Reflections on philosophy and culture

Monday, April 9, 2012

Speculative Modernism - Introduction

I've been fascinated by the links between literary modernism and fantastic literature (science fiction, fantasy, and horror) for a long time now - ever since I discovered Beckett's The Lost Ones as a teenager and mistook it for (or better: recognized that it is) a work of science fiction.  Lately, this fascination has reared up again, prompted by my recent reading of Alastair Brotchie's new biography of Alfred Jarry - Alfred Jarry: A Pataphysical Life.

In recent months, this has led me in a direction I've been led before: 19th century French literature - specifically, proto- and post-Symbolist literature.  This is literature that had a decisive impact both on high modernism and on science fiction and fantasy.  For me, the works of LautrĂ©amont, Villiers de L'Isle-Adam, and Jarry inhabit the same intellectual space as works by writers like H.P. Lovecraft, J.G. Ballard, M. John Harrison, and China Mieville.  All of these writers share the suspicion that literary realism is not real enough, that what we tend to think of as the ordinary is a pleasant fog by which we obscure the strangeness of ourselves and the world we inhabit.  Their shared sensibility, in turn, combines a mischievous love of the weird with a conviction of the utmost seriousness - that estrangement from the ordinary is the most powerful and the most necessary weapon in the writer's arsenal.

This is the sensibility I'm calling Speculative Modernism.  This sensibility, this rare combination of whimsy and seriousness, seems to me to be largely absent today.  We're all familiar with the ways in which the weird has been embraced in contemporary pop culture: turn on Adult Swim, and you'll see endless examples of how a whimsical love of the weird survives, but has become completely detached from any sense of purpose.  The weird has largely become an end in itself - something we seek in order to delay the inevitable moment when the spectacle of signs we bombard ourselves with becomes boring and tedious.  The weirder the better, because things that strike us as weird have the one and only virtue we prize: they are interesting rather than boring.

It's an old worry that I'm expressing here, something that has been on my mind more and more the deeper I've been delving into Kierkegaard's critique of what he calls 'the aesthetic stage.'  The aesthete, for him, is the one for whom the categories of 'interesting' and 'boring' take center stage, who lives for the surface and the image.  Beneath the giddiness and joy she exudes, though, is intense alienation, depression, and despair.  She is lost in the amorphous and continuously changing spectacle of signs; she must always chase after this spectacle, since it's the only thing that gives her the momentary enjoyments that allow her to ignore the fact that she is, for herself, nothing at all.  She has yet to decisively grapple with the question of who she is, and what the projects are around which she will orient her life.

If contemporary pop culture is immersed in the aesthetic stage, it seems to me this is partly because something crucial was stripped away from Speculative Modernism, even while the latter's love of the weird was left intact.  What I think of as most valuable - both in the spirit of high modernism and in the best of modern science fiction, fantasy, and horror - is precisely what was stripped away: an earnest desire to rebel against the ordinary - not simply to produce interesting spectacle, but to elicit genuine awe, even reverence for the ways in which the world always withdraws from our grasp; to help us grapple with the forms of horror, despair, and alienation that lurk just below the surface of things.

Since I've been thinking so much about these themes lately, I've decided to write a series of blog posts about what I'm calling Speculative Modernism.  My reading has by no means been systematic - I've been enjoying the experience of meandering through various writers and texts far too much.  So, this series won't even pretend to be systematic itself.  Rather, I'd like to talk about some writers and texts that I think of as representative of Speculative Modernism - in the hopes of making more clear what I mean by the term and why I attach such significance to it.

First up will be a recent discovery of mine: the work of proto-Symbolist Villiers de L'Isle-Adam.

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