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simple modernism

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Tell yourself the story of Oedipus Rex. Take a few seconds to do it, a few minutes. If you want the particulars, look them up.

So, it’s a bit more complicated than this due to the preserved unities (and more on this complexity in a minute), but you’ve got the prophesy, the slaying of the father and the marrying of the mother, with the riddle of the Sphinx in between.  Then (now we’re in the real time of Sophocles’s play), we have the arrival of Tiresias, the revelation of the true nature of Oedipus’s crimes, the suicide of Jocasta, Oedipus’s eyes out with the brooch, and then his self-exile.

Now, imagine alternate ways the story might have been told or might have happened. We could have followed blind, dripping Oedipus along his way to Colonus, but left off before we got there or just as he made it to the gates? What if we had narrowly focused in on a day featuring nothing but particularly good sex with Jocasta, or another in which Oedipus spent 9-5 working on land distribution in Thebes or hearing court cases?

Better yet, what if Oedipus had never found out about his crimes, and instead had died of old age? Or what if he had never committed the crimes in the first place, but rather stayed on with Polybus and Merope, eventually reigning unspectacularly in Corinth for a decade or two, before his own son took his place on the throne?

What if he did kill his father and marry his mother but such practices were so widespread at the time that it wasn’t really much of a big deal – he kills Tiresias, shrugs, and heads back to bed with his mother?

What sort of play would Oedipus Rex be if it didn’t locate itself right at the crucial moment, the moment of anagnorisis and peripeteia, retroactive revelation and reversal of circumstances? What if bad things happened, but nothing changed. Or no one knew (or allowed themselves to know) that the bad things had happened. What if the bad things – at least these bad things – had never taken place, either because they didn’t happen or for one reason or another they were not “bad.”

Aristotle, in the Poetics, discusses plot in a way that seems to hold room open for both Sophocles’s play and my own versions of it.

Some plots are simple, others complex, since the actions of which the plots are imitations are themselves also of these two kinds. By a simple action I mean one which is, in the sense defined, continuous and unified, and in which the change of fortune comes about without reversal and recognition. By complex, I mean one in which the change of fortune involves reversal or recognition or both. These must arise from the actual structure of the plot, so that they come about as a result of what has happened before, out of necessity or in accordance with probability. There is an important difference between a set of events happening because of certain other events and after certain other events.

The simple plot with a simple action “in which the change of fortune comes about without reversal and recognition.” We have two words for that sort of action when we’re made to watch it on stage, the movie screen, or the television news; those words are boring and fucked-up. Nothing happens, or something fails to happen, or something happens but no one pays a price, no one even notices, catharsis fails to come, retribution is not ours or theirs. In some sense, what Aristotle describes there with the notion of the simple plot is at once a formula an unstageable play and the logic of history, its brutality, most of the time.

It’s also the formula, I would argue, that best defines the diffuse field of texts that we label today modernist narrative. Imagine these possibilities:

  • Insanely brutal events happen in the Belgian Congo, but it is hard to figure out what or why. One agent of the company in charge is sent to find out the status of another. The latter dies unspectacularly, and the first agent heads back to Europe to talk to the deceased’s girlfriend.
  • A writer writing during and just after the First World War writes a work of epical scope that seems to be bent on the full capture of the realities of life during modernity. But despite the war raging all around him as he writes, he sets the work in the second city (if that!) of the British empire, a backwater full of semi-employed wanderers, and most unnervingly, he sets it exactly ten years before the beginning of the war that would define the early part of the century. *
  • A shell-shocked war veteran kills himself by leaping from his doctor’s window and landing on the area fence. Nonetheless, a woman hosts a lavish party. Not long before this 500,000 Armenians are massacred, and no one really notices.
  • A man comes to a door that has been erected only for him. He does not pass through the door. Nearby, a man is summonded to a trial of the gravest importance that never happens. In the same general area, a family goes back to work after the death of the eldest son, who had been turned into…

When I claim that preoccupation with the everyday is one of the defining characteristics of modernist narrative, I mean the everyday that takes place in lieu of or in resistance to the event. Or even better, the everyday is what takes the place where we would normally expect to find the event – the historical event, yes, but more specifically – technically – the action that turns and in turning provokes reflection that is the most fundamentally characteristic gesture of narrative itself. It would be utterly easy, in certain sense, and utterly literary, in a specific sense, to organize narratives that deal directly with the events of the period: colonial brutality, the advent of total war, bureaucratization verging on dehumanizing totalitarianism. War and sex, violence and news all give themselves to retelling in fiction – but for some reason, the most memorable texts of the most memorable period of fictional production during the past century and a half refuse to take the bait.

Just as water flows downhill, fictional impetus flows into Aristotle’s complex plot forms. Modernist authors did not so much reverse the flow, but rather, however fluid their discursive forms might be, resisted the notion of flow and change altogether.

* See my next post…

Written by adswithoutproducts

January 11, 2009 at 9:58 pm

8 Responses

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  1. […] a comment » Read this post as an extended footnote to my previous one. It’s very easy to forget, I suppose because it’s set in 1904, that Joyce wrote Ulysses […]

  2. I wonder if there’s some genre-shifting going on here as well. Why, for instance, does it seem right to turn to Aristotle and Oedipus for a foil? If the 20th-century pieces you’re thinking of are chiefly novels (HofD, Ulysses, Dalloway, Trail-Castle), then the more obvious analytic choice would be earlier novels, but those don’t seem to work. It’s hard to think of Fielding or Stendhal or Balzac or Dickens as organizing their novels around a punctuating event, present or absent–they are more like the loose, baggy monsters that James derided (I suspect you would want to include Flaubert alongside Conrad and Joyce–so let’s leave him out). The closer generic comparisons are drama and perhaps the detective story, no? So is there something to be said–or, are you saying something–about modernism not just in terms of the absenting of the event but as a new generic organization of the novel that allows for the foregrounding of this absence?

    Also, while I’m here, two suggestions:
    1)The Good Soldier – for another novel about an absent event
    2) Crime and Punishment – for a novel where the event takes place, in dramatic fashion, but can never quite find a way to drive the plot.


    January 12, 2009 at 3:42 pm

  3. Ah seriously good point. I’d argue, though, that even Dickens and Balzac retrain the “climactic event” / “revelation” structure, no? There’s a pretty big revelation to be found in things like GE, OT, etc…

    But this is a seriously good point that helps enormously.

    And yes, I have to talk (ugh) about the 19th century novel (other than Flaubert, and those written after 1890!) in order to make this work.

    So, thanks P!


    January 12, 2009 at 3:46 pm

  4. I’m curious, have you read Josipovici? In particular, it seems to me his book On Trust and the essays collected in The Singer on the Shore could be helpful here. (Among other things, he talks explicitly about the 19th c. novel, and why modernists were drawn to earlier inspirations.)


    January 12, 2009 at 5:27 pm

  5. Richard,

    Will acquire and read. Haven’t somehow.



    January 13, 2009 at 1:08 pm

  6. Since you’ve provided some similar graphs, you may want to check out Kurt Vonnegut’s story graphs, if you’re not familiar with them already.

    Mark Cullen

    January 15, 2009 at 4:55 am

  7. Mark,

    Jesus wow. I have never seen those. Permanent collection, right up at the front, those go in. And likely will appear during teaching instances for the next 30 years or so. So, geez, thanks!


    January 18, 2009 at 11:22 am

  8. […] something about the fiction itself, don’t I? What I would say would have something to do with the basic anticipation / fulfillment / frustration model of narrative form that I somewhat idiosyncratically have been carrying around ever since I was a wee […]

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