phillip lopate on sontag’s shallow america


Sontag on American writers: “I think I learned a lot about punctuation and speed from Donald Barthelme, about adjectives and sentence rhythms from Elizabeth Hardwick.”

Shallow America

In Death Kit, Sontag evinces no such ambivalence toward America: she simply doesn’t like the place. This second novel of hers is perhaps her most sustained attempt to describe contemporary American life, and the problem is that she doesn’t know it or its people well enough, so it comes off as slumming. There is contempt for the nine-to-fivers and the corporate world, and sociological cartoons about the inhabitants of suburban homes: “Houses that are quiet (now), emptied of father-breadwinner and school-age children. Being cared for and stocked with provisions by mother-wife and her domestics.” Diddy may not condescend to “their pampered well-fed children; equipped with shiny English bicycles that moved on hard tires, tended by garrulous devoted Irish nursemaids, packed off to their weekly piano lessons,” but Sontag surely does. On the other side of town, far from the shiny English bicycles, are the prostitutes and shabby sordid lodgings of the workman’s widow, who talks like this: “Why, I used to come home from school with my rear end red as fire! . . . Yeah, they could of used me for a bed warmer, that’s how red and hot my little fanny was.”

It’s always anomalous when a writer of Sontag’s intelligence goes crude or smutty. Maybe it springs from impatience, the wish for Rabelaisian bawdiness to cut through the burdens of consciousness. In any case, Sontag seems to have viewed the United States as relentlessly vulgar, and it brought out the vulgar and unsubtle in her. At roughly the same time she was writing Death Kit, she responded to a Partisan Review questionnaire, reprinted as “What’s Happening in America (1966)” in Styles of Radical Will (surely the weakest piece in that otherwise distinguished collection), with let-it-rip rhetoric: 

Today’s America, with Ronald Reagan the new daddy of California and John Wayne chawing spareribs in the White House, is pretty much the same Yahooland that Mencken was describing. The main difference is that what’s happening in America matters so much more in the late 1960s than it did in the 1920s. Then, if one had tough innards, one might jeer, sometimes affectionately, at American barbarism and find American innocence somewhat endearing. Both the barbarism and the innocence are lethal, outsized today.

You’ll get no argument from me about the danger American imperial power poses to the world, but I do find her bandying about labels like “barbarism” and “innocence” to be somewhat tired, overly broad and beside the point. Similarly, her potted history and cultural analysis sound skimpy. 

Having established that America was founded on genocide and slavery, she goes on to state: 

After America was ‘won,’ it was filled up by new generations of the poor and built up according to the tawdry fantasy of the good life that culturally deprived, uprooted people might have at the beginning of the industrial era. And the country looks it. Foreigners extol the American ‘energy,’ attributing to it both our unparalleled economic prosperity and the splendid vivacity of our arts and entertainments. But surely this is energy bad at its source and for which we pay too high a price, a hypernatural and humanly disproportionate dynamism that flays everyone’s nerves raw. Basically it is the energy of violence, of free-floating resentment and anxiety unleashed by chronic cultural dislocations which must be, for the most part, ferociously sublimated. This energy has mainly been sublimated into crude materialism and acquisitiveness. Into hectic philanthropy. Into benighted moral crusades, the most spectacular of which was Prohibition. Into an awesome talent for uglifying countries and cities. Into the loquacity and torment of a minority of gadflies, artists, prophets, muckrakers, cranks, and nuts. And into self-punishing neuroses. But the naked violence keeps breaking through, throwing everything into question.

To me, this is an imbalanced, overgeneralized and unsubstantiated screed by a hanging judge. It ignores too much about the ideals and achievements of immigrant America. I am not sure why the fantasy of the good life need be “tawdry,” or why American energy is “hypernatural” or intrinsically “violent,” or why a nation built of immigrants should necessarily be condemned to “chronic cultural dislocations,” or why our philanthropy should be dismissed as “hectic,” or why our valiant gadflies and muckrakers need be doomed to loquacious torment. But I despair of convincing many cultivated readers that America is not some horrible mistake, at a moment when its foreign and domestic policies are so tragically misguided. Suffice to say, I disagree with Sontag’s excessively negative assessment of America, and leave it at that.

Sontag’s intemperate tone in the above passage might be contextualized by noting that she was understandably angry, writing in the midst of the Vietnam War. Still, she remained consistent in her statements thereafter, explaining how her dislike for her native country’s “materialism” drew her toward Europhilia. As she put it in her 2003 Friedenhaus Acceptance Speech, “[T]here have always been American fellow-travelers of the European cultural ideals (one stands here before you), who find in the old arts of Europe correction and a liberation from the strenuous mercantilist biases of American culture.” To be fair, her espousal of the Bosnian cause led her to a more critical assessment of Western Europe, in its indifference and passivity to preventing violence, and she did once allow herself to comment on Nazism as “a triumphant barbarism that was (need it be said?) entirely generated from within the heart of Europe.” But always she returned to her initial position: 

If I must describe what Europe means to me as an American, I would start with liberation. Liberation from what passes in America for a culture. The diversity, seriousness, fastidiousness, density of European culture constitute an Archimedean point from which I can, mentally, move the world. I cannot do that from America, from what American culture gives me, as a collection of standards, as a legacy. Hence Europe is essential to me, more essential than America, although all my sojourns in Europe do not make me an expatriate. 

There is a funny, chagrined personal essay Sontag wrote in 1987, “Pilgrimage,”  about her California adolescence, when she was in flight from everything American. “I felt I was slumming, in my own life,” she writes, trying to drown out the laugh-track of TV sitcoms with “transformative books,” such as Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain. She finally brings herself, with a friend, to ring Mann’s doorbell, and they have a chat, the irony of which rests on the fact that she is squirming with embarrassment at her immature country, while he is trying so hard to be charmed by it, meanwhile addressing her as a representative of American youth. 

He asked about our studies. Our studies? That was a further embarrassment. I was sure he hadn’t the faintest idea what a high school in Southern California was like. Did he know about Drivers’ Education (compulsory)? Typing courses? Wouldn’t he be surprised by the wrinkled condoms you spotted as you were darting across the lawn for first period. . . . I hoped he would never find out. He had enough to be sad about—Hitler, the destruction of Germany, exile. It was better that he not know how really far he was from Europe

And to be far from Europe, in her view, was to be far from everything intellectually nourishing. 

