From Romantic Movement to Postmodern Style

From Romantic Movement to Postmodern Style



From Romantic Movement to Postmodern Style


A Reflection on Our Fin-de-Siècle Art of Literature

Chung-hsuan Tung



The history of Western literature is a dualistic history.  It begins with two separate traditions: Hellenism and Hebraism.  The spirits or values these two traditions represent seldom blend equally at any supposed period of the history.  The Classical period and the Modernist movement are dominated by Hellenistic qualities whereas the Romantic period and the Postmodern movement are dominated by Hebraic spirits.  In fact, the Postmodern style seems to be the result of pushing the Romantic movement, with its Hebraic/Dionysian tendencies, to an extreme.  Many Postmodern characteristics can be traced back logically to Romantic attributes.  This logical inference can be confirmed through factual evidence.  After considering the seven factors—world, medium, language, author, reader, work, and theme—involved in literature as a means of communication, we cannot but admit that the Romantic spirit of loving freedom, change and difference has really brought about the Postmodern style, the fin-de-siècle trend of worshiping Chaos, of anti-form, anti-art, anti-literature.  But this, we can predict, is likewise only a phase of the changing history.  When the Hellenistic/Apollonian values become dominant again, the golden age of art may return with a new vigor.

Key words and phrases:
Dualism, Hellenism, Hebraism, Apollonian, Dionysian, Romantic movement, Postmodernism, fin-de-siècle

I. A Dualistic History

     The recorded history of Western literature has been generally assumed to begin with two separate traditions: Hellenism and Hebraism.  This assumption is a dualism by nature, as it reduces all possible sources to two elements.  This dualism, furthermore, implies the co-existence of two mutually opposing cultures: the Greek and the Judaic.  Various differences between the two cultures have been pointed out.  The Greek culture is said, for instance, to be secular, aesthetic and hedonistic while the Judaic culture is religious, ethic, and ascetic. But the differences are capable of being reduced to two contrasting terms indicating not only the characteristics of human societies but also the psychic components of human beings.  Matthew Arnold in his Culture and Anarchy, for instance, attributes “spontaneity of consciousness” to Hellenism and “strictness of conscience” to Hebraism (chapters IV & V).

     Reduction entails oversimplification, no doubt.  But it also brings about clarity.  All dualistic thinkers, including Arnold, seek to clarify matters by reducing all structural elements to two ultimate ones.  Thus history is for them but a matter of changing the dominant, to use a later Russian Formalist idea, between the competing two.  The nineteenth-century England, for instance, was for Arnold dominated by the strict moral code of Hebraism.  Hence his call for more Hellenism.

     Hellenism is sometimes equated to Classicism.  Therefore, one can thus talk of Western history:

        The reintroduction of Classical learning through the Moslem
conquests in Spain is a partial explanation of the ensuing Renaissance
when Classicism seemed to be dominant.  The Reformation is
explainable as a resurgence of Hebraic religious feeling.  The
Neo-Classic Age and the following period of the Enlightenment
were inspired by Classical models, but the theories of the
Romantic Movement and of many of the nineteenth century German
philosophers emphasize the intuitive approach to knowledge upon
which Hebraism was built. (Horton & Hopper 4)

The quotation above embeds, in fact, another popular set of dualistic terms: Classicism vs. Romanticism.  Here Romanticism is obviously linked to Hebraism while Classicism is associated with Hellenism.  But, as we know, the Classic/Romantic dualism is popular only after the so-called Romantic Movement.


II. The Classic/Romantic Contrast

     Western historians often regard the Romantic Movement as a reaction to Neoclassicism, and set the period of its triumph within the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.  But to replace the old binary opposition (Hellenism/Hebraism) with the new one (Classicism/Romanticism) is to further complicate the dualistic contrasts.  Now it suggests not simply the contrasts between secularity and religiosity, aesthetics and ethics, or hedonism and asceticism.  It also suggests many other contrasts, and some of the contrasts may not accord with the discriminations that go with the dichotomy of Hellenism vs. Hebraism.

     One scholar, for instance, lists ten contrasting items between Romanticism and Classicism as follows:

        ROMANTICISM           versus          CLASSICISM

       1. emotional appeal         instead of        appeal to reason
2. the subjective point                       the objective point
of view                 instead of        of view
3. an individual                            a normal and typical
approach                instead of       approach
4. dissatisfaction                           suspicion and horror
with the known           instead of       of the unconventional
and unknown
5. experimentation                         clear and ordered ex-
with musicality and        instead of       pression and form, a
color in expression                       belief in beauty of
measured precision
6. emphasis on feelings                     emphasis on content
and emotional            instead of       and idea
7. emphasis on the                         emphasis on the
immeasurable and         instead of       measurable and the
undetermined                           determined
8. importance of par-                       importance of uni-
ticular and indivi-         instead of       versal thoughts
dual thought                            and ideas

       9. love of external                          love of man’s accom-
nature in its wild          instead of       plishments in taming
and primitive state                       and controlling the
wild and rebellious
in nature
10. rejection of tradi-                         acceptance of tradition
tion (except from           instead of      (of earlier classical
earlier romantic                          periods--particularly
periods—in parti-                        those of ancient Greek
cular primitive folk                       and Roman cultures)
cultures, Renaissance
developments or
idealized historical

Then he adds: “this list of contrasting qualities might be continued indefinitely, but a list of any length would show the same general desire of the romantic to escape from reality which seems to oppress his aesthetic expression, and to experiment with an ideal more satisfying to the individual, and the contrasting fear of the classic to depart from known and tried norms of form and theme established by settled and prosperous aristocratic groups” (Smith 40).

     Indeed, we can gather from numerous literary dictionaries, handbooks, encyclopedias, etc., enough definitions, explanations, and commentaries to explicate the Classic/Romantic dichotomy and can be justified in further asserting that Neoclassicism stresses the general, the urbane, the sensual, the keen and sober while Romanticism stresses the particular, the rustic, the visionary, the dreamy and frenzied; that while Neoclassicism values sense, wit, intellect, decorum, restraint, laws, civilization, tight close form, etc., Romanticism values feeling, imagination, inspiration, sincerity, freedom, caprices, primitivism, loose open form, etc.; that whereas Neoclassicism is head, bright, Apollonian, mimetic, mechanic, static, satiric, and commentary, Romanticism is heart, melancholy, Dionysian, expressive, organic, dynamic, lyric, and prophetic; and finally even that the one is an artificer, a mirror, and a believer in stability and the sinful nature of man while the other is a creator, a lamp, and a believer in mutability and the natural goodness of man.

     Yet, as a movement against Neoclassicism, Romanticism has now accumulated so many attributes that it becomes impractical to define it as a critical term.1  Thus, A. O. Lovejoy suggests that the term Romanticism has come to mean nothing at all since it means so many things while Water Raleigh and Arthur Quiller-Couch suggest abandoning the terms “romantic” and “classic” altogether.


