Jun 18, 2004

memo from Slate

"The father of modernism"
source: slate.com
From: Jim Lewis
To: Jeffrey Eugenides
Subject: Where Did Great Art Go?
Thursday, June 17, 2004, at 8:34 AM PT

'Lo again, Jeff:
So: We're going to celebrate the anniversary of a bookwidely believed to be the greatest of the lastcentury—and indeed chosen as such by the ModernLibrary's panel of experts—by taking it down a notchor two. My God! What arrogance!

I suspect, in fact, that I have slightly lessadmiration for Ulysses than you do—not much less, butenough to make a difference. The twist is that I findJoyce himself hugely impressive—just not for thatbook. "The Dead" is the most nearly perfect shortstory in the English language. Joyce need not havewritten anything more to make himself immortal. And attimes I wish he hadn't.
You are right, of course, that it's inherent in thevery idea of the reinvented novel that one can't seeit coming, and to that extent, I have to concede thatit's possible in the abstract. But I wonder if it'shistorically possible; if the culture will allow it.

Which brings me to my point about 1977—a thesis I'mquite proud of, though I know it's riddled with holes.'77—and the two or three years around it on eitherside—was the last moment for modernism, in both itspopular and its rarified forms—the final efflorescencebefore its death, and I think understanding as muchhelps explain why Joyce and his peers and followersseem less central to literature than they did even 20years ago. Round about '77, something ended.
Look at it this way:
Has there been a movie as greatas Apocalypse Now (1979) in the years since it wasreleased?
Has there been an artist as significant asWarhol (who died in '87, but flourished a decadeearlier)?
Have there been poems as profound as JohnAshbery's "Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror" (1975) or James Merrill's The Changing Light at Sandover(published in 1982, but mostly written in the late1970s)?
Photography as groundbreaking as WilliamEggleston's Guide (1976) or Cindy Sherman's FilmStills (1977-80)?
Reportage as new and fresh asDispatches (1977)? Theater as revolutionary asEinstein on the Beach (1976)?
Belles-lettres asbrilliant as The Lover's Discourse (1977)? Or even:rock music surpassing Never Mind the Bollocks (1977)?
My answer to all these questions is "Nope," though Ican hear the objections even as I type them. One isthat I'm mistaking the influences of my own youth(though I was 14 in '77—too young to encounter much ofthis) for milestones in a culture. Another is that I'msubstituting the dictates of my taste for historicalfacts—that I'm willfully ignoring all sorts of greatwork, from Kushner to Koons to Public Enemy to AnneCarson. I readily plead guilty to both theseobjections; but then, does anyone who looks at theirown culture ever do otherwise? Nonetheless, the onlycounter-example I'm willing to concede—or indeed, thatanyone I have ever surveyed on the matter is willingto insist upon—is hip-hop, for reasons which willbecome clear in a moment.
Let me admit, too, that there's something fatuousabout my posing things this way. Art is not a matterof rankings and stations; there are subtleties andnuances that I'm barreling past; and the hyperbolehere is deliberate and self-evident. But I do thinksomething exploded and ended just about 25 years ago,and I think it has something to do with modernism, andit affects the novel, too.

There are various ways to describe just what happened;you can think of it as the beginning of the end ofwhite, male culture (though, interestingly, of the 10works I mention above, half are by gay men); or youcan think of it as the end of the idea of themasterpiece; or you can think of it as the end of theavant-garde. Probably all of these descriptions arerelated, but it's the last of them that I find mostcompelling, especially in a discussion which has begunwith a reconsideration of Joyce. So let me just sayit: The avant-garde ended in 1977. The game has runits course, and those who played it have been caughtin a cul-de-sac.

So be it. This bothers me not at all. I'm disinclinedto sit here bemoaning the passing of the Colossi; ourculture got by without a vanguard from its origins upto, say, Baudelaire; we can certainly get by withoutone again. I was like you: raised on the idea of anavant-garde. To be artistically ambitious was tosearch for the next thing, the next form, or a leap inthe mode of rendering consciousness, and I spent mostof my 20's chasing after that very idea; I suspectthat you cottoned on to the futility of it before Idid.

The question remains: What's an ambitious young writerto do? Like you, I'm uncomfortable just saying, "Thehell with it: Let's just crank out another 'realist'novel." Much as I like the excuse to type out the word"antimacassar," I'd just as soon not see such thingsreappearing. (I'm tempted to insist, "No, no, no:let's be pro macassar.") I'm not so concerned withtearing up the bourgeois parlor, though I'm notespecially comfortable in it, either.

What I'm slowly learning is that vanguardism isn't theonly form of ambition. There are others, and alwayshave been—lyric, epic, and so on. The very idea of anavant-garde was made possible by a sense that historywas relatively uniform and discrete: the sort of thingone could compass, harness, lead. But the patterns ofthe past are much too complicated, now; there are toomany of them, and they're too varied. Again, this isfine by me: The more the merrier, and maybe "do whatthou wilt" shall be the whole of the law, after all.But I guess it implies that I do think the"multicultural" novel is indeed new; so I invite younow to fulfill the promise of your last remarks, andconvince me that I'm wrong.