-race toward any singular goal, I’d merely prefer that most of us were avidly and with clear, self-reliant thought pursuing paths that tend to lead away from the unimpeachable likelihood of pandemic Armageddon. I would not seek to exclude the right wing from the culture and from the political process, but would endorse educating them, teaching them not a doctrine, but to rely on thinking for themselves rather than swallowing the propaganda with which we’re all daily bombarded. I’m not an anarchist suggesting that authority be attacked, but a staunch believer in democracy suggesting that uncritical ideologues are the actual enemies of democracy. Actual conservatism must always fail, as it always has, because the world can never stop slipping forward into the future: the approaches our grandfathers took cannot be those our children take. “Tradition” must always be considered respectfully in terms of sweet sentimentality, never as a blueprint for building tomorrow’s edifices.
This is nothing like a review of Terry Eagleton’s book, of course, but it has been written in response to the thinking which that book provoked. It’s my attempt to try carrying on the discourse from where Eagleton left off in my own way. As such it has required substantial reflection on about seventy years of recent political, cultural and religious historical evolution in the United States. Like Eagleton, I agree that literature and the arts cannot exist in a vacuum, but are dependent upon the cultures and ideologies of their time. I’ve tried to provide an accounting for our culture and warring ideologies and how we’ve arrived at this place. The next phase of literary development must, I expect, be a reaction to this ontology.
Depending on how this political tug-of-war plays out in the next few years, if and how we finally respond to Eisenhower’s admonition, the corporations will somehow begin to be reigned in or America will become more and more of a radical right wing state in which education is scorned and ignorance is bliss. The current stalemate cannot be sustained. Which way the balance tips will determine the shape of the future and the kind of literary era which unfolds.