Literary Devotional: Postmodernism

The term postmodernism is notoriously difficult to define, whether in reference to literature, art, or anything else.  This is partly because postmodernism is not so much a coherent style itself, but a reaction against an existing movement—modernism.  In general, postmodern literature features the self-conscious blurring of different genres and styles, exploration of new or neglected perspectives, and mixing of high and low forms, often marked by irony and humor.  The timeframe of the movement is vague, but it is generally seen as beginning around the 1940s.

During the first half of the twentieth century, modernist authors had investigated quetions of perspective and subjectivity.  Many concluded that secure truths did not exist and that the world was therefore hopelessly fragmented.  Most authors viewed this condition as the tragic result of human alienation in post-Industrial society.  But many writers of the younger generation—the postmodern generation—believed otherwise, contending that this fragmentation presented an opportunity for exploration and new insight.

Postmodern writers addressed this opportunity in many ways.  Some utilized comedy and irony:  Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying Lot of 49 (1966) revels in self-consciously empty symbolism and false meaning, making it a source of humor rather than tragedy.  Other writers blurred or broke down traditional barriers between genres:  Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood (1965) interprets a real news story about two murderers using novelistic dialogue and themes, effectively creating the new genre of journalistic fiction.  And many writers focused on the disaffection of the individual in modern society:  Don DeLillo’s White Noise (1985) examines the absurd information overload and material excess of contemporary America.

Likewise, different writers took different tacks in exploring questions of perspective.  Some, such as Toni Morrison and Maxine Hong Kingston, gave voice to minority viewpoints they believed the modernists had ignored.  Others applied new perspectives to the retelling of exisiting stories.  Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea (1966), for instance, tells the backstory of a character from Jane Eyre.  Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities (1972) revisits the legend of Marco Polo through the lens of modern urban theory.  And Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead (1966) goes so far as to reinterpret Hamlet.  Fascinating and often audacious experimentation of this sort has continued throughout the past decades, leading many people to claim that the era of postmodern literature is not yet over.

Note: This excerpt is taken from The Intellectual Devotional by David S. Kidder and Noah D. Oppenheim. ©2006 Rodale

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