I find it curious how thoroughly Sontag eschewed American intellectual models, especially since there were a glut of notable essayists still on the scene when she made her debut. For instance, Edmund Wilson’s brand of biographical criticism, or his omnivorous reading range and cosmopolitan taste for foreign literature, might have inspired her.† The postwar era, 1945–1965, had been a golden era of American critical prose: Wilson, Lionel Trilling, Meyer Shapiro, Harold Rosenberg, Clement Greenberg, Leslie Fielder, Philip Rahv, James Agee, Robert Warshow, Manny Farber, Ralph Ellison, Dwight Macdonald, Pauline Kael, Mary McCarthy, James Baldwin, Edwin Denby, Paul Goodman, Alfred Kazin, Irving Howe, Seymour Krim, Arlene Croce; the list could go on. Yet Goodman and Trilling were the only ones of her countrymen she cited with admiration, and she had already pronounced Trilling’s relevance passé. She went out of her way to tell her Paris Review interviewer that Mary McCarthy was “a writer who’d never mattered to me.” Why not? Hadn’t McCarthy, for instance, preceded her in writing dispatches from North Vietnam, which Sontag admitted reading in Trip to Hanoi? No doubt Sontag resented the comparisons that saw her early on as “the new Mary McCarthy,” or as filling some sort of Dark-Lady-of-the-New York-intelligentsia niche previously occupied by McCarthy. Still, Mary McCarthy could be a fascinating writer; her first essay collection, On the Contrary, is as provocative and stylish a debut, in its way, as Against Interpretation, and her memoir, Memories of a Catholic Girlhood, is a classic of American autobiographical literature. But for Sontag, it would seem, she was incurably middlebrow, not a true intellectual in the European mold.‡

Interestingly, in that same Paris Review interview, Sontag does credit two American contemporaries as having influenced her: “I think I learned a lot about punctuation and speed from Donald Barthelme, about adjectives and sentence rhythms from Elizabeth Hardwick.” The implication I take from this statement is that Barthelme and Hardwick (the Hardwick of Sleepless Nights, not the essays) influenced her fiction writing. She was too proud of her fiction writing to waste time speaking to interviewers about the writers who influenced her essays, and perhaps too proud of her essays to address her apprenticeship in that area. 

I don’t at all fault Sontag for refusing to engage with the work of American essayists and critics; the European thought of Benjamin, Barthes, Cioran, Bernhard, Sebald, et cetera, fired her imagination, and since it did the trick, she need not have looked elsewhere. Also, by not addressing the American critical tradition, she was able to be heard as more of a unique voice, coming out of nowhere, bringing news of a larger, more ample intellectual life. She was better able to fulfill her role as the bridge between Old World and New World cultures. But this refusal to examine home-grown intellectual models is yet another indication of her dismissal of the American mind, which I cannot help regarding as a bit unfair. I also think she was being “ungrateful,” if one can use such a word, for failing to acknowledge that all those aforementioned American critics whose works appeared in Partisan Review, Commentary, Art News, the New Leader, and other journals paved the way, creating a warm, inviting context for her own cerebral essays to fit snugly into.

†Apparently they were social acquaintances. In Wilson’s diary, e Sixties, he reports in 1963 meeting “a handsome girl from California [Susan Sontag] who is one of Roger’s new writers,” a reference to editor Roger Straus, of Farrar, Straus. By 1968 he is reporting: “I never have much conversation with Susan Sontag. Roger can’t quite forgive me because I am not impressed with her. When I talked to her about the movies in the car, she discussed them in her usual pretentious and esoteric way. Yellow Submarine should have stuck to one style, it was a mixture of too many, an ‘anthology.’ ” How funny to picture these two great figures awkwardly debating the merits of Yellow Submarine!

‡ In her diary entry marked 9 Dec. 1961, Sontag writes: “Mary McCarthy’s grin—grey hair—low-fashion red + blue print suit. Clubwoman gossip. She is The Group. She’s nice to her husband.”

 —from Phillip Lopate’s Notes on Sontag (2009)


american camp & harold robbins’ the carpetbaggers: “a man says a lot of things when he’s humping”



23. In naïve, or pure, Camp, the essential element is seriousness, a seriousness that fails. Of course, not all seriousness that fails can be redeemed as Camp. Only that which has the proper mixture of the exaggerated, the fantastic, the passionate, and the naïve.  


58. The ultimate Camp statement: it’s good because it’s awful . . . Of course, one can’t always say that. Only under certain conditions, those which I’ve tried to sketch in these notes.


from Susan Sontag, “Notes on Camp,” 1964   


From Harold Robbins’ The Carpetbaggers:


Chapter 2  


I KEPT RAISING SMALL CLOUDS OF SAND WITH THE huarachos as I walked toward the factory. The faint clinical smell of the sulphur they used in making gunpowder came to my nose. It was the same kind of smell that was in the hospital the night I took her there. It wasn’t at all the kind of smell there was the night we made the baby.  


It was cool and clean that night. And there was the smell of the ocean and the surf that came in through the open windows of the small cottage I kept out at Malibu. But in the room there was nothing but the exciting scent of the girl and her wanting.


We had gone into the bedroom and stripped with the fierce urgency in our vitals. She was quicker than I and now she was on the bed, looking up at me as I opened the dresser drawer and took out a package of rubbers.


Her voice was a whisper in the night. “Don’t, Joney. Not this time.”


I looked at her. The bright Pacific moon threw its light in the window. Only her face was in shadows. Somehow, what she said brought the fever up.


The bitch must have sensed it. She reached for me and kissed me. “I hate those damn things, Joney. I want to feel you inside me.”


I hesitated a moment. She pulled me down on top of her. Her voice whispered in my ear.


“Nothing will happen, Joney. I’ll be careful.”


Then I couldn’t wait any longer and her whisper changed into a sudden cry of pain. I couldn’t breathe and she kept crying in my ear, “I love you, Joney. I love you, Joney.”


She loved me all right. She loved me so good that five weeks later she tells me we got to get married. We were sitting in the front seat of my car this time, driving back from the football game. I looked over at her. “What for?”


She looked up at me. She wasn’t frightened, not then. She was too sure of herself. Her voice was almost flippant. “The usual reason. What other reason does a fellow and a girl get married for?”


My voice turned bitter. I knew when I’d been taken. “Sometimes it’s because they want to get married.”


“Well, I want to get married.” She moved closer to me.


I pushed her back on the seat. “Well, I don’t.”


She began to cry then. “But you said you loved me.”


I didn’t look at her. “A man says a lot of things when he’s humping.” I pulled the car over against the curb and parked. I turned to her. “I thought you said you’d be careful.”


She was wiping at her tears with a small, ineffectual handkerchief. “I love you, Joney. I wanted to have your baby.”


