an Interview with Ihab Hassan
by Frank L. Cioffi
I first met Ihab Hassan in 1982, when I participated in his NEH Summer Seminar, Modernism, Postmodernism, and the Question of the Text. It was there that I discovered Hassan was more than just a writer and critic; he was a teacher of extraordinary ability and power. In the intervening years we have kept in touch, and I find I have been influenced as much by Hassans pedagogy and stance as by his writings.
The following interview was assembled from November, 1998, through January, 1999, and done by telephone, e-mail, and postal mail.
Your major works of criticism that engage the idea of the postmodern--The Dismemberment of Orpheus, Paracriticisms, The Right Promethean Fire, The Postmodern Turn, and many essays--have had an enormous impact on literary culture and theory. Can you briefly characterize and account for this impact?
HASSAN: Did they have an enormous impact? My impression is that their impact is enormously spotty. Some like Charles Jencks or Linda Hutcheon or Hans Bertens will mention the work. Others--especially neo-Marxists--will have a very different attitude toward it, a magical or apotropaic attitude, as if to ward off a bad spell; or else they ignore it in audible silence. There are exceptions, of course, like Bernard Smith, whose roots are in historical materialism, and whose recent essay, The Last Days of the Post Mode, shows remarkable poise and maturity of judgment. But all this is quite familiar to writers throughout history.
Well, you coined the term postmodern in reference to a certain kind of literature; indeed, you helped define a literary movement--or do you not want credit for this?
HASSAN: No, I didnt coin the term. Some claim that a British painter called John Watkins Chapman used the term casually in the 1870s. Since then, Federico de Onis, Bernard Smith, Dudley Fitts, Arnold Toynbee, Charles Olson, Irving Howe, and Harry Levin have all used the term variously--with diverse meanings and degrees of insistence--before I did. But I guess I did stick with the term, and I did try to clarify for myself an emergent movement.
What do you think of as the relationship among Romanticism, Modernism, and Postmodernism? At a public lecture at Princeton, I recently asked Robert Storr (of the Museum of Modern Art) to define Postmodernism, and he said he was always confused by the meaning of the term. Do you think many people are likewise confused?
HASSAN: Ah, as it happens, this is the topic of something Ive been working on, a lecture to be given at some universities in Germany and Austria this spring. I call the lecture Romanticism, Modernism, Postmodernism: Three Isms in Search of a Concept.
Lets start with Romanticism: it has become as contested a category as Postmodernism. Modernism is perhaps less contested because the sheer density of writing about it has given it a certain gravity, a certain weight and stability--note two recent, magisterial tomes, Bernard Smiths Modernisms History (about painting) and Peter Conrads Modern Times (about culture), both preceded by Christopher Butlers Early Modernism and William R. Everdells The First Moderns, and thats just the crême de la crême.
Now, as you know, for some critics like Harold Bloom, Romanticism has never ended--we are all just belated Romantics, like himself. What is clearer to me, however, is that we have projected the ironies and insecurities and indeterminacies of Postmodernism back onto Romanticism; we have reinvented the Romantics into our own image (which, incidentally, is the other side of the anxiety of influence--I mean absorption, assimilation).
Certain topics or problems or figures, however, do run from Romanticism, through Modernism, to Postmodernism, mutating all the while. For instance, Romantic Imagination becomes Modernist Consciousness becomes Postmodernist Language--from Imagination to Language, as master tropes. And the Romantic Self becomes the Modernist Ego becomes the Postmodernist empty Subject, itself a Discourse. But these are largely French conceits: try to tell the Self or the Ego or the Subject or your child, for that matter, that its imperious needs are a form of absence, dissemination, or deferral.
But are you also confused, as Robert Storr says he is, by Postmodernism?
HASSAN: Well, yes and no. I accept the instability of the term in the age of hype and media. I accept its labile, shifting, conflictual character, in a time of ideological wars. And, increasingly, I ignore it because my own interests have drifted away from it toward the possibilities of a spirituality that addresses all the issues of the postmodern turn.
This said, I still remind myself that when Charles Jencks talks about postmodern architecture or Fredric Jameson about the cultural logic of late capitalism, something real, not just hyperreal, is being discussed.
