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From: "Daniel Fusch" <dfusch@hotmail.com>
Subject: (urth) More modernism (and postmodernism)!
Date: Wed, 27 Oct 1999 19:14:27 PDT

Well, I'm glad I didn't just annoy everyone by bringing up modernism! 
Especially glad...I'm having a lot of fun with this discussion.

The rest of you people are far more familiar with the current modernist 
trends than I am! I've mostly studied the early modernists.

While we're on the topic of who we've left out, it seems that we've skipped 
quite a few fantastic writers from the midcentury generation. Ralph Ellison, 
for instance. Not to mention Eudora Welty.

By the way, I hold up "Invisible Man" as another example of modernist 
fiction that is "easily readable." The novel is told in "fairly 
straightforward" first-person narrative (like TBOTNS). Someone a while back 
asserted that it is interesting how little Wolfe used modernist techniques 
(i.e., stream-of-consciousness) in The Book of the New Sun. Well, I'd just 
like to say, purely for the sake of debate, that if modernist techniques are 
reduced to stream-of-consciousness and distorted-perceptive language, then 
it is very interesting how few modernists use modernist techniques.

On the other hand, I admit that I'm just being outrageously argumentative. 
It IS notable that Wolfe does not use stream-of-consciousness, and it is 
worth speculating why stream-of-consciousness would not serve his purpose. 
(I would answer: Severian's story is, as far as plot goes, a heroic 
romance--a fantasy about a torturer's apprentice who has many adventures and 
eventually becomes the ruler of the land. Wolfe used first person narrative 
because he wanted to write the memoirs of Severian, as it were; 
stream-of-consciousness is unfortunately not very effective for writing 

So whoever brought up stream-of-consciousness had a point (I've forgotten 
who it was). I do think we need to go further and analyze the modernist 
techniques that Wolfe DOES use, however. The shifting into Thecla's 
consciousness is the most obvious example, but there are others, as well.

But for the sake of argument, how does this shifting into Thecla's viewpoint 
work? When is it used in the narrative, and why? How does it function in the 
story? It would be interesting to get everyone's thoughts on these 

Also--what do we learn about Severian during these shifts? How do these 
shifts point the reader to certain themes? Finally, what is Wolfe trying to 
say about the perception of reality?

Now that I've tossed out a few questions, I'll answer one, or try to. Robert 
asked for some information on modernism/postmodernism.

"But all of his work has that air of "everything's been done before, so I'm 
just going to throw all past and present genres and styles in the blender 
and have fun riffing off them," which is what I think of when I think of 
postmodernism. Modernism (Joyce being the keystone example) always struck me 
as a lot more rigorous. Didn't the modernists believe that they were 
dragging art into a more advanced era, with the postmodern era arriving when 
people finally decided that this progress was an illusion?

>Anyway, I'm speaking out way beyond my knowledge. Please feel free to
>correct me.
>-- Bob"

Bob, I think the modernists also had a reputation for throwing all past 
genres and styles into the blender (Faulkner and T. S. Eliot in 
particular--but perhaps we shouldn't bring up Eliot lest we end up 
sidetracked onto a whole other topic--modernist poetry!). The modernists did 
want to bring art into the modern era...specifically by examining our 
fragmented perceptions of reality in the modern age. They were very 
interested in time, in applying mythological structure to ordinary people 
and events, and in experimenting with new types of narration that would 
better convey the actual perceptions of the characters.

The modernists were extremely interested in the way we perceive reality. A 
modernist would argue that we can never fully capture reality as it is, 
although we can get as close as possible (that's where 
stream-of-consciousness and experimental narration come in). Or we can take 
many different perceptions and add them all together to get as close as 
possible to the Truth. Faulkner does this in "The Sound and the Fury" -- a 
book which he described as a work at which he failed...four times. Meaning 
that none of the perspectives in the book gave us the final and complete 
Truth, although by adding all the perspectives together, we get as close as 
possible to having the big picture.

LeGuin is a modernist writer of science fiction. Her novel "The Left Hand of 
Darkness" begins: "I'll make my report as if I told a story, for I was 
taught as a child on my homeworld that Truth is a matter of the 
imagination." Also, LeGuin shifts between two separate first-person 
narratives throughout the book, for as the first narrator says, "The story 
is not all mine, nor told by me alone. Indeed I am not sure whose story it 
is; you can judge better. But it is all one, and if at moments the facts 
seem to alter with an altered voice, why then you can choose the fact you 
like best; yet none of them are false, and it is all one story."

That is a distinctly modernist view, and indeed, it is very Faulkneresque. 
When reading "The Sound and the Fury," we may not be entirely sure whose 
story it is, but it is "all one story," though composed of multiple 

If you remember the old Eastern fable about the ten blind men examining the 
elephant...well, that's modernism.

So, in summary: modernism deals with the nature of our perception of 

Now to postmodernism. It is very difficult to say anything concise about 
postmodernism, because by its nature it is a very nebulous 
philosophy--complicated by the fact that there are postmodern narratives (in 
which you apply the postmodernist philosophy to art) and there is also 
postmodern criticism (in which you apply the postmodernist philosophy to 
literary criticism...which is a whole 'nother ball of wax).

Damien--I think it was Damien--paraphrased McHale earlier in saying that 
postmodernism looks not at the perception of reality, but at the reality of 
reality. This has to be the best definition of postmodern literature that I 
have heard to date. I'll see if I can expand on it. Possibly Damien can 
explain it better.

But here goes. Postmodernism (as a philosophy) questions the reality of our 
reality. While modernists wonder whether we can ever reach Truth through our 
flawed perception, postmodernists question the existence of Truth at all. A 
postmodernist believes either that there is no Truth, or that there are many 
truths, each of them valid. In postmodernism, it is not "all one story." It 
is many, or none at all. Postmodern literature, you see, is also very 

For example--one of the more popular branches of postmodern literature is 
deconstructionism, which questions the idea that you can convey ideas 
through language. In a deconstructionist view, language can take on any 
meaning because there is no final Meaning to language. There can never be a 
connection between the word "chair" and the Platonic ideal chair.

An example of postmodern science fiction--I'm reaching a little here--might 
be Doris Lessing's "The Memoirs of a Survivor." That work owes something to 
modernism as well, I think--but in the end, the book questions the reality 
of reality. The narrator exists in at least two realities (I'm referring to 
the existence in her apartment and the journeys "through the wall"), and at 
the end, reality breaks down altogether, and the events of the ending are 
open game for the reader. In the end, the events don't really matter.

Postmodernism, then, forces the question: "Is there a reality? Is there a 

Does this help you any, Bob?

By the way, I'm MUCH more familiar with modernism than postmodernism, so if 
anybody can clarify or correct my explanation here, I won't mind!


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