The Thirst for Classical Works
By Arik Glasner | 10/12/2009
“It has finally come time to speak clearly about the sociopsychology of the reader. Postmodernist literature displays a casual style and a dark nihilistic, carnivalesque gaiety, in contrast with modernism's request for precision and truth. It is this dark carnivalesque gaiety that is suited to a particular kind of reader. However, its food will never satisfy the appetite of its tormented, reflexive neighbor who is capable of handling “holy” literature and who feels profound embarrassment over having a personal, ridiculous need for 'depth.' Such tormented neighbors are enraged; after all, they have the same right to live as everyone else. And they are perfectly correct: They have the same right to live.” Arik Glasner explains why postmodernist literature has no more fields to conquer
In 1997, I began my undergraduate studies in Hebrew literature at Tel Aviv University. We were still caught in a vacuum with the the thirst just beginning to be noticed. For a young man who had come from the “provinces” – Israel's “periphery” – and who naively thought that existentialism – whose bitter taste he could still feel on his tongue – was the “last word,” the sight of a classroom of students, delighting in the concept of the “death of the author,” was grotesquely horrifying. “Who, after all, is the author?” the lecturer asked with disdain. Then she continued, “For example, who or what is Yaakov Shabtai? After all, [Michel] Foucault has already ruled on this matter: 'Our patriarch Jacob is dead....'”
For the duration of the 1990s, there was a vacuum. The actual “deaths of authors” – Jerusalemites who were intellectual giants and who died one by one, with the second Isaiah (Isaiah, or, in Hebrew, Yeshayahu Leibowitz), at the end of the list – intensified the frailty of the books by Amos Oz, which were piled one on top of the other, and was, in turn, aggravated by the growing impotence of the works of the frugal Yehoshua Kenaz, an impotence that merged with the violent invasion of “mass culture” into the heart of public experience (Israel's Channel 2) and which forged an alliance with the overall leadership crisis in Israeli society (the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin), which was furthered by the joy experienced by many over a general disintegration whose foundations – as opposed to its discoveries – were profound. For instance, the satanic creatures from the play, “Vayomer vayelekh” (And he said, and he went), running around frantically, laughing hysterically, in the absence of a divine superego (“Thou shalt not kill,” “Thou shalt not steal,” “Thou shalt not commit adultery,” etc.). Or, for instance, the strongly suppressed and concealed joy bubbling up, nonetheless, with the news of the death of a celebrated arbiter of the public taste, a highly opinionated intellectual tyrant.
Because it has finally come time to speak clearly about the sociopsychology of the reader. Postmodernist literature displays a casual style and a dark nihilistic, carnivalesque gaiety, in contrast with modernism's request for precision and truth, in contrast with the severity, with the holiness of.... And, in contrast with the holiness of Flaubertian realism, of Proustian introspection, of modernism, and so on and so forth. It is this dark carnivalesque gaiety that is suited to a particular kind of reader. The kind that can always live in close-but-unhappy-proximity, in the same body, with the other kind (the “death of the subject,” right?). However, its food will never, never satisfy the appetite of its tormented, reflexive neighbor who is capable of handling “holy” literature and who feels profound embarrassment over having a personal, ridiculous need for “depth,” who suspects the genealogy of this very need. And this tormented neighbor, who has been defeated on all the frontlines during the 1990s, who knows how much a personal need for “high-brow culture” is by no means naïve, who knows how much that need stems in part from a request for titles of nobility, from a pursuit of another hierarchy in a world of sex and money (even this neighbor has developed vulgar, simplistic distinctions – this is the spirit of the time), a world that is full of self-hatred and self-contempt targeted at exquisite taste and the neighbor's lack of a casual approach. Such tormented neighbors are enraged; after all, they have the same right to live as everyone else. And they are perfectly correct: They have the same right to live.
And that is how the thirst was born. A thirst for “classical works.” A pathetic thirst for classical works. A justified thirst for classical works. A hope that someone will introduce some sort of order in the current chaos, that someone will do something.... That some local genius – shy and unassuming but definitely and stunningly a genius – will restore the criteria. Perhaps “Heder” (A Room) by Yuval Shimoni? Perhaps “Hamsin vetziporim meshugaot” (A Heatwave and Crazy Birds)? Perhaps “Shoa shelanu” (Our Own Holocaust)? Perhaps all of these works together? Only when there is such a thirst can one understand the statement made by a central scholar of literature like Gershon Shaked that, from Shabtai's “Sof davar” (Afterword) until Gabriela Avigur-Rotem's book, there has never been anyone like Shimoni. With casual elegance, Shaked skips “Hitganvut yehidim” (Individual Intruders; 1987) and “Sefer hadikduk hapnimi” (The Internal Grammar Book; 1990). However, thirst has blurred his vision, has clouded his eyes.