Once, I coined the term Indetermanence (indeterminacy cum immanence) to describe the ethos or impulse or style of Postmodernism. This was an insufficient description because, in the geopolitical context, Postmodernism does not only involve Indetermanences in Western cultures but also new relations between centers and margins, margins and margins, centers and centers, nowheres and nowheres (utopias?) of every kind. Thats the emergent and tortuous syntax of localization/globalization.
But what about Modernism itself in all this?
HASSAN: Well, once I also tried to characterize Postmodernism by contrasting it with Modernism, since the human brain is compulsively contrastive. This was in an essay called Toward a Concept of Postmodernism, reprinted as the Postface of the second (1982) edition of The Dismemberment of Orpheus. This essay has often been reprinted, especially a few pages listing some contrasts between Modernism and Postmodernism in two vertical columns.
Now, this table proved very popular, especially with those who wished to criticize it. Invariably, they all ignored my explicit caveat: that the dichotomies this table represents remain insecure, equivocal. For differences shift, defer, even collapse; concepts in any one vertical column are not all equivalent; and inversions and exceptions, in both modernism and postmodernism, abound. They also ignored earlier statements, going back to 1971, that Modernism does not suddenly cease so that Postmodernism may begin: they now coexist--in effect, I was saying that Postmodernism lies deeply within the body of Modernism (in POSTmodernISM: A Paracritical Bibliography).
An English critic adopted an attitude of specious merriment toward the table. But Linda Hutcheon, more scrupulous, made a valid point in her A Poetics of Postmodernism: namely, that Postmodernism includes features from both columns, that its logic is less one of opposition (either/or) than of incorporation (both/and). Fair enough. But so is the logic of Modernism, of Romanticism, of so much else.
My point here really addresses Linda Hutcheon much less than a mindless poststructuralist legacy: that, somehow, both/and is deeper or more subtle than either/or. If we say both/and--we can say this about almost anything--it behooves us to show exactly in what way oppositions or differences apply and in what ways they are sublated or overcome. To say both/and to everything is jejune.
Postmodernism has of course taken on a newer or additional meaning. I recently read what I think is a concise characterization of Postmodern relativism. Writing in the New York Times Book Review, Jim Holt gives this definition: The notion that physical reality is nothing but a social construct and that science, despite its pretensions to truth, is just another narrative that encodes the dominant ideology of the culture that produced it. We seem to hear it (or versions of it) all the time, espoused by relatively serious people, enough so that it is singled out for censure by the Pope. How could any sane person truly believe in this postmodern relativism? What do you think is behind it?
HASSAN: Sane persons, as well as the not-so-sane, have desires; the will to believe, as William James called it, is every bit as powerful as the will to power--in fact, they are akin, if not the same. Out of suffering, deprivation, urgent need, profound resentment, comes the will to restitution. Now, if Truth is dead, then everything is permitted--theoretically. And if everything is arbitrary, contingent, and relative, nothing is binding: reality is what I choose to make it. Thats quite liberating-- till I wake up with cancer one day or lie on my deathbed or lose my spouse or discover that Ill never run as fast or jump as high as ... in short, till I cease being a child, an American child.
Tell the survivors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki that science is just another narrative. A man (Einstein, presumably) writes on a blackboard: e = mc2, and two cities go up in flames. Narrative?
Yes, relativism offers the illusion of both innocence and freedom. And have you noticed that relativism is usually invoked by someone about to lose an argument?
How do you think, though, that relativism became yoked with post-modern? Do you think there is some logical connective between the kind of art you identified as postmodern and a radically relativist position?
HASSAN: Play, parody, pastiche, pluralism--the staples of a Postmodern style or sensibility--tend to relativism, as does openness or indeterminacy. Non-foundational or pragmatic philosophies also tend to relativism. And hybrid, heterogeneous, conflictual societies further tend to relativism. All three are part of the postmodern condition. But please note that I say tend to: I doubt that a radical relativism can be sustained in practice.
How would you characterize literary criticism and theory of the last fifty years or so?