III. The Modernist /Postmodernist Dichotomy

     After the Romantic Period, Western literature is said to enter the period of Realism and Naturalism.  But the slogans “Realism” and “Naturalism” indicate mainly a new methodology of treating art materials.  Aiming at a truthful representation of contemporary life and manners, Realism or Naturalism is observational and objective in method, thus more affiliated to Classicism than to Romanticism.  Indeed, “truth, contemporaneity, and objectivity were the obvious counterparts of romantic imagination, of romantic historicism and its glorification of the past, and of romantic subjectivity, the exaltation of the ego and the individual” (Mack, et. al., 878).  However, the contrast between Romanticism and Realism/Naturalism is not so keenly felt and widely discussed as that between Classicism and Romanticism.

     After Realism/Naturalism, Western literature is sometimes said to turn to Symbolism, which is in a way a Romantic revival, as it emphasizes again the power of vision or imagination in its effort to use an image or a cluster of images to suggest (“symbolize”) another plane of reality (“the essence of things”) that cannot be expressed in more direct and rational terms.  Yet, the contrast between Symbolism and Realism/Naturalism is also not so widely discussed as that between Classicism and Romanticism.  In fact, Symbolism is sometimes regarded as a trend liable to be merged into the so-called Modernism.

      “Modernism” is the usual term for the change in attitudes and artistic strategy occurring at the beginning of the twentieth century.  “Modernism is an attempt to construct a new view of the world and of human nature through the self-conscious manipulation of form” (Mack 1383).  In its broadest sense, Modernism embraces a great number of movements.2  Taken more narrowly, however, Modernism refers to “ a group of Anglo-American writers (many associated with the Imagists, 1908-1917) who favored clear, precise images and ‘common speech’ and thought of the work as an art object produced by consummate craft rather than as a statement of emotion” (Mack 1383).  Therefore, Modernism seems to be closer to Classicism than to Romanticism in essence.

     But the trouble is: as Modernism continues to develop, it takes in so wide a variety of trends that people begin to find it inadequate to talk of “varieties of Modernism.”  In actuality people has found it incumbent on them to discriminate the Postmodernist from the Modernist.  In recent years, as we know, many critics have engaged themselves in the hot dispute on whether Postmodernism is a continuity of or a break with Modernism.  But before the problem is settled, the Modernist/Postmodernist contrast is already keenly felt and widely discussed.

     In his The Dismemberment of Orpheus, Ihab Hassan gives us a table showing the “schematic differences” between Modernism and Postmodernism, thus:

Modernism                  Postmodernism
Romanticism/Symbolism            Pataphysics/Dadaism
Form (conjunctive, closed)           Anti-form (disjunctive, open)
Purpose                             Play
Design                              Chance
Hierarchy                            Anarchy
Mastery/Logos                     Exhaustion/Silence
Art Object/Finished Work       Process/Performance/Happening
Distance                          Participation
Creation/Totalization            Decreation/Deconstruction
Synthesis                            Antithesis
Presence                            Absence
Centering                            Dispersal
Genre/Boundary                      Text/Intertext
Semantics                            Rhetoric
Paradigm                             Syntagm
Hypotaxis                            Parataxis
Metaphor                            Metonymy
Selection                             Combination
Root/Depth                          Rhizome/Surface
Interpretation/Reading           Against Interpretation/Misreading
Signified                             Signifier
Lisible (Readerly)                     Scriptible (Writerly)
Narrative/Grande Histoire         Anti-narrative/Petite Histoire
Master Code                           Idiolect
Symptom                             Desire
Type                               Mutant
Genital/Phallic                 Polymorphous/Androgynous
Paranoia                          Schizophrenia
Origin/Cause                 Difference-Différance/Trace
God the Father                     The Holy Ghost
Metaphysics                          Irony
Determinacy                          Indeterminacy
Transcendence                        Immanence
This table tells us that the Modernist/Postmodernist dichotomy is even more complicated than the Classic/Romantic dichotomy, although Hassan’s further explanations try to convince us that all the schematic differences can be reduced to the last two listed items: the contrast of determinacy vs. indeterminacy and that of transcendence vs. immanence.

     Hassan admits that the dichotomies his table represents “remain insecure, equivocal” (269).  For me the first item in his table is already very puzzling.  Why should he let Romanticism/Symbolism be incorporated into Modernism?  And why should he think of Romanticism/Symbolism as the counterpart of Pataphysics/Dadaism?  But I am not here to puzzle over Hassan’s schematic table.  My business is to argue that the Modernist/Postmodernist dichotomy is essentially related to the Classic/Romantic contrast, which in turn is derived from the Hellenistic/Hebraic dualism.


IV. From Romantic Movement to Postmodern Style

     Hassan once said: “Orpheus, that supreme maker, was the victim of an inexorable clash between the Dionysian principle, represented by the Maenads, and the Apollonian ideal which he, as poet, venerated.  Orpheus is dismembered; but his head continues to sing, and where his limbs are buried by the Muses, the nightingales warble sweeter than anywhere else in the world.  The myth of Orpheus may be a parable of the artist at certain times.  The powers of Dionysos, which civilization must repress, threaten at these times to erupt with a vengeance.  In the process energy may overwhelm order; language may turn into a howl, a cackle, a terrible silence; form may be mangled as ruthlessly as the poor body of Orpheus was ” (The Postmodern Turn, 13).  These statements prove that Hassan is also a dualistic thinker.  His Apollonian/Dionysian clash reminds us naturally of Nietzsche’s distinction between the Apollonian (the rational form and repose) and the Dionysiac (the irrational energy and ecstasy).  This clash, moreover, can be connected with Freud’s division of the conscious/unconscious human psyche, as it talks of the repression of civilization and the process of energy overwhelming order.  But it is likewise justifiable to associate this clash with the Hellenistic/Hebraic dualism and the Classic/Romantic contrast as it is basically a clash between the aesthetic/hedonistic and the ethic/ascetic tendencies; and between the cult of reason /sense/ rationality and the cult of instinct/feeling/sentimentality.

     In truth, Hassan’s Apollonian/Dionysian clash also typifies the Modernist/Postmodernist conflict.  In Hassan’s mind, the Postmodern times are those when Orpheus is dismembered, form is mangled, and language turns into a howl, a cackle, a terrible silence, or those when Dionysos triumphs over Apollo.  So they are akin to the Romantic period when emotional appeal predominates over the Classical appeal to reason or intellect.  For me, in fact, the Postmodern style is no other than the result of pushing the Romantic Movement to its extreme.  This postulate of mine can be verified through logical thinking and factual studies.

     Our logical thinking can be plied on the spiritual shifts from Romanticism to Postmodernism.  First, we all assume that love of freedom is a Romantic spirit.  This spirit makes all Romantic heroes hate any restraint and seem rebellious at times.  Now, we may ask: if one exercises one’s freedom to an extreme, what is the result?  Will freedom become waywardness?  Indeed, the negating or subverting waywardness we find in the Postmodern style can be looked upon as the consequence of seeking extreme freedom.