For the first time since she told me, I began to feel better. That was one of the troubles with being Jonas Cord, Jr. Too many girls, and their mothers, too, thought that spelled money.


Big money. Ever since the war, when my father built an empire on gunpowder.

I looked down at her. “Then it’s simple. Have it.”


Her expression changed. She moved toward me. “You mean — you mean — we’ll get married?”


The faint look of triumph in her eyes faded quickly when I shook my head. “Uh-uh. I  meant have the baby if you want it that bad.”


She pulled away again. Suddenly, her face was set and cold. Her voice was calm and practical. “I don’t want it that bad. Not without a ring on my finger. I’ll have to get rid of it.”


I grinned and offered her a cigarette. “Now you’re talking, little girl.”

She took the cigarette and I lit it for her. “But it’s going to be expensive,” she said.


“How much?” I asked.


She drew in a mouthful of smoke. “There’s a doctor in Mexican Town. The girls say he’s very good.” She looked at me questioningly. “Two hundred?”


“O.K., you got it,” I said quickly. It was a bargain. The last one cost me three fifty. I flipped my cigarette over the side of the car and started the motor. I pulled the car out into traffic and headed toward Malibu.


“Hey, where you going?” she asked.


I looked over at her. “To the beach house,” I answered. “We might as well make the most of the situation.”


She began to laugh and drew closer to me. She looked up into my face. “I wonder what Mother would say if she knew just how far I went to get you. She told me not to miss a trick.”


I laughed. “You didn’t.”


She shook her head. “Poor Mother. She had the wedding all planned.”


Poor Mother. Maybe if the old bitch had kept her mouth shut her daughter might have been alive today.


It was the night after that about eleven thirty, that my telephone began to ring. I had just about fogged off and I cursed, reaching for the phone.


Her voice came through in a scared whisper. “Joney, I’m bleeding.”


The sleep shot out of my head like a bullet. “What’s the matter?”


“I went down to Mexican Town this afternoon and now something’s wrong. I haven’t stopped bleeding and I’m frightened.” I sat up in bed. “Where are you?”


“I checked into the Westwood Hotel this afternoon. Room nine-o-one.”


“Get back into bed. I’ll be right down.”


“Please hurry, Joney. Please.”


The Westwood is a commercial hotel in downtown L.A. Nobody even looked twice when I went up in the elevator without announcing myself at the desk. I stopped in front of Room 901 and tried the door. It was unlocked. I went in.


I never saw so much blood in my life. It was all over the cheap carpeting on the floor, the chair in which she had sat when she called me, the white sheets on the bed.


She was lying on the bed and her face was as white as the pillow under her head. Her eyes had been closed but they flickered open when I came over. Her lips moved but no sound came out.


I bent over her. “Don’t try to talk, baby. I’ll get a doctor. You’re gonna be all right.”


She closed her eyes and I went over to the phone. There was no use in just calling a doctor.


My father wasn’t going to be happy if I got our name into the papers again. I called McAllister. He was the attorney who handled the firm’s business in California.


His butler called him to the phone. I tried to keep my voice calm. “I need a doctor and an ambulance quick.”


In less than a moment, I understood why my father used Mac. He didn’t waste any time on useless questions. Just where, when and who. No why. His voice was precise. “A doctor and an ambulance will be there in ten minutes. I advise you to leave now. There’s no point in your getting any more involved than you are.”


I thanked him and put down the phone. I glanced over at the bed. Her eyes were closed and she appeared to be sleeping. I started for the door and her eyes opened.


“Don’t go, Joney. I’m afraid.”


I went back to the bed and sat down beside it. I took her hand and she closed her eyes again. The ambulance was there in ten minutes. And she didn’t let go of my hand until we’d reached the hospital.



On the life of Harold Robbins:

“Guy Gone Wild” — A Review of Andrew Wilson, Harold Robbins: The Man Who Invented Sex

By Tom Carson

October 21, 2007


“An autopsy wouldn’t make any difference now.” That marvelous line cries out to have been scripted for Leslie Nielsen in one of the Naked Gun movies. But it’s uttered by the virile, easily riled Jonas Cord, the Howard Hughes stand-in at the center of The Carpetbaggers, Harold Robbins’s fabled 1961 novel — or novel-like object, anyhow. And Cord’s real-life enabler (“creator” would be pushing it) shared his assessment, judging from Robbins’s indifference to the verdict of posterity. As the world’s best-selling speed typist told a journalist in 1970, “When I’m gone, they can grill me and throw the ashes where they please, say what they like.”


Nobody has seen fit to say much of anything about Robbins since his death in 1997, decades after his vogue had — how to put this? — climaxed. But doesn’t a hustling subliterate whose oeuvre changed American publishing deserve at least one kudo, to usea solecism Robbins himself would have been likely to commit to print? Crammed with moronic prurience, achieving logorrhea with the barest of resources, your average Robbins page turner read as if he’d clacked it out using 10, if not 11, thumbs, and his 20 or so engorged books sold more than 750 million copies combined. If you’ve ever wondered just when quality literature and commercial fiction parted ways for good with a shudder, call him Harold Rubicon.


As Robbins’s fellow Brooklyn boy and close contemporary Arthur Miller might have put it, attention must be paid. So, duly making the beast with two hardbacks, Andrew Wilson — author of a well-regarded, as they say, life of Patricia Highsmith — has given us Harold Robbins: The Man Who Invented Sex. Besides answering nearly every question about its subject that any halfway brainy reader couldn’t be bothered to ask, it’s also better written than any of Robbins’s own behemoths, something I assume Wilson can’t help: he’s British. In fact, I’ll go so far as to say that I doubt any future biography of Robbins will equal this one, but make of that claim what you will.


Wilson is impressively if inexplicably determined to uncover the reality behind Robbins’s fabulations about his early years, some of which proved sturdy enough to show up in his obituaries. Not too surprisingly, the tales he fed compliant interviewers — about growing up in a Catholic orphanage before his adoption by a Jewish family, servicing lonely men for cash during his mean-streets adolescence and the like — turn out to have been fibs. The lone seedling of fact from which these Grade-Z Scheherazadisms sprang was that, unlike his siblings, young Harold Rubin (not Robbins, just his way of going Gentile into that good night, and in the heyday of the Jewish American novel, too) was the spawn of a previous marriage his father tried to conceal after Harold’s mom died young.


The fuse was lit once Robbins’s first father-in-law got Harold, then a failed grocer and lowly clerk, a job at Universal Pictures, where he soon clawed his way up from shipping clerk (by some accounts) to the bookkeeping department. Thwarted in his ambition to turn producer, he started typing what became Never Love a Stranger, his scandalous 1948 debut. In Wilson’s high-flown formulation, “writing, for him, was not about creative expression or artistic ideals; rather, what fueled his ambition was a mercantile instinct, a desire to explore his dreams and fantasies and sell them off to the highest bidder.” The rude version of this aria is that Robbins was always in it for the money.


