Contemporary American Fiction

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Ihab Hassan

“Toward a Concept of Postmodernism,” (1987)

This essay is Hassan’s attempt to characterize postmodernism even as he allows for its fluidity.  As you’re reading don’t get bogged down in identifying all of the proper names in his lists.  Focus on the ideas.  If you recognize some of the names try to imagine what they have to do with each other.

The two names that are important are Sade and Beckett.

Sade is the Marquis de Sade, a late-eighteenth century writer and libertine who spent much of his life imprisoned in the Bastille.  In the larger work from which this essay was taken, The Dismemberment of Orpheus, Hassan compares Sade to William Blake, his proto-romantic contemporary who believed that poetry was a means to transcendence.  In contrast, Sade’s life was mired in repetition and the exhaustion of possibilities.  One reviewer notes that Hassan “links Sade’s terrible hallucinatory writings with the art of negation, contradiction, and contraction–an art here exemplified in the work of Hemingway, Kafka, Genet and Beckett.”

Samuel Beckett is an Irish-born writer most famous for his 1949 play Waiting for Godot. In his novels and other writings, Beckett attempted to divest language of plot, character, setting, and meaning in order to achieve a language of silence.  However, the narrator of The Unnamable admits, “how can I say it, that’s all words, they’re all I have, and not many of them, the words fail, the voice fails, so be it, I know that well, it will be the silence, full of murmurs, distant cries, the usual silence, spent listening, spent waiting, waiting for the voice, the cries abate, like all cries, that is to say they stop, the murmurs cease, they give up, the voice begins again.”  In spite of his awareness of the exhaustion of language – which Beckett in part attributed to his mentor James Joyce – the futility of speaking,  and the fallibility of language, Beckett’s characters, if they can be called that, cannot help but create meaning, or at least some exercise of the voice.  These figures are, in Hasan’s terms language animals. The narrator of The Unnamable only exists within and because of language, a pathetic state of affairs seeing that the what follows “After so long a silence” is “a little cry, stifled outright.”

Focus on Hassan’s reading of postmodernism as part of an avant-garde tradition.  How does the postmodern avant-garde relate to these other ‘movements,’ including, of course, modernism?

The list.  Hassan’s list is meant to both describe and enact the complicated relationship between modernism and postmodernism.  Though it is set up as a “dichotomy”, Hassan admits that the terms in the columns are “insecure, equivocal.”

Choose one or two sets of terms and describe how the two things are related.  Do they have any relation to the excerpt from Pynchon we read today?

Why is provisionality important to Hassan’s “concept of postmodernism”?  What about inderterminacy?  Immanence?

What does Hassan write about the centrality of “language”?

Does Hassan think that postmodernism is something new?  Or does he believe it is a novel incarnation of an older impulse?

Hassan aludes to the “dismemberment of Orpheus”?  Adrienne Rich, an American poet often associated with Confessional Poetry, wrote a poem called “I Dream I’m the Death of Orpheus” in 1964.

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