On Metamodern Pseudonymity
Updated: May 3
So, what’s up with the use of pseudonyms in metamodern literature?
What is this great jest with persona and identity all about?
Well, as I see it anyway, it's all inherently bound up with the earnest use of irony, the sincere and reconstructive uses of ironic distancing that go beyond postmodern uses of irony and deconstruction, the reclamation and reimagination of premodern pseudonymity for metamodern meaning-making, and even mystical kenosis.
In the Metamodern Spirituality Series, for instance, there are many voices. Are they real people, or are they made-up? The corpus itself dedicates some time to exploring the topics of pseudonymity, irony, spirituality and ethics head-on. (I direct you in particular to The Oil and the Lamp for a deeper exploration of the philosophical and theological implications beyond what I’ll say here.) The explorations of the topic within the work itself thus function as a meta-analysis of ironic distancing, keying the reader in while also never just saying it all directly. I make note of this because the issue is not simply some background genre assumption, or entirely unspoken tactic, but actually addressed within the work itself rather transparently (or, at least, translucently). Like irony itself, it’s hiding in plain sight, and any “competent reader” will become aware of these conceits given that the work more or less rubs the reader’s nose in it.
Why not directly say it all, then? Is this to deceive?
Well, that issue obviously haunts all issues of pseudonymity. People are uncomfortable with the idea of someone saying one thing and meaning another. Such is the nature of both irony and lying, of course. So how do we tell the difference?
Successful irony, of course, will have its tells, its cues. Exaggeration, incongruities of tone and register, etc. etc. One reveals enough of the subtext in the text to set them against one another so that the reader enjoys parsing the difference. Lies, on the other hand, are contrived to hide the subtext and present only as text.
Of course, all this becomes difficult, even impossible, when you remove the idea of “authorial intent,” which so much postmodern literary analysis attempted to do. If there’s no authorial intent, then it’s impossible to parse subtext from text. But if postmodern critique murdered the author, metamodern authors reassert themselves. Ironically, irony helps achieve this. By being beaten-over-the-head ironic, the author forces you to see subtext, and thus authorial intent, and thus an author. You’re forced to have a direct encounter with a person, then, and a fully textualized existence returns to the realm of genuine intersubjectivity.
Even more fundamental, though, is this: Postmodern authors employed irony largely to deconstruct things, to break the fourth wall and say “All of this is text! Look, it’s a book you’re reading! It’s all constructed.” Thus, irony was used to break down the whole play-act of reading and understanding by calling attention to its own constructedness. The illusion is broken; the Wizard is revealed, and so no one can go on being so naïve about it all. Irony in this way works against naivete, sincerity, and construction as a sort of “emancipatory” destruction of illusions.
But what do you do after all the illusions have been destroyed?
This is where metamodern uses of irony enter in. Irony is employed in a metamodern way, I think, when its aim and result is not the deconstruction of conceits and constructions, but edifying reconstruction, and the affirmation of constructions as constructions. Kierkegaard offers some incredible examples of how this can be approached. For him, the use of irony and pseudonymity was for reconstructive purposes, too. He used “indirect communication”—that is, writing under pseudonyms—to distance himself from the voices that were speaking. In this way, he could write from various perspectives, and allow the reader to reflect upon the perspective being articulated by a given “author.” In this arrangement, it was not the omniscient author (Kierkegaard) directly telling you what truth is, but multiple authors, all of dubious veracity, that forced the reader to apply his or her own critical thinking and subjecting assessment to find out for themselves. “Do I agree with that?” “Do I want to be like that?” etc. By confronting the reader with multiple perspectives, Kierkegaard forces them into a subjective engagement with the ideas, not a merely passive acceptance or rejection of dogmas. In getting into touch with their own subjective worlds, the reader is growing their “inwardness” and “passion” towards spiritual ideas. I view this as a proto-metamodern use of irony, since it employs irony and pseudepigraphy for the purposes of spiritual edification and growth, not simply the interrogation and breakdown of conventional constructions. In this way, pseudonymity can indeed be used in a metamodern way.
Pseudonymous remove can also be used strategically—a sheep in wolf's clothing, let us say. Kierkegaard notes that the trouble of spiritual truths in modernity is that they must be made “interesting,” which is to say, cast into reflection. To reach a postmodern audience today, then, one will need to be ironic, to cast the spiritual truths into reflection through irony. But this is irony with an end. It is irony that leads people away from and out of irony, toward sincerity—for spirituality is, he says, immediate, not reflective. One can thus use postmodern means for metamodern ends.
