It is a curious thing indeed that an ideology as nihilistic as Modernism yielded, as an immediate, knee-jerk response, an uncompromising artistic dogmatisim rather than the relativism it so plainly contained in itself. For if Beauty really didn’t exist, as the modernists insisted, then it shouldn’t have mattered whether it was kept alive or not; if there were no eternal, immutable ideals, then surely all remnants of Beauty could have been allowed to co-exist alongside other, equally mutable, perishable ideals, and at most be renamed and reframed.
The onset of this kind of relativistic open-mindedness would have to wait until the advent of Postmodernism in the late 1960s – almost eighty years after Nietzsche’s famous declaration.
Here, the logic of the man-god would collapse under the weight of its egotistical absurdity. God didn’t exist – this was, by now, practically incontestable. And if he didn’t exist outside of man, he quite clearly couldn’t exist within him either. Man’s insistence to crown himself supreme aesthete in god’s place had proven itself to be nothing more than hubris; a shallow attempt to replace an old, false idol with a newer, even more dubious one. For if all-powerful and all-knowing entity had proven himself unable to rule the cosmos, had ‘died’ trying, how could man, pathetic and weak as he was, expect to succeed where he’d failed?
In his The Postmodern Condition (1979), philosopher Jean-Francois Lyotard defined Postmodernism as an "incredulity toward metanarratives.” This, I feel, is apt. By ‘metanarrative’, Lyotard meant underlying conceptions of the world that allow us to remain firmly and earnestly rooted in our metaphysical reality, and live in a state of genuine investment in it.
Common metanarratives include the infallibility of scientific inquiry, the linear progress of history, but also, as we have seen, the unquestionable existence of ideals such as Truth, Meaning and Beauty. Without a sincere belief in such metanarratives, we become aloof and despondent. Unable to sink our metaphysical feet into the foundations of reality, we detach ourselves emotively from it, and life itself becomes comical because we begin to see it as if from afar, where its underlying absurdity is exposed.
With the advent of Nihilism, many of the world’s most cherished moral metanarratives had already been done away with. One, however, had persisted (mostly because it had replaced many of the old): the ideal of the man-god. But at the hand of the Postmodernists, this too would be disbanded, leaving little to prevent man from coming loose from his ethical moorings.
The idea of a philosophical removal from life, of an affective detachment from its absurdity was, by the way, not new. Albert Camus had proposed it in his Myth of Sisyphus in 1942. Here, Camus described what he termed the ‘Absurd’, which, in his conception, didn’t mean that existence was inherently irrational per sé (such a proposition would be ridiculous, for it would suggest that the universe had created itself expressly with human logic in mind, and then intentionally eschewed it). Rather, the Absurd was a human sentiment, existing in man’s mind alone. It referred to the internal tension, the consternation we experience when our need for metaphysical order clashes with the universe’s obstinate refusal to furnish it. Camus’ solution to the Absurd and the anguish it caused was a sober but optimistic resilience that amounted to a daily revolt. “One must imagine Sisyphus happy,” he wrote at the end of The Myth, referring to the ancient Greek hero who, as punishment for his arrogance, was condemned by the gods to roll a boulder up a hillside for all eternity. Life for all of us is just as meaningless as it is for Sisyphus. But rather than kill ourselves on account of it, which is the first solution that often comes to mind, we must roll up our sleeves, put on a big smile and resolve to live well in spite of it.
This cheerful indifference in the face of life’s absurdity would be adopted by the Postmodernist as his modus operandi. Dramatists Samuel Beckett and Eugène Ionesco, important Postmodernist precursors, took Camus’ conception of the Absurd and coloured their stage plays with it.
