"The Literature of Replenishment--Postmodernist Fiction"
by John Barth
Jerry Liang
Nov. 19, 1998
There is no clear definition for the term "postmodernism" and for the characteristics of "postmodernist fiction" in this era, and some scholars claim that postmodernism is the extension or the opposition of modernism in a way. In this essay, John Barth show his disagreement with this notion, and at the same time he also point out his liking of some qualities of literature of the last century. However, he does not really wants to get rid of all elements of modernism in postmodernist fiction, and he does not want to trace back to the ancient traditions completely either. Synthesis is the ideal way for postmodernist writer and fiction. ¡@
General views about postmodernism & postmodernist fiction modernism Barth's disagreement with modernism Barth's view of postmodernism & postmodernist fiction
Two Examples
I. Some general ideas of postmodernism and postmodernist fiction A. General speaking, the term postmodernism clearly suggests that any discussion of it must therefore either. . . 1. presume that modernism in its turn, at this hour of the world, needs no definition.

2. or define, or redefine, that predominant aesthetic of Western literature in the first half of this century.

B. Professor Robert Alter:

¡§Over the past two decades, as the high tide of modernism ebbed and its master died off. . .¡¨ But there is no proceeding definition of the ensuing low tide, postmodernism.

C. Professor Ihab Hassan:

1. He suggests that postmodernist fiction is both rightly proceed from the premise that the programme is in some respect an extension of the programme of modernism and in other respects a reaction against it. Similar to the two above, he also has no clear definition of postmodernist fiction.

2. For Alter, Hassan and other postmodernist, postmodernist fiction merely emphasis the 'performing' self-consciousness and self-reflexiveness of modernism, in a spirit of cultural and anarchy. It is more and more about itself and its process, less about objective reality and life.

D. Professor Gerald Graff: 1. He makes a quick review of conventions of literary modernism before discussing the mode of fiction "departs not only from realistic conventions but from modernist ones as well."¨ But still he does not make a clear definition of postmodernism.

2. For Graff, postmodernist fiction is also anti-rationalist, anti-realist, and anti-bourgeois programme. But the difference is he gets rid of certain postmodernist satire as managing to be vitalized by the same kitschy society that is its target.

II. The characteristics of modernism: Through out the definition of postmodernism above, we see that there are indeed every close relationship between modernism and postmodernism (since some suggests postmodernism is the extension or opposition of modernism). In this article Barth tries to reexamine the characteristics of modernism.

A. Graff¡¥s check list of modernism: This checklist in some way is the criticism of the 19th century bourgeois social order and its world view.

.. Its artistic strategy was the self-conscious overturning of the conventions of bourgeois realism by such devices as the substitution of ¡¥mythical¡¦ for a ¡¥realistic method and the ¡¦manipulation of conscious parallels between contemporaneity and antiquity¡¥

.. the radical disruption of the linear flow of narrative

.. the frustration of conventional expectation concerning unity and coherence of plot and character and the cause-and-effect ¡¥development¡¦ thereof

.. the development of ironic and ambiguous juxtapositions to call into question the moral and philosophical ¡¥meaning¡¦ of literary action

.. the adoption of a tone of epistemological self-mockery aimed at the naive pretensions of bourgeois rationality

.. the opposition of inward consciousness to rational, public, objective discourse

.. an inclination to subjective distortion to point up the temporariness of the objective social world of the 19th bourgeoisie

B. Barth himself adds some characteristics of modernism¡§ .. modernists¡¥ insistence on the special, usually alienated role of artist in his society, or outside of it. e.g. Joyce, Mann, Kafka

.. the modernists¡¥ foregrounding of language and technique as opposed to straightforward traditional ¡¦content¡¥ e.g. Mann, Flaubert, and Barhes¡¦ sum

.. James Joyce & Co. set very high standards of artistry, no doubt implicit in their preoccupation with the special remove of the artist from his society

.. Difficulty of access (high standards of craftsmanship): anti-linearity, aversion to conventional characterization and cause-and-effect dramaturgy, their celebration of private, subjective experience over public experience, their general inclination to ¡¥metaphoric¡¦ as against ¡¥metonymic¡¦ means.--it leads to the result of unpopularity. e.g. guide-book needed for understanding the allusion; distant from our world.