HASSAN: Well, thats a topic for a book, indeed for a library of books, written and burned. Let me read you, however, a mildly satirical, but I think relevant, passage in an article I have recently published, Queries for Postcolonial Studies, a topic I usually shun:
Deep in the unconscious of the academic humanities there is a story, and it goes something like this. Once upon a time, a long, dark time ago, there was a tribe of writers in the American South, terribly misnamed the New Critics. They paid inordinate attention to the forms of literary works, and to special devices like irony and paradox. For an unconscionable time, they dominated the reading scene. But when the sixties finally arrived, thank God, the New Critics were exposed for their literary exclusiveness and political conservatism. The air was cleared, and adventurous young critics began to turn to Continental Europe for inspiration: to existentialism and phenomenology, to the philosophy of consciousness and reception theory, to critical philosophy, to structuralism. These critics gestured in the right direction, but they had to wait for the advent of poststructuralism to discover the full possibilities of their deconstructive art. Deconstruction, alas, soon became tedious, hollow, disengaged. Feminist, ethnic, postcolonial, and cultural studies came to the rescue, saving deconstruction from its innate sterility, and enriching their own socio-political agenda--yes, thats the word--with all kinds of subtle demystifications and demythifications. It may be safely said that with the current prevalence of cultural studies, in their varied forms, criticism has reached its apogee. It only remains for us to stand our ground against sundry humanists, reactionaries, counter-revolutionaries, and proto-fascists still skulking in the corridors of academe.
Parody, you cry, caricature! Caricatures have a disconcerting habit of coming to life in academe, especially in American academe. But let that pass: the point is that a self-congratulatory myth of progress informs criticism in the era of cultural wars. Progress? Culture is a wrinkled palimpsest, and the arrow of history moves like a swallow, if not a boomerang. As Thomas Kuhn has argued, the sciences and the humanities develop with disparate logics. There are no Ptolemaists or Nostradamists in reputable science departments; there are, however, Platonists, Aristotelians, Thomists, Kantians, Hegelians, Marxists, Nietzscheans, Freudians, Heideggerians, Lacanians, Foucauldians in reputable departments of the humanities. This is not to say that the paradigms of science are better; it is only to say that they respond to different criteria of confirmation and disconfirmation. The paradigms of the humanities--Kuhn would say schools--respond to fashion, true, but also to genuine needs for social change. This last is admirable, though it signals no epistemological progress. The opinions of certain influential critics receive no sanction from a logic of inexorable ascent in our ideas about human reality.
(qtd. from Philosophy and Literature 22 : 329-30)
Recent literary criticism, it seems to me, has become increasingly difficult for the layperson, the nonspecialist--or even the specialist--to understand. The vocabulary, the jargon, the syntax, and even the organization all seem rebarbative, almost designed to repel understanding, to exclude a large segment of its potential audience. Many critics contend that complex, difficult ideas require complex, difficult prose. Yet your writing seems against the grain in that it is complex yet lucid; accessible, pragmatic, grounded in a real world, it seems directed at the educated reader with whom you really want to make a connection. What are your thoughts on academic writing in general, such as what appears in the pages of this journal, for example, and elsewhere? Do you feel that the essay is perhaps more suitable than the academic article for conveying ideas? And whom do you consider the most important critics writing today (within the last quarter century or so)?
HASSAN: As you know, I am dead set against jargon, jargon masquerading as intricate thought. I am dead set against bad prose. This is not simply an aesthetic judgment; it is ethical and social as well. Indeed, it is a spiritual judgment because--with certain exceptions like Kierkegaards prose, if it is prose--good writing, for me, combines gaiety, renunciation, and spiritual clarity.
Much has been already said about the Common Reader, Public Criticism, the Obscure (and Unpatriotic) Academy. Let me just say that I consider certain prose styles in American academe to be dead ends. This is not an isolated perception, and I am heartened by the good, working prose I find, for instance, in the MLAs Profession 1998, also in periodicals as various as Philosophy and Literature, Salmagundi, the Georgia Review. I am heartened by the Bad Writing Contest, sponsored by Denis Dutton and Patrick Henry, editors of Philosophy and Literature, which award prizes to the most hideously hilarious academic prose every year. But I am not cheered when some graduate student tells me that bad prose is actually politically correct.
