Friday, March 07, 2008

Chapter 10: On Tragedy: I. The Modern Era: The Death of Tragedy

In “The Way of the World: The Bildungsroman in European Culture” from Theory of the Novel: A Historical Approach (McKeon, ed.), Franco Moretti argues that the Modern Era has been a pro-youth period, a time of European man’s adolescence. This, he argues, was the necessary conditions under which the European novel evolved, with its concern with play and with telling the stories of youth, of their development, education, and socialization. This also helps explain why the Modern Era has been one of rebellion, whether political or artistic, or even against the agonal nature of physis/logos, as we see in Hegel and Marx (it is this conflict which resulted in the 20th Century enacting tragedy rather than more safely performing it in artistic rituals). Postmodernism is a rebellion against Modernism, Modernism a rebellion against Naturalism, Naturalism a rebellion against Realism, Realism a rebellion against Romanticism, Romanticism a rebellion against the Enlightenment, the Enlightenment a rebellion against religion. All this after the rebellion of the Renaissance. One could perhaps see European history after the rise of Christianity as the long, serious-minded childhood of belief, finally giving way to the adolescent Modern Era. The novel has been the genre of this adolescence, giving us stories of adolescence, of Werther’s rebellion of love, of Jude’s rebellion against the class structures preventing him from becoming an intellectual, etc. These rebellions are all legitimate rebellions – against various forms of repression – the kinds of rebellions adolescents undergo in the move from the legitimate protections they had as children, unjust now that they are becoming adults. If this metaphor is accurate, this would suggests, once European Man’s adolescence is over, that adulthood should rise to take its place. But with adulthood comes the possibility of giving birth to a new child – and a repetition of the cycle – in the same way that the adult Greek culture (even if it was a Roman-controlled Greece) mated with the adult Hebrew culture to create the infant Christian culture, which reached adolescence in the Renaissance, and is now due to enter into its own adulthood.

But let us take into consideration some literary consequences of this late adolescence with Mann’s A Death in Venice and Gide’s The Immoralist. I want to discuss them together because they are so similar in their basic stories: an intellectual becomes sexually obsessed with a young boy. But it is in the different ways these two works deal with the situation that we find them uncovering two different existential situations we in the Modern Era have found ourselves in.

Mann presents us with the following situation: an intellectual (a poet) goes to Venice, where he finds himself not really in charge of his life – the gondolier will not listen to him, but takes him straight to the hotel; at the hotel he finds himself hopelessly in love with a young boy he sees; when he tries to leave, his things end up accidentally sent back to the hotel, making him have to spend the night, and eventually not leave – and so in love he cannot leave, even once he learns there is a plague in Venice. He is the consummate man of inaction. He will not act, so cannot affect or change anything. He will not act on his love, but only stalks the boy. He is a toothless, clawless predator (something we may be happy about, for the boy’s sake). This story of a toothless, clawless predator only works to highlight the impotence of modern man, with his tendency to over-think things, until it is too late to act. While Hamlet, who is a prime example of this situation at the entrance of European culture – which includes American culture – into the Modern Era, takes a long time to act, he does, in the end, act. But Aschenbach does not do a thing throughout the novel, which only leads him to finally die of the plague that has hit Venice, since he can neither act on his love for the boy, nor tear himself away from him. Mann shows us the possibility of impotence due to overintellectualization. Aschenbach only thinks about living – he never actually lives.

With Gide’s Michel, however, we have a somewhat different situation. Michel too is an intellectual, but whereas Aschenbach dies of his sickness, Gide shows us what could have happened had Aschenbach lived, as Michel does. The difference is that Michel is an historian, not an artist – which creates a somewhat different crisis for him in the novel. When Michel recovers, he sheds the mores of society, learns to love life, and revels in the senses. He finds it difficult to return to his life as an intellectual – finding instead a more pleasurable life tending his property – or, more accurately, getting into mischief with his property. The problem is, Michel is only playing at mischief, while those who actually live the life he is imitating manage to take advantage of him. This game being a failure, along with his wife getting sick, convinces Michel to travel – eventually back to North Africa. There, his wife dies, and Michel finds himself involved with a young boy and the young boy’s sister – the latter whom he is sleeping with, though his observation that the boy appeared jealous, and that he was not adverse to the possible consequences thereof, suggests homosexual possibilities. Michel is searching for a life that better fits this great insight he received with his recovery. One could imagine, had this happened to Aschenbach rather than Michel, that Aschenbach would have known what to do – since Aschenbach was already a poet. Michel received the kind of insight Nietzsche associated with great artists – but Michel has not figured out that it is art that he should be pursuing. One could presume that Aschenbach would have continued as a poet, but would have become a greater poet than he is in the story. By the end of The Immoralist, Michel is admitting to homosexual attractions, to essentially being without means to get by, having wasted his money and separated himself from his former work. Is this where living life according to Nietzsche’s dictums will get us? This could be precisely the situation we should be in: where we have no prospects, but every possibility, and nonetheless find ourselves happy and ready to press forward (one is reminded of the line on the first page of Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer: “I have no money, no resources, no hopes. I am the happiest man alive. A year ago, six months ago, I thought that I was an artist. I no longer think about it, I am.”). In the end, we are left not knowing what Michel is going to do. What should he do? What would we do if we were in his position? That, perhaps, is precisely the point. What we have with Gide is the existential possibility of the kind of insight that makes for great artists being received by someone who does not realize they should be making art.