III. John Barth's disagreement with modernism A. First we see Barth borrows the words of Roland Barthes: ". . . the whole of literature, from Flaubert to the present day, became the problematics of language."¨ That is, one major preoccupation of the modernists was the problematics, not simply of language, but of the medium of literature. Here my assumption is that the focus of modernist literature is not merely the content, the form or the appearance of a piece of artistic or literary work will become the media between authors and readers. It is not the essence of literature.

B. Barth approves the value of 19th century literature. He suggests that suggests we should agree with the commonplace that the rigidities and other limitation of the 19th prompted the great adversary reaction called modernist art. But it (modernist art) belongs to the first half of the century. In this passage we see Barth¡¥s aversion of modernist art and his liking of the 19th century.

C. However, Barth does not agree the total repudiation of the enterprise of modernism as if the period never happened. The chart below will help to understand the values of different characteristics of different periods:

19th Century
cause and effect
naive illusionism
transparent language
innocent anecdote
political oliympianism
middle-class moral convention ¡@
moral pluralism/entropy
not the whole story
not the whole story
  Barth thinks that postmodernism is neither extension of modernism, nor on the contrary the wholesale subversion of either modernism or postmodernism, or ¡¥traditional¡¦ bourgeois realism. Only combining the ideas together can help to get the whole story. This is where his idea of synthesis is from. IV. Barth's view to postmodernism and postmodernist fiction A. When observing the ideas of other postmodernists, Barth thinks that the so-called is indeed a kind of pallid, last-ditch decadence, of no more than minor symptomatic. There is no want of actual texts illustrative of this view of the ¡¥postmodernist breakthrough.¡¦ Like those modernists who only have the posture but no understanding. A worthy programme for postmodernist fiction is the synthesis and transcendence of these antitheses (pre and modernist writing).

B. The ideal postmodernist writer neither repudiates nor merely imitate either his 19th and 20th parents. Without falling into moral or artistic simplism, shoddy craftsmanship, or either false or real naivety, he nevertheless aspires to a fiction more democratic in its appeal than such late-modernist marvels. He may not hope to reach and move the devotees of James Michener and Irving Wallace--not to mention the lobotomized mass-media illiterature. But he should hope to reach and delight beyond the circle of what Mann used to call Early Christians: professional devotees of high art.

C. Novel is a genre whose historical roots are famously and honorably in middle-class popular culture. The ideal postmodernist novel will rise above the quarrel between realism and irrealism, formalism and 'contentism,' pure and committed literature, coterie and junk literature. It may nor needs so much teaching as Joyce's or Pynchon's books. Barth's analogy--listening to jazz.

V. Two examples Barth provides

A. Calvino's Cosmicomics as the example of the synthesis

.. enormously appealing space-age fable

.. the materials are as modern as the new cosmology and as ancient as folktales

.. the themes are love and loss, change and permanence, illusion and reality, including a good deal of specially Italian reality

.. As a true postmodernist, Calvino keeps one foot always in the narrative past--characteristically the Italian narrative past of Boccaccio, Marco Polo, or Italian fair tales--and one foot in the Parisian structuralist present; one foot in fantasy, one in objective reality

B. Marquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude, a great novel not only in the second half of this century, but also would be great in any century.

.. synthesis of straitforwardness and artifice, realism and magic and myth, political passion and nonpolitical artistry, characterization and caricature, humor and terror, not only artistically admirable, but also humanly wise, lovable, literally marvelous. People had almost forgotten that new fiction could be so wonderful as well as so merely important.


        1. Is Barth's synthesis a kind of simultaneity or moral pluralism/entropy?

2. When Barth mentions that some modernist work is removed from real world, does he think realism or his synthesis can present the reality?

3. Is it too optimistic if we merely synthesize the quality of realism and modernism to represent a postmodern world in postmodern fiction?