I enjoy most the critical prose of poets as different as Seamus Heaney and Annie Dillard, and even in translation I enjoy the prose of Zbigniew Herbert, Octavio Paz, Italo Calvino, many others. Among living critics, I like, pell mell, the prose of Denis Donoghue, Susan Sontag, Frank Kermode, Roger Shattuck, Robert Hughes, Helen Vendler, William Gass, the early George Steiner--Im pluralist, eclectic, you see. But that may be because I like the intellectual persona--thats more than ideology, you know--of these critics. For Harold Bloom, a true original, I have great esteem, and I value his values. But his prose strikes me sometimes as elliptic, narcissistically impacted. But thats only in certain works, in certain pages, mores the pity.
What, then, should literary criticism be doing? Why are the humanities, to your mind, in such disarray? Is there anything we can do to save them?
HASSAN: I agree with T. S. Eliot: the only qualification for a critic is to be very intelligent. Well, I partially agree, because the great critics, from Aristotle, through Dr. Johnson, to Eliot himself and into our time, have been more than very intelligent: they have also been wise. Perhaps thats what Eliot meant, perhaps not. For me, wisdom, not intelligence or ideology, is all.
Why are the humanities in disarray? Are they really in disarray? Or are they simply conflicted and impoverished? And why should we save them, and how, and for whom?
Its like Emersons mousetrap the world will beat a path to your doorstep if you possess something it truly needs. What do the humanities offer nowadays, beyond cant and piety, that our compatriots--start with them--really need? Well, as Ive said, the humanities now strive for social change, by clarifying it. But thats not quite enough; there are other, perhaps deeper, needs.
I have no television, but I cant live without a certain kind of book. Am I, then, a freak? Thats a flattering thought. But no, its an authentic and shared need. If we can testify to that need with wit, feeling, truth, generosity, if we can testify out of joy, not resentment, out of joy and also vulnerability, then the power of sympathy may prevail. This, I think, is our bottom line, to testify in fullest measure to the signal representations, lets just say achievements, of humanity.
Have you evaded this question, or am I missing something? How do we be wise or even very intelligent? Are we trying to explicate literary texts? Are we uncovering social mechanisms? Are we--
HASSAN: --We is not a singular pronoun: there are many kinds of humanists, some intelligent and others less so, some wise and others given to folly. There are also many valid tasks that academic humanists perform, from teaching composition to deaning, from explicating works to promoting ideas, from writing biographies, editing texts, formulating theories, researching cultures, to ... you name it.
What I was invoking a moment ago was an ideal--no doubt, one of many ideals--of a critic or scholar or teacher or humanist or simply writer who testifies to something very central, very compelling, but also veiled, mysterious, in the human condition. Something without which many readers cannot live. Its not definable, yet for many of us, it energizes the humanities.
Is there an area in which you would like to revise what you have already said in print? If so, what? You have written that your first book, Radical Innocence, was the most accepted of your books. Do you wish that your works had been more accepted? Or do you prefer the stance that you seem to have taken? And what do you consider your greatest academic achievement and why?
HASSAN: Too many difficult questions here, difficult because they appeal to vanity masked as regret or repentance, at best as self-criticism, the illusion that we know better when we age. The funny thing is, I do believe we know better some things, that we wither into the truth in Yeatss terrifying phrase--we empty ourselves out of self-concern.
Or perhaps its more like what Kafka suggests in In the Penal Colony--you know, just before we die we finally understand the nature of our mistakes?
HASSAN: Im not so sure thats how I would interpret Kafka as a whole. The realization that we finally understand the nature of our mistakes may be itself an illusion. I think, and I think Kafka thinks, that our true home is a cloud of unknowing.
But lets see how I can respond to the rest of your questions. I think that I have marginalized myself, geographically and professionally--constitutionally, I am a loner. My independent stand (lets call it that) has been, paradoxically, more acceptable in Europe than in America. Why paradoxically? Because America, that old willingness of the heart as Scott Fitzgerald put it, has been most generous, most welcoming in every other way. I feel this strongly as a person, as an immigrant: I do not consider myself a hyphenated American.
