Terry Eagleton’s recent article on ‘Capitalism, Modernism and Postmodernism’ (nlr 152) concludes one of its sections with the following sweeping, brilliant statement: ‘The autonomous, self-regarding, impenetrable modernist artefact, in all its isolated splendour, is the commodity as fetish resisting the commodity as exchange, its solution to reification part of that very problem.’footnote1 Apt as this is, its very sweepingness is problematic. All modernist literature is condemned as in thrall either to fetishism or to reification. One is left wondering whether or not Eagleton considers any recent authors worth reading (perhaps Walter Benjamin scrapes through, but then he, like Eagleton, is a critic . . .). His gesture almost rivals the notorious Leavisite dismissal of post-war literature for barrenness. So who are we left with? Which authors can be said not only not to hinder the Marxist project, but actually to promote it?
Recent issues of New Left Review seem to have realized that this is indeed a problem, and to have proposed Third World—and particularly Latin American—literature as the source of an alternative set of exemplars. This valorization itself, however, seems to me to be problematic. It is the question of the immediate usefulness of works in which the bourgeois subject is absent (because the societies that generate these works are semi-feudal and pre-individualistic) for comprehension of our own First World societies, which are firmly entrenched in a post-individual phase. A short-circuiting of historical logic appears to be at work here. Quite apart from the dubious nature of any claims one might make for the exemplary status of Wilson Harrisfootnote2 (whose work I view as engaged in a mystification of insights already achieved by Conrad, a voyage into the colonial interior that all too rapidly becomes a trip into a purely hallucinatory mental interior), one has to be sceptical of the usefulness of a literary taste that can either (a) survey First World
The nature of the distinction to be drawn between the poetics of literature in these two spheres can be clarified by considering Fredric Jameson’s work on ‘magic realism’ and ‘nostalgia film’.footnote3 Although Jameson does not explicitly identify ‘nostalgia film’ as a First World phenomenon, the identification is nevertheless implicit. In the magic realism of Latin American writers the indigenous past is privileged as a point of opposition to the international monopoly capitalism that is threatening its engulfment. Here the struggle is a clear-cut one: the vanishing world of ‘magic’ provides hopeful spells against the tentacular disenchanted realism of the multinationals. ‘Nostalgia film’, however, in its political mode (e.g. Bertolucci’s The Conformist) projects a nostalgia for clear-cut struggle and absolute opposition to unambiguously evil régimes: a Thirties possibility no longer available in the post-war period, in which capitalism uses the forms of pseudo-democracy and their evident preferability to fascism to legitimate itself, to co-opt individuals and classes, and to recuperate all points of opposition. Jameson is somewhat scathing about ‘nostalgia film’ (even in Bertolucci, its most intelligent exponent), and it is easy to see why. The air magic realism breathes is tonic, heroic, epic and—what is more—clearly virtuous. The nostalgic First Worlders, by way of contrast, are living in a past that offers no succour in the struggle against the present. ‘Nostalgia film’ projects onto the more clear-cut past the sense of complicity and impotence felt by one enmeshed in the consumerist present—which prevents the past becoming a Utopian imago, a source of redemptive force, as it is in the criticism of Benjamin, and transforms it instead into a pretext for fetishistic display of period trappings. Since one is oneself part of the culture one is struggling against, to struggle at all is to divide oneself, unlike the magic realists, who have a very solid sense of selfhood. Works such as Bertolucci’s The Conformist are neither stirring nor inspirational, but shot through with the uncomfortable yet necessary self-hatred of a member—and hence beneficiary—of capitalist society. The problem is how to render this self-hatred productive. Hence our own position is somewhat more difficult (and less virtuous) than that of the magic realists. Their solutions are not really relevant to us, except as a general index of solidarity in a single struggle. Rather than succumb ourselves to nostalgia for clear-cut struggle and play off literatures against one another, we must look for solutions of our own. One work that might help us is Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49.footnote4
