Criticism in Extremis

The Post-Modern Aura: The Act of Fiction in an Age of Inflation.
by Charles Newman.
Northwestern University Press. 205 pp. $24.95.

In the past fifteen years or so, the world of academic literary criticism—heretofore dominated by humanists, with their view of literature as an aesthetic enterprise, a life study—has begun to fall into the hands of new-wave theorists with quite different perspectives. Some are deconstructionists, who maintain that all words are impersonal signs, that all texts are purely self-referential, and that literature, consequently, is not about life but about language; others are Marxists, who perceive literature as neither a life study nor a language game, but as political testimony.

Meet Charles Newman. Alumnus of Yale and Oxford, founder and editor of the literary magazine Tri-Quarterly, sometime professor at Northwestern, Johns Hopkins, and Washington Universities, and recipient of Fulbright, Guggenheim, Rockefeller, and National Endowment for the Humanities grants, he is perhaps best known for the unabashedly Marxist anthology, Literature in Revolution (1972), which he edited with George Abbott White, and which one notices, these days, masquerading as a collection of literary criticism on many an English professor’s office bookshelf. The book, whose title and guiding philosophy both derived from Trotsky’s Literature and Revolution (“Artistic creation springs from the same sources as social rebellion”), featured an introduction in which Newman insisted that only some of its contributors were Marxists; the others “would simply say they find Marxist methodology ‘useful.’”

That is for certain. Among the “critics” collected in the book were Noam Chomsky, the famed linguist and political extremist; Paul Buhle, editor of Radical America; and Todd Gitlin and Carl Oglesby, erstwhile presidents of SDS. What critics; what criticism. Oglesby’s essay on Moby-Dick quickly turned into a technophobic save-the-whales tirade; Hugh Fox’s piece on Abbie Hoffman’s Yippies (and what were they doing in a book on literature in the first place?) celebrated their “awakening in the Beast [i.e., America] a moral sense.” And so it went. Whether the purported subject was Yeats, Milton, TV cop shows, or counterculture comic books, Newman’s “critics” religiously tossed the question of aesthetic value onto the ash heap of history, and with fundamentalist zeal carried out a dedicated, narrowminded search for Marxian “political significance.” As literary criticism, Literature in Revolution was—and is—worthless, but it remains valuable, for there can be few other books that so epitomize the unintentionally self-parodic lengths to which 60’s mushmindedness could go.

Alas, Newman’s latest contribution to the Republic of Letters is nowhere near so entertaining. Though he remains devoted to the preposterous critical stance that made Literature in Revolution so inadvertently humorous, and though he shows no sign of developing anything so perspicuous as an interest in literature qua literature, The Post-Modem Aura: The Act of Fiction in an Age of Inflation is quite a different kettle of fish. Not different fish, just a different kettle. What Newman has done is to throw over the lowbrow collective flavor of Literature in Revolution and opt for highbrow individualism—or at least the illusion thereof. Patently, he wants us to perceive his new book as a profound personal statement on the times we live in, a daring and sui generis dissection of postmodern America and its literature.

But you cannot pass yourself off as sui generis and still admit to being a Marxist; so, though he acknowledges his tendency “to see cultural and aesthetic conflicts as explicably social and economic,” Newman now talks about this approach as if he had come up with it all by himself, and rejects the Marxist label. Or, rather, Gerald Graff does it for him, telling us in a preface to the book that Newman’s study does not constitute “a Marxist analysis, though its argument owes something to the Marxist recognition that art has a social basis, for it accepts the fact that consumer capitalism is not likely to disappear in our lifetime.”

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Consumer capitalism: that, and not literature, is the obsession at the heart of this book. Newman looks at the unprecedented rate of growth of the post-World War II American economy and decides that we Americans have, in this era, been experiencing what he calls “climax inflation.” Expansion and prosperity have been not a boon but a bane; they have led us into a habit of “irrational consumerism,” not only of consumer but also of intellectual goods, and the consequence has been “cultural incoherence of the most destructive sort.” The way Newman sees it, this is the worst of all possible fates: thanks to “cultural incoherence,” the postwar American way of life is, without exaggeration, the most abominable in the history of mankind.

