Academic journal article The Mailer Review

Toward a New Synthesis

Academic journal article The Mailer Review

Toward a New Synthesis

Article excerpt

The following "classic essay" reprints the introductory chapter of a book entitled Toward a New Synthesis: John Fowles, John Gardner, and Norman Mailer, published by UMI Research Press in 1989; it was re-issued by the University of Rochester Press/ Boydell and Brewer in 1992. In the process of writing the book in my thirties, I came to realize I was writing my swan song to academic literary criticism, my goodbye to all that, as I turned to writing literary journalism and fiction. The book's chapter on Mailer's Ancient Evenings appeared in the 2009 edition of The Mailer Review, so the "essay" below is the setup for that chapter, as well as for chapters--one each--on John Fowles and John Gardner. My thanks to Phillip Sipiora, Mailer Review editor and valued colleague, for reprinting this essay.


Our relativist minds made by a relativist world make a relativist world. And there is no Truth in us.

Betty Jean Craige, Relativism in the Arts


Fiction and theories about fiction today are shaped by renewed debates over ancient issues--means versus ends, form versus function. The factions are diverse and numerous, and as Elizabeth Bruss points out in Beautiful Theories, lack of consensus is the order of the day: no single program has gained such widespread support that its speculations "take on the look of simple common sense." And as Alan Wilde argued in Horizons of Assent, there is likewise no monolithic program among Anglo-American authors, whether modernist or post-modernist. There are only tendencies. Although it may be even more difficult to name schools of theory that have achieved prominence among fiction writers and poets than it is to name the various schools of theory themselves, self-reflexive tendencies have flourished in imaginative literature that parallel prominent ideas in theoretical scholarship. Yet, as Wilde points out, certain authors often considered post-modernists struggle beyond and transform the limits set forth by the theoreticians. (1) At the center of the contentious, rootless environment in which fiction writers work, however, is a debate (to use Robert Scholes' terms derived from Edward Said) over the hermetic and secular powers of art and perception. The hermetic position tends to view the novel as a closed system or word game, while the secular position tends to view the novel as a moral force in the world.

Vincent Leitch has suggested one reason for renewed debate: our post-romantic philosophical heritage that calls into question traditional Western concepts of being, truth, and consciousness. (2) Alan Trachtenberg has identified roughly a dozen factors contributing to the breakdown of any predominating intellectual or moral schema in the post-War world, ranging from the "ethic of abundance" and the sexual revolution to the scientific revolution in quantum physics and cosmology. (3)

Equally important is the radical dissociation of art from idea among twentieth-century avant-garde artists in Europe. From Dada, through Existentialism, to what Claude Mauriac has called Aliterature, avant-garde writers in Europe and America have created a "post-modern fiction" that Raymond Federman describes as:

"fiction that tries to explore the possibilities of fiction ... challenges the tradition that governs it ... exposes the fictionality of reality ... and admits that no meaning pre-exists in language.... This creature will be totally free, totally uncommitted to the affairs of the outside world ... irrational, irresponsible, irrepressive, amoral, and unconcerned with the real world."

Other writers such as William Gass have argued, in more moderate language, that a writer is best when he does not believe in ideas, that the chief value of the novel is not moral judgment but aesthetic quality and elegance, and that the only moral activity for a writer is to contribute to the world objects of beauty worthy of contemplation in themselves. …

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