Yarbrough quotes Ihab Hassan, who describes postmodernism as the "literature of silence" in that it "communicates only with itself," a reference that initially astounds the rational mind. Then, reading further in Yarbrough, Hassan is quoted as saying the term postmodernism applies to "a world caught between fragments and wholes, terror and totalitarianism of every kind."
In Vonnegut's novel, characters reflect the deconstruction of American society in the 1950s, during the period of paranoia dominated by U.S. Senator Joseph McCarthy's fascist-like search for "communist sympathizers," which created terror and loathing and reflected how morally shallow yet potent the hammer of temporary totalitarian authority can be.
On page 96, Chapter 44, it is revealed that Horlick Minton had once been fired by the State Department for allegedly being "soft on communism" - but the only "real evidence" used to justify his dismissal, his wife announced, was a letter she wrote to the New York Times from Pakistan. What did it say? "It said a lot of things...because I was very upset about how Americans couldn't imagine what it was like to be something else...and be proud of it," Claire Minton explained. Horlick Minton quoted from the letter: "Americans are forever searching for love in forms it never takes, in places it can never be. It must have something to do with the vanished frontier."
That "vanished frontier" is perhaps Vonnegut's allusion to the loss of the idealism that America once represented. "The highest form of treason is to say Americans aren't loved wherever they go, whatever they do," Minton added on page 98.
Vonnegut's postmodernism style throughout this book is a quasi-cynical but not entirely exaggerated representation of America; the folly of religion, for example, is shown in numerous passages. On page 4-5, God liked people "in sailboats much better than He liked people in motorboats." And on page 2, humanity is organized into teams to do "God's will" but those teams never discover "what they are doing." Hence, God is a mystery, and writers like Vonnegut have license to muse over society's clumsy attempt to define and categorize Him for their own future salvation from themselves.
Irony abounds in Vonnegut's postmodernism; on page 8 the theme continues involving what various people were doing when the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima; Newt's dad was in his pajamas "...smoking a cigar...playing with a loop of string." What could be more profoundly petty while hundreds of thousands of Japanese citizens are being vaporized in an as yet un-heard-of firestorm of splitting atoms?
The America culture, whose citizens search vainly for answers to the deeper questions of life, is constantly parodied by Vonnegut; "The trouble with the world was...that people were still superstitious instead of scientific," Sandra (page 24) says, recalling what Dr. Breed uttered during his commencement address. Sandra continues recounting the inane and brutally simplistic theory of Dr. Breed: "He said if everybody would study science more, there wouldn't be all the trouble there was," and that "science" was going to discover "the basic secret of life someday."
Didn't I read in the paper the other day where they'd finally found out what it was?" The bartender interjects into the conversation (page 25). "What is the secret of life," the narrator asks. "I forget," said Sandra, but the bartender remembered what he had read. "Protein. They found out something about protein." "Yeah," Sandra remembered, "that's it." Indeed, Dr. Klages' description of postmodernism - "pastiche, parody...irony and playfulness" - comes to life poignantly through the tactics and strategies of Vonnegut and his characters.
A classic example of Vonnegut poking fun at how Americans hide behind their religion (or use religion as a shield against threats to their pride) is on page 167, as Julian Castle tells the narrator, if you happen to "run across" Dr. Albert Schweitzer, "you can tell him he's not my hero...but...thanks to him, Jesus Christ is." Wise-cracking, John the narrator says he thinks Schweitzer will "be glad to hear it." "I don't give a damn if he is...
"This is something between Jesus and me."
Saul Bellow: Herzog
While Herzog is buying a suit of clothes in New York (with money borrowed from brother Shura) the salesman insults him (page 19-20), reacting to Herzog's 34-inch waist with, "Don't boast." Americans are not always willing to bite back when bitten, its considered embarrassing to loudly confront hostility with hostility, but this particular salesman has "a meat-flavored breath, a dog's breath," and though Herzog was "too gentlemanly to hold it against him," he nonetheless wrote the salesman a note in the fitting room. "Dear Mack. Dealing with poor jerks every day. Male pride. Effrontery. Conceit...hard job if you happen to be a grudging, angry fellow."