Each of these characters represent one of two major existential categories of Modern man: the man who does not act, but has all the resources available to him to do something great if only he would act, and the man who does act, but has neither the knowledge nor the wisdom to do anything positive with his abilities. Michel knows neither the possibilities of making art, nor of truly engaging life. Michel is the man with the artist’s soul, but does not realize it. Aschenbach is the artist without the artist’s soul. He is the thinker without action. Following Descartes, the Modern Era has split people in two: body and soul. The consequence of this split is a world containing either Aschenbach or Michel, but very few whole people.

With postmodernism – the postscript to modernism – we have entered into a sort of late adolescence, where we are now rebelling against ourselves. If not just for the sake of rebelling. Modernism is the philosophy of eternal youth – specifically, of rebellious adolescence. It sees the world as a series of constant breaks with, rather than a continuation of, the past. It is anti-tragic. The belief that we can or should break with the past is to deny the past, and the attempt to deny the past is the attempt to deny tragedy. While modernist theorists promoted this myth, most modernist artists and writers themselves would be very surprised to learn they radically broke from the past and learned nothing from it. Much current scholarship has shown our greatest modernist artists and writers were devout students of the past. Yet, this myth of continual rebellion pervades our culture in the guise of postmodernism.

A specific example is the philosophy of Thomas Kuhn, whose theory of science being a series of revolutionary breaks with the past is a prime example of modernist mythology. He bases his philosophy on the history of physics, so let us look at that history. He supposes that Einstein’s theory of relativity was a radical break with Newtonian physics. But this ignores the fact that Newton himself recognized that there was a problem with his theory of gravity regarding the orbit of Mercury. This problem was worked on continuously by physicists until Einstein formulated his theory of relativity. And Einstein himself did not work in a vacuum. His ideas were built on the foundation of all those physicists who came before him. Which is not to take away from the impressive work of Einstein, but, to paraphrase Newton, Einstein was able to see as far as he could because he was standing on the shoulders of the giants who came before him. Also, having been a physicist, Kuhn should have known that Einstein did not overturn Newton. Newton’s ideas are valid for the vast majority of physics between the quantum and galactic levels, as anyone who has taken a semester of university physics knows. No one uses relativity to calculate the velocity necessary to lift a rocket from earth into orbit. Newton’s calculations work just fine. Relativity was, in many ways, merely a fine-tuning of Newton’s theory of gravity, something needed to explain such anomalies as the orbit of Mercury. This is how science works. Scientifically derived knowledge is not constantly overturned, but is more often slowly and subtly modified. To paraphrase a story related by Konrad Lorenz, in science, today’s truth is not tomorrow’s falsehood, but rather tomorrow’s special case.

Much of this is a rebellion against such things as deterministic views of history, including theories of teleology and of progress. But we have seen in this work that the solution is a mixture, as found in the mixture between determinism and randomness in chaos theory. With chaos theory, we can see our belief in a deterministic world is only part of the story – there is a randomness to the universe too that allows for the possibility of free will. So we do not need postmodernism’s rejection of determinism in favor of randomness, nor, for that matter, its rejection of progress or our ability to understand others, or any of its other features. Progress can be seen as possible, though not certain. Just because we are walking forward now, it does not mean we will be walking forward always. And just because we are slipping now, it does not mean we cannot gain our feet later. The ability to walk forward implies the ability to stumble and fall too, or to walk backwards. Thus, we can legitimately say things like, “there has been marked progress in the speed of computers in the past twenty years.” Does this mean the speed of computers will continue to increase? Yes and no. It does suggest computer speed will, in the near future at least, continue to increase. If people did not believe it could, they would not try to make computers go faster. At the same time, there is certainly an upper limit to a computer’s speed, whether limited by the speed of electrons or light. And even then, we will probably continue to find ways to tweak computers to get another nanosecond out of them. So the ideally-fast computer will certainly never be reached, just as we will never see the ultimately fast human, since there is no telling how many fractions of seconds can be shaved off of anyone’s speed. We can also make this comment about things that have happened in the past. It can make sense to say something has progressed to the present time, even if we reject the idea that something will necessarily continue to progress into the future. The story of progress is like any good story – postdictable, if not predictable. We can say after something happened what happened, and why, even if we cannot say what will happen, and why, since the world is not determined. The present and the past are knowable, but not the future (insofar as postmodernism says we cannot know the past, it is also anti-epistemological). So it seems that, at least in science and technology, progress is possible, in this limited understanding of progress, and that it is a necessary belief to hold if advancements are to be made in science and technology.

