This article is Ancient (archive 2011)

III: Boo-Hoo, Ha-Ha: Postmodernism as Elegy?

Disparage it all you want, Facebook is brilliant. You wonder why you go to college when you can just creep on the profiles of strangers—especially if those strangers are writers.

Recently, I saw a post from a former professor of mine asking the question “Is postmodernism elegiac? A form of mourning for the utopian dream of modernism?” I took this to mean something like “postmodernism as a sorrowful nostalgia for the good ol’ days.”

I suppose the possibility is there.

I think we have to set a groundwork for a definition of postmodernism that is both historical and critical. By way of review, postmodernism roughly corresponds with the end of WWII (the big one) and is marked by what Lyotard calls “incredulity towards metanarratives,” skepticism towards the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves.

The potential, it seems, for postmodernism as an elegiac worldview is that there is an underlying yearning to re-enter metanarrative, to be comfortable in a synthetic philosophy that is mechanized by truth-claims, not skewered and dismantled by the presence of possibility.

As far as poetry goes, the divisions of how to properly engage reality are countless and open to argument. It’s true that in the novels of Joyce, Proust and Woolf, stylistic variation makes the thematic unity of modernist literature abundantly clear: clinging to a certain pastoralism while anticipating a great shift in the natural order. But, after Hiroshima and Dachau, we are no longer in Combray.

So, let’s look at a section from the World’s Almost Most Popular Postmodern poet John Ashbery’s Flow Chart to try and dissect our little question:

One’s gone for some grants. Be back
when the coal trestle is finished, and idle
against the apricot lamé of the distance here. And
boys I know
the distance between your empty bellies and the jobs
that will not fill them,
but I still maintain you are better here, but better off
far from here
where the choo-choo whistles and a deadly white
wind stoops to take a few prisoners,
where we shall be pleasant once the future has had its
way with us. And you know,
he said, sure, that’s the way to hell and its
conundrums if that’s the way
you want to go, and they all said we know, we are
going that way
cautiously approved of in the introduction, only it
seems so full of asperities now.

Now, I don’t have to tell you that John Ashbery’s poetry is never really about anything. Yet, in this passage, there is an indeterminacy that is weary, sentimental, and frustrated with itself. Being unable to sit still with one tone, one voice, and yet having such a desire to go towards it: something has died! But what?


It seems that every (critically constructed) historical period has some elegiac attitude towards the time that immediately preceded it. Someone, the mechanized urban squalor of the late nineteenth century, in Eliot’s mind, was preferable to the mechanized urban squalor of the time of WWI. Likewise, the Victorians may have much preferred the pastoralism of the Renaissance. The cavemen that invented the wheel must have missed carrying things by hand, etc.

So, sure, I can accept postmodernism as an elegiac time. The only insight that comes from that, though, is that postmodernism is not a unique period; it probably does not subsume other historical period as some have suggested. We are not privileged. It’s just that we so happen to be here.

So, we can all rest easy. Those that come after us are sure gonna miss the time when no one believed anything.