The American national culture is continually interacting with a perceived (or real) lack of professionalism in the retail milieu, and Bellow is certainly bringing that cultural flaw to light in this passage. Also, New Yorkers are notorious for seeming to be - albeit perhaps unfairly - pushy and brash. "Bless you, you are not nice," Herzog writes to the salesman, although unwilling to get into his face verbally and spar, still, being a New Yorker, he is obliged to express his true heart-felt reaction to a lack of grace.
And religion, too, takes a deconstructive hit by Bellow when Roman Catholic Madeleine, on page 115, argues with Moses who is "bent on making trouble" because the seeming absurdity of Madeline's need to confess her sins to the Monsignor. Beyond the inherent conflict between Herzog's Judaism and Madeleine's Catholicism, Madeline "wanted Moses and the Monsignor to struggle over her. It heightened the sexual excitement."
Religion and sex as bed partners - that would certainly represent the deconstruction of the American national culture - and when "all was said and done" (118), the narrator continues, "Madeleine didn't marry in the Church, nor did she baptize her daughter. Catholicism went the way of zithers and tarot cards, bread-baking and Russian civilization. And life in the country."
Ralph Ellison: Invisible Man young black man's search for personal and social identity is not a new theme in American literature, but in Ellison's novel, the exaggerative characters that respond to the black man in outrageous fashion create an ugliness that goes beyond representing America's institutional, historical cultural bias. The racism actually seems to transcend racism and move into parody of the truth. Readers expect Ellison's protagonist to be ridiculed, rejected and bullied by the white society, and readers get what they expected to get; but the author's preoccupation with "white" takes the novel past irony into comedy and almost to tragedy as well.
On page 165 the paint supervisor Brockway says "If It's Optic White, It's the Right White" with an "upraised finger, like a preacher quoting holy writ." On page 36, the narrator follows the "white line" and passes a collection of "shacks and log cabins...bleached white" and featuring "chinks filled with chalk-white clay"; and on page 37 two women are dressed in "blue-and-white checked ginghams..." And the "white family" - white, white, white, everywhere in this novel.
There is white that black can't mix with; this is a man who indeed is caught between a world of fragments and wholes. He, the black protagonist, is taunted with fragments of the good life that white Americans are allowed to taste; like the white woman in the "Battle Royal" incident who is so sexy and so desirable but black boys aren't allowed to touch her. In the book as in American culture, white women are portrayed as something black men would certainly love to snuggle up to, but they are forbidden fruit. American society may well have progressed beyond the cruelty and shameful Jim Crow period, but still when a black man is seen with his arm around a white woman, red flags go up. The protagonist in The Invisible Man turned to Sybil, because she was naive and stupid and could be used. She had a cliched approach to the virility of black men (as "brute bucks" who were powerful in the sheets); she could not hide her empty-headed and lonely reality, and unlike the Invisible Man, she was inept when it came to creating a better world for herself. She had no idea of what the Brotherhood was really designed to be or to do. That fact is probably intended by the author as a metaphor for the fact that many white people (male and female) in the national culture have not a vague clue as to what African-Americans are all about.
Artson, Bradley Shavit. Synagogues as Centers for Social Justice, University of Judaism. Available at http://judaism.uj.edu/content/contentunit/asp?CID=1526&u=5403&t=0.
Bellow, Saul. 1964. Herzog, The Viking Press, New York.
Ellison, Ralph. 1952. Invisible Man, Random House, New York
James, Fredrick. 1991. Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, Duke
Klages, Mary. 2003. Postmodernism. English Department, University of Colorado. Available from http://www.colorado.edu/English/courses/ENGL2012Klages/pomo.html.
Lye, John. 2002. Some Attributes of Post-Modernist Literature. Brock University. Available…
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