     Second, we all know Romanticism values spontaneity.  Romantic artists wish to refrain from artifice.  They hope poetry can come to them “as naturally as the leaves to a tree.”4  Now, what is the result of total spontaneity, of sheer natural impulse?  Isn’t it the same as the preclusion of any definite aim, reason or pattern, the same as simply letting things occur; the same as, in another word, letting randomness prevail--an apparent characteristic of Postmodern art?

     Third, how about the Romantic emotionality?  If one completely lets loose one’s temper or emotions, will not one bring about perversity or absurdity, another apparent characteristic of the Postmodern style?

     Fourth, we may think of Romantics’ focus on change.  What will be one’s world view if one comes to recognize the truth that “Naught may endure but Mutability”?5 Will it not approximate the Postmodernists’ doctrine of indeterminacy?

     Fifth, if we turn to Romantics’ individualism, we will find it makes their works highly autobiographical, confessional, and subjective.  In effect, their subjectivity often tinges their worlds so much so that it seems their mind has the capacity “to generate itself in the world, to act upon both self and world, and so become more and more, im-mediately, its own environment” (Bertens 29)6--that is, their mind seems to have reached the Postmodern state of “immanence.”

     Sixth, the democratic spirit of Romanticism naturally leads to the preference for rusticity and the commonplace.  This preference, then, helps to level all artistic genres, making all hierarchical thinkings impossible and establishing the pop culture with its decenteredness, its emphasis on the marginal and the under-privileged, and its aim at mere popularity, which the Postmodern age typifies.

     Seventh, we know Romantics tend to rely on their imagination or vision for their creative power.  Now, let us imagine what may happen if one is entirely preoccupied with one’s imaginings or visions?  Will not one probably be living in a dreamy, unreal, even nightmarish world, a world fraught with nonreferential, Postmodern images?

     Eighth, we know Romantics have a predilection for the loose, open form.  Now, what form is the most loose and open?  Isn’t it a form without any shapes or bounds, an amorphous, boundless anti-form which some Postmodern works often assume?

     Ninth, Romanticism extols originality.  But can anybody or anything be truly original if to be so is to be entirely different from anybody or anything else, to be derived from nobody or nothing, and to have no trace at all of ever imitating anybody or anything?  A truly insightful Romantic, in seeking originality, will soon find that no originality is ever possible.  He will even come to the desperate conclusion that we are all too belated, we can no longer be the fountainhead, we can only imitate, revise, or parody--an understanding typical of the Postmodern mentality.

     Tenth, it is found that Romanticism prefers complexity while Classicism prefers simplicity.  What, then, is the most complex?  Isn’t it something that is polysemous, polyphonic, polylectic, multivalent, and multifarious--in short, something that can betray the Postmodern quality of plurality or heterogeneity?

     Eleventh, Romantics are idealistic.  But where is the ideal love, ideal beauty or ideal state?  If one is extremely idealistic, one will find that everything is a deceiving elf like Keats’s nightingale, and that no ideal is ever accessible.  Therefore, an idealistic Romantic will soon become a nihilist, a Postmodern hero deconstructive in thought and action.

     From the eleven points mentioned above, we can see that the Romantic Movement can logically lead to the Postmodern style, indeed.  But this logical relationship needs to be strengthened by factual evidence.  What follows, then, is a series of factual considerations based on the six factors of communication Roman Jakobson has pointed out.7


V. The Fin-de-Siècle Reflection

The World

     The world today is, of course, not the antique world when Greek and Roman mythologies prevailed, nor is it the medieval world when Christian religion throve on the feudal system of life.  Ever since the Renaissance, historians tell us, the world has entered the modern times.  But the modern world has been becoming more and more modern period by period.  If the Romantic spirit is to appreciate change, what changes has the spirit brought on our modern world today?  To begin with, the world, as we know, has many more nations than it used to have.  More nations with more people plus the domination of democratic ideologies have made our world highly individualistic.  Each nation as well as every individual is constantly claiming its own right.  Romantic individualism has reached its apogee indeed, for all the efforts
of the United Nations to make our common wealth as well as common peace.

     Economically, we have indeed entered what Fredric Jameson calls the late capitalist, consumer society.  In this society, the boundaries between high culture and mass or popular culture are effaced, as products of all kinds are poured out to cater to all appetites.  The Romantic ideal of equality has manifested itself in the much greater opportunities for the consumers to choose among the great plenitude of objects.

     The diversity of merchandise is coupled with the diversity of knowledge.  Today, all sciences and technologies have developed to such an extent that every small subject of study requires a specialist or expert.  This tendency naturally makes a great multitude of individual authorities.  But these individual authorities cannot help feeling solitude as Romantics do, since their expertise will of necessity limit their community to a small coterie of their peers.

     The great number of experts as individual authorities is echoed in the great number of religious sects.  Today, the world witnesses the booming of any marketable things, including branches of faith.  Christians, Buddhists, Muslims, and what not have all sects of adherents.  Clergymen are as variegated as laymen.

     Indeed, even infidels have wide varieties.  They do not believe in any formal religion.  But they believe in all sorts of doctrines, academic or not.  As a result, our world today is really full of -isms and -ists in all fields of knowledge.  All the -ists are theorists.  And all theorists are idealists like Romantics.

     What, then, has become of the world with so many different believers producing so many different objects for so many different states of people?  One big problem is the environmental one.  As natural resources are dwindling under the exploitation and destruction of mankind, we are suddenly brought to an awareness that we need not only industrial revolution but also green revolution.  This revolutionary idea has turned us into Romantics, who love nature and wish for our return to nature.  Consequently, “the countryside has been partially pulled in to the cityscape…The distinctions between city and country are now, perhaps more than ever, dissolved” (Donnelly 43-44).

     But have we really become natural men again?  Our Postmodern return to nature is in fact often a vicarious return.  We “plant” plastic flowers instead of real flowers.  We “raise” electronic chicks instead of real chicks.  Our many farms are for sports rather than for farming.  We shoot and hunt on screens or in imitation forests.  We fish in man-made ponds rather than in natural rivers or lakes.  As technology promises to make everything possible, our Romantic primitivism is aided by all kinds of substitutes.  The Romantic ideal of having communion between man and nature is “fulfilled” in this Postmodern Age by the blending of natural and artificial ingredients.  At the end of this century, we are told, “we are all cyborgs now.”8  The cyborg, as we know, is a hybrid blend of organism and machine.

     The hybrid blend of organism and machine certainly needs high technology.  But in this hi-tec world, hybrid blending is a very common phenomenon.  As we see, male and female can blend in appearances, manners, ways of dressing or thinking, walks of life, etc.  Class distinctions are disappearing, and so are racial discriminations.  People of different classes and races have mixed together at work or at play.  Marriage is possible between any two.  All styles of arts, all habits of living, all customs of life, all features of culture, as well as all disciplines of study are trying every minute to blend and merge.  The Classical ideal of purity has waned.  The Romantic ideal of promiscuity has waxed, in this Postmodern world.