But the profession, since Radical Innocence, has been more circumspect. First, there has been my advocacy of postmodernism, when it was still young, still unknown. Then came my paracriticism, with its dislocations of critical prose. Then my resistance to GRIM (the Great Rumbling Ideological Machine), as I call it, a juggernaut of intellectual conformities. And all along, there has been what some people perceived as a louche streak of mysticism, though I am not now, nor have ever been, a mystic--only, like all the rest of us, a wanderer in the cosmos, and so a wondering a-gnostic. Of course, Ive also been intellectually reckless sometimes, impatient, provocative, and provocations in a fractious age, you know, can spring up from the earth like dragon teeth, fully armed. But I am not a creature of regret: I accept what is the case.
My greatest academic achievement? Some might say the criticism of postwar American fiction; some might say the early work on postmodernism; still others like the work on the literature of travel; and others, again, prefer the autobiographical work, say Out of Egypt or Between the Eagle and the Sun. I wont answer the question about my achievement myself, lest the answer strike you as a bit nihilistic.
By the way, theres a positive, almost holy or kenotic kind of nihilism that has increasingly engaged me--perhaps we can talk about that later.
Many of todays academics were 1960s radicals (after a fashion), and have embraced Marxist or neo-Marxist theories. Yet you resisted this overall political trend. What do you think is the attraction of Marxist theory, except that it helps provide the obligatory rhetoric of packaged rectitude (to use a phrase of your own)? Is it too ideological (what you call the GRIM)? Do you think a leftist stance helps academics feel that they are still activist?
HASSAN: First, lets distinguish between Marxism and the Left. (Isaiah Berlin, among many others, has written convincingly about this.) Next, lets recognize the changing character of Western Marxism over the last eighty years. Then, lets admit that theoretical Marxism--and it has never been anything but theoretical--has succeeded in becoming a floating Signifier of Resistance, a moorless Sign of Change, a flapping Banner of Discontent--like Islam now in certain parts of the world, without gulags. In fact, a Moroccan intellectual once said to me in Casablanca: Ive turned to Islam because the other [meaning Marxism] has failed.
Myself, I find Marxism, viscerally as well as intellectually, distasteful--on ethical, aesthetic, political, psychological, and simple pragmatic grounds. I have always found it so--perhaps its the loner in me again--as I have always found all forms of fascism, totalitarianism, authoritarianism, and fundamentalism repugnant. Increasingly, too, I have come to distrust abstractions, especially bloodied abstractions (to misquote Wallace Stevens); that is, abstractions that demand human blood to maintain them for a higher end. No!
A limber Left, however, fully cognizant of the ethical, aesthetic, and spiritual needs of human beings, can indeed revitalize not only the academy but also society. But in what sense would it be Left? In the sense of progressive? If so, it will require a constant adjustment in direction, since no party has a monopoly on progress, as history has amply shown.
What would you recommend to a student who wants to go into the humanities? Do you feel that the university system is something that has a lot to offer people seeking careers?
HASSAN: I ask prospective doctoral candidates to test the limits of their commitment to the academic profession. Beyond that, I cannot go. If they do enter the profession with strong commitments, they will do more to shape it than I can.
What worries me, though, is the tendency--especially in America, from Charlie Wilson to Bill Gates--to treat all human institutions as simply variants on the business model. A hospital, a church, an army, a family, a research lab, and, yes, a university--all these are not simply businesses, though all may respond to the invisible hand.
Do you feel that teaching has an ethical urgency? You have written that teaching has engendered and informed your work.
HASSAN: Teaching is, has always been, unavoidably ethical, all the way back to Socrates. But it is also aesthetic, political, erotic, spiritual.... As a central human activity, it calls upon our full capacity, students and teachers alike, to be fully human. Partial teaching, in both senses of partial, shrinks everyone concerned. But good teaching must be a little perverse.
In what sense perverse?
HASSAN: I mean unexpected, unpremeditated, uninstitutionalized. To be by ones students and by oneself surprised. To have a touch of Dadacticism, as I once called it.
