Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

Western and Chinese Eschatologies: Challenging Postmodernist Theory

Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

Western and Chinese Eschatologies: Challenging Postmodernist Theory

Article excerpt

Apocalyptic images and concepts drawn from the Bible are central to the Western literary tradition. The reason for this centrality is probably as much a matter of esthetics as of religious content; the two biblical apocalypses, the Book of Daniel and the Revelation of St. John the Divine, contain highly structured narratives which possess many prototypical literary qualities, and this fact does much to account for the debt owed to them by so many classic authors. For their original authors and audiences, however, these apocalypses were not literary works in any conventional sense. The products of real or perceived historical crises, they provided ultimate predictions about the immediate future, and they have been repeatedly reinterpreted to the same effect. In turn, this combination of the esthetic and the practical makes these works relevant to the Western literary tradition in another, timely way. As works with many prototypical literary properties, yet produced by and existing in immediate historical and religious contexts, these apocalypses and the interpretive traditions associated with them provide exemplary test cases for current theoretical debates over the relation between the literary and the non-literary, between the fictional and the factual, and about the nature and purpose of narrative itself.

During the past quarter century the concept of the literary has become less sharply demarcated than it was in the past; in some circles, indeed, the previous boundaries have been completely dissolved. An important harbinger of this development was Frank Kermode's The Sense of an Ending, which used the apocalyptic model to define the very nature of narrative as such. To Kermode, all apocalypses feature an absolute Beginning and End with intervening, sharply marked intervals; in thus imposing order on the chaos of experience they provide the prototype for all narrative. Modern fiction, for Kermode, does not differ essentially from the apocalypses; its basic strategy is to combine a realistic sense of contingency with a devious satisfaction of the desire for apocalyptic necessity. There is, however, an unacknowledged ambiguity in Kermode's argument. He sometimes opposes apocalyptic necessity to a verifiably contingent reality, but at other times he opposes it to reality conceived of as something inherently inaccessible. He comes, consequently, to see all our concepts, including those of time and causality, as nothing but constructs, and thus concludes that all narratives are fictions in the sense that none of them says anything about a reality independent of them (33-64). The ability of millenarian sects to explain away all apparent disproofs of their predictions thus becomes for Kermode the prototypical expression of narrative's general lack of concern with any external validation.

Although Kermode himself has always resisted radical post-structuralism, the contention that all narrative is fiction paved the way for its positions. The development of these positions, however, has involved a rejection of Kermode's central, neo-Kantian belief in a universal core structure of narrative. Adopting instead Nietzsche's radical relativism, post-structuralists and postmodernists have argued that if all narrative is fictional it must be endlessly various. The logic of this argument seems irrefutable, for if all narrative is in any significant sense fictional this must mean that nothing ultimately constrains it or prevents it from "playing" freely. This means that the truth of the contention that all narrative is ultimately fictional depends upon the truth of extreme relativism, for if the latter is false then so, by logical inference, is the former. My purpose in this essay is to question the truth of extreme relativism and so, in turn, the truth of the contention that all narrative is ultimately fictional. I will do this by means of an extension of Kermode's own strategy: through an exploration of Western apocalyptic traditions in conjunction with the exploration of a set of comparable Chinese, Daoist and Buddhist, traditions. …

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