     Blending is more often a way to produce a new species, than a way to enlarge an old body.  When new species of all things keep coming into this world, can the old body hold its ground?  Impossible.  Jean-François Lyotard has told us that in the Postmodern condition, all past “metanarratives” (grands recits) have lost their credibility.  Indeed, Postmodern Romantics can find no authority (or “legitimation”) in any old body, be it a body of things or a body of ideas.

     Where do Postmodern Romantics attach their values, then?  In the unreal.  Jean Baudrillard has told us that we are living in an epoch of “simulation,” where reality is gone for good.  As communication technologies improve, our world is proliferated with media images.  We recognize not a man, but the image of that man; not a company, a product, etc., but the image of that company, that product, etc. Romantics like to imagine.  Postmodern Romantics are provided with imaginings and led to believe such as true.  What a world is ours!

  • The Medium

     In his The Death of Literature, Alvin Kernan tells us convincingly that we are now “in the midst of a transition from a print to an electronic culture” (127).  Furthermore, he agrees with McLuhan that the medium is the message, that each of the major historical information technologies--oral, written, printed, and electronic--has modified perception and posited a different kind of “truth.”

Oral societies seek wisdom, manuscript and print societies knowledge
and information, and, now, electronics manipulate bytes to produce
data.  The Greek world was transformed--philosophy for poetry,
Plato for Homer--in the fifth century B. C. by the appearance of
writing in an oral society, and the Western world was transformed
again by the appearance of print in the mid-fifteenth century.  And
in the late twentieth century print culture is giving way to an
electronic culture that stores and transmits information by means
of such electric devices as the telegraph, telephone, radio, television,
and computer. (128)

In a book culture, Kernan explains, print “helped to shape the dominant modern character type, inward, alienated, puzzled, Hamlet or Ivan Karamozov” (132).  Print also made philosophy concern itself “almost exclusively with the epistemological issues that became of first importance when the reading situation became the standard setting of understanding” (132).  It was in such a culture that literature throve lavishly.  All canonical works, some originally oral or manuscript, were printed, and readers were made to experience reality on the printed pages.  But now “economics as well as chemistry seems to be favoring the electronic future over the printed past” (136).  Perhaps Huxley is not correct in predicting the absence of books for our future in Brave New World.  But truly the older books are disintegrating on the library shelves.  What come in alarming quantity are actually new forms of computer printouts and desktop publishing, microfilm and microfiche, laser disks storing millions of words, computer databases containing masses of information in readable form (138).

     What happens, then, in such an electronic age?  There is, first, the so-called “literacy crisis.”  More and more people are found lacking the skills of reading and writing, and the amount of reading, particularly of books, is steadily diminishing while the amount of watching TV or the computer screen is steadily increasing.

     In the former book culture, people read words on the page; in the present television culture, people watch images on the screen.  What visual images give us are “simple open meanings not complex and hidden, transience not permanence, episodes not structures, theater not truth” (Kernan 151).  TV programs, as we know, are often entertainment consumables, quickly used and soon discarded, unlike printed literary classics which are often serious texts, to be perused for their intricacy of structure, complexity of meaning, etc.

     What is worse, Jean Baudrillard warns, owing to the flooding of media-created images, we have lost the real; we have let the depthless “simulacra” determine the real; and we replace our “real” external world with a world of “hyper-reality,” in which no truth-claims are possible.

  • The Language

     It is well known that Dante wrote a document in Latin prose (De Vulgari Eloquentia) to defend the use of the vernacular Italian instead of the official Latin for literary works.  And his use of the vernacular for his masterpiece, the Divine Comedy, is indeed a success.  In fact, as more and more modern nations with their native tongues came into existence, the problem of whether it is proper or not to use the vernacular for literary works has ceased to exist.

     Dante’s position against the official language can be thought of as a Romantic pose of revolting against authority or aristocracy.  Another similar position is found in the later Romantics’ distrust of poetic diction and in their belief that poetry can be written in “a selection of language really used by men” and that there can be no “essential difference between the language of prose and metrical composition.”9 Today, for all the influence of the Russian Formalists’ concept that literature is a special use of language which achieves its distinctness by deviating from and distorting “practical language,” we know writers are increasingly disregarding the levels or class distinctions of language.  They use any kind of language that can serve their purposes.  And certainly we have many many new languages ready for use, from technical terms to campus slang, from the jargon of the stock market to the cant of gangsters, plus all sorts of pidgins.  Sometimes, writers themselves are creators of specialized literary creoles.  Think of Joyce’s Finnegans Wake.  Think, too, of Lewis Carroll’s nonsense language, E. E. Cumming’s verbal reprocessing, Wallace Steven’s hermetic style, and Nabokov’s Orphic writing, not to mention the language of dada poems or Surrealist poetry.

Facing the new Babel, it is observed, some writers have responded by saying less and less.  “Increasing amounts of silence and a minimization of words were for Hemingway, Beckett, Kafka, William Carlos Williams, Pinter, Larkin, and many others the only honest speech still available, and they deliberately reduced the language of literature to the barest and plainest terms, distrusting larger and grander statements as empty and likely to break down in the face of actuality” (Kernan 162).  Meanwhile, most educated people begin to protest against the jargon of blight and bloat that floods the media and accuse fools of coining words without any concern for truth or logic or decency.  Although this new Babel “purposely tries to sound like the down-to-earth words of the folks,” the language is freely made by “modern language engineers, the public relations flacks, entertainers, media specialists, television personalities, advertising hypesters, bureaucrats, celebrity manufacturers and marketers, politicians and their image makers, technocrats, and singers of popular songs” (Kernan 170).  Such a language is intended to be seen and heard rather than read through such modern inventions as TV and VCRs, video disks and cassettes, and its purpose is “political in the sense of providing people with what they want, technological in the utilization of new methods of communication and information storage, economic in the sense of big payoffs for the ability to shape attitudes with words” (Kernan 172).

     The serious use of language for political or economic purposes is much influenced in our age by Foucault’s idea that power is gained through discourse: there are no absolutely “true” discourses, only more or less powerful ones.  Today’s writers, creative or critical, familiar or unfamiliar with Foucault, are using their languages like politicians or merchants to gain power, to gain profits.  For them literary language is no different from business language.

     On the other hand, however, there are writers who are influenced by the poststructuralist thought (especially the Derridean thought) that language is but a process of “différance,” of using one sign for another, achieving at best a sort of supplementarity (addition-substitution), never a guarantee of “presence.”  For such writers (e.g., Borges) writing is a game: it plays with linguistic signs much like a musician playing with musical notes or a chess-player playing with chessmen.  For them language is nonreferential.  Therefore, they can employ language for language sake.