Nonetheless, his early novels got some halfway decent notices — A Stone for Danny Fisher, for one, the unlikely source material for the Elvis movie King Creole. In the 1940s and ’50s, outside of (mostly paperback) genre fiction, even the worst junk seldom candidly announced itself as such. Not only could “serious” mainstream novelists aim at best-sellerdom, but even hacks were presumed to covet respectability. Wonder of wonders, Robbins’s first publisher was Alfred A. Knopf, and the publishee liked to boast that he was one of only three authors with a “lifetime” Knopf contract. The other two? Thomas Mann and André Gide.


That changed with The Carpetbaggers, brought out, after delays and much wrangling, by Simon & Schuster. Or rather, by Trident Press, a new imprint devised by Leon Shimkin, the founder of Pocket Books and then one of Simon & Schuster’s owners, to overcome Max Schuster’s horror while guaranteeing Robbins unheard-of paperback lucre for this and future works. In the words of his later editor, Michael Korda, “Thus was the ‘hard/soft’ multibook contract born … après nous le déluge.” When Robbins sent Alfred Knopf a copy of his masterpiece, he got a frosty note back: “Thanks, but I don’t read such trash.” Rubicon!


All this is interesting in an archaeological way. But once The Carpetbaggers, reputedly “the fourth-most-read book in history,” transforms Robbins into, well, “Harold Robbins,” his story grows tiresome, despite Wilson’s stabs at tarting up the author’s later career with such reflections (there’s no evidence his subject shared them) as “by catering to the lowest common denominator, Robbins sacrificed his integrity.” Say what? He’d found his gimmick: exploitation, with garish facsimiles of Lana Turner (Where Love Has Gone), the South American playboy Porfirio Rubirosa (“The Adventurers”) and the Ford automobile dynasty (The Betsy), among others, paraded en déshabillé for our enjoyment. Besides churning out novel-like objects with the monotonous implacability of a batting-practice machine, Robbins never stopped trying to brand himself in other ways. These efforts included The Survivors, a notoriously wretched TV series he spitballed to ABC one day and had forgotten about by the time it was green-lighted.


Wilson quotes several of Robbins’s intimates as saying he behaved just like a character in his novels, and the insult, not that they mean it as one, rings drearily true. Making big bucks let him live out his grossest fantasies, like owning a yacht and having orgies. But his excesses are unlikely to fascinate any reader who isn’t a) 15 or b) Donald Trump, the first tycoon who seems to aspire to being a Robbins hero. The detail that may best evoke the milieu Robbins lived in is the “set of 14-karat-gold fingernails” he bought his second wife; according to presumably awed friends, “the effect of the sun reflecting off them was enough to nearly blind you.” There’s also something disconcerting about a biography in which George Hamilton, who starred in The Survivors, figures as a voice of reason: “I thought reading his books was as good as it got and getting to know him would not improve on that in any way.” Even the gentlemanly Korda’s verdict is blunt: “He was as disagreeable and odious in the days of his success as the days of his failure.”


Robbins himself once said, “I just happen to think I’ve done better than anyone else in reflecting the times in which I live,” meaning his work rather than his personality — and the claim isn’t completely absurd. If nothing else, he did know where the action was, though it took Francis Ford Coppola’s movie version of The Godfather, a novel that wouldn’t exist without Robbins’s example, to prove that greatness can be spun from sensationalist claptrap. If flimsily disguised lives of famous people strike you as meretricious by definition, remember Citizen Kane. The real pity is that, stamina aside, Robbins was talentless, and he made his preferred subject matter radioactive for more gifted novelists for a number of years. If he hadn’t gotten his mitts on Howard Hughes first, mightn’t Norman Mailer have been tempted?



a homage to thomas mann in jerzy kosinski’s steps: step number three

"One day an older nun stopped me in the corridor. She asked me whether I knew what I was doing, and when I said I didn’t understand, she said the staff had a name for people like myself: hyaenidae. As I still failed to understand, she said: hyenas. Men of my kind, she said, lurked around bodies that were dying; each time I fed upon the woman, I hastened her death."

Bookseller Photo  

I was employed as a skiing instructor and lived in a mountain resort where tubercular patients were sent for care. I occupied an apartment from which I could see the sanatorium and distinguish the pale faces of the new arrivals from the tanned faces of the long-term patients who sunned themselves on the terraces.


At the end of each afternoon my tired skiers would return to their hostels, and I to my solitary dinner. I spent most of my time alone. After supper the muffled sounds of the gong from the sanatorium would announce the night routine, and a few minutes later the lights would be extinguished, as if snatched from one window after the next.


A dog howled from a hut far up on the slopes. Then I caught sight of human figures struggling through the deep snow of a nearby field: the skiing instructors from neighboring hostels were moving in stealthily for their nocturnal encounters. From the massive blackness surrounding the sanatorium several figures hurried toward the men waiting below: female patients were sneaking out to meet their lovers. The silhouettes touched and merged as if they were the fragments of a shadow being mended. Each couple left separately. In the moonlight they looked like dwarfed mountain pines which had stepped down from the slopes to venture among the windless fields. Soon they were all gone. 


In the weeks that followed I became aware that some of the stronger patients were permitted to spend part of each day outdoors. They met at the café at the foot of the slopes, and many of them formed alliances with the tourists and members of the staff. Quite often, from the shelter provided by a copse of firs, I would watch them pairing off, noticing every now and then a change in partners and committing to memory those who wereespecially sought after and those who were neglected. Then, as the last vestiges of light faded and it suddenly grew chilly even in my sheltered lookout, I would turn and make my way back to my lodgings.


There was one woman I observed in particular. She had not been a serious case, and it was said that her recovery was excellent: she was to be discharged at the end of the month. Two men were competing for her—a young skiing instructor from a neighboring hotel, and a tourist who had often spoken of staying at the resort until the woman was discharged.


The woman divided her attention equally between the two men. Every afternoon the tourist hurried over from his hotel, while the instructor skied in after dismissing his class. The woman would sit in the café at the foot of the slopes. She could watch both her suitors making their various approaches. The instructor played upon his skills, skiing over at the highest possible speed and, when it seemed almost too late, turning violently away from the terrace rail and skidding in a spray of snow alongside the woman’s table. His rival, only a fair skier, would wander around at the foot of the slopes, forcing the instructor to slow up or pull away and usually disrupting the speed and deftness of his descent.