This inane but chic assumption (which Newman shares with Christopher Lasch, author of The Minimal Self, who has given this book a wildly enthusiastic blurb) forms the basis of Newman’s entire argument. Americans of the 1980’s “are suffering unspeakably,” and our novels are suffering with us. For, in exactly the same way as money, estimable books—and even language itself—have, in these expansionary postwar years, been devalued by steady increases in their rate of production. This, in a nutshell, is “climax inflation.”

There is an important truth at the core of all this. Good books are, as Newman suggests, always in danger of getting lost in the shuffle, and never has the possibility been more acute than in the present era, when, as he points out, “more books have been published than in any comparable period in history.” This, indeed, is where the literary critic is supposed to come in. It is his job to make judgments, to separate the good from the bad, to keep the best that has been thought and written from passing out of sight. In a time when more books than ever are appearing, the critic’s role is especially vital, his responsibility to high literary standards more serious than at any time in history.

But critical responsibility is not Newman’s bag, and this book, as Graff observes approvingly in his preface, is most decidedly not “a call for ‘moral fiction’ or for the shoring up of cultural traditions or for ‘humanistic values.’” Rather, it is a meditation upon the effects that climax inflation and its attendant phenomena—the absorption of publishing houses by corporate conglomerates, the ubiquity of the “media” (television)—have, in Newman’s view, had on the postwar American novel.

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Now, when a new-wave academic critic speaks of postwar American novelists, he is almost invariably referring to a handful of academically-oriented writers like John Barth and William Gaddis, who—taking their cue from the anti-traditional tenor of the 60’s counterculture—have turned out avant-garde “fictions” (as they like to put it) of an increasingly dehumanized, nihilistic, and reflexive bent. Intended both to reflect the supposed disorder of contemporary American life and to exemplify the postmodern “breakdown” of language, these novels—though they have proved of little interest to nonacademic readers—are precisely what the deconstructionists ordered. They are mainly language games, in short, and therein lies the cause of Newman’s dissatisfaction with them.

In his view, the persistent attempts of these “Absolutist” writers (as he calls them) to outdo one another’s avant-garde gamesmanship is a clear and unfortunate case of climax inflation at work. He calls this process the “rotational dynamic.” Newman does not hold the Absolutists themselves responsible for the “rotational dynamic.” As a “dynamic,” it is an inevitable cultural phenomenon, a cut-and-dried case of the literary “velocity of change” keeping pace with the upward-spiraling economy. Nor are the Absolutists to be blamed for their novels being dismal, dehumanized, and disordered; they are like that not because the Absolutists are bad novelists but because the “inflationary commodity culture” in which we live is dismal, dehumanized, and disordered, and the Absolutists, admirably refusing to treat literature as “an illusory preserve within the ravages of our technology and the absurdity of our politics,” insist in their work upon reflecting the state of the nation.

Newman considers this approach to be honorable in its adversarial motives, but pathetically misguided; for, in his view, the Absolutists have doomed themselves to ineffectiveness by “chang[ing] all politics into mystiques”—that is, they construct mirror images of America’s technocratic impersonality when they should be attacking the technocracy directly—and by paying too little attention to the “literary elements” of their novels. Not that he cares about “literary elements” per se; he simply feels that politically-centered, socially “aware” novels, with more going for them aesthetically than the usual Absolutist fare, would be more likely to gain an audience and would thereby serve their polemical ends more effectively.

But in order to succeed with the reading public where the Absolutists have failed, the authors of such novels would have to act decisively upon the recognition that American publishing is behind the times: far from being “a conservative, print-oriented culture” of the sort that spawned modernism, American culture in 1985 is “based upon instantaneous pattern recognition, not delayed analytic decoding.” Unfortunately, what Newman expects the new novelist to do about this supposed state of affairs—write comic books? create holograms?—he does not attempt to say.