Do you think that we should teach a great books type of curriculum? Do you feel that feminist objections to the canon are valid ones?
HASSAN: Yes, indeed, we should, we do, we will teach great books (no quotation marks there necessary). Yes, the objections of many feminists to the canon have been sometimes valid. No, the canon, a responsive canon--and Frank Kermode has shown it to be ever so--should not be abolished, cannot be abolished, since the abolitionists most often cry for the institution of their canon, whether they call it that or not.
Do you feel that we are outmoded because we teach relatively underread books? Or do you feel that their perdurance over time signals some importance? You dont usually teach popular culture--or write about it very much; most of your work is in what might be termed high culture. Do you have a particular preference for high culture? Can we draw a firm line between fine and popular art, as Norman Mailer and John Updike recently did in reviews of Tom Wolfes A Man in Full?
HASSAN: I have a particular preference for what moves me, what compels me, what surprises me, what instructs and disturbs me, what expands my horizons of awareness as of sympathy. But you are right: I have not taught or written much about popular culture, except where it affects the literature that affects me. This has included certain works of popularized science and of science fiction.
As to Mailer and Updike on Wolfe, certainly I agree with them, particularly Mailer whose review seems to me genial, generous, devoid of animus. But if our sensibilities have become so flattened, dulled, even brutalized, that we cannot feel the distinctions--however tentative, however arguable, however particular, they remain distinctions still--as real, then we have lost part of our minds, part of our spirit. It is not a firm line that Mailer and Updike and the rest of us want to draw; it is simply a vital line. Is it outmoded to feel the difference in the bone between what is facile and what is difficult, what is sham and what is real, what sedates and what calls us to a fuller existence? I say all this and still would give Tom Wolfe his rich due, as Mailer himself does in that review, for A Man in Full is a borderline, a vexed case.
Maybe I am asking what you make of the changes that a digital, hybrid, hyperreal, consumer, media-driven society has effected.
HASSAN: Thats too big a question to tackle here--and the returns are not yet in. Let me say this, though: I am surprised that theres no greater discrepancy between the values of my students and my own values today than there was forty years ago. Do you realize that ours may be one of the most change-full periods of history? Do I contradict myself (about accelerated change)? I think not: willy-nilly, we are all changing together, some more, others less; for some the gap may widen, for some it may remain constant or even narrow.
You see, I dont believe we are culturally constructed except in a superficial, indeed tautological, sense--but then, the life of strict ideologues is itself tautology.
But surely culture has deposited some of the same residue, as it were, in each of us? Or do you feel that selective exposure to that culture, as well as individual differences such as those stemming from genetics and upbringing make each individual consciousness so different, so unique, that cultural construction (or even my more modest suggestion of a cultural residue) is a metaphor that just levels too many distinctions?
HASSAN: In a word, yes. Cultural residue is fine, but I am impressed by the infinite differences within a class, a race, a gender, a family even. We are constructed to an indefinite degree, but we also construct back. Chance and biology, self-creation and social influences, all play a part. Strict constructionists, who tend to be determinists, can accuse others and exonerate themselves in the same cry. Obviously, this has great appeal, therapeutic and theological appeal.
Indulge me in a Gedankenexperiment: suppose, if you will, that we lived in a culture where any literary-critical act, spoken or written, were taboo--the equivalent to, say, publicly discussing in detail ones sexual preferences or experiences. What would such a culture be like? Would a kind of underground criticism emerge? Would the culture be diminished by the absence of public voices of criticism?
HASSAN: A Gedankenexperiment deserves another. We would get what I call Angelic Criticism, angelic reading of texts: total identification with texts, in silence. Or, if you wish, [Pierre] Menardian Criticism: rewriting the text in identical words. It would be better, wouldnt it, than the class that begins every discussion with, Now, whats wrong with this book?
Have you read anything good lately? Anything that pulls you up short, surprises you? Can you recommend any novelists, poets, or playwrights writing today--in any language--who speak to our condition with eloquence and concinnity?