One afternoon I arrived at the café before the skiing classes were over. The tourist was already there, apparently unwilling to continue his clumsy maneuvers on the slopes. The instructor had taken his pupils to the nursery slopes above and to one side of the café. As the sun began to sink, he dismissed the class, but did not push off from the top of the slope as was his habit when skiing down to the café. Instead, he began moving up along a snow-covered ridge. The ridge was always marked with danger flags, and was forbidden to all but the national medalists. People left their tables and crowded against the terrace rail to watch his slow ascent. The woman jumped up and ran out of the restaurant to the foot of the slope to wait for him. The tourist followed.


The instructor launched himself, at first swooping down in long, graceful curves, avoiding the shoulders of raw rock that broke through the snow and gave the trail its reputation for danger. He picked up speed continuously, skiing with the suppleness and precision of a master. I wondered whether he would stop at the post that marked the foot of the trail or end with a spectacular turn at the feet of the girl. Everyone was silent. The long, almost horizontal rays of the sun caught the woman and the tourist as they stood at the foot of the run.


The instructor swung into the last hundred yards, moving fast and straight. The girl shook off the tourist’s hand, which was resting on hers, and stepped forward, raising her arms and calling out the instructor’s name. The tourist lurched after her, grabbing her by the shoulder. In a second the instructor soared into the end of the run and gathered himself up as he might at the start of a jump, but instead of throwing himself forward and up, he seemed to thrust to the left in an unnaturally abrupt twist. No longer able either to turn or slow down, his skis lifted and he soared on, with the entire force and impetus that the long run had built up within him crashing suddenly with his shoulder into the man’s unprotected chest. Both bodies slid for some distance down the slope, finally coming to rest at the edge of the terrace. The crowd rushed to them; blood dripped from the tourist’s mouth and he was carried unconscious into the café. The instructor sat on the terrace steps for a few minutes, with his head in his hands, while the woman loosened his parka. Then the ambulance drove up, and the tourist, still unconscious, was strapped onto the stretcher. As the bearers picked him up I glanced toward the terrace steps. The instructor and the woman were no longer in sight.




I did not see the instructor again until much later. Then I saw him one evening with a woman.


They were sheltered in a recess in the stonework of the hotel wall. All around a storm raged, and the snow in the fields churned like water in a frenzied bay. Foaming drifts roared and formed, only to collapse like mounds of goose feathers into unfathomable clefts. Leaning against the wall and touched occasionally by the wavering light of the lantern that dangled above a footpath, the man stood below the woman and drew her close to him. The woman bent toward him, clinging to his chest, yielding and tender. Her arms clasped his shoulders. The whirlwind tugged at her coat, pulling it open. For a moment they looked as if they had both suddenly grown wings which would carry them away from that niche, from those powdery fields and out of my sight. I made up my mind.


The next afternoon I found a pretext to visit the sanatorium. Patients in brightly patterned pullovers and tight pants strolled about the corridors. Others slept huddled in blankets. Filmy shadows cut across the deserted deck chairs on the sunny terrace, and the canvas snapped in the sharp breezes that scattered down from the peaks.


I saw a woman reclining in a chair. Her shawl, casually thrown around her shoulders, exposed her long, suntanned neck. As I lingered, gazing, she glanced at me thoughtfully, and then smiled. My shadow fell across her when I introduced myself.


The visiting rules were very strict, and I was permitted to spend only two hours a day in her room. I couldn’t get too close to her: she would not let me. She was very ill and coughed continually. Often she brought up blood. She shivered, became feverish; her cheeks flushed. Her hands and feet would sweat.


During one of my visits she asked me to make love to her. I locked the door. After I had undressed she told me to look into the large mirror in the corner of the room. I saw her in the mirror and our eyes met. Then she got up from the bed, took off her robe, and stepped over to the mirror. She stood very close to it, touching my reflection with one hand and pressing her body with the other. I could see her breasts and her flanks. She waited for me while I concentrated more and more on the thought that it was I who stood there within the mirror and that it was my flesh her hands and lips were touching.


But in a low yet urgent voice, she would stop me whenever I took a step toward her. We would make love again: she standing as before in front of the mirror, and I, a pace away, my sight riveted upon her.


Her life was measured and constantly checked by various instruments, recorded on negatives, charted and filed away by a succession of doctors and nurses, reinforced by needles piercing her chest and veins, breathed in from oxygen bottles and breathed out into tubes. My brief visits were interrupted more and more frequently by the intrusion of doctors, nurses, or attendants who came to change the oxygen cylinders or give new medicines.


One day an older nun stopped me in the corridor. She asked me whether I knew what I was doing, and when I said I didn’t understand, she said the staff had a name for people like myself: hyaenidae. As I still failed to understand, she said: hyenas. Men of my kind, she said, lurked around bodies that were dying; each time I fed upon the woman, I hastened her death.


As time went on her condition visibly deteriorated. I sat in her room, staring at her pale face lit only by an occasional flush. The hands on the bedspread were thin, with a delicate network of bluish veins. Her frail shoulders heaving with every breath, she surreptitiously wiped off the perspiration which rose steadily on her forehead. I sat quietly and stared at the mirror while she slept; it reflected the cold, white rectangles of the walls and ceiling.


The nuns glided silently in and out of the room, but I succeeded in never meeting their eyes. They bent over the patient, wiping her forehead, moistening her lips with wads of cotton, whispering some secret language into her ears. Their clumsy dresses flapped like the wings of restless birds.


I would step out onto the terrace, quickly closing the door behind me. The wind was ceaselessly driving the snow over the crusted fields, filling the deep footprints and diagonal tracks left from the previous day. I held the soft plump cushion of fresh snow from the frozen railings. For a moment it shimmered in my warm palm before turning into dripping slush.


More and more often I was denied access to her room, and I spent those hours alone in my apartment. Later, before going to sleep, I would pull out from the desk drawer several albums filled with my photographs of her, carefully enlarged and painstakingly pasted onto stiff cardboard. I would place these enlargements in a corner of my bedroom and sit in front of them, recalling the events of the hospital room and the images within the mirror. In some of the photographs she was naked; now I had them before me, for myself alone. I looked at these pictures as if they were mirrors in which I could see at any moment my own face floating ghostlike on her flesh.


Then I would step out on my balcony. Around the sanatorium the lights from the windows touched the snow, which no longer seemed fresh. I would gaze at the faint lights until they began to disappear. From beyond the breadth and width of the valleys and hills, streaked by wooded slopes, the moonlight lit up frozen peaks and streams of vaporous clouds being lured from the shadows of narrow defiles.