The thirst is essentially of a dual nature: It is a thirst for a narrative and it is a thirst for reality. It is on this platform that the thirst for “depth” bases itself – nothing could be further from this thirst than the “sophisticated approach” that proposes postmodernism as a small consolation. In light of this thirst, one can understand a literary and publishing phenomenon like the success enjoyed by Zeruya Shalev. The rejected, dubious daily reality (because, as everyone knows, there is no “reality”), a man and a woman, words (and here is something truly wonderful: the words clearly refer to something, without any irony and without any citations!), a love relationship, a stable narrative, an unstable conjugal relationship and sex, bread and butter.
After we almost believed that, with a very sharp machete sword, we could hack a path for ourselves through the jungle of masking representations, a path back to “reality.” After we had already become convinced that “Everything has been said,” etc. And now ... you find yourself reading something that really makes you want to keep reading, something relevant, not something that is cheap and tawdry, something that is turbulent, something that is just what you have been looking for. Perhaps not a “classical work” but something that is really worth reading. I am talking about literature, of course.
Incidentally, perhaps what really gave birth to postmodernist writing was not a deep philosophical-epistemological confusion, was not a crisis of post-ideological western society, was not the multitude of representations, etc., etc. At least, it was not just these things. Perhaps what gave birth to this genre was a simple case of distress over content. A simple, particularistic, “professional” case of distress. The ancient, really ancient, desire of authors to “alienate.” After all, everything has already been written about the world, so let us start writing about all that has been written.
And when the thirst returns to the real world, what will we do then? What we will do? After all, everything has already been written about the world. After all, everything has already been said! After all, after all.... Then along comes Zeruya Shalev and proves that it can be done. In fact, it is so obvious that it can be done. Just as Friedrich Nietzsche has already said in “On the Uses and Disadvantages of History for Life,” let us write so that we can forget. The multitude of representations is not really such a serious problem. It is, in fact, a problem that looks good primarily “on paper.” In order to live, in order to experience everything with a freshness of spirit, one must forget; in fact, in order to write, one must forget. Even in order to read, one must forget. And, in order to encounter things again, one must forget. And it is possible to forget.
Is it not amazing that literature, which generally is able to sniff out, at a very early stage, which way the wind is blowing, has fallen far behind Israeli cinema, which, from the early 1990s began to understand that its function is to represent, to tell a “simple tale,” to excite the emotions (“Holeh ahava mishikun gimel” [Lovesick On Nana Street], “Sh'Chur” [Sh'Chur],” “Mar Baum” [Mr. Baum], Hahesder [Hahesder],” “Hatuna me'uheret” [Late Marriage])?
In contrast, in postmodernist literature, even in its most brilliant discoveries (Orli Castel-Bloom and Orli Castel-Bloom) and certainly in its vulgar discoveries (after all, the demarcation lines are blurred between “high-brow” and “low-brow” literature. The blend of styles and intertexualities can easily become an asylum for charlatans and untalented writers – after all, the distance between the representation of a chaotic mixture and the chaotic mixture itself is so small), it was not enough to just satisfy a certain kind of reader, a certain kind of mood among people, a mood that is as tough as couch grass and which refuses to vanish (and here's a prophecy: It will never vanish).
It is not at all surprising. I take back my words. The “wave” of rigorous postmodernism that has “swept” these shores was actually no more than an avant-gardist trickle that failed. Although it did justifiably arouse a certain primeval anxiety, it was never more than a bit of ocean spray. Even major phenomena such as the short stories of Etgar Keret, which can be described as postmodernist only because of the deliberately slowed-down pulse beating in all of them, in the tiny narratives that were nonetheless brilliant, in the emptied-out reality that is reflected in them, are at a crossroads, perhaps because their literary and historical role is about to end.
Because it is not just the simple narrative that is returning. Perhaps, or so it seems, it is the super-narrative – with the return of history (9/11, right?), the return of the need for a clear, well-organized narrative (the last book by Oz, which is also the best he has ever written).