HASSAN: I have been reading Australians, lately. Patrick Whites Voss, of course, overpowers, an astonishing achievement. But wonderful, too, are the works of David Malouf--I hope he wins the Nobel soon--and Thomas Keneally. And Murray Bails Eucalyptus, recently published, is breathtaking in its indirection.
Returning to American fiction, the big books like Pynchons Mason & Dixon and DeLillos Underworld impress me, especially the latter, but do not always move me. I might say the same of Paul Austers work, obsessive and intriguing, on a smaller scale. Still, I would give my vote--had I one--to Don DeLillo as the American successor of Toni Morrison for The Prize.
Whom to recommend for our time? How about a hedgehog and a fox: Nietzsche and Shakespeare? Or Beckett and Montaigne? Or Kafka and Zen?
Funny that you should mention DeLillo, I am working right now on a long piece about his work. What about his fiction do you find compelling?
HASSAN: In brief, intelligence, imagination, integrity, social insight, a metaphysical surliness, and withal language, language, language....
You have moved in a spiritual direction (yet not a religious one). Could you briefly discuss the relationship of aesthetics and spirituality? How does this spirituality connect with American culture and American life?
HASSAN: Hold it, if I can answer one of your large questions, answer it half decently, both of us will sleep well tonight.
Human beings--its that troublesome big brain--are multifaceted creatures. They cannot be reduced to material or political terms, as the Standard Model in Cultural Studies now strongly implies. They cannot be reduced to Spirit or Beauty or Truth or Language or.... They cannot be reduced, period--though once dead, they reduce to dust quickly enough.
Now, no culture, ever, has developed without some sense of the spiritual. Nor has ours. But this does not mean we can define the spiritual, or the sacred, or the numinous, as we can define circle or square. The spiritual extends over a broad band of noetic experiences, from common intuitions to mystical revelations, from aesthetic appreciation to the sentiment of the sublime, from inspiration in science and art to intimations of immortality, and so forth. Spirit, Emerson thought, has the terrible power of self-change, self-accommodation to whatever we do. William James knew this, as did many others, from Plato to Heidegger, from Longinus to George Steiner (in Real Presences).
I am interested in discovering, or rather, rediscovering, the relations between the spiritual impulse of human beings and our daily lives in a culture of irony, kitsch, disbelief. I am particularly interested in discerning the nexus between spirit, nihilism, and language. I mean nihilism as a penultimate form of sincerity or lucidity, as we might encounter it in Nietzsche or Cage or Beckett--I mean the examples to be outrageously discordant.
We are nihilistic thoughts that come into Gods head, Kafka said. Put another way, human consciousness introduces radical doubt everywhere in creation. Then what? Thats the point of departure of my recent essay, called The Expense of Spirit in Postmodern Times: Between Nihilism and Belief. Does the sickness of severe suspicion (thats Nietzsche) hint rebirth?
And yes, of course, this spiritual impulse is very much in the American grain, whether Native American or Puritan Pilgrim, whether in the Hudson School of painters or the Transcendentalist Movement, whether in Fundamentalist religions or New Age gush. The impulse variously quickens some of our best living writers: Saul Bellow, Norman Mailer, John Updike, Toni Morrison, John Ashbery ... the list is long. How, then, can I ignore it?
In that Georgia Review essay you also suggest that even if people were physically safe and comfortable there would still be a lot of problems. [C]an the worlds evil diminish by material means alone? Will the collective miseries of humanity dissolve, or even distinctly reduce, by attending only to the corporeal needs of the individual? What are the miseries you had in mind, and do you really think they would be as bad as physical deprivation?
HASSAN: I had in mind the miseries of Cain and Job, Oedipus and Agamemnon, Antigone and Medea, Cassandra and the Wandering Jew, Iago and Edmund, Hamlet and Lear, yes, and Caliban, among others. The miseries of Miltons Satan who cries, I myself am Hell! The miseries of the most vivid and varied characters of the novel, from Don Quixote to Captain Ahab, from Anna Karenina to Emma Bovary, from Ivan Karamazov to Dr. Zhivago, from Bloom to Molloy--you get the point, Im sure: they all suffer. The miseries of gods and immortals, too.