A door clanged shut; a car horn sounded in the distance. Suddenly figures appeared between the snowdrifts. They scrambled through the fields toward the sanatorium, now and then lost, as if straining against the stifling dust storm of a drought-stricken plain.

frederic jameson on the disappearance of the individual subject and the practice of pastiche

"Cultural production is thereby driven back inside a mental space which is no longer that of the old monadic subject but rather that of some degraded collective ‘objective spirit’: it can no longer gaze directly on some putative real world, at some reconstruction of a past history which was once itself a present; rather, as in Plato’s cave, it must trace our mental images of that past upon its confining walls. If there is any realism left here, it is a ‘realism’ that is meant to derive from the shock of grasping that confinement and of slowly becoming aware of a new and original historical situation in which we are condemned to seek History by way of our own pop images and simulacra of that history, which itself remains forever out of reach." 

—Frederic Jameson

The disappearance of the individual subject, along with its formal consequence, the increasing unavailability of the personal style, engender the well-nigh universal practice today of what may be called pastiche. This concept, which we owe to Thomas Mann (in Doktor Faustus), who owed it in turn to Adorno’s great work on the two paths of advanced musical experimentation (Schoenberg’s innovative planification and Stravinsky’s irrational eclecticism), is to be sharply distinguished from the more readily received idea of parody.

To be sure, parody found a fertile area in the idiosyncracies of the moderns and their "inimitable" styles: the Faulknerian long sentence, for example, with its breathless gerundives; Lawrentian nature imagery punctuated by testy colloquialism; Wallace Stevens’s inveterate hypostasis of nonsubstantive parts of speech ("the intricate evasions of as"); the fateful (but finally predictable) swoops in Mahler from high orchestral pathos into village accordion sentiment; Heidegger’s meditative-solemn practice of the false etymology as a mode of "proof" . . . All these strike one as somehow characteristic, insofar as they ostentatiously deviate from a norm which then reasserts itself, in a not necessarily unfriendly way, by a systematic mimicry of their willful eccentricities.

Yet in the dialectical leap from quantity to quality, the explosion of modern literature into a host of distinct private styles and mannerisms has been followed by a linguistic fragmentation of social life itself to the point where the norm itself is eclipsed: reduced to a neutral and reified media speech (far enough from the Utopian aspirations of the inventors of Esperanto or Basic English), which itself then becomes but one more idiolect among many. Modernist styles thereby become postmodernist codes. And that the stupendous proliferation of social codes today into professional and disciplinary jargons (but also into the badges of affirmation of ethnic, gender, race, religious, and class-factional adhesion) is also a political phenomenon, the problem of micropolitics sufficiently demonstrates. If the ideas of a ruling class were once the dominant (or hegemonic) ideology of bourgeois society, the advanced capitalist countries today are now a field of stylistic and discursive heterogeneity without a norm. Faceless masters continue to inflect the economic strategies which constrain our existences, but they no longer need to impose their speech (or are henceforth unable to); and the postliteracy of the late capitalist world reflects not only the absence of any great collective project but also the unavailability of the older national language itself.

In this situation parody finds itself without a vocation; it has lived, and that strange new thing pastiche slowly comes to take its place. Pastiche is, like parody, the imitation of a peculiar or unique, idiosyncratic style, the wearing of a linguistic mask, speech in a dead language. But it is a neutral practice of such mimicry, without any of parody’s ulterior motives, amputated of the satiric impulse, devoid of laughter and of any conviction that alongside the abnormal tongue you have momentarily borrowed, some healthy linguistic normality still exists. Pastiche is thus blank parody, a statue with blind eyeballs: it is to parody what that other interesting and historically original modern thing, the practice of a kind of blank irony, is to what Wayne Booth calls the "stable ironies" of the eighteenth century.

It would therefore begin to seem that Adorno’s prophetic diagnosis has been realized, albeit in a negative way: not Schönberg (the sterility of whose achieved system he already glimpsed) but Stravinsky is the true precursor of postmodern cultural production. For with the collapse of the high-modernist ideology of style — what is as unique and unmistakable as your own fingerprints, as incomparable as your own body (the very source, for an early Roland Barthes, of stylistic invention and innovation) — the producers of culture have nowhere to turn but to the past: the imitation of dead styles, speech through all the masks and voices stored up in the imaginary museum of a now global culture.

This situation evidently determines what the architecture historians call "historicism," namely, the random cannibalization of all the styles of the past, the play of random stylistic allusion, and in general what Henri Lefebvre has called the increasing primacy of the "neo." This omnipresence of pastiche is not incompatible with a certain humor, however, nor is it innocent of all passion: it is at the least compatible with addiction — with a whole historically original consumer’s appetite for a world transformed into sheer images of itself and for pseudo-events and "spectacles" (the term of the situationists). It is for such objects that we may reserve Plato’s conception of the "simulacrum," the identical copy for which no original has ever existed. Appropriately enough, the culture of the simulacrum comes to life in a society where exchange value has been generalized to the point at which the very memory of use value is effaced, a society of which Guy Debord has observed, in an extraordinary phrase, that in it "the image has become the final form of commodity reification" (The Society of the Spectacle).

The new spatial logic of the simulacrum can now be expected to have a momentous effect on what used to be historical time. The past is thereby itself modified: what was once, in the historical novel as Lukacs defines it, the organic genealogy of the bourgeois collective project — what is still, for the redemptive historiography of an E. P Thompson or of American "oral history," for the resurrection of the dead of anonymous and silenced generations, the retrospective dimension indispensable to any vital reorientation of our collective future — has meanwhile itself become a vast collection of images, a multitudinous photographic simulacrum. Guy Debord’s powerful slogan is now even more apt for the "prehistory" of a society bereft of all historicity, one whose own putative past is little more than a set of dusty spectacles. In faithful conformity to poststructuralist linguistic theory, the past as "referent" finds itself gradually bracketed, and then effaced altogether, leaving us with nothing but texts.

Yet it should not be thought that this process is accompanied by indifference: on the contrary, the remarkable current intensification of an addiction to the photographic image is itself a tangible symptom of an omnipresent, omnivorous, and well-nigh libidinal historicism. As I have already observed, the architects use this (exceedingly polysemous) word for the complacent eclecticism of postmodern architecture, which randomly and without principle but with gusto cannibalizes all the architectural styles of the past and combines them in overstimulating ensembles. Nostalgia does not strike one as an altogether satisfactory word for such fascination (particularly when one thinks of the pain of a properly modernist nostalgia with a past beyond all but aesthetic retrieval), yet it directs our attention to what is a culturally far more generalized manifestation of the process in commercial art and taste, namely the so-called nostalgia film (or what the French call la mode retro).

