Hinterland Diary

A fever that has broken? . . .

Has much changed over the past twenty-five years? Many things have, and in ways whose consequences cannot be known. For example, theory in academic literary criticism seems to be playing itself out by the sheer force of its deep inner uselessness. Not a single significant book, nor any dazzling essays that I know of, have been produced in American literary criticism that are owing to their author's adaptation of one or another kind of critical theory, imported or domestic, from deconstruction to queer theory. Such stuff continues to be taught, as it was taught to the people now teaching it and who themselves consequently know little else to teach. But one senses that the day of the predominance of theory in English departments is coming to a close: the fever has abated, the flame is guttering. Derrida and Foucault are no longer fighting but yawn-inducing words.

No one today expects universities to contribute much in the way of importance to literary life. Most writers go to college; some hang around a bit longer by attending the writing programs at places such as Boston University, the University of Iowa, and Stanford University. But the result of the triumphs within the university of multiculturalism, literary theory, feminism, and political correctness has been to drain the humanities and social-sciences sides of university education of their seriousness. Literarily, universities are now chiefly useful as the subjects of comic novels, but for little else.

From "'The literary life' at 25," a piece by Joseph Epstein in this month's New Criterion, a survey of his regular feature for the arts and intellectual culture magazine for the past quarter century.

September 1, 2007 12:53 PM | | Comments (1)



In his book "The Double Flame," Octavio Paz offers a much wider critique that nevertheless has sympathetic vibrations with Epstein's comments.

"Since 1950, noteworthy works and personalities have appeared in poetry, music, and the plastic arts," he writes in 1993. "But no great aesthetic or poetic movement has appeared. The last was Surrealism. We have had resurrections, some brilliant and some merely ingenious. Or, rather, to use the precise word in English, 'revivals.' But a revival is not a resurrection: it is a sudden blaze that burns itself out."

The real, original 20th century art movements took place during the first half of the century, not the latter half, Paz argues.

He asserts that Pop Art is derived from Dadaism; that Beat poetry is derived from Surrealism; and that Abstract Expressionism, however brilliant, was more of a revival, a sudden blaze, than something really new.

He makes the same argument about Existentialism: by method it continues Husserl, by subject it continues Heidegger.

"The works of the second half of the 20th century are different from and even contrary to those of the first half," Paz concludes. "They are twilight works."

Furthermore, there is a direct relationship between the derivative nature of post-World War II Western culture and the 1960s student movements.

The positive achievement of the student movement, Paz argues, was erotic freedom. Yet, like the artistic and philosophical movements mentioned above, the student movement, too, was derivative.

"The student movement was no prelude to revolution but instead the final consecration of a struggle that began at the start of the 19th century, and its groundwork was laid in equal measures by the libertine philosophers and their adversaries, the Romantic poets," Paz writes.

As such, the student movement was a revival --a revival that burned itself out. Erotic freedom remains, Paz writes, but fell under the domination of capitalism.

Paz fears this development: For the twilight of eroticism -- and by extension, love --means a new threat to human integrity posed by a sinister coupling of capitalism and technology.

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This page contains a single entry by FlyOver published on September 1, 2007 12:53 PM.

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