  • The Author

     The author’s fate has not often been a happy one in the West.  Since Plato there have been detractors of the author, who is variously called “the artist,” “the writer,” “the poet,” “the playwright,” “the novelist,” “the essayist,” or any other name pertaining to a specific genre of literature.  However, the author has sometimes enjoyed a high status.  In the Romantic Period, for instance, the poet is considered to be “the author to others of the highest wisdom, pleasure, virtue and glory, so he ought personally to be the happiest, the best, the wisest, and the most illustrious of men.”10

     The author’s status or function has indeed changed with times.  In his The Wake of Imagination Richard Kearney argues very plausibly that the premodern cultures of Jerusalem and Athens tended to construe the author primarily as a craftsman who, at best, models his activity on the “original” activity of a Divine Creator.  The modern movements of Renaissance, Romantic and Existentialist humanism, then, substituted the original inventor for the mimetic craftsman.  But this figure is himself replaced in the Postmodern time by a bricoleur, a “player” in a game of signs or an “operator” in an electronic media network.  In an essay I have also contended that the author has never “died.”  He or she only undergoes “transformation” all the time.  In our age, when computers have become our daily necessity, the author may no longer be a “writer” writing on book pages, but a “programmer” handling some kind of “software.”11

     The fact that the author’s status shifts constantly does not annul our impression that as our media of communication keep improving, the author seems to grow in number and variety.  Today, amateur as well as professional writers of all kinds are found everywhere.  Famous authors are no longer restricted to the male sex, nor to  the powerful nations, nor to the major languages, nor to the higher social class, nor to the governing race, nor to any particular region, age, genre, style, etc.  Authorship in this Postmodern time is certainly as diversified as personality.

  • The Reader

     Undoubtedly, the reading public has also grown in number and variety as history develops.  In the ancient days when literature existed only in oral form, in the mouth of the scop for instance, there were of course practically no readers.  In those days there were only hearers or listeners of literature, and the audience were in fact limited to a lucky few who belonged to the nobility.

     Later, when literature appeared in manuscript form, the world began to have readers.  But the readership was likewise limited to a few privileged noblemen who were able to read and had access to the few current manuscripts.  It was only after the invention of the printing machine that the reading public could grow to an enormous size.  Think of Blake and his engraved writings.  How many people could have the opportunity to read his prophetic books?  Then think of Dickens and his novels.  How many more people could have the opportunity to read them?  As more and more books were printed and became available to ordinary people, more and more men, and women too, were educated and became readers of literature.  Today, as cheap printed materials are flooding, the readership has naturally reached its biggest size.

     A greater number of readers allows a greater variety.  Who are readers nowadays?  They are surely not confined to a certain class, nor to a certain gender, nor to a certain race.  In this highly industrialized world people of all walks of life, of all ages, and of all regions can be readers.  In fact, the readers have become so diversified that their different tastes have to be considered.  “Just as a cohesive, homogeneous reading public fragments into a series of reading publics, ‘artistic expression’ fragments into a network of competing discourses” (Collins 4).  In this consumers’ society, a literary masterpiece cannot hope to appeal to everybody; it can only hope to cater to a majority of readers.

     Readers are indeed of various types.  One particular type, however, deserves our special attention.  That is the critic.  It is said that with a few earlier exceptions, criticism became a standard literary genre only in the eighteenth century, when print made letters into a business (Kernan 64).  After its formalization as a standard literary mode, “the critical impulse was used for a host of mundane tasks, such as advertising and reviewing the new books pouring from the press, improving the taste of the now common readers, and providing expert judgments about literary questions” (Kernan 65).  Thus, the status of the critic has not been high in literary history.  Compared with the author, especially the creative genius called the poet, the critic seems to be merely a menial servant of literature.

     This situation has somewhat changed, however.  Since literature entered the university curriculum and criticism became a big industry in the late nineteenth century, the literary scholar and the critic have merged into one person.  The scholar/critic conducts research to publish original contributions to literary knowledge, standing to literature much as a physicist does to nature.  In this highly-technologized world, the social position of critics and criticism has indeed improved enormously by achieving professional status.  There are even literary professors (Geoffrey Hartman, for one) who begin to believe that criticism today is no less creative than contemporary literature.  In truth, a large quantity of creative writing today is presumably brought forth under the influence of critical theories.  Therefore, such writing would be difficult for readers ignorant of the involved theories.  Take Samuel Beckett’s Endgame for example.  If a reader does not know that it is a very “open text” based on the methods of the theater of the absurd to expose existentialist ideas, the reader would find it very difficult to approach.

     Critics may really be literary specialists.  Nevertheless, not all readers today are critics.  In fact, the vast majority of readers are still common readers. Such readers demand but common literature, that is, texts easily available and readable.  So it is not surprising that such difficult authors as Joyce, Faulkner, Beckett, and Robbe-Grillet cannot be popular with the populace while cheap books of science fiction, detective stories, romances, mysteries, as well as pornography can always attract so many readers.

     Serious critics may worry about the reader’s superficial tendency today.  But what can they do about it?  In this world of “hyper-reality,” of images mirroring images rather than truths, how can they expect readers to have “depth”?  In effect, authors have begun to invite readers to join their depthless enterprise on the computer screen.  As authors become programmers designing “hypertexts” on the computer, readers cannot but become watchers and players of the texts.  As they watch and play on, they are creators of games.  In this sense, the reader is “writing” his own text.  With the advent of modern technology, reader and writer are one, after all.

  • The Work

     Different times have different genres of works.  In the West, three basic literary types have come down from classical antiquity: drama, epic, and lyric.  But many more than the three have since become current and popular.  In the Middle Ages, for instance, the chivalric romance was created.  And the novel then came as the later modern version of the long narrative.  Meanwhile, almost all basic genres keep developing into big genres with many sub-genres.  The broad category of the lyric, for instance, has now contained such subgroups as elegy, epithalamion, threnody, dirge, ode, sonnet, ballad, and the short song-like poem also called the lyric.  The kinds of drama, too, have proliferated vastly in the course of time.  Today drama includes not only the ancient types: tragedy and comedy.  It also includes such types as miracle play, mystery play, morality play, chronicle or history play, tragicomedy, masque, problem play, and all sorts of modern or postmodern theaters.  The long narrative poem called the epic has indeed lost its popularity.  But its modern related prose version, namely the novel, has developed to the full.  It now covers a wide variety of types: picaresque novel, epistolary novel, Bildungsroman, Kunstlerroman, psychological novel, sociological novel, proletarian novel, novel of the soil, Gothic novel, philosophical tale or conte, etc.  In fact, we have nowadays used the name “fiction” to cover all the varieties of novels plus such things as fabliau, fable, novelette or novella, detective story, and short story.  Likewise, the name “poetry” is used to refer to the aforementioned lyric types together with epic and such things as epigram, philosophical poem, descriptive nature poem, dramatic monologue, pastoral poem, satiric verse, etc.  Therefore, the three basic modern genres come to be drama, fiction, and poetry instead of drama, epic, and lyric.  But this is not the whole story.  In the course of genre classification, we find we have such special genres as allegory, pastoral, and satire, which can enter almost all other genres to form allegorical romance, pastoral elegy, mock-epic, etc., etc.  And finally, we begin to find it necessary to distinguish fiction from “non-fiction,” the latter comprising also a large group of writings: biography, autobiography, memoir, diary or journal, letters, essay, dialogues, maxims, etc.

