Jonathan Lethem and Postmodernism

(Posted October 25, 2011.)

Jonathan Lethem's "Postmodernism as Liberty Valance: Notes on an Execution" in the October issue of The Believer is bad writing backed by a ridiculous argument.

Lethem's objective isn't to write a clear and compelling essay. It's to present a facade of intellectualism, combined with trademark McSweeney's-style cutesiness added to show that, hey, he's one of us.

Behind his clog of words, Lethem has two points. He doesn't try to prove the points. They're assumed. The herd he writes for accepts the points on face value. The essay is affirmation. "Hallelujahs" in a praise-pomo church service. The purpose of the essay is showing off.

Lethem's two points:

1.) Literary postmodernism is under continual assault.

2.) Postmodernism is like the film character Liberty Valance.

POINT ONE: Because literary postmodernism isn't under real attack, Lethem doesn't need to construct a real argument. His essay is a victory dance over pretend opponents. The idea is to make the unquestioning readership feel good: Rome replaying its wars with Carthage decades after the fact. A ritualistic dance.

Lethem writes,

"My version allegorizes the holding at bay, for the special province of literary fiction, of contemporary experience in all its dismaying or exhilarating particulars, as well as a weird, persistent denial of a terrific number of artistic strategies for illuminating that experience. The avoidance, that's to say, of any forthright address of what's called postmodernity, and what's lost in avoiding it (a sacrifice I see as at best pointless, an empty rehearsal of anxieties, and at worst hugely detrimental to fiction)."

What is he talking about?

Jonathan Lethem says of postmodernism:

"--the word is often used as finger-pointing to a really vast number of things that might be seen as threatening to canonical culture."

Really? By who?

Today, postmodernism IS canonical culture. The French critics Lethem defends in his essay are celebrated by the academy. They're part of the canon.

Lethem talks of the "collapsing of high and low cultural preserves--."

This sure isn't happening in Lethem's world! He's safely in the "high" end, along with metafiction, antinarrative, intertextuality, unreliable narration, "surrealism or magical realism or hysterical realism," irony, and the rest of the postmodern jumble. The academy does have values, of a sort. The intellectual jumble Lethem describes is its highest value.

The items Lethem lists and defends are now part of "high" culture. They've been around for fifty years. There's nothing threatening to "the literary community" about them. Go onto trendy lit-sites like HTML Giant and you see that these ideas and strategies ARE the literary community.

Lethem claims the community views Coover, Barth, Gass, Hawkes, Pynchon, and Company, the creators of literary postmodernism, as "worth knocking down." Knocked down? WHEN? They still ride high. From my outlaw perspective they surely do.

I don't know if these privileged characters "rode a barrel over Niagara Falls twenty or thirty years ago." I do know that their students, acolytes, and heirs-- Jonathan Franzen included-- dominate the Approved and Established lit scene today. Recently deceased author David Foster Wallace, their most dedicated disciple, is also the most celebrated American author around.

Dare not let reality intrude into the discussion!

In his essay, Jonathan Lethem suggests that Louis Menand "suggested that postmodernism, as an artistic movement, represents the democratization of modernism's impulses and methods."

Menand's suggestion is wrong. Postmodernism has meant the opposite of the democratization of literature. It's allowed Acceptable and Approved American literature to become more narrow, more elitist, more removed from the actual world. Last time I checked, Menand was a professor at Harvard. He wouldn't know a democratic impulse if it landed on top of him.

It's bad enough that Lethem's ideas are nonsense. Worse, he expresses them through the usual wordy postmodernism pseudo-intellectual pose.

On the one hand, a required number of academic sounding words: "recombinant," "axiomatic," "manifestly propagates," "effrontery," "denunciatory," "meretricious," pacifistic," "sacralized." On the other, a few cute phrases: "Totally pretzel" and "the chewy center."

The objective isn't accuracy. It's to earn cred within the clubby halls of the lit-world. Lethem achieves this.

The preciousness and falseness of the essay reaches a peak.

"I speak here as one who's spent loads of his own good faith hurling tiny word-bombs at the rolling edifice of the triumphalist NOW."

But, Jonathan, you and The Believer ARE the triumphalist NOW!

Jonathan Lethem has hurled word-bombs at no one. He's offended nobody of power in literature. As a result, he's been backed by conglomerate publishers and praised by esteemed reviewers and critics. He's been the recipient of numerous grants. You want an Accepted writer, a town-approved Ransom Stoddard? Jonathan Lethem is your man.

Lethem concludes his essay with a smug wrap-up that shows the narrowness of his viewpoint. He creates a questionable opposition of two forms of jazz; the innovations of be-bop versus Dixieland, which he says "declined to respond" to those innovations. He ignores a greater musical happening, a true music revolution taking place at the time of be-bop-- a kind of sub-jazz whose origins were as primitive as Dixieland's. Namely, the several diverse forms of roots music which blended together to become rock n' roll.

Lethem's mistake is thinking culture comes from on high, from intellectuals. Authentic culture arises spontaneously from below. All that intellectuals can do is try to explain it or appropriate it.

I'm reminded of a scene in the 1957 Elvis Presley movie "Jailhouse Rock." Elvis is dragged to an insufferably swanky party by his manager. The affair is filled with high-brow intellectual types. Upon hearing that Elvis is a musician, a professor launches into a pseudo-intellectual dissertation on modern jazz. Possibly be bop-- it's hard to tell beneath the jargon. Elvis's classic response: "Lady, I don't know what the hell you're talking about."

Elvis's next movie, "King Creole," was set in New Orleans, and includes Presley singing a song called "Dixieland Rock" with a Dixieland band playing behind him. There are innovations, and then there are innovations.

POINT TWO: It's hard to see how an analogy of postmodernism and its practitioners to Liberty Valance, of all possible characters, can work.

Liberty Valance is an expression not of intellect, but id. He's all primitive instinct. He comes from outside the safe bounds of the town.

Postmodernists are creatures of institutions and hierarchy. They're Ransom Stoddard's lawyer taken to another level. Postmodern thought thrives on convolution and complexity; legalistic to the max. Its jargonistic sentences become as incomprehensible as the finer language of the law.

Postmodernism is a product not of instinct, but of overstimulated recesses of the overeducated mind. The work of David Foster Wallace embodies these aspects. Isn't he the apex of postmodern literary art?

One of the opening scenes of "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance" shows Liberty Valance ripping apart one of Ransom Stoddard's law books. If anyone'd be attacking the imposition of pomo thought upon a primitive unregulated landscape it'd be him!

So we see, postmodernism isn't Liberty Valance. Just as no one's excluding it, beating up on it, or assassinating it. Lethem's wrong on both his points.

Rather than everyone beating up on postmodernism, the real situation is that Jonathan Lethem can present a badly written, poorly reasoned essay defending postmodernism and no one questions it. How can anyone question it? He's Jonathan Lethem, one of literature's top dogs.

Lethem insists on his notion that the literati see postmodernism as "surely deserving rapid assassination for the safety of the literary community in general."

Yet there was only one writers group I know of in recent years that was rapidly assassinated; one "the literary community in general" thought deserved it. An unwashed writers group from offscreen badlands outside the orderly town. A group referred to as "literary terrorists"-- as if they were Liberty Valance!-- including in the pages of The Believer.

-King Wenclas