After Postmodernism. 8. My Work and the Return of Dimensionality
GOD, the first volume in the Icon, is an epic poem I wrote between 2011 and 2015, and in its themes and formal strategies exemplifies many of the post-Postmodern characteristics I have been outlining in this series. (Indeed, they are so intrinsic to the text that one could as much call it a work about our current period as a product of it.) First, I would like to say a few things about the form, then focus on how the work engages with the three core concepts of the emergent paradigm that I have outlined above: 1) the return of dimensionality, 2) aesthetically-mediated belief, and 3) the ‘specter of Identity’.
As for form, GOD is an epic—a long kind of narrative, verse poetry with a long tradition of customs and conventions. As such, it should be seen, I think, within the current of post-Postmodern revivalism we have been discussing. Its aims are neither purely nostalgic nor parodic, but part of a broader trend to re-engage the past after the ‘return of history’, and this for a host of reasons. As Vermeulen and van den Akker say about metamodern neoromantics: “They look back instead in order to perceive anew a future that was lost from sight”, an approach which “should not merely be understood as re-appropriation; it should be interpreted as re-signification: it is the re-signification of ‘the commonplace with significance, the ordinary with mystery, the familiar with the seemliness of the unfamiliar, and the finite with the semblance of the infinite’” (p. 12). Of course, such matters did not concern Postmodern writers in the same way, and so it makes sense that Postmodern forms are not well-suited for such a performance. Epic, perhaps more than any other form, would indeed seek to re-engage the infinite, the unfamiliar, the mysterious and the significant, since it is the form most tied to myth, where archetypes of all kinds link anthropology with divinity, the immanent with the transcendent. As a work that aims to serve as both a meditation on, as well as an almost spell-like enactment of, the return of dimensionality, form is thus well-married to content (even if both may seem, especially to a Postmodern ear, “[b]ackward, quaint, naïve, anachronistic”, to quote Wallace). In typical performatist fashion, it would accomplish per forma certain aesthetic engagements with transcendence—which brings us to the first main topic of discussion.
GOD AND THE RETURN OF DIMENSIONALITY
The return of dimensionality is not just a facet, topic, or premise in GOD, it is its primary subject matter. The poem’s narrative arc spans the fall of the God of Western Christianity in the 20th century and the subsequent revival of a new form of transcendence in the 21st. This “death of God”, an idea made popular by Nietzsche, here signifies all that it did for the philosopher: not just the decline of the Christian religion, but the very end of metaphysics and of “transcendence” traditionally conceived—”Transcendence: overrun” (Canto 1, line 51).
These events are set in motion by a figure named John Faust (an allusion to that legendary archetype of the Modern Thinker/ Overreacher), who “blare[s] a spotlight through the dusky woods / of terrifying gods and fiendish sprites / that we might know and so not fear the world— / but tame it” (lines 281-84). In Faust’s program of emancipatory disenchantment—of freeing minds from the terrors of elves and goblins, ghosts and spirits—the old transcendent way of thinking about reality begins to recede from humanity’s imagination: “God / in wane, and exorcized Material / more lord and master of their minds than He, / than anything” (lines 318-20). As Faust will put it in his speech in Canto 3, the whole notion of a Platonic idealism has ceded to the ‘mere appearance’ of the cave: he “looked to Earth / as Earth, and took its shadows for my Forms!” (lines 355-56). It but remains to make the decisive move against the doddering institution of metaphysics: here, high Heaven.
The reigning paradigm of transcendence is the very City of God, the old orthodox Christianity, ruled over by the Monarch Himself. The author envisions a celestial cathedral, with “calendric Feast on Feast / revolving in accordance to His Will / and order” (Canto 4, lines 29-31)—in short, the fixed Essence of things, the Eternal and Immutable (Harvey). And at the center of it all: God, the very personification of Meaning. For, wherever He passes, He “makes surroundings substantive” (line 109), imbuing everything in His proximity with Significance. He is the very epitome of “deepness” (Jameson), the very explanatory telos in the one Great Narrative of being (Lyotard).
