Academic journal article The Mailer Review

Meta-Modernism in an American Dream

Academic journal article The Mailer Review

Meta-Modernism in an American Dream

Article excerpt

"The American Writer in the world of the twentieth century has his hands full in trying to understand, describe, and then make credible much of American reality. It stupefies, it sickens, it infuriates, and finally it is even a kind of embarrassment to one's own meager imagination."                                                            --Philip Roth 

Before we examine the relative postmodernism of An American Dream (1964), we should question the usefulness of a term many consider problematic at best. How does one define postmodernism in a way that includes such distinctly different writers as, on the one hand, Bernard Malamud, John Updike, Joyce Carol Oates, and Norman Mailer, and on the other, Thomas Pynchon, Vladimir Nabokov, and John Barth? While historically the term embraces all these writers, theorists Ihab Hassan and Brian McHale point out that theoretically "postmodern" announces not merely a chronological division, but "an organized poetics" (McHale 5)--specific artistic tendencies that transcend historicity. (1) Hassan describes postmodernism as a response, direct or oblique, to the spiritual void Moderns glimpsed only in their most prophetic moments; thus the vitality of Joyce gives way to the impotence of Beckett (Hassan 39). (2) In Hassan's familiar ideological schemata, he distinguishes modernism's tendency to Purpose, Design, Hierarchy, and Totalization from postmodernism's Play, Chance, Anarchy, and Deconstruction (Hassan 91).

The problematics of definition become troubling when we see that "postmodern" may be used by ideological purists as an evaluative rather than a descriptive term to valorize writers held in esteem and to discredit those disliked. One can imagine that in this light, such important novels as John Updike's Rabbit Run (1960), Mailer's An American Dream (1964) Saul Bellow's Mr. Sammler's Planet (1969), or Ann Tyler's Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant (1982) might never be taught or even discussed at all. These are novels that should be perceived, as Hassan infers, in terms both of their continuity and discontinuity with modernism, so that we see "sameness and difference, unity and rupture, filiation and revolt" (Hassan 88). In his instructive set-up essay to his analysis of Mailer's Ancient Evenings (1983), "Toward a New Synthesis," Robert Begiebing distinguishes the postmodern novel as a closed system or word game, while the modern exists as a moral force in the world (8, 9). Patricia Waugh sees the latter novels ultimately "making peace" with realism, despite their occasional metafictional leanings (Waugh 19).

While to date no one has conceived a definition of post-postmodernism about which everyone can agree, we hear such terms as "Post-Millennialism," "Digi-Modernism," "Pseudo Modernism," and "Meta-Modernism." The last of these, "Meta-Modernism," nicely frames the new fiction Begiebing associates with Mailer's achievement in Ancient Evenings. While we see Mailer using "Metafiction" in An American Dream and Ancient Evenings in the familiar sense of fiction about itself, exposing itself as artifice or construction, "Meta" in this instance is taken from Plato's metaxy, which denotes a movement between opposite poles as well as beyond them. In Begiebing's view metaxy "rescues the referent" (Introductory Chapter to Synthesis 18)--that is, disputes the postmodern notion that language has no relationship to the real world outside the text. (3) This evokes the debate between Jean-Francois Lyotard and Jurgen Habermas about postmodernism's dismantling of hierarchies or absolutes of order and meaning. Lyotard argues for the more radical or "purist" form of postmodernism of Derrida and Foucault, which braces itself for a life without truth, standards, ideals, believing that it is a moral necessity not to apply modern totalizing principles to synthesize or resolve ambiguity. Habermas on the other hand expresses the concerns of the Meta-Modernists and Begiebing in particular that Lyotard's brand of postmodernism represents a new crisis of art's relationship to society, in which the artist's refusal to assume a moral position discourages ethical concerns, inviting moral anarchy (A Postmodern Reader 5-7). …

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