     Here we have as yet not mentioned all existing genres, of course.  We have left out some popular genres such as science fiction, mystery, love romance, and pornography, for instance.  But it is enough to show that our world is certainly full of all kinds of literary works.  Literary genres are now as diversified as individual authors or readers.

     Regarding this genre ramification or complication, however, several things are particularly noteworthy.  One is the rise of the formal, critical essay as an important genre for reading.  Today, we must admit, many people have no time to read literary works.  They read, instead, reviews or critical essays.  Common readers, for lack of time or skill in reading, prefer story summaries to stories themselves.  Serious readers—students or scholars of literature--may be obliged to read the text, but they often seek the aid of criticism in their efforts to write reviews, papers, dissertations, or books about literature.  Thus, they seem to be more interested in works about works than in works themselves.

     Another thing worthy of our notice is the rise of hypertext.  This new genre is of course the offspring of our new media—the “hepermedia” which range from “electronic books” and CD-ROM or CDI devices to “personal assistants,” wireless pocket computers connected with telephone and data networks (Joyce 21).  It includes a far higher percentage of nonverbal information than does print.  Besides providing such visual elements as illustrations, maps, diagrams, flow charts, or graphs, it supplies “the cursor, the blinking arrow, line or other graphic element that represents the reader-author’s presence in the text” (Landow 45-46).  It can utilize color and sound effects, too.  This new genre, to be sure, “represents a shift in human consciousness comparable to the shift from orality to print” (Joyce 20).  I dare presume that in the near future, literature is to be divided first into two big genres, i.e., text and hypertext.  Then, we will find that hypertext can take in all the traditional textual genres mentioned above.  That is, we will have hypertextual poetry, drama, fiction, and prose with all their subgroups.

     A third thing we should note here is the rise of cyberpunk.  Cyberpunk is no doubt a barefaced marketing device of science fiction publishers (McHale, Constructing Postmodernism, 243).  But it is “the latest in the succession of phases or ‘waves’ constituting the modern history of the SF genre” (244).  Most cyberpunk motifs have precedents in earlier SF, indeed.  Yet, it is innovative in that it selects certain motifs, foregrounds them, and arranges them so that it “translates or transcodes postmodernist motifs from the level of form (the verbal continuum, narrative strategies) to the level of content or ‘world’” (246).  As Brian McHale has observed, there are three bundles or complexes of motifs which cyberpunk SF shares with mainstream postmodernist fiction: motifs of what might be called “worldness”; motifs of the centrifugal self; and motifs of death, both individual and collective (246-7).  These motifs, as will be touched on below, are designed to raise and explore ontological issues—a thematic tendency of our epoch.

     A fourth thing pertaining to our present generic problem is the idea of generic purity.  We know Classicism values purity of genre (wants a tragedy to contain purely tragic elements, for example), while Romanticism often breaks the rule.  Now, in our Postmodern time when literary genres have grown to a countless number, we find literary works often do not belong purely to certain genres.  A work is more often than not a hybrid.  Thus, we often find it hard to assign a work to a single genre.  For example, Robert Ray finds that Julian Barnes’s Flaubert’s Parrot (1985) is nominally a novel.  Yet, it achieves the effect of both biography and criticism as woven into the narrative are “brief, playful compelling forays into biography and criticism, conducted in a variety of forms” (140).  Other unclassifiable texts Ray has mentioned include Borges’s Labyrinths, Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller, Derrida’s Glas, Barthes’s Roland Barthes and A Lover’s Discourse, Levi-Strauss’s Tristes Tropiques, Godard’s films, Cage’s writings, Syberberg’s Our Hitler, and Lacan’s seminars (142).  For Ray these works “stage at the level of representation the collapse of modernism’s privileged oppositions: avant-garde and mass culture, private and public spheres, theoretical and practical activity” (142).  Indeed, today we can find countless examples to show that works are trying, purposely perhaps, to blur any generic distinction just as we are trying in many ways to eliminate class distinction among people.  And just as people can be mongrels, so can works be hybrids.

     Talking about genres of works, we must finally come to the recognition that in our present age the idea of “work” is giving way to the idea of “text” and that of “discourse.”  In an article I have already pointed out that the ideas of work, text, and discourse respectively stress literature as an illocutionary, locutionary, and perlocutionary act, to use J. L. Austin’s terms.  The three ideas echo three types of criticism: the Romantic-Humanist, the Formalistic-Structuralist, and the Marxist, which are respectively oriented towards the author, the code, and the context.  And the three ideas also correspond to three traditional classes of literary theories: expressive, mimetic, and affective, which are respectively concerned with the origin, reference, and function of literature.12  So, when people prefer to use “text” or “discourse” to talk about literary “work,” we know they are emphasizing textuality (plus intertextuality) and contextuality rather than the creator who finishes the work and gives originality to it.  Under such circumstances, we should not be surprised to find so many “open texts” and “powerful discourses” poured out to explore ontological problems of literature and to exercise political influences on our world.

     But how can ontological texts or political discourses be concretized into literature in our present world?  Our Romantics seem to have despaired of ever becoming originals.  Some people seem to agree with Harold Bloom that since Milton poets have suffered an awareness of their “belatedness”; their poetic fathers have used up all the available inspiration; hence all they can do now is just to misread their masters intentionally and use such “poetic misprision” to bring out revisionary texts.13  But some others would agree with Fredric Jameson that in our late capitalist society where no unique self and no private identity is possible as the old individual or individualist subject is “dead,” pastiche--that is, blank parody, or mimicry of past styles without purpose or irony--is the characteristic mode of writing (“Postmodernism and Consumer Society,” 15-17).  And still many would agree with Linda Hutcheon that parody--be it variously called ironic quotation or pastiche or appropriation or intertextuality--is the postmodern way of representation.  By parody the postmodern artists rummage through the image reserves of the past and utilize the past, not nostalgically but critically, through a double process of installing and ironizing, to signal how present representations come from past ones and what ideological consequences derive from both continuity and difference (Politics, 93).  This is the way Umberto Eco writes his best-seller, The Name of the Rose.14  This is also the way so many other Postmodernists write their intertextual works, including such Russian dramatists as Vampilov, Amalrik, and Aksënov.15

     To parody is to imitate in a way.  And to imitate is to focus on sameness rather than difference.  The Postmodernists, however, are extreme Romantics.  They cannot let go the Romantic temper of posing differently even though they know they cannot be unprecedentedly original in anything.  Therefore, to accord with their principles of diversity, multiplicity, polyphony, pluralism, heterogeneity, etc. (all of which focus on difference rather than sameness), the Postmodernists have sought to vary their works in all methods possible so that some kind of originality can still be felt.  There is William Faulkner, for instance, who lets his The Sound and the Fury be told in four sections, each with a different narrator, each supplying a different piece of the plot.  There is also John Fowles, who leaves the readers of his The French Lieutenant’s Woman with four endings of the story to choose from.  And there is Italo Calvino, whose If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler is composed of many different novel beginnings but without middles or ends.  If we want to think of more, we then have Thomas Pynchon, whose V is a quest story, but the target of the quest is an unidentifiable “who” and an indescribable “what,” as the “V” can stand for anybody and anything (Tanner 45).  We also have Thomas Disch, whose The Businessman is fraught with “playfully random minglings of the banal with the horrific and sublime,” and Denis Johnson, whose Fiskadoro is full of “sudden, inexplicable point-of-view shifts from character to character” so that “any sense of narrative development is undercut” (Pfeil 61,67,68).  And finally we have Alain Robbe-Grillet, whose collage-like technique has produced such “objective literature” as The Voyeur and “The Secret Room,” in which description replaces narration, and the story, if any, is open for the reader to conjecture.

