Thursday, September 30, 2010

What Literary Age (that I am not taking part in) Are We In Now?

Major literary periods in the English-speaking world run, it is well-established, in more or less 40-year cycles. Obviously there are instances of major writers of the prior era lingering into the new one, and transitional zones of a few years from time to time which appear to be devoid of much meaningful activity, but on the whole this pattern has been remarkably consistent. The exact start and end dates of the various periods differ slightly according to who is the commentator and what is their rationale. My own preferred dates, for the eras I am primarily familiar with, are as follows:

Elizabethan/Shakesperean: c.1580 (first efforts of Spenser & Sidney) to 1616 (death of Shakespeare). Sometimes the reign of James I (1603-25) is referred to as a distinctive Jacobin era, but I tend to regard the years up to Shakespeare's death as still dominated by the spirit of the Elizabethan generation.

Civil War/Miltonian Era: 1621 (publication of the Anatomy of Melancholy) to 1660. Paradise Lost, which was published in 1667, is a good example of a carryover from one period to another.

Restoration: 1660-1700 (death of Dryden). Not my favorite literary era. This was a golden age of science.

Augustan/Neo-Classical Era: 1702 (Ascension of Queen Anne, battle of Blenheim)--1744 (death of Pope).

Enlightenment/Age of Johnson: 1744 (publication of Life of Savage) to 1791 (Publication of Life of Johnson). These dates may run a little long. The start date could be pushed back to 1749 (Tom Jones) or 1750 (start of The Rambler) to keep the theory consistent.

Romantic: c.1795 (Wordsworth, Coleridge, Austen, et al begin writing) to 1832 (death of Scott). Most date the beginning of this era either to 1789 or 1798 (the publication of Lyrical Ballads). I think the earlier date is a little too early. In Germany the romantic era is sometimes said to have been kicked off at least as far back as the Sorrows of Werther in 1774.

Early Victorian/Dickensian: 1832 (first Tennyson poems) to 1870 (death of Dickens). Middlemarch, published in 1871, is kind of a last capstone to this era.

Late Victorian/Edwardian: 1871 (first Hardy novel, unification of Germany) to c. 1908 (rumblings of Modernity begin to grow substantial on all fronts). I've read a lot from this era over the last year or so. While I find the time period rather interesting as the bridge between the really pre-modern world and an environment and mindset that is fairly recognizable even now, it was kind of a bland time for literature. Even the acknowledged great writers of the period, such as Conrad and Henry James, are not terribly exciting and rather a chore to get through, and its renowned iconoclasts like Shaw and Oscar Wilde still wrote within a psychic and cultural atmosphere that seems very narrowly bound and static compared to everything which broke out at the end of the period.

Modernism: 1910-1948. Probably overall the most influential period as far as my own life goes. I chose '48 as the closing date for a variety of reasons. First off, with the Soviets solidifying their position everywhere in Eastern Europe and the economies of the West and the United States in particular stabilizing and beginning their long periods of sustained growth, the proclamation of Israel and the beginnings of decolonization elsewhere, etc, the very different postwar world began to take recognizable shape. Secondly T.S. Eliot won the Nobel Prize that year, which was a symbolic acknowledgement of the triumph of the class of writing and the generation of writers he represented, most of the major figures of which were however already dead or past their prime by 1948.

Postmodernism: 1951 (Waiting For Godot, The Catcher in the Rye) to 1989 (death of Samuel Beckett, collapse of Communism). The Catcher in the Rye is not a characteristically postmodern book, but worldwide it was probably the most representative American book throughout the period and I think it played an influential role in the time's overall cultural imagination akin to that which Werther did during the Romantic era. Samuel Beckett, a figure with whom I have been fascinated for many years, was an embodiment of a strain of old style European bohemianism and deep humanistic learning as the core of life the transmission of which does not seem to have survived the second world war either in the (post-Soviet) East or the West. The collapse of Communist Europe, along with other factors of course, accelerated the emerging globalization trend by several degrees. As I have mentioned elsewhere, nowadays when I take up a movie or a book even from the late 1980s and even the early 90s, the life in it, especially in foreign works but in American ones too to a certain extent, frequently feels like something almost out of the quaint ancestral past.

