Polina Posts XXVIII: The View Of The Modern Period

Source. Note: Emphasis mine.

-Rather than democracy and individualization, the contemporary modern period was represented as bureaucratic and repressive. Rather than a free market or contractual society, modern America became ‘capitalist,’ no longer rational, interdependent, modern, and liberating, but backward, greedy, anarchic, and impoverishing.-

-In American Pastoral,he describes the trajectory of the Levov family as if it were representative of a quintessentially American experience “Three generations. All of them growing. The working. The saving. The success. Three generations in raptures over America. Three generations of becoming one with a people. And now with the fourth it had all come to nothing. The total vandalization of their world” –

– As Alexander so glibly puts it, at various moments between President Kennedy’s assassination and the summer of love, “serious ‘reality problems’ began to intrude on modernization theory in a major way”-

-When Merry Levov, the Swede’s teenaged daughter, blows up the post office in Old Rimrock, she becomes a personification of those changes, exploding the Swede’s imagined utopia and thrusting him, along with the rest of America, “into the fury, the violence, and the desperation of the counterpastoral—into the indigenous American berserk” –

-The first rifts in the postwar consensus became apparent as early as the late-1950s, when the burgeoning Civil Rights movement began to question publicly the hypocrisy of America’s liberal ideology by pressuring Washington to address racial inequality at home or risk sacrificing its self-appointed “moral authority” on the global stage.-

-In The Rise and Decline of Western Liberalism, Anthony Arblaster argues that Vietnam was, in fact, the inevitable result of America’s romantic liberalism, the natural byproduct of President Truman’s announcement in 1947 that “The free peoples of the world look to us for support in maintaining their freedoms.”-

-What Alexander describes as modernization’s move from the sacred to the profane side of historical time is enacted with tragic pathos throughout American Pastoral. When, in the closing sentence of the novel, Zuckerman asks, “What on earth is less reprehensible than the life of the Levovs?” his question laments the destructions of both a family and the American dreams they had appeared to personify.-

-As the embodiment of modernization’s promise, Swede Levov is transformed through the gaze of antimodernization from a hard-working, well-intentioned hero into a “shitty little capitalist,” as Rita Cohen calls him Dawn Levov is likewise metamorphosed from Miss America into a “frivolous, trivial beauty-queen”.-

-In the face of the New Left’s fiery rhetoric and revolutionary behavior, the Swede’s tolerant liberalism makes him an anachronism—as naive and impotent as the Gittelmans had once appeared in the glow of postwar consensus. Roth’s description of the Swede seems to echo the opening paragraphs of “Benito Cereno,” in which Melville famously calls Amasa Delano “a person of a singularly undistrustful good nature”. “How to penetrate to the interior of people was some skill or capacity he did not possess,” Zuckerman says.-

-He just did not have the combination to that lock. Everybody who flashed the signs of goodness he took to be good. Everybody who flashed the signs of loyalty he took to be loyal. Everybody who flashed the signs of intelligence he took to be intelligent. And so he had failed to see into his daughter, failed to see into his wife, failed to see into his one and only mistress—probably had never even begun to see into himself. What was he, stripped of all the signs he flashed? –

-Like Delano, the Swede is undone by his inability to recognize the “malign evil in man,” particularly the failings of his own daughter, whose outrage and anger—like that displayed by Don Cox in Leonard Bernstein’s well-heeled duplex—he greets with apologies and sympathy and (mis)understanding.-

-By the end of the novel, Merry, like her father, is dead, as are the radically divergent dreams of America’s future that each held dear. Merry’s stated objective echoes the Marxist goals of the Weathermen (who she joins), the Panthers, and the other revolutionary arms of the New Left: “To change the system and give power to the 90 percent of the people who have no economic or political control now”. Instead of helping to usher in a new era of political, economic, and social equality, however Merry’s passion seems only to have ended three innocent lives, destroyed her family, and led her toward a life of Jainism, making her the most self-sacrificial of Roth’s many ascetics.-

-The Swede’s final encounters with Merry mirror the young Zuckerman’s with O’Day and Glucksman, though they are all the more tragic for being filtered through a father’s loving desire for his daughter. Reduced to a life of isolation amid a decrepit apartment in which her only possession is the stained pallet on which she sleeps, Merry, the precious daughter of All-American Swede Levov, is “disgusting. His daughter is a human mess stinking of human waste. Her smell is the smell of everything organic breaking down. It is the smell of no coherence. It is the smell of all she’s become”. –

-With the energies of the radical social movements waning by the end of the 1970s, so went the optimism and enthusiasm of many American intellectuals. “Parallels with the 1950s were evident,” Alexander argues. “The collective and heroic narrative of socialism once again had died, and the end of ideology seemed once again to be at hand”. Instead of engaging in struggle toward a better world, social theorists were forced to confrontthe possibility of historical retrogression, which would, of course, signal the final defeat of the Enlightenment project and undermine the very foundations of contemporary intellectual life.-

-Postmodern theorists responded by welcoming this defeat as “an immanent one, a necessity of historical development itself. The heroic ‘grand narratives’ of the left had been made irrelevant by history; they were not actually defeated. Myth could still function. Meaning was preserved”.-

-This problematic relationship between history, meaning, and power has dominated much of postmodern discourse articularly since Jean Lyotard’s proclamation of the “end of meta-narratives” in The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge. Another problem of history for the American left, then, is that, like all grand makers of meaning Christianity, Marxism, and empiricism, to name but a few), history is reduced by postmodernization to a multiplicity of texts, each equally incapable of accurately documenting the whole truth.-

-Like antimodernization theory, postmodernism takes as its binary opposition “the modern,” though in slightly different terms Instead of emphasizing the moral and political consequences of modern capitalism, as had the radical social movements before it, postmodernization offers “privacy, diminished expectations, subjectivism, individuality, particularity, and localism” as alternatives to the modern’s stability and universalism.-

-Alexander writes: “While postmodernism, then, is indeed a deflationary narrative vis-a-vis heroic radicalism, the specificity of its historical position means that it must place both heroic (radical) and romantic (liberal) versions of the modern onto the same negative side”. The end result is a near debilitating fatalism regarding the impossibility of totalizing change. Alexander characterizes the condition as “comically agnostic,” an apt description, I think, of much of Roth’s later work.-

-With all of history suddenly exposed as fictional constructs, artists were freed to interrogate it with impunity, making it the stuff of parodic play. In their freedom, however, they also sacrificed recourse to effective political means, making parody easy (and fun), but change difficult.

Continuation here