Should We Read Post-modernism?

In my last two blog posts, I’ve aimed a bit higher than my normal fare. Usually on my blog, I like to stick to small claims, like “Mortal Engines is underrated” or “Here’s the personal application I took from overanalyzing the first twenty minutes of the original Mary Poppins” (one of my better posts, I think). I normally avoid giant claims because, for one, I don’t go in for controversy. Additionally, I don’t think a blog post is the best place for me to address gigantic claims: not enough space to do them justice.

But for the last two weeks, I have undertaken a defense of the entire discipline of English Literature: why I think it’s necessary for the health and well-being of society. So many of the problems I scroll through online each day, I think, could be substantially helped if more people took literature more seriously—which is to say, if people took the past more seriously, which is exactly what a good English education should train us to do.

After my last post, my long-time friend and fellow English major sent me this PM with a question the last two posts might raise:

Really enjoyed your two parter about English teachers/Literature! Quite funny and entertaining, and I vehemently agreed with so much of it. I am curious, given your thesis, what you do make of modern/postmodern authors who actively challenge that idea of One Truth. Is there some literature that has no merit and should not be taught? Are Steinbeck, Vonnegut, Tolstoy, and so many others not deserving of a place on the curriculum because they are explicit in rejecting a Truth, and allow humans to wallow in their imperfect self-doubt? Are they cautionary tales? Would love to see a blog post one day…

I replied, saying that (per usual) my thoughts had taken essay form and would indeed make a fine blog post, one of my last before I disappear into NaNoWriMo land again this November.

In a way, because I think the core of this question could be rephrased, “Does your view of treasure-hunting for truth in English literature allow for reading those who disagree with you about what truth is?” And if you think about it in those terms, my answer is emphatically, YES. Otherwise, I’d have to renege on my last two posts!

My same thesis still applies: different eras emphasize or dangerously de-emphasize certain parts of the whole truth. For example, I would say overall that many of the authors I love and gravitate toward emphasize the human potential for nobility while allowing me to gloss over the evil in all of us. Moderns and postmoderns, however, face that capacity for evil full-on, unapologetically. Both the potential for nobility and the fact that we often completely squander it are part of a robust view of human nature.

Here are some things I’ve personally gained from reading these authors who disagree with me about the nature of truth:

Observation-Interpretation-Solution. Carolyn McCulley shares an extremely helpful paradigm for engaging with alternate viewpoints in her book Radical Womanhood. Every worldview or -ism, she claims, can be broken down into three parts: Observation (what’s wrong), Interpretation (why is this wrong thing happening), and Solution.

For example, I may agree with actor Jack Reynor that objectification of women is a problem. His interpretation (taking what he said at face value) is that men are the reason this objectification has happened, and thus his solution in Midsommar was that it should be men’s turn to be objectified, to get a taste of their own medicine. My interpretation is that sin is the problem, which means that even women getting full revenge, completely reversing the power structure, will only perpetuate the ultimate problem. BUT, we agree on the observation.

This is a useful paradigm for addressing almost anything, including modernism and postmodernism. One thing I’ve often told my students about modernist authors is that these people understand how messed up the world is. The rest of us are tempted to gloss over it, say it’s not that bad, and numb out the pain by switching from the news to Netflix. But modernists look steadily at the results of us taming and then rejecting God: there’s nothing to hope in! There’s no one watching out for us! Their bleakness is palpable, and it is good for us to face the full implications of what we’ve chosen.

In other words, though I may disagree with modernists on their Interpretation and Solution, I fully see the justice of their Observations. Likewise, I disagree with Henry David Thoreau on his Interpretation and Solution, but I emphatically agree with his Observation that “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.” I disagree with many writers and thinkers on many Interpretations and Solutions, but I can still benefit from clear-sighted Observations.

How We Got Here. I may not agree with postmodernism, but I do know it is informing debate in the public sphere today. (I mentioned a personal debate with the mindset last week.) Whether we’re aware of it or not, it’s all around us: on social media, in films we watch, and in the more recent books we read.

So to understand where we are as a society, and just how much postmodernism has infiltrated discourse, it helps me to know exactly what it is. One way I can do that is to engage with one of its purer forms: its literature. To recognize it and understand its assumptions clears up a lot of potential confusion about why people say what they say. This goes back to one of my points from the first post—namely, that literature trains us to identify the worldviews being fed to us.

(This is the same reason I don’t necessarily think books should be banned out the gate for racist sentiments: the racism of earlier times is still affecting us today, and reading where we came from gives us more understanding of our current ground.)

“But I Really Disagree.” So much of our discourse now is listening to people on “our side” define the “other side” for us. True understanding of one another is never reached, because we’re not really listening to one another, taking each other’s arguments seriously.

So if you disagree with postmodernism (as I do), then I’m not saying you must read it for pleasure out of duty to the human race. But I do think that, by and large, I need to understand what I’m disagreeing with by listening to the actual proponents of that worldview make their case.  For example, I, as a pro-life person, would like people to listen to what I actually say rather than to what Planned Parenthood says I say. But if I want to be treated that way, I need to treat others that way, too. (This also goes back to my first post, to the point about increasing our empathy.)

To conclude, I thought it would be fun to make a list of some modernist and postmodernist literature I’ve enjoyed. I’ve personally, even spiritually, benefited from reading these Modernist authors. I’ve had fun and learned from the postmoderns, but I can’t claim a personal benefit. There’s a big ol’ Content Warning sticker on each of the following lists:

Modernist authors I’ve personally benefited from: William Faulkner, Ralph Ellison, John Steinbeck, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Joseph Conrad, T. S. Eliot, W. B. Yeats, James Joyce. I’d add Herman Melville, but he was a modernist before modernism was a thing, so he technically doesn’t count.

Postmodern authors I’ve personally learned something from: Kurt Vonnegut, Philip K. Dick, Neal Stephenson, Ralph Ellison at the end of Invisible Man (which is, among other things, a novel starting out modernist and skillfully tracing how it leads to postmodernism in the narrator’s life).

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