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Which is, to be honest, par for the course. Far from presenting his argument as straightforwardly as my synopsis might suggest, Newman’s book is in fact a masterpiece of muddle, a tour de force of tautology. What he offers is less a coherent argument than a loosely-bound wad of assertions—usually unsupported, often vague, and frequently redundant—many of which seem directly to contradict one another. For instance, the statement (crucial to Newman’s apparent thesis) that postwar Americans have had too much money to spend would appear to conflict with his contention that inflation has made it difficult to afford serious novels, and has turned us all into de-facto victims of censorship. (“A classic totalitarian society,” he explains, “censors at the production point. An oligopolistic democracy censors at the distribution point.”) Likewise, Newman’s assertion that Americans are no longer “print-oriented” contradicts his own observation that more books have been sold in postwar America than ever before, anywhere. And his presupposition of a chaotic contemporary America would seem to be incompatible with the belief, which he sometimes appears to profess, that the U.S. is far too stable and homogeneous these days for its own good.

But such inconsistencies do not disturb Newman, who blithely advertises his chronic disinclination toward coherence and clarity as if this were the best attribute a literary critic could have. “As befits its subject,” he brags at the outset, “this will be a brief account of an incomplete idea; nothing so juicy as a sensibility, only a dim pathology of the contemporary, which amounts to Art is everywhere and Life is vague.” In postmodern America, in short, life is chaotic and murky, literature is chaotic and murky, and so criticism has to be chaotic and murky too. Newman lives up to this pledge in spades.

Thus, even though he takes the Absolutists to task for their sloppy writing, Newman seems positively to revel in his own awful prose, in his tense shifts and agreement errors, in his nearly wholesale refusal to clarify or strengthen an assertion by providing an example, and in his habitual treatment of the word “media” as a singular noun. Though he ridicules the Absolutists’ apocalyptic rhetoric, he indulges in it himself at every turn. (“The Apocalypse is over,” he announces. “Not because it didn’t happen, but because it happens every day.”) And though he japes at postmodern writers’ love of jargon, he flings it with the worst of them, describing language as a “reorientive enterprise,” speaking of “routinized disturbances,” “seminal idea structures,” and the “writer/ reader system,” and turning out bushels of sentences like the following: “Youth culture offed literature as the dying privatized irrelevancy of a privileged class, only codifying existing forms of established power, inviting cultural repression, paternalism, and elitism.”

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The ultimate irony of this book on language and literature is that no one who truly cared for language or literature could have written it. Newman does not even pretend to care all that much. He makes no bones about his suspicion of art and culture; to him, language is manifestly hostile and alien territory, the uncomfortable but unavoidable route over which one is obliged to travel if one wishes to communicate a political position to one’s fellow man. So disagreeable an entity is it, in fact, that at times he sees it more as a barrier between writer and audience than as a connecting highway. “Language,” he grumbles, “is what veils the truth.” He longs for something more raw, less refined. He admires, in the Absolutists, the way their novels “function very much like the primitive brain”; he sympathizes with their supposed feeling that language has been “exhausted” in the postwar era, perhaps beyond redemption; and he identifies with their “nostalgia for . . . prelingual paradise” (toward which his book appears to be a deliberate giant step). Why, in heaven’s name, is a man with such an attitude in the business of literary criticism? It makes no more sense than a Christian Scientist becoming a surgeon.

One can only marvel at Newman’s assumption that the best way to talk about literature is to talk about economics; at his view of the American economy as a tragedy not because it has failed (as the Marxists claimed in the 30’s) but because it has been too successful; and at his blaming of that economy for the slovenly state of a species of fiction whose lack of discipline and love of aimless excess can be traced directly back to 60’s radicalism. One must marvel, too, that a critic so preoccupied with Marxist economics and so impervious to the grandeur of language and literature can have received so many prestigious foundation grants, and that such an unqualified mess of a book can have been published by a reputable university press and reviewed admiringly in such venues as the New York Times and the New Republic. The whole scandalous story stands as testimony to the eagerness with which certain highly respected American institutions feel obliged to smile warmly upon “literary” and “intellectual” works that deal in irresponsible radical rhetoric—however insignificant such publications may be as works of art, however insipid their ideas.

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