But arguing for science and technology usually does not get you very far with the anti-science and technology postmodernists. So what about social issues? The history of social issues is one of progress and regress. Groups make advances, only to be pushed back. Jews once fled to Germany to escape anti-Semitism, only to encounter the Holocaust. In recent decades, at least in the United States, there has been much social progress in the way women and ethnic minorities are treated in this country. It is fashionable (and a product of postmodernism) to argue that things are as bad now as they were fifty or a hundred years ago. But if you were to tell an elderly woman or an elderly African-American that there has been no progress in the U.S. regarding the way women and minorities are treated in this country, they would laugh at you. Things have clearly gotten better, and to deny it is to be eminently ahistorical. This is not to say that the way women and minorities are treated could not be better – there is always room for improvement, and we have to fight against our xenophobic tendencies with our equally present xenophilic tendencies – but we cannot effect any effective change if we refuse to acknowledge that anything has changed in a positive way. To treat all times as the same is naive, at best. Has there been progress on these sorts of social issues? I think women and minorities should be treated as equals. Any movement toward greater equal treatment, I consider progress. And I consider it progress because treating people equally – while allowing for their inequalities – makes for a more complex society.

So where does this position against progress come from? Aside from the conservative opposition to progress already noted, and the anti-teleological stance of postmodernism (one with which I agree), it comes out of the postmoderns’ remaining blindly focused on art and philosophy. In dealing with art, literature, and philosophy, it makes no sense at all to talk about “progress.” In what way is stream-of-conscious progress over the Bildungsroman? To make such a statement is to speak nonsense. Is Picasso “improvement” over Michelangelo? A ridiculous concept. Indeed, in these realms, we have changes, but these are changes for which notions of progress or regress are nonsense, even in the sense of progress as an increase in complexity. DeLillo’s novels are certainly no more complex than Rabelais’ novel – nor, likely, any less. What we see instead is an issue of better and worse art reflected in the issue of complexity. DeLillo and Rabelais both are more complex than any romance novel – and that is what makes them literary, and continually interesting. Creative products of the mind reflect the complexities of the minds which create them – and that has not changed. We can, however, say that a world that has both Michelangelo and Picasso, rather than just Michelangelo, in it is a more complex world. In this sense, the mere changes in art have, through the accumulation of artifacts, made for more complex cultures.

Postmodernism has been particularly useful, on the other hand, in foregrounding many important ideas. There is a certain extent to which we cannot know with complete certainty that another understand us. But this is not to say understanding is impossible. It is instead an understanding and acknowledgment that there can be a level of misunderstanding – especially in dealing with written language. But when my friend calls to tell me, “My wife just gave birth to a baby boy,” I know with such certainty what he means, it might as well be absolute. This view of language breaks down with regular conversation among most people, even if it holds true for discussions of art, literature, and philosophy. Postmodernism has also been useful in making us beware of teleological arguments, especially those that lead to utopian visions. And it has been important in decentering us, making us more aware of our thinking as a human in a particular time, in a particular culture. But if we cannot use this information to adjust our thinking, if all we can do is think in this situation, then where has it really gotten us, other than the promise of stagnation? And this is one of the greatest problems I have with postmodernism. All it can do in the end, if we end with postmodernism, is cause stagnation. This is why we are beginning to get popular rock bands like Queens of the Stone Age in their song “Go With The Flow” singing “I want something real to die for / so it is beautiful to live.” Even popular culture is beginning to see the problems with postmodernism – in its inability to give us something real to die for, which is to say, something beautiful to live for. Without such ideas, we stagnate. Without ideas such as progress – even one decoupled from teleology would suffice – we cannot find the desire to change. One thing we can learn from history is that those cultures that went against progress were eventually taken over by those that did believe in progress. And certainly those who believe we should have a more fully human life will win out over any culture that dehumanizes us, as postmodernism seems intent to do. If we replace the dead-end of postmodernism’s myths with a more complex myth, one that incorporates what we have learned from postmodernism with what it has rejected, we can get out of the trap both sides create, and learn to become more human, and live in a more human society – one that affirms life.

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