The New Age: 1992 (Ascension of postwar Baby Boomers to dominant political and economic power across the West) to approx. 2030. So clearly whatever is going on now we are right in the middle of it, judging by the trend of the past we may even already be a few years past the cycle's most fervent & intense manifestation. So what is it? I don't know. This era feels to many people like it is very weak in all of the traditional arts, but of course most people experienced the 50s, which produced plenty of interesting and outstanding stuff, as culturally insipid, and the mainstream literary world in the 1920s considered Galsworthy and Sinclair Lewis and Booth Tarkington and Michael Arlen and people like that to be the major writers of the day, so it is likely that if by some miracle I have grandchild who is both with-it and intelligent he or she will be able to amuse his bohemian friends with tales of how benighted his earnest bourgeois grandfather was. However, I will offer a few theories:

The seed of any identifiable era's dominant tenor is usually found to be the fulfillment in one way or another of the most inisistently proclaimed desires of the previous era; the best eras, like the Romantic and Modernist periods, occur when the addressed desires take on a form that was wholly unforeseen by the articulators of those desires. To speak of the most recent periods, the main wish of the Modernist period, as far as I can deduce, was an ever more extreme, even self-cannibalising modernism, which the postmodern writers did their best to deliver. The strongest desires to emerge from the postmodern period, to my view, were the desire for the critic and scholar/theorist to emerge triumphant over the author and 'art', which could certainly be said to have happened to a certain degree, and the desire for more diversity in terms of race, gender, geography, culture, etc, at the center of the literary world, which also seems to be an identifiable phenomenon, though with the exception of the ascendance of women writers less so within the U.S. than internationally. The current desire, which I expect to manifest itself after 2030, is for literature to address what it means in the internet age, respond to the decline of the author, and the possible death, for all intents, etc, of the book.

My desire, and since I have it I presume it must be widespread, is for the artistic ethos in some kind of identifiable form to reassert itself, and I expect this to happen as well. I was reading one of those status-oriented blogs not long ago where the community was obsessed about IQs and where people went to school and careers and bashing humanities majors as morons who lack the intellect to succeed in anything serious and so on, and I wrote a brief comment to the effect of "doesn't anybody want to be an artist anymore?" Even reading about scenes and people I probably would have hated, like Berkeley in the 60s, the passion and vim and assuredness and instinct for fully indulging in the artistic gesture is enough to make one want to cry when confronted with the completely algorithim-directed and economics-dominated life most of us have to live now. At the moment, any kind of naive artistic instinct operating with something akin to abandon, doesn't seem to exist. I like the middle class kids in Brooklyn giving some semblance of the bohemian life a try today, and I often wish I were a little younger and could join them, but when it comes to making or living art in a natural and unaffected way, it just isn't coming yet. I believe it will come again, that the current intensity and extreme competitiveness of economic, academic and social life will at some point break and the artistic sensibility will be re-awakened, and I think it will be wonderful and the culture will feel very invigorated by this energy. That is my prediction.

As a closing note I am going to link to some videos by a current Brooklyn-based music group that I kind of like, Elizabeth and the Catapult. Elizabeth is good-looking, obviously pretty intelligent, and she seems to straddle the line, albeit narrowly, between being endearing in her progressivism and social correctness, and the alternative--in short, the type I once imagined I would spend a lot of time hanging out with in my twenties in New York or some other interesting place. Still, in the end, they fail. They aren't interesting, one feels they lack conviction, that they have nothing to say, or rather that there is nothing within them that they are willing to reveal.

There was another song of theirs that I thought was very good in spite of all these shortcomings but I can't seem to find it now.

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