But war changes everything. A modernised humanity, under the influence of Faust, literally rises up against transcendent supremacy. In a series of encounters, which track with the World Wars of the 20th century, Heaven is progressively weakened. Its quaint simplicity simply can’t withstand the materialist onslaught of industrialism, science, and capitalism and the unprecedented destruction these can muster. Eventually, Eternity succumbs, and falls to accident and finitude, to the mustard gas and war planes. “For now great Transcendental forms, and frames / to skeleton a metaphysics break, / crumble, disintegrate: as air raids rock / and craters catch them” (Canto 6, lines 603-6). God and His Heaven are triumphantly overthrown, the Monarch Himself sucked down into an underworld of dead ideas. Such are the events recounted in DEATH.
With DESCENT, we enter a more familiar landscape: our own. The metaphysical dust settles (literally: Canto 7, lines 1-2; Canto 8, lines 147-49), and the post-war world comes into focus. If Faust had represented modernist utopian aspirations, his defenestration by the people after their turning against him suggests a decidedly post-modern turn. And indeed, in place of his narrative (and that of Transcendence) steps something else—a rapacious consumerism: the reign of the Salesmen, at whose invitation to thoughtless distraction and superficial hedonism “every fist / once raised to make its argument fell down / and listless at the sides of humankind” (Canto 8, lines 613-15).
Here things turn increasingly grim. In Canto 9, the speaker describes the view from the Postmodern moment, an “apocalypse of meaning” (line 469), driven by a nihilistic capitalism (the Salesmen), whose ineluctable destruction (the Beast) fuels ecological devastation on a grand scale; whose institutions of power are led by idiots (Parliament), while those of learning are lost in the cul-de-sac of deconstruction (Faust in his tower); whose art is crude and patronised by big corporations (the Artists), and whose normative habitation is dystopian and anemic (the Sprawl). It is a damning picture, to be sure, and one which elicits a deep disappointment from the speaker-protagonist, who had turned against God for this.
In which high Tower was some Purpose kept?
In which repeated district, Worth? Where now,
in all the brute efficiency and laws
of men, the truths of Science or the sense
of our own senselessness, where now were we?
Where was humanity? our higher selves?
Where now was some sublimity? Where now…
where now was
(Canto 9, lines 476-484)
Unable to accept the state of things, Joel, the speaker, escapes. He runs away, into the woods (those “numbered forests”, thanks to Development’s rampant devastation). Reflecting on all that has unexpectedly been lost since the death of God, Joel concludes:
But…might He not be returned?
Can Brutus beg forgiveness? Cassius cry
and put the stabs of Caesar back in knives
that worked his ending? Judas pluck the nails
and stitch His side and—with no hint or sense
but love when kissing—smile and say: “Hail, Master!”
and make his King uncrucified? Could I
descend, and harrow Hell for Saviors I
(Canto 9, lines 741-49)
Joel commits himself to the task, and hurls himself into the underworld to bring back God—embarking on what looks like, at least from the outset, a classic conservative return of dimensionality: a reactionary gesture, the simple recovery of the God that was lost.
His descent into the underworld places him in the realm of the old and discarded: of the “classics” (Greco-Roman myths), of “great men” (the poets), and eventually the ruins of religion itself. It is, in some ways, a reactionary’s fantastical dreamscape. In an intriguing move, the author has made the epic katabasis, that descent into the haunted fog of the primal human psyche, an adventure into a whole culture’s roots, a retrogressive move into ‘the way things used to be’. Indeed, even the poem’s style shifts in this section, to one less familiar, more stilted and formal.
When pressed, down here, by Tradition (in the form of the old epic poets themselves) precisely why he has descended, Joel’s answer is intriguing:
For sweet constraints… those stupid, artificial,
pretty constraints which make life meaningful,
if ruled by measure, and by harmony—
not Beasts of commerce in an anarchy
unhindered by a law to say ‘enough!’