  • The Theme

     As tens of millions of literary works (call them texts or discourses if you like) classifiable into hundreds of genres are available in our world today, one would certainly be crazy to attempt to exhaust all they have to say, that is, all their themes or messages.  However, one will surely be right if one says that there seem to be certain themes particularly dominant and noteworthy in our Postmodern literature.

     We know every piece of literature has something to say.  This “something” is often what we call “truth.”  And we know Romantics are especially fond of telling us “truths” since they often pose as seers or prophets.  Think, for instance, Blake’s “Without contraries is no progression” (The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, plate 3), Wordsworth’s “Nature never did betray/The heart that loved her” (“Tintern Abbey,” 122-3), Shelley’s “If Winter comes, can Spring be far behind?” (“Ode to the West Wind,” 70), or Keats’s “Beauty is truth, truth beauty” (“Ode on a Grecian Urn,” 49).  Aren’t they all statements of truth, and themes or messages of their works?

     But the time has come when we are fed up with truths, when we begin to doubt all truths, when we feel all truths are relative truths, not absolute.  Thus, Luigi Pirandello’s works win our acclaim, as they directly expose the theme.  In our Postmodern age, in fact, the same theme is suggested time and again if only indirectly.  It seems that Derrida’s attack on “logocentrism” has really helped writers to beware of proclaiming truths.

     One type of works that make no pretensions of truth is pop literature.  Writers of this type seem to believe in Baudrillard.  For them, since nothing really has any depth, literature cannot hope to provide any serious truth.  Therefore, their stories, characters, settings, techniques, etc., are all commonplace and superficial.  And their common theme is: “For all our efforts, we seek but temporary joy, not permanent truth.”

     Another type of works that dare not claim truth is ontological literature.  Writers of this type seem to believe in Lyotard.  For them, since no “metanarrative” is legitimate, literature cannot but be skeptical about itself.  Therefore, they pose questions bearing “either on the ontology of the literary text itself or on the ontology of the world which it projects” (McHale, Postmodernist Fiction, 10).  According to Brian McHale, such writers include Faulkner, Beckett, Robbe-Grillet, Fuentes, Nabokov, Coover, and Pynchon.  And the cyberpunk writers (Bruce Sterling, Walter Williams, Michael Swanwick, John Shirley, Marc Laidlaw, Greg Bear, Lucius Shepard, etc.) also belong to this group, as they all try to deal with the “worldness” of microworlds created in their “cyberspace,” or with the centrifugal self which, like the world, is plural, unstable, and problematic, or with the boundary between life and death, which is also problematic in its machine-operated or its “bio-punk” forms (MacHale, Constructing Postmodernism, chapter 11).

     A third type of works that seemingly try to bypass truth is linguistic literature.  This type is nonreferential in that it treats literature as a game, a linguistic game which is self-contained, with its own elements and rules of structure sufficient for the game without having to refer to the outside world, the world beyond the linguistic universe.  The lack of reference naturally renders no sense, no meaning, no truth except the understanding that no sense is a sense, no truth is a truth.  Works of this category comprise the L-A-N-G-U-A-G-E poetry of Tina Darragh, the riddle-like fiction of Pynchon, the game-like fiction of Borges, the French writers’ nouveau roman and the Tel Quel novels.  They are often self-reflexive or metafictional.

     Besides suggesting the prevailing theme that there is no absolute truth, or no deep truth, or no transcendent truth, our contemporary works also suggest the concomitant theme that all truths are created equal.  Since God is already dead and Godot will never come, each human has a right to make his or her little narrative and regard it as a provisional truth.  Feminist writers, postcolonial writers, and writers of new historicism are all supporting this theme.  In defending the weak, the oppressed, the underprivileged, the marginal, the neglected, etc., they are using their discursive power to persuade us that others’ truths or values can always be deconstructed, thus leaving their own to be believed for the time being.

     But what will happen if everybody really has his own say and presents or represents his own truth for our recognition?  We will exhaust truths, then.  We will then have all truths, and to have all is as meaningless and harmful as to have none.  We will find “the main preoccupation of intellectuals is no longer wisdom, nor prudence, nor reason, but second-order descriptions”; they will just “describe how others describe what others describe” (Luhmann 182).  Surfeit is a great risk, indeed.  Today, we know we are at the risk of having too much or going too far.  Therefore, much of our contemporary literature is also preoccupied or obsessed with the theme of death or the theme of end.  Consciously or unconsciously, we speak or act as if we were really playing “the Endgame,” in “Finnegans Wake,” seeing “Things Fall Apart,” and crying “Death Constant Beyond Love!”16


VI. The End

This paper is drawing to an end.  Many people feel our century is also drawing to and end.  What is an end, then?  Is Postmodernism an end of Modernism?  The controversy has not yet ended.

     My end here is not to end the debate.  But I must agree that the end cannot be located in a non-linear, non-Euclidean space of history; it is conceivable only in a logical order of causality and continuity (Baudrillard, Illusion, 110).  When we talk of the end of the subject, of history, of philosophy, of anything, we are but using a metaphor to stress the fact that something is caused to change to such an extent that it seemingly no longer continues to be the same thing while it may de facto be still there, only in another form.  Thus, Frank Kermode is right in referring to fin-de-siècle crises as “myths” that are shaped by a common pathology, stories that “grow together” and demonstrate a “pattern.”17  And thus, Rita Felski is also right in asserting that the epigram “Fin de siècle, fin de sexe” coined by the French artist Jean Lorrain to describe the symbolic affinity of gender confusion and historical exhaustion in the late nineteenth century seems even more apt for our own moment (226), since for her as well as for many of us, gender confusion and historical exhaustion seem to be even more conspicuous right now when feminism has leveled both sexes in many respects and Postmodernism has used up all possible themes and methods of literature.

     But my main concern here is not with the end of sex but with the end of literature.  This paper has drawn largely on Alvin Kernan’s The Death of Literature (1990), a book whose title suggests that literature has come to an end.  Yet, what has Kernan actually said in the book?  Among other things he says, “If literature has died, literary activity continues with unabated, if not increased, vigor, though it is increasingly confined to universities and colleges” (5).  “What has passed, or is passing, is the romantic and modernist literature of Wordsworth and Goethe, Valéry and Joyce, that flourished in capitalistic society in the high age of print, between the mid-eighteenth century and the mid-twentieth” (5-6).  “…the disintegration of romantic-modernist literature in the late twentieth century has been a part not only of a general cultural revolution but more specifically of a technological revolution that is rapidly transforming a print to an electronic culture,” (9) “where creativity and plagiarism are increasingly hard to define, where advertising and image making have captured the language” (10).  So, in Kernan’s mind literature refers only to “printed matter,” excluding oral text and hypertext.  And for him the end or death of literature means only the change of literary genres or forms, not the cease of literary activity.