And it is not just “reality” that is returning. It is also the need for a sharp realism, for a neo-neo-realism, in a world, where, my friends, it is not history that repeats itself, but also the economy.
Much has already been written about postmodernism's collaboration with late capitalism. However, the collapse of the “public sphere” that postmodernist critics talk about is not relevant merely as a useless dirge; it can present an outline for a genre option worthy of literature in the future.
Because, according to Isaiah Berlin's famous thesis, the reason why discussions and passages that are essentially political and philosophical and not necessarily “pure” art, were pushed into classical Russian literature was the existence of both the Romanov autocracy and Czarist censorship, which was bent on preventing such discussions from developing in separate channels. Similarly, today the “natural censorship” imposed by the race for viewer ratings and the tyranny of capitalistic force fields are preventing authentic reporting from reaching the public sphere. And, in contrast, François Truffaut's “The Woman Next Door” (“La femme d'à côté”), who says in the film that she likes to listen to songs with simple lyrics because they “tell the truth,” the blurred distinction between “low-brow” and “high-brow” art and the abandonment of art to considerations of viewer ratings are preventing the truth of reality from reaching the consumer public.
In effect, the need for a “public sphere” and for truthful reporting of reality has become, in my eyes, a program and a mission that are worthy enough for current and future writers, at least for those among them who need such a mission. And who need a genre like realism (or, to be more precise, neo-neo-non-naive realism).
As everyone knows, it was impossible to oppose psychoanalysis in its heyday. Any opposition at that time was perceived by the psychoanalysts as “opposition” with a capital O and any expression of doubt was perceived as “denial.” Postmodernism has a similar weapon. Any deviation from it in the direction of earlier ways of representation is “retro.”
However, apparently the return of guitar rock or neorock in recent years cannot simply be dismissed as “retro,” but must instead be considered as a genuine thirst for people with guitars who want “One moment of noise, please,” because they want to say something to other people (after the electronic vacuum). Similarly, the first blossomings of a literary resistance are authentic.
Because postmodernism, which is so sensitive to the Other and the Other's needs, has in recent years become depressive in its electronic formulations as well as in its literary formulations. People who long for Led Zeppelin and The Smiths find themselves, much to their amazement and, at times, horror, in the same boat with those who long for Haim Nahman Bialik and S.Y. Agnon. The desire for tradition and context, a desire that seems so anti-revolutionary, is suddenly pulsing in the veins of the children and grandchildren of the “rebels” (of the 1960s, right?)
Beyond the human need for narrative, for contact with reality, for order, for discipline, for true reporting, for tradition, for vital pathos, for relevant art, there is also the need for hierarchy and this is a need that does not stem from unworthy sources.
The need for a distinction between “high-brow” and “low-brow” art, for the return of the author as a titanic, exceptional figure is not simply a mechanism that is meant to preserve hierarchical structures in society, as we were told repeatedly (ad nauseum, in fact) for so many years.
In the final analysis, this need is of a religious nature. It is a need for “holiness,” for a distinction between the sacred and the profane - even if both these “sacred” and “profane” spheres have been created by human hands.
Thus, the flirtation that some postmodernist schools have engaged in with religion and the belated, joyful discovery of “postmodernism” by those who are termed in Israel the “new religious Jews” are very problematic, to put it mildly.
Because postmodernism is the final, binding conclusion of secularization. The “death of God” is the primary source for the collapse of deep structures. Bonded tightly with space exploration, the “death of God” and the loss of the positive pole of hierarchies constitute a loss of hierarchies. With the death of this positive pole, why are James Joyce's Ulysses and Marcel Proust to be preferred over the Fashion Channel on cable television?
Postmodernist literature must take a stand on this issue. Is a return to “depth” possible without a return to God? Is not the existence of a deep structure, like a tower reaching for the heavens but willing to relinquish the aspiration to actually touch heaven, doomed to collapse a second time? Can we work on our emotional need for our bodies without pondering what is the source of that need? Can we ignore the metaphysical ramifications of this passion for non-postmodernist literature and just produce and read it? Can we be inconsistent and nonjudgmental without using labels such as “religiosity” and “retro”? Can thinking people stop at a given point, arbitrarily, without analyzing the implications of their artistic choices?
In my opinion, the answer to all the above questions is Yes.
Arik Glasner is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Hebrew Literature in Tel Aviv University