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From: "Daniel Fusch" <dfusch@hotmail.com>
Subject: (urth) Modernism
Date: Tue, 26 Oct 1999 00:24:12 PDT

OK, now that I've confused myself as to who has posted which messages, I'll 
address this reply to alga.


I agree with several things you said.

I think Wolfe's work is likely to last into the next century, although it is 
unlikely that he will receive much in the way of critical attention for some 
time to come. I think the work of writers like Walter A. Miller, Jr., Ray 
Bradbury, and Ursula K. LeGuin will also last into posterity, since they are 
also authors who experiment with different forms of storytelling. These 
authors are also--incidentally--taught in today's college lit classes.

And I think it very likely that some of the science fiction "classics" will 
last as "relics" of the past...at least for a little while. For example, 
Asimov's "Foundation" is probably here to stay, whether or not we agree with 
its "literary merit" (if such a thing can be defined), since that work 
defined a generation of speculative literature. Certain films--"Things to 
Come" and "2001: A Space Odyssey"--will be a matter of speculation 
throughout the ages; "Things to Come" remains a frequent film for British 
lit courses even sixty years after its first appearance.

I should add, though, that I think these relics remain because people like 
to read/watch them, not simply because they supply us with information about 
the literary/historical traditions of their time.

So I don't think Wolfe is the only writer who will survive. Of course, in 
centuries to come, who knows who will remain? Homer's work, after all, comes 
to us completely isolated from its literary tradition.

Interesting to speculate, anyway!

You said something else that caught my interest:

"Daniel Fusch brings up--re the inconsistent or unreliable narrator (Sev) 
that we've been discussing--the modernist novel. Well, actually, that's not 
quite accurate, as he brings up -Moby-Dick- and -Paradise Lost- too. But I 
think that M-D can stand as a modernist novel ahead of its time, and Milton 
was certainly striving to do something different with PL. The point, and the 
Faulkner novel is included here, is the effort toward originality."

I think I will agree with you, in saying that Moby Dick is, in many ways, a 
modernist novel before its time. I think I would call it a tragic romance 
told via a modernist nature (there's a hybrid for you!). Modernism deals 
almost exclusively with the Everyman--the ordinary, everyday character with 
the ordinary, everyday life, with the ordinary, everyday romance, tragedy, 
and fall. The traditional tragic romance, on the other hand, deals with the 
decline and fall of some larger-than-life figure (Macbeth, for instance). 
Moby Dick has as its main character Ahab, the larger-than-life captain who 
will sacrifice his ship, his life, his soul...in battle against the 
Unconquerable, against the Infinite. Yet the narration is distinctly 
modernist--Melville experiments with different modes of storytelling, and 
Ishmael--whose identity we never learn much about--is a modernist (and, in 
part, unreliable) narrator.

I think "The Book of the New Sun" is like this, also. Wolfe presents us with 
a romance (or a fantasy, if you prefer the modern time), in which a 
torturer's apprentice becomes a king. This is a very familiar, conventional 
plot--the tailor who becomes a prince, the girl with the ash-covered face 
who marries the prince, the pauper who becomes king, etc. But the narration 
is modernist, experimental.

We might call Melville's "Moby Dick" a proto-modernist work (did you know 
that only some 20 copies a year were published at first...the novel vanished 
into obscurity until the 1920s, when the modernists discovered it). It is 
perhaps too tempting to label Wolfe "post-modernist." One surmises that the 
author of The Book of the New Sun is well aware of postmodernity--certainly 
Wolfe is writing metafiction in one sense--although I would argue that 
metafiction is more an outgrowth of modernism than it is a branch of 
post-modernism. Faulkner wrote metafiction. For that matter, metafiction has 
existed in one form or another since the eighteenth century (Henry Fielding 
comes to mind). (Metafiction, by the way--for those of you who are 
unfamiliar with the term--is fiction that intentionally draws attention to 
the methods by which it works, in order to investigate or examine the nature 
of fiction--the nature of storytelling).

Post-modernism is really extremely difficult to define--it is that work 
which is "beyond modernism" (it makes more sense when you apply the term to 
post-colonial writings), and the term usually seems to include both 
deconstructionism and metafiction.

In the end, I think it safe to assume that The Book of the New Sun is more 
modernist than post-modernist. The fascination with the nature of Time, the 
experimental narration, the tendency toward metafiction, the cyclical 
beginning/ending (reminiscent of James Joyce), and the presentation of 
different forms of narrative (i.e., Foila's Contest) without a final 
judgement on them (reminiscent of "The Sound and the Fury" -- in which all 
four (or five) perspectives are equally important and equally close/distant 
from the Truth or the Whole of the story) -- all these seem to fit Wolfe's 
work into a modernist niche.

It is difficult to label "The Book of the New Sun" that easily, however. One 
must keep in mind that it fits within many traditions. It is a heroic 
romance, it is a mythopoeic work, it is a modernist work, and it is also a 
work of science fiction. Maybe assigning one label to the book would deprive 
it of its totality--would allow us to look at only one part of the whole. 
That, of course, is a distinctly modernist thought.  =)

Well, that's what I've been pondering.

Any thoughts?


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