Seen One, Seen ’em All

From Terry Eagleton at the London Review of Books:

Romantic literature, with its cult of the poetic personality, might seem just the opposite of this. Yet the Romantic poet’s richly particularised voice is largely a way of giving tongue to the transcendent. From Wordsworth to D.H. Lawrence, one speaks most persuasively when one articulates what is not oneself, whether one calls this Nature or the creative imagination, the primary processes or the dark gods. The self runs down to unfathomably anonymous roots. Men and women emerge as unique beings through a medium (call it Geist, History, Language, Culture or the Unconscious) that is implacably impersonal. What makes us what we are has no regard for us at all. At the very core of the personality, so the modern age holds, vast, anonymous processes are at work. Only through a salutary repression or oblivion of these forces can we achieve the illusion of autonomy. Anonymity is the condition of identity.

It is this bleak doctrine that Modernism will inherit, as a cult of impersonality takes over from the clapped-out Romantic ego. For Romanticism, the self and the infinite merge in the act of imaginative creation. To surrender oneself to dark, unknowable powers is to become all the more uniquely oneself. One must lose one’s life in order to find it. For one strain of Modernism, by contrast, the self is displaced by the very forces which constitute it – unhoused, scooped out, decentred and dispossessed. We are no more than the anonymous bearers of myth, tradition, language or literary history. The only way the self can leave its distinctive thumb-print, from Flaubert to Joyce, is in the fastidiously distancing style by which it masks itself. Language itself may be authorless; but style, as Roland Barthes claims in Writing Degree Zero, plunges straight to the visceral depths of the self.

Another strain of Modernism turns back to subjectivity itself, as if by way of refuge. The self may be fitful and fragmentary, but there is something we can rely on in the immediacy of its sensations. And though the essence of selfhood is now elusive, there are certain rare moments in which it can be fleetingly recaptured. Postmodernism, by contrast, rehearses the Modernist tale of the unhoused, decentred self, but without the consolations of an essential self. There never was such a thing, for Barthes any more than for David Hume, and we are doubtless all the better for it. What looks like a loss is actually a liberation. Unity is an illusion, and consistency is more a vice than a virtue. Postmodernism is full of personality cults, but they know themselves to be groundless. Like commodities, individual selves are basically interchangeable. Once you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all.

Read the whole thing here

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