Nostalgia films restructure thewhole issue of pastiche and project it onto a collective and social level, where the desperate attempt to appropriate a missing past is now refracted through the iron law of fashion change and the emergent ideology of the generation. The inaugural film of this new aesthetic discourse, George Lucas’s American Graffiti (1973), set out to recapture, as so many films have attempted since, the henceforth mesmerizing lost reality of the Eisenhower era; and one tends to feel, that for Americans at least, the 1950s remain the privileged lost object of desire7 — not merely the stability and prosperity of a pax Americana but also the first naive innocence of the countercultural impulses of early rock and roll and youth gangs (Coppola’s Rumble Fish will then be the contemporary dirge that laments their passing, itself, however, still contradictorily filmed in genuine nostalgia film style). With this initial breakthrough, other generational periods open up for aesthetic colonization: as witness the stylistic recuperation of the American and the Italian 1930s, in Polanski’s Chinatown and Bertolucci’s Il Conformista, respectively. More interesting, and more problematical, are the ultimate attempts, through this new discourse, to lay siege either to our own present and immediate past or to a more distant history that escapes individual existential memory.

Faced with these ultimate objects — our social, historical, and existential present, and the past as "referent" — the incompatibility of a postmodernist "nostalgia" art language with genuine historicity becomes dramatically apparent. The contradiction propels this mode, however, into complex and interesting new formal inventiveness; it being understood that the nostalgia film was never a matter of some old-fashioned "representation" of historical content, but instead approached the "past" through stylistic connotation, conveying "pastness" by the glossy qualities of the image, and "1930s-ness" or "1950s-ness" by the attributes of fashion (in that following the prescription of the Barthes of Mythologies, who saw connotation as the purveying of imaginary and stereotypical idealities: "Sinité," for example, as some Disney-EPCOT "concept" of China).

The insensible colonization of the present by the nostalgia mode can be observed in Lawrence Kasdan’s elegant film Body Heat, a distant "affluent society" remake of James M. Cain’s Double Indemnity, set in a contemporary Florida small town a few hours’ drive from Miami. The word remake is, however, anachronistic to the degree to which our awareness of the preexistence of other versions (previous films of the novel as well as the novel itself) is now a constitutive and essential part of the film’s structure: we are now, in other words, in "intertextuality" as a deliberate, built-in feature of the aesthetic effect and as the operator of a new connotation of "pastness" and pseudohistorical depth, in which the history of aesthetic styles displaces "real" history.

Yet from the outset a whole battery of aesthetic signs begin to distance the officially contemporary image from us in time: the art deco scripting of the credits, for example, serves at once to program the spectator to the appropriate "nostalgia" mode of reception (art deco quotation has much the same function in contemporary architecture, as in Toronto’s remarkable EatonCentre).8 Meanwhile, a somewhat different play of connotations is activated by complex (but purely formal) allusions to the institution of the star system itself. The protagonist, William Hurt, is one of a new generation of film "stars" whose status is markedly distinct from that of the preceding generation of male superstars, such as Steve McQueen or Jack Nicholson (or even, more distantly, Brando), let alone of earlier moments in the evolution of the institution of the star. The immediately preceding generation projected their various roles through and by way of their well-known off-screen personalities, which often connoted rebellion and nonconformism. The latest generation of starring actors continues to assure the conventional functions of stardom (most notably sexuality) but in the utter absence of "personality" in the older sense, and with something of the anonymity of character acting (which in actors like Hurt reaches virtuoso proportions, yet of a very different kind than the virtuosity of the older Brando or Olivier). This "death of the subject" in the institution of the star now, however, opens up the possibility of a play of historical allusions to much older roles — in this case to those associated with Clark Gable — so that the very style of the acting can now also serve as a "connotator" of the past.

Finally, the setting has been strategically framed, with great ingenuity, to eschew most of the signals that normally convey the contemporaneity of the United States in its multinational era: the small-town setting allows the camera to elude the high-rise landscape of the 1970s and 1980s (even though a key episode in the narrative involves the fatal destruction of older buildings by land speculators), while the object world of the present day — artifacts and appliances, whose styling would at once serve to date the image — is elaborately edited out. Everything in the film, therefore, conspires to blur its official contemporaneity and make it possible for the viewer to receive the narrative as though it were set in some eternal thirties, beyond real historical time. This approach to the present by way of the art language of the simulacrum, or of the pastiche of the stereotypical past, endows present reality and the openness of present history with the spell and distance of a glossy mirage. Yet this mesmerizing new aesthetic mode itself emerged as an elaborated symptom of the waning of our historicity, of our lived possibility of experiencing history in some active way. It cannot therefore be said to produce this strange occultation of the present by its own formal power, but rather merely to demonstrate, through these inner contradictions, the enormity of a situation in which we seem increasingly incapable of fashioning representations of our own current experience.

As for "real history" itself — the traditional object, however it may be defined, of what used to be the historical novel — it will be more revealing now to turn back to that older form and medium and to read its postmodern fate in the work of one of the few serious and innovative leftist novelists at work in the United States today, whose books are nourished with history in the more traditional sense and seem, so far, to stake out successive generational moments in the "epic" of American history, between which they alternate. E. L. Doctorow’s Ragtime gives itself officially as a panorama of the first two decades of the century (like World’s Fair); his most recent novel, Billy Bathgate, like Loon Lake addresses the thirties and the Great Depression, while The Book of Daniel holds up before us, in painful juxtaposition, the two great moments of the Old Left and the New Left, of thirties and forties communism and the radicalism of the 1960s (even his early western may be said to fit into this scheme and to designate in a less articulated and formally self-conscious way the end of the frontier of the late nineteenth century).

The Book of Daniel is not the only one of these five major historical novels to establish an explicit narrative link between the reader’s and the writer’s present and the older historical reality that is the subject of the work; the astonishing last page of Loon Lake, which I will not disclose, also does this in a very different way; it is a matter of some interest to note that the first version of Ragtime9 positions us explicitly in our own present, in the novelist’s house in New Rochelle, New York, which at once becomes the scene of its own (imaginary) past in the 1900s. This detail has been suppressed from the published text, symbolically cutting its moorings and freeing the novel to float in some new world of past historical time whose relationship to us is problematical indeed. The authenticity of the gesture, however, may be measured by the evident existential fact of life that there no longer does seem to be any organic relationship between the American history we learn from schoolbooks and the lived experience of the current multinational, high-rise, stagflated city of the newspapers and of our own everyday life.