In Beckett’s Waiting For Godot (1953) and Ionesco’s Rhinocéros (1959), characters are vexed by sinister metaphysical conundra. They await answers to existential queries in an irrational and menacing world that proves, time and again, unwilling to provide them. Though the underlying message is a dark and tragic one (life is privy of meaning, and all attempts to find it are pointless), its method of communication is comical. In Godot, all common logic is subverted, leaving the characters thwarted in their actions. But they shrug off their misfortune and make light of it, leaving the viewer undecided as to whether to respond with laughter or tears.
Irony and irreverence, in fact, seemed to the Postmodernist the only just response to the Absurd. This was, in large part, a reaction against the heavy-handedness of the gargantuan modernist ego, which had now revealed itself laughable. Modernism had gone too far, taking its pathological obsession with the new to an aesthetic dead-end, and leaving the Artist with nowhere to go but in one sense ‘up’ and in another ‘down’.
Having identified as risible attempts to forcibly assert aesthetic Truth by means of hard-lined dogma, and having at the same time thoroughly absorbed the full logical implications of the non-existence of Beauty (the ultimate Art metanarrative), the Postmodernist reacted, first, by withdrawing from a world he could no longer rely on metaphysically, and then, able to gaze upon it from a great height, bursting into uncontrollable laughter over the hopeless mess of it.
The words of Kierkegaard come to mind:
“As I grew up, I opened my eyes and saw the real world and I began to laugh. And I haven’t stopped since. I saw that the meaning of life was to get a livelihood; that the goal of life was to be a high-court judge; that the brightest joy of love was to marry a well-off girl; that wisdom was the majority said it was…That’s what I saw. And I laughed.”
It’s astonishing that Kierkegaard should have pre-empted, by 120 years, the Postmodern skepticism toward metanarrative, anticipating even Camus. Or perhaps it is, rather, astonishing that it should have taken humanity so long to apply it.
But apply it we have – in an aesthetic in which the absurdity of Truth and the futility of earnestness is affirmed at every turn; in which Art is no longer definable and, therefore, subjectable to all manner of derisions; in which high and lowbrow recklessly intermingle and stylistic conventions are toyed with sadistically; in which the pursuit of the new constitutes little more than a senseless battering of the old; and in which any attempt of an artist to take the ennobling aspect of his Art seriously is considered hubristic and misguided.
With his collection of short stories, Lost in the Funhouse (1968), John Barth invented ‘metafiction’. Highly irreverent and self-reflexive, this style of narration rested on a notion that Barth himself had outlined in a previous work: literary ‘exhaustion’. With high Modernism, Barth argued, fiction had reached an endpoint, having definitively exhausted all expressive and stylistic possibilities. The contemporary writer, therefore, had no choice but to take a radically different tack; to rise above the form itself, creating, not works of fiction, but works that resembled fiction, spoke of fiction, dissected it, ironised it and provided a commentary on it. Joyce had, with his language-dismantling Ulysses, already hinted at this method, but Barth would place it at the centre of his aesthetic.
There ensued, in the following decade, a number of works from Barth’s literary contemporaries that followed his example. Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughter-house Five (1969), Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow (1973), Italo Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler (1979) and Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose (1980) all present many of most recognizable Postmodern trademarks: self-reflexive commentary, unreliable narrators, intertexuality and unwavering irony.
Music was quick to catch on. In 1969, Luciano Berio premièred his Sinfonia: a sprawling, grotesque work for massive symphony orchestra in which eight vocalists provide, as the piece unfolds, a running commentary of self-referential gags and musical observations. Five years later, Russian Alfred Schnittke wrote his First Symphony (1974), juxtaposing, in it, a variety of different musical idioms, and thereby inventing musical polystylism.
In 1976, Philip Glass did the unthinkable, and returned music to its diatonic roots, re-introducing simple triadic harmonies and near-conventional harmonic progressions – but with a twist. His music was characterised by – as he termed it – ‘repetitive structures’, or small rhythmic and motivic figures repeated ad nauseam.
All these were attempts at creative freshness that involved a thoroughly Postmodern, ‘meta’ perspective; an ability to see conventions and styles from a detached, ironic viewpoint.