Our fictions give us purpose—how then false?
if we be faithful, being bound to them?
If eased by chains, let God re-reign, and force
his subjects hold themselves… immortal.
to the Great King who’d legislate that lie:
I’d kiss his ring and sing high songs again.
(Canto 11, lines 428-40)
These words complicate our understanding of this as a simple, conservative return of dimensionality. On the one hand, of course, one gets the sense of the speaker wishing to ‘go back’, of returning to the way things were—in this case, to a lost form of religious transcendence, and singing songs again for the good King. At the same time, however, there’s the admitted understanding that such things can’t be naïvely held anymore, as simply true or valid; that God is just an idea—indeed, a false one—but somehow still worth holding. Is this an example of that metamodernist “informed naivete”, such as was mentioned by Vermuelen and van den Akker?
In any event, it very quickly becomes clear that anything like a conservative return of dimensionality is now entirely untenable. The God Joel finds in the underworld, it turns out, bears the scars from His ouster. History has left its indelible mark on the old Transcendence. More than that, Joel himself is now a product of the revolution, of his own disillusionment and disenchantment. Things come to a head.
In a climactic confrontation between the two, the subdued criticism in Joel’s fraught desire for dimensionality comes to the surface, and he unloads his full skepticism on the crippled God:
ENOUGH! ENOUGH! I wipe my groveling words
of artifice and obsequy! I’ll speak
with all propriety a worthless God
deserves, and curb my singing:
You are not
so great! No, you are not so high and mighty—
shipwrecked upon the shores of time!
(Canto 13, lines 190-96)
His attack excoriates the old paradigm with a withering critique of the traditional “Christian Virtues”: of blind faith in supernatural shadows; a misplaced hope in other-worldly reward; and an ascetic love for the immaterial at the expense of immanent enjoyment (in short, all the short-comings and fundamental failures of the old metaphysics now so ingrained in our culture).
But then, his words shifts. Almost reluctantly, he considers the other qualities of religious transcendence: how a non-rational prudence can counter deconstructionist relativism; a baseless sense of justice, in a world now without Right and Wrong; a silly temperance, that might yet orient us and contain our materialist extravagances; and a fortitude, again, in the face of unavoidable death based on belief in some existence after it. He concludes:
though fraud, and cheat, and epic charlatan,
your cardinal virtues gave True North—(though, true,
our troubled compasses had played us false…)
yet still we climbed—and found such mountaintops!
(Canto 13, lines 329-33)
In short, though “false” in the logical/empirical sense, transcendent values had nevertheless allowed, in many key aspects of life anyway, for a more beneficial experience of reality.
This is, in fact, the philosophical conundrum on which the whole poem seems to turn. How can something ostensibly false to reason be pragmatically and phenomenologically beneficial? What are we to do when faced with the choice between an unfulfilling but credible immanence or an inspiring but dubious transcendence? Is the latter not simply the “better story”?
Here, Eshelman’s performatist reading of the Life of Pi presents us with virtually the same issues at stake in GOD:
The problem is not so much that [GOD] resolutely resists deconstruction, it’s that [it] deconstructs its own metaphysical conceit so completely that there is hardly anything left for the canny poststructuralist reader to do. This happens because [GOD] shifts the framework of its argumentation from an epistemological plane to an aesthetic one. The book says, in effect: ‘given that we can never know for sure what is true, isn’t it better to enjoy what is beautiful, good and uplifting rather than dwell on what is ugly, evil and disillusioning?’ (p. 54)
This leads us directly to the issue of aesthetically-mediated belief—that hallmark of post-Postmodern works according to Eshelman—for, as we shall see, this is precisely the means of the return of dimensionality in GOD.
 The so-called “pagan” virtues, also called the “cardinal virtues.”