     Kernan’s idea strengthens my belief.  I believe man always has a strong will to live.  In the age when man sees death everywhere, one way to guarantee survival is by producing literary offspring.  Although our Postmodernists have come to realize that in this culture only language has remained--“Being that can be understood is language” (Gadamer xxii) or “Being that can be imagined is language” (Madison 183)--they know they can still “play freely” with linguistic signs, and do it so freely indeed that they may claim that they can feel some erotic pleasure (jouissance) in their text production, no matter whether it is on desk or on keyboard or anywhere else, and no matter whether their offspring are printed texts or hypertexts.  After all, the scene of textualization is like the scene of sexualization, isn’t it?

     With this understanding, then, we will bring our end back to our beginning.  In the beginning of this paper, I point out that the history of Western literature is a dualistic history because it is assumed to begin with two traditions: Hellenism and Hebraism.  But, as we see, the spirits or values these two traditions represent seldom blend equally at any supposed period of the history.  The Classic/Romantic contrast and the Modernist/Postmodernist dichotomy are in fact the result of having some Hellenistic or Hebraic qualities serving as the dominant.  It is only that the Postmodern style seems to be the consequence of pushing the Romantic movement, with its Hebraic/Dionysian tendencies, to an extreme.  Thus, we find waywardness, randomness, absurdity, indeterminacy, immanence, popularity, nonreferentiality, anti-form, intertextuality, heterogeneity, nihilism, etc.—those Postmodern attributes—have all stemmed logically from Romantic characteristics.

     Logical inference needs to be strengthened by factual evidence.  In considering the world situation today together with its changes concerning the medium, the language, the author, the reader, the work, and the theme of literature, we cannot but admit that the Romantic spirit of loving freedom, change and difference has really brought about an unthinkable revolution in our art of literature.  For our literature today, the Postmodern kind, is often so different that it becomes simply anti-art, anti-literature--a trend worshiping Chaos, a voice full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.

     In the Romantic period, Thomas Peacock postulated a theory called the Four Ages of Poetry.  In his view, poetry has been rising and then declining all the time cyclically from the age of iron through the golden age, the silver age, and the brass age, back to the age of iron again.  For him the iron age of classical poetry is the bardic; the golden, the Homeric; the silver, the Virgilian; and the brass, the Nonnic.  For him modern poetry also has its four ages: the Dark Ages can be considered the iron age again; the Renaissance, the golden; the Neoclassical Period, the silver; the Romantic Period, the brass.  As Peacock placed himself in the brass age, he did not live to see the next iron age.  But the satire he directed against his contemporary poets was enough to impel Shelley to write his Defense of Poetry.

     Peacock’s theory might be a joke.  Yet, it is not without sense.  The criterion he has used to differentiate the four ages of poetry is the relative dominance of Hellenistic/Classic/Apollonian virtues or Hebraic/Romantic/Dionysian virtues.  The iron age comes when the latter virtues overwhelm the former completely whereas the golden age arrives when the former suppress the latter thoroughly.  The silver and the brass ages are respectively somewhat dominated by the former and the latter.  In this light, then, our present age could be the iron age again, as our Postmodernists do not want reason, sense, order, and culture; they want irrationality, nonsense, disorder, and anarchy instead.  “When the lamp is shattered,” certainly “the light in the dust lies dead.”18  The Romantic lamp has now shattered itself, and so darkness is everywhere.  Although the Postmodernists are striving with all sorts of lens to inspect, reflect, or refract each other, what avails in sheer darkness?

     Happily, however, change is the permanent rule.  We can predict that after some decades of darkness literature is sure to see light again.  Another lamp may bring with it another form of art.  As this Postmodern phase wanes, another full moon is expectedly in sight.  If the fin-de-siècle goes, can the millennium be far ahead?




  • Jokingly, F. L. Lucas counts 11,396 definitions of the term in his The Decline and Fall of the Romantic Ideal (1948).  Jacques Barzun has surprisingly listed some attributes (e.g., “conservative,” “materialistic,” “ornamental,” and “realistic”) in his Classic, Romantic and Modern (1961).
  • In J. A. Cuddon’s A Dictionary of Literary Terms (1979), Modernism is said to be associated with Anti-novel, Anti-play, Beat Poets, Dadaism, Decadence, Existentialism, Expressionism, free verse, Happening, Imagists, New Humanism, nouveau roman, Nouvelle Vague, stream of consciousness, Theater of the Absurd, Theater of Cruelty, Ultraism, Vorticism, etc.
  • The table first appeared in The Dismemberment of Orpheus (1982) as part of a “Postface” article titled “Toward a Concept of Postmodernism,” which was later reprinted in his The Postmodern Turn (1987).
  • See Keats’s letter to John Taylor (February 27, 1818).
  • See Shelley, “Mutability,” l. 14.
  • Cf. Hassan’s statement: “the capacity of mind to generalize itself in symbols, intervene more and more into nature, act upon itself through its own abstractions and so become, increasingly, im-mediately, its own environment” (The Postmodern Turn, 93).
  • I have replaced Jakobson’s context, contact, code, addresser, addressee, and message with world, medium, language, author, reader, and theme so that the factors have names closer to literary studies.  For Jakobson’s factors, see his Language in Literature, p.66.
  • This is Donna Haraway’s statement quoted in Rita Feslski’s “Fin de Siècle, Fin de Sexe,” p. 229.
  • See Wordsworth’s Preface to Lyrical Ballads.
  • See Shelley’s A Defense of Poetry.
  • See my paper “Is the Author ‘Dead’ Already?” Journal of the College of Liberal Arts, Chung Hsing University, 26 (1996), 1-15.
  • For detailed discussion, see my paper “Work, Text, Discourse: Literary Problems, Old and New,” Journal of the College of Liberal Arts, Chung Hsing University, 25 (1995), 31-44.
  • See his The Anxiety of Influence (1973) and A Map of Misreading (1975).
  • This work, as we know, is a detective thriller combining gothic suspense with chronicle and scholarship and boxing narrative within narrative, to prove Eco’s belief that “plot could be found also in the form of quotation of other plots” and that “the past, since it cannot really be destroyed, because its destruction leads to silence, must be revisited: but with irony, not innocently” (Eco 226-7).
  • The three Russian dramatists all use the code of the absurd theater and intertextuality to achieve their artistic purposes.  See Herta Schmid’s analysis in “Postmodernism in Russian Drama.”
  • Here I refer to the works of Beckett, later Joyce, Chinua Achebe, and Gabriel Marquez.
  • See his The Sense of an Ending (1966), quoted in Donoghue, pp. 4-5.
  • Shelley, “When the Lamp Is Shattered,” ll. 1-2.



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