Harold Bloom on the Future of the Novel

What direction do you see the form taking?

I would suppose that in America we are leaning more and more towards terrible millennial visions. I would even expect a religious dimension, a satiric dimension, an even more apocalyptic dimension than we have been accustomed to. I would expect the mode of fantasy to develop new permutations.

(From an interview by Antonio Weiss, published in The Paris Review, Issue #118, Spring 1991.) (I admit, I may just be seeing it because that’s my track of thinking these days, but I think considering “the end” leads to serious imaginative possibilities and questions.

I do not find, on the whole, that evangelicals are prone to unaffected removal from the world. Their world-loving God calls loudly. […] I find a great deal of intense, honest, and communal introspection—a passionate and persistent ambivalence toward the self that is of a piece with their passionate and persistent ambivalence toward their world. If through their self-examination evangelicals maintain hope for personal transformation (without which there is mute despair) and hope for the world’s transformation (without which there is self-righteous apathy), the ambivalence is productive: the beginning of all transformations.

Ryan Harper. The Possibility of an Evangelical Poet, Parts I & II. The Other Journal, August 17, 2011. 

Ok, so here’s another post on eschatology, as it shows up in art, specifically poetry. Harper examines the possibility of an evangelical poet – he makes concessions early in the article for the difficulty in defining an evangelical, although I tend to think of an evangelical as simply a person who holds the basic tenants of Christianity and aims to spread those tenants in her community. 

The point of his article is not to define evangelical, but rather what a poet would look like in a typical evangelical community where linear communication is valued – simple, straight-to-the-point-sermons with little room for (mis)interpretation. And then he takes a look at what an evangelical poet would look like in the general literary world.

The quote I posted has to do with this trend that I’m seeing of new hopeful eschatologies, a reaction against the disinterested, disconnected, despair of post-modernism. A reaction, by the way, that I endorse with caution.

What shall we call this new age? Neo-modernism would be the most ridiculous appellation ever. And wrong, too.

More fearful than a final sleep, to me, is indefinite wakefulness in a world where the body can be kept plodding along, but no doctor can mend the riven heart of man.

Tony Woodlief. Frozen Heads and Riven Hearts. Image Journal Blog. September 6, 2011.

The past few posts have been about the new hopeful eschatology cropping up in different disciplines (although Bob Dylan seems to be seeing though it, like he does). I’ve mentioned that it is showing up in art. However, science, championed by Ray Kurzweil, has been claiming that we will achieve some version of immortality by 2030, when we translate our brains into binary code and onto chips. Tony Woodlief addresses one of the problems with that line of thinking on his blog at Image Journal.

N.T. Wright addresses the “gap” of evil in another way: “The myth [of Englightenment progress] then, cannot deal with evil, for three reasons. 

  1. First it can’t stop it: if evolution gave us Hiroshima and the Gulag, it can’t be all good. There is no observable reason in science, philosophy, art, or anywhere else to suppose that if we simply plow ahead with the enlightenment dream these glitches will be ironed out and we’ll get to utopia eventually…
  2. Second, even if "progress” brought us to utopia after all, that wouldn’t address the moral problem of evil that’s happened to date in the world. Suppose the golden age arrived tomorrow morning; what would that say to those who are being tortured to death today?…
  3. The myth of progress fails because it doesn’t in fact work; because it would never solve evil retrospectively; and because it underestimates the nature and power of evil itself and thus fails to see the vital importance of the cross, God’s no to evil, which then opens the door to his yes to creation. Only in the Christian story itself…do we find any sense that the problems of the world are solved not by a straightforward upward movement into the light but by the creator God going down into the dark to rescue humankind and the world from its plight. (Wright, Surprised by Hope).

I suppose, when the new hopeful eschatologies react against the Christian story, it’s because much popular Christianity has subscribed to the same myth of progress that brought about the terrible fall of modernism. Either that, or much of popular Christianity subscribed to the post-modern despair and said, “The whole world is going to hell in a handbasket, so we must simply escape it by some sort of rapture.” In fact, if a person looks at the history of the rapture myth, it only came into popularity in the middle of the 20th century, probably out of the despair of the times, and a reaction against their father’s modernist hopes in progress.

The orthodox Christian story subscribes to neither, but to one that redeems the fallen creation, bringing justice to all who have suffered, or caused, an injustice throughout history while at the same time stopping evil once and for all. 

This should be my last post on the end of the world for a while. Thanks for bearing with me.

Tennyson seems to have reached the end of his spiritual development with “In Memoriam”; there followed no reconciliation, no resolution.

“And now no sacred staff shall break in blossom,/
No choral salutation lure to light/
A spirit sick with perfume and sweet night,”/

or rather with twilight, for Tennyson faced neither the darkness nor the light in his later years. The genius, the technical power, persisted to the end, but the spirit surrendered. A gloomier end than that of Baudelaire: Tennyson had no singulier avertissement (singular warning). And having turned aside from the journey through the dark night, to become the surface flatterer of his own time, he has been rewarded with the despite of an age that succeeds his own in shallowness.

T.S. Eliot. “In Memoriam” An Appreciation of Tennyson.

The shallow age to which Eliot is referring is his own, the generation that witnessed the fall of modernism’s eschatological hopes and refused to finish the journey through the despair. 

If I can draw a line through history here, it would be that: Tennyson’s Victorians, were the penultimate age of Modernism (reacting against Romanticism) believing that humanity had a shot at curing its own ills, which in poetry manifested in the technical achievements of poets like Tennyson. Then the fall of Modernism’s Babel. Now, in my generation, out of the rubble, new sprigs of hope are springing up. This happens every generation, but my generation seems to be mounting a real offensive. 

