Dionysus in Literature: Essays on Literary Madness

By Branimir M. Rieger | Go to book overview

Inmates Running the Asylum:
The Institution in Contemporary American Fiction

Barbara Tepa Lupack

Numerous critics—from Ortega y Gassett to T. S. Eliot, Louis Rubin and Leslie Fiedler to Susan Sontag and Norman Podhoretz— have taken up the cry of the curious death of the novel.' But the novel is not dead; the postwar experimental novel in particular is alive, well (though largely misunderstood)—and in search not so much of an audience but of the critical acclaim it rightly deserves.

Different from conventional novels, different even from the modernist novels of Joyce, Kakfa and Faulkner, postwar experimental fiction searches for ways to deal with the violence, brevity and rigidity of life and carries to great extremes the themes of combativeness, fragmentariness, coolness and meaninglessness that are the marks of much modern fiction. It may originate, as Josephine Hendin suggests in her excellent essay on "Experimental Fiction," "in the modernist sense of life as problematic, but unlike the great experimental fiction of the 1920s, it does not lament the brokenness of experience as a sign of the decline of Western civilization. Instead it offers an acceptance of dislocation as a major part of life and perhaps a hope that the displacement of traditional ideals might permit new ways of dealing with the human situation" (Hendin 240).

The modernist hero was shaped by the humanist ethos— political, religious, anthropological and psychoanalytic; the experimental hero of the postwar period is shaped by the concern with the functioning and behavior that spawned and accelerated the growth of ego psychology in the late 1940s, 1950s and 1960s, and is characteristic of an age of increasing technical sophistication (Hendin 240). That hero searches for meaning—adaptation, to use Ihab Hassan's terrn 2—which will change his condition; yet his sense of self is shattered and his personality is fragmented. The stabilizing forces of memory and attachment are supplanted by a sense of personal crisis that may be unique to a culture in which consolidation of economic power and estrangement from political

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