The Crying of Lot 49 is Pynchon’s second novel. Published between V and Gravity’s Rainbow, it is often viewed as an interlude, or as a prelude
I am not attempting to propose the form of Pynchon’s fiction as a model. The form—that of the detective story without an ending—is unique, and Pynchon’s own passion and inventiveness have proved without parallel among contemporary American novelists. Interestingly enough, it is when he explicitly employs Third World culture as a standard against which to judge First World culture—as he does in the Herero sections of Gravity’s Rainbow—that Pynchon succumbs to sentimentality: he simply does not know enough (who among us First
The Crying of Lot 49 is an attempt to bring the American consciousness, personified in Oedipa Maas (nothing is more American than Freudianism), to awareness of all it has repressed. The power of repression in us society is hinted at in some remarks by Octavio Paz, which could provide an epigraph to Pynchon’s novel: ‘North American society is closed to the outside world, and at the same time it is inwardly petrified. Life cannot penetrate it, and being rejected, squanders itself aimlessly on the outside. It is a marginal life, formless but hoping to discover its proper form.’footnote6 The forces in question have been located ‘outside’ by the American sense of ‘hygiene’, which is linked to the ideal of autarky (as was the case in the dictatorships of the thirties), and which operates according to what Philip Slater has termed ‘the toilet principle’. A wellfunctioning plumbing system precludes the return of the repressed by removing it to a safe distance from the point of its first emission (hence the traumatic nature of the plumbing problems found in Watergate; and this is also why one of the most traumatic moments in the American cinema of the last fifteen years is the point in Coppola’s The Conversation at which the toilet mechanism reverses to release an avalanche of blood onto the hygienically glistening floor). It is in deliberate violation of this process that Pynchon will include in Gravity’s Rainbow a scene in which its primary protagonist, Tyrone Slothrop, voyages down a toilet’s piping. It is The Crying of Lot 49, however, which seems to me to provide Pynchon’s most urgent, plangent and penetrating analysis of
Two questions dominate the closing pages of The Crying of Lot 49: does the underground postal system Oedipa thinks she has uncovered really exist? And, if so, does it constitute a genuine alternative to the surface petrification of American society, or is it simply the means whereby her megalomaniac and millionaire ex-lover, Pierce Inverarity, gives her something to remember him by? These final pages hover between ‘either’ and ‘or’ (a hovering that may perhaps be a sign of the falsity of Oedipa’s consciousness of her own dilemma, since elsewhere in the novel Pynchon has identified metaphor as both a thrust at truth and a lie: things exist in the polymorphous realm of both/and, rather than either/or): either the underground mail system exists, with the purpose of silent transmission of the messages of the disaffected (messages that are often empty, like the ones sent by the Yoyodyne employees, because their true content has not yet materialized, the Tristero Empire is still being awaited), or Oedipa is simply hallucinating. The question the waste system poses is whether or not those society has refused can themselves formulate a coherent refusal of that which defines them as waste. The link between waste and refusal is made explicitly by Pynchon, whose novel is rich in ramifying puns, very early on in the text. Mucho Maas, Oedipa’s husband, reflects on the trade-ins he saw brought to the used-car lot where he once worked: ‘and when the cars were swept out you had to look at the actual residue of these lives, and there was no way of telling what things had been truly refused (when so little he supposed came by that out of fear most of it had to be taken and kept) and what had simply (perhaps tragically) been lost.’footnote7 All social systems have mechanisms for the disposal of their waste—in this case, of the wasted lives so often seen as the necessary price of the American dream. Before this century, most social systems integrated ‘waste’ into ideologies founded on scarcity (in this sense, the totalitarian Nazi dream of using every last bit of the Jews for some purpose or other is a rabid final incarnation of the old system): even Hell, the archetypal waste realm, serves to confirm by antithesis the existence of Heaven. The cultures of scarcity were also cultures of immobility: waste had to be re-used, or at least assigned a place in the social structure of beliefs, because it had to be lived with.