I have no calculus of human suffering, and I dont know which is greater, the pain of a homeless, hungry man or that of a spiritually stricken woman. But I know that they are both intolerable, and that alleviating the one does not necessarily alleviate the other.
This perception should not lead to Original Sin, or Quietism, or Fatalism, or even Stoicism, admirable as that is. If it leads to anything at all, it is to an unillusioned recognition of reality, what is the case, whether we wish it so or no--together with an undiminished resolve to act without eudaemonic fictions. Its all there in the Bhagavat Gita.
Our second innocence may be indifference, a particular kind of indifference, which is self-indifference.
What kind of writing are you at present doing?
HASSAN: Well, Im trying to write a short book about everything, without footnotes. Call it a quasi-poetic, personal meditation on life, death, spirit in our time--that sort of thing. The key phrase here is trying to write. Because banality is the constant companion, almost the natural self, in this unnatural enterprise.
Bail, Murray. Eucalyptus. New York: Farrar, 1998.
Butler, Christopher. Early Modernism: Literature, Music and Painting in Europe. New York: Oxford UP, 1994.
Conrad, Peter. Modern Times, Modern Places. New York: Knopf, 1999.
DeLillo, Don. Underworld. New York: Scribners, 1997.
Everdell, William R. The First Moderns: Profiles in the Origins of Twentieth Century Thought. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1997.
Hassan, Ihab. Between the Eagle and the Sun: Traces of Japan. Tuscaloosa: U of Alabama P, 1996.
____. Criticism in Our Clime: Parables of American Academe. New Literary History 25 (1994): 621-36.
____. The Dismemberment of Orpheus: Toward a Postmodern Literature. New York: Oxford UP, 1971. Madison: U of Wisconsin P, 1982.
____. The Expense of Spirit in Postmodern Times: Between Nihilism and Belief. Georgia Review 51(1997): 9-26.
____. Letter. Forum on Intellectuals. PMLA 112 (1997): 1139-40.
____. The Literature of Silence: Henry Miller and Samuel Beckett. New York: Knopf, 1967.
____. Negative Capability Reclaimed: Literature and Philosophy contra Politics. Philosophy and Literature 20 (1996): 305-24.
____. Out of Egypt: Fragments of an Autobiography. Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 1986.
____. Paracriticisms: Seven Speculations of the Times. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 1975.
____. The Postmodern Turn: Essays in Postmodern Theory and Culture. Columbus: Ohio State UP, 1987.
____. POSTmodernISM: A Paracritical Bibliography. New Literary History 3 (1971-1972): 5-30.
____. Postmodernism Revisited: A Personal Account. Amerikastudien/American Studies 43 (1998): 143-53.
____. Queries for Postcolonial Studies. Philosophy and Literature 22 (1998): 328-42.
____. Radical innocence: Studies in the Contemporary American Novel. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1961.
____. The Right Promethean Fire: Imagination, Science, and Cultural Change. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 1980.
____. Rumors of Change: Essays of Five Decades. Tuscaloosa: U of Alabama P, 1995.
____. Selves at Risk: Patterns of Quest in Contemporary American Letters. Madison: U of Wisconsin P, 1990.
Holt, Jim. Is Paris Kidding? Rev. of Fashionable Nonsense: Postmodern Intellectuals Abuse of Science, By Jean Bricmont and Alan V. Sokal. New York Times Book Review 15 Nov. 1998: 8.
Hutcheon, Linda. A Poetics of Postmodernism: History, Theory, Fiction. New York: Routledge, 1988.
Pynchon, Thomas. Mason and Dixon. New York: Holt, 1997.
Smith, Bernard. The Last Days of the Post Mode. Thesis Eleven 54 (1998): 1-24.
____. Modernisms History: A Study in Twentieth-Century Art and Ideas. New Haven: Yale UP, 1993.
Steiner, George. Real Presences. Chicago: U of Chicago P. 1989.
White, Patrick. Voss. New York: Viking, 1957.
Wolfe, Tom. A Man in Full. New York: Farrar, 1998.
*Used with permission from Style 33, 1 (Fall 1999)