Another way metamodern pseudonimity can work is through the post-postmodern reimagination/reclamation of premodern pseudonymity. One of the big shockers from my Biblical Studies career was the realization of just how many books of the Bible were pseudonymous! Moses didn’t write the Torah, Daniel didn’t write the Book of Daniel; heck, none of the apostles wrote the Gospels Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. There’s original Isaiah, and Deutero-Isaiah and Trito-Isaiah, and a Pauline corpus and then a Deutero-Pauline corpus all written by someone claiming to be Paul, etc. etc. etc. Of course, this isn’t just true of the Bible. Most scriptures are riddled with pseudepigrapha, or even entirely written under false names of their eponymous founder. All canonical mind you. All revered and taken as Truth. So how can something so false (pseudo-) be so true?
The initial reaction is disillusionment. I’ve been had! It’s all lies! This is the modern move after the disillusionment from premodern naivete. This is disenchantment. The postmodern move mitigates this a little by pointing out that it’s actually a false dichotomy—that the idea of an “author” is itself a modern invention, so you can’t blame the ancients for not using it according to modern conventions. However, this doesn’t really help that much (spiritually) as it winds up simply erasing the author completely out of the picture entirely. All we have is layers and layers of interpretation; no inspired meaning. And if it all ends there, then good luck finding anything true in the world’s scriptural and wisdom traditions.
As it turns out, these reactions to modern and postmodern critique are rather naïve themselves. One of the reasons I’ve written pseudonymously is to show, directly, in a performatist way, that you can own your own metaphysical deconstruction so entirely, while still positing some meaningful truth in it regardless. It’s to say: Look! This is all pseudonymous, all made up. But does it speak truth, or no? Isn’t the limited idea of “authorship” for showing something’s veracity rather limited?
Consider the so-called Pseudo-Dionysian corpus, for instance. That’s some profound shit, there. But as soon as it was found out to be pseudonymous it was relegated to the ash-heap of theology from being formerly the text cited only second to Aristotle in the Summa Theologica. All because of a “pseudo-.” Talk about throwing out the baby with the bathwater!
A great work of reflection on the Dionysian corpus by Charles Stang shows how, far from a cynical power play, pseudonymity can actually be used to express mystical kenosis, the loss of the ego, and the I's subsumption into a Power beyond you. Using pseudonymity for metaphysical purposes such as this is certainly worlds away from the deconstructive irony of postmodernism.
Moreover, I’ve been interested in how these literary devices can provoke mystical reflection in their own right. In my own work, the Icon, the proliferation of numerous pseudonymous voices all reflecting on each other from higher and higher vantages creates a sort of kaleidoscopic effect, a hall of mirrors trailing up and out. It all leads—to the reader, to interiority. It breaks the dimensionality of the text itself out into the hors-texte—where the reader sits with their own subjective engagement with the work. Thus, a kind of transcendence is achieved through reading reflective pseudepigrapha, a kind of literary-mystical rapture into the abyss of meaning.
Conversely, this can also be viewed from the other angle, where the abyss of meanings is actually the terror of postmodern nihilism and endless relativism/perspectivism. Falling into the eternal proliferation of reflective voices isn’t unio mystica with the Self, but actually a loss of all foundations: Nietzsche’s death of God moment. Endless reflection in this way is a terror. But the device of reflective pseudonymity also reveals this terror: it shows that, indeed, reflection is endless. Is not the only way out a Kierkegaardian leap of faith? A move by the will, which stops reflection, which stops the polyphony, which constructs a Foundation?
Either way—as an Empyrean of voices to the Self, or an abyss of endlessly regressive reflections on reflections—it leads the reader to the demands of subjectivity, to the inner world, to interiority. Either way, it’s used constructively, as edification, as a support to the reader in their spiritual development by means of constructions, by means of owning constructions, and showing that simply because something is constructed doesn’t mean it isn’t real.
So, to simply come on out and say, for instance, “by the way, I, Brendan Graham Dempsey, am the author of it all!” either on the title page or in discussion (or a blog post!), betrays all of these literary hijinks right from the get-go. It immediately destroys the sense of “the interesting,” and loses worlds of depth in the process.
It’s funny, too: no one says that novel writers need to say up front that their fictional characters are fictional, or that actors on the stage need to own that they’re acting. Shakespeare mocked this sort of naivete in the play-within-a-play of A Midsummer Night’s Dream:
You, ladies, you, whose gentle hearts do fear The smallest monstrous mouse that creeps on floor, May now perchance both quake and tremble here, When lion rough in wildest rage doth roar. Then know that I, one Snug the joiner, am A lion-fell, nor else no lion's dam; For, if I should as lion come in strife Into this place, 'twere pity on my life.
A very gentle beast, of a good conscience.
When one writes a doctor into a novel, no one asks for credentials. Why then do we need metamodern authors to declare their pseudonyms like some kind of contraband? It’s odd to me how postmodernism can blow up the arts, and that’s all well and good, but write under a pseudonym as a metamodernist and one is “breaking the rules." Are we, in fact, more confusing than the postmodernists? Heaven help us! If so, though, it is only to match the complexity of the moment, and, ultimately, to lead the reader back to a truly divine simplicity.