I’m just wondering in print here, but is there a possibility that my generation will see a tendency in poetry towards prosody, form, and rhyme like those of the Victorians? If so, I suppose that will be the tell-tale sign, the “mouth speaking from the abundance of the heart.”

(As a side-note, I had an editor tell me this year, after I ranted a little bit, that I reminded him of William Blake. If that is the case, then perhaps this is good further reading: Yeats on Blake on the Imagination.)

…[An] image deeply embedded within the created order itself: that of new birth…Paul again uses the imagery of the Exodus from Egypt but this time in relation not to Jesus, nor even to ourselves, but to creation as a whole. Creation, he says (Romans 8:21) is in slavery at the moment, like the children of Israel. God’s design was to rule creation in life-giving wisdom through his image-bearing human creatures. But this was always a promise for the future, a promise that one day the true human being, the image of God himself, God’s incarnate son, would come to lead the human race into their true identity. Meanwhile, the creation was subjected to futility, to transcience and decay, until the time when God’s children are glorified, when what happened to Jesus at Easter happens to all Jesus’s people…The whole creation is on tiptoe with expectation, longing for the day when God’s children are revealed, when their resurrection will herald its own new life. Paul then uses the image of birth pangs…Once again this highlights both continuity and discontinuity. This is no smooth evolutionary transition, in which creation simply moves up another gear into a higher mode of life. This is traumatic, involving convulsions and contractions and the radical discontinuity in which mother and child are parted and become not one being but two. But neither is this a dualistic rejection of physicality as though, because the present creation is transient and full of decay and death, God must throw it away and start again from scratch. The very metaphor Paul chooses… is not the unmaking of creation or simply its steady development but the drastic and dramatic birth of new creation from the womb of the old.

N.T. Wright. Surprised by Hope. HarperOne, 2008. First Edition. pg 103-104.

This serves as a follow up to yesterday’s post where I said that the new hopeful eschatology springing up from the rubble of post-modernism is generally reacting against one thing: a misreading of Christian eschatology. Post-modernists have to find hope somewhere because we have spent the last 80 years wandering about in survivor’s guilt. But modernism’s tendency is to view the world on a spectrum of progress that will finally achieve its own immortality. Since much of the language involved in these eschatologies is essentially borrowing from the Christian one, I felt like it would be worth an honest reading of first century Christians in the wake of their own upheaval: that of Christ resurrecting. N.T. Wright is about as good a source to look to as one can find.

I found a passage that sums the theme of Christian eschatology that is not one where the “good” people get sucked out into a floating city of heaven, but rather this creation is remade, transformed, in the hope of resurrection. Which has very real consequences now, presently.

…meaning and truth in Dante’s world reside in the afterlife, where figurae are fulfilled and totalities formed. Mortal existence is, by contrast, incomplete, illusory, secondary. But I think the opposite can be said, with equal accuracy: it’s the afterlife that is a tissue of illusions. Dante’s afterworld may be highly structured, but he invented that structure himself, synthesizing classical mythology, Christian theology, and medieval demonology. Dante’s afterworld, drawing attention to its own eccentricities, paradoxes, and loopholes, is not a universal afterworld – it’s Dante’s afterworld, based in his own experiences. Seen from this perspective, the only thing that’s indubitably real, the only thing everyone can see and agree on, is the stuff of this life – all the stuff that Dante himself studied with such interest and love. Is Paradise more real than all that? Is it better? Is Paradise enough to compensate for the loss of the world?
Maybe it is, and maybe it isn’t…But if this world is all there is, then it’s in history itself that the riddle finds its solution. The meaning of Dante’s existence is revealed not by his place in the chorus of Paradise but by the fate of his corpse and his corpus IN THIS WORLD. Then Dante’s head is a figura for Mallegni’s plaster cast, and his poetry a figura for wine, and Ugolino eating Ruggieri’s skull is a figura of forensic scientists extracting Ugolino’s bone marrow.

– from “A Divine Comedy: Among the Danteans of Florence” by Elif Batuman. pg. 55-65. Harper’s, Sept 2011. – Special thanks to Tragos for pointing me to the article.

Batuman’s argument that the comedy (things ending well and whole) of the Divine Comedy is to be found in the continuous present moment of history is something I see popping up all over the place these days. I think it is an attempt at hope newly emerging from the postmodern despair, the “breeding of lilacs out of the dead land.” Science and philosophy are expressing a new(ish) hopeful eschatology; folk-level art is expressing it (I think Josh Ritter’s present moment eschatology is similar to Batuman’s). In my mind, it is simultaneously exciting and terrible: the hope sounds eerily similar to the modernist hope that culminated in the first World War; hope is better than despair, but what sort of havoc could we wreak with our new technologies that WW1 and WW2 could not?

My solution isn’t to instead revert back to the postmodern despair, but rather to have an honest reading of the eschatology that all of these things are singularly reacting against; the Christian eschatology. The orthodox eschatology of Christianity, despite the zeitgeist in America today, was not one where “meaning and truth reside in the afterlife” but rather that the hope of a redeemed life makes meaning now. The continuous present moment is informed with hope because of a promise where THIS WORLD is redeemed – not trashed or sucked up into a golden city in the sky – but remade, here; albeit, a whole here. Jesus Christ died on the cross, and when He stepped out of the tomb, He still bore the scars of his execution, but the scars were in a new and whole flesh. 

So, I agree very much, and disagree very much at the same time with Batuman’s thesis. The end of the article though, is gorgeous prose.