A crisis in historicity, however, inscribes itself symptomatically in several other curious formal features within this text. Its official subject is the transition from a pre-World War I radical and working-class politics (the great strikes) to the technological invention and new commodity production of the 1920s (the rise of Hollywood and of the image as commodity): the interpolated version of Kleist’s Michael Kohlhaas, the strange, tragic episode of the black protagonist’s revolt, may be thought of as a moment related to this process. That Ragtime has political content and even something like a political "meaning" seems in any case obvious and has been expertly articulated by Linda Hutcheon in terms of

its three paralleled families: the Anglo-American establishment one and the marginal immigrant European and American black ones. The novel’s action disperses the center of the first and moves the margins into the multiple "centers" of the narrative, in a formal allegory of the social demographics of urban America. In addition, there is an extended critique of American democratic ideals through the presentation of class conflict rooted in capitalist property and moneyed power. The black Coalhouse, the white Houdini, the immigrant Tateh are all working class, and because of this — not in spite of it — all can therefore work to create new aesthetic forms (ragtime, vaudeville, movies).10

But this does everything but the essential, lending the novel an admirable thematic coherence few readers can have experienced in parsing the lines of a verbal object held too close to the eyes to fall into these perspectives. Hutcheon is, of course, absolutely right, and this is what the novel would have meant had it not been a postmodern artifact. For one thing, the objects of representation, ostensibly narrative characters, are incommensurable and, as it were, of incomparable substances, like oil and water — Houdini being a historical figure, Tateh a fictional one, and Coalhouse an intertextual one — something very difficult for an interpretive comparison of this kind to register. Meanwhile, the theme attributed to the novel also demands a somewhat different kind of scrutiny, since it can be rephrased into a classic version of the Left’s "experience of defeat" in the twentieth century, namely, the proposition that the depolitization of the workers’ movement is attributable to the media or culture generally (what she here calls "new aesthetic forms"). This is, indeed, in my opinion, something like the elegiac backdrop, if not the meaning, of Ragtime, and perhaps of Doctorow’s work in general; but then we need another way of describing the novel as something like an unconscious expression and associative exploration of this left doxa, this historical opinion or quasi-vision in the mind’s eye of "objective spirit." What such a description would want to register is the paradox that a seemingly realistic novel like Ragtime is in reality a nonrepresentational work that combines fantasy signifiers from a variety of ideologemes in a kind of hologram.

My point, however, is not some hypothesis as to the thematic coherence of this decentered narrative but rather just the opposite, namely, the way in which the kind of reading this novel imposes makes it virtually impossible for us to reach and thematize those official "subjects" which float above the text but cannot be integrated into our reading of the sentences. In that sense, the novel not only resists interpretation, it is organized systematically and formally to short-circuit an older type of social and historical interpretation which it perpetually holds out and withdraws. When we remember that the theoretical critique and repudiation of interpretation as such is a fundamental component of poststructuralist theory, it is difficult not to conclude that Doctorow has somehow deliberately built this very tension, this very contradiction, into the flow of his sentences.

The book is crowded with real historical figures — from Teddy Roosevelt to Emma Goldman, from Harry K. Thaw and Stanford White to J. Pierpont Morgan and Henry Ford, not to mention the more central role of Houdini — who interact with a fictive family, simply designated as Father, Mother, Older Brother, and so forth. All historical novels, beginning with those of Sir Walter Scott himself, no doubt in one way or another involve a mobilization of previous historical knowledge generally acquired through the schoolbook history manuals devised for whatever legitimizing purpose by this or that national tradition — thereafter instituting a narrative dialectic between what we already "know" about The Pretender, say, and what he is then seen to be concretely in the pages of the novel. But Doctorow’s procedure seems much more extreme than this; and I would argue that the designation of both types of characters — historical names and capitalized family roles — operates powerfully and systematically to reify all these characters and to make it impossible for us to receive their representation without the prior interception of already acquired knowledge or doxa — something which lends the text an extraordinary sense of deja vu and a peculiar familiarity one is tempted to associate with Freud’s "return of the repressed" in "The Uncanny" rather than with any solid historiographic formation on the reader’s part.

Meanwhile, the sentences in which all this is happening have their own specificity, allowing us more concretely to distinguish the moderns’ elaboration of a personal style from this new kind of linguistic innovation, which is no longer personal at all but has its family kinship rather with what Barthes long ago called "white writing." In this particular novel, Doctorow has imposed upon himself a rigorous principle of selection in which only simple declarative sentences (predominantly mobilized by the verb "to be") are received. The effect is, however, not really one of the condescending simplification and symbolic carefulness of children’s literature, but rather something moredisturbing, the sense of some profound subterranean violence done to American English, which cannot, however, be detected empirically in any of the perfectly grammatical sentences with which this work is formed. Yet other more visible technical "innovations" may supply a clue to what is happening in the language of Ragtime: it is, for example, well known that the source of many of the characteristic effects of Camus’s novel The Stranger can be traced back to that author’s willful decision to substitute, throughout, the French tense of the passe compose for the other past tenses more normally employed in narration in that language.11 I suggest that it is as if something of that sort were at work here: as though Doctorow had set out systematically to produce the effect or the equivalent, in his language, of a verbal past tense we do not possess in English, namely, the French preterite (or passe simple), whose "perfective" movement, as Emile Benveniste taught us, serves to separate events from the present of enunciation and to transform the stream of time and action into so many finished, complete, and isolated punctual event objects which find themselves sundered from any present situation (even that of the act of story telling or enunciation).

E. L. Doctorow is the epic poet of the disappearance of the American radical past, of the suppression of older traditions and moments of the American radical tradition: no one with left sympathies can read these splendid novels without a poignant distress that is an authentic way of confronting our own current political dilemmas in the present. What is culturally interesting, however, is that he has had to convey this great theme formally (since the waning of the content is very precisely his subject) and, more than that, has had to elaborate his work by way of that very cultural logic of the postmodern which is itself the mark and symptom of his dilemma. Loon Lake much more obviously deploys the strategies of the pastiche (most notably in its reinvention of Dos Passos); but Ragtime remains the most peculiar and stunning monument to the aesthetic situation engendered by the disappearance of the historical referent. This historical novel can no longer set out to represent the historical past; it can only "represent" our ideas and stereotypes about that past (which thereby at once becomes "pop history"). Cultural production is thereby driven back inside a mental space which is no longer that of the old monadic subject but rather that of some degraded collective "objective spirit": it can no longer gaze directly on some putative real world, at some reconstruction of a past history which was once itself a present; rather, as in Plato’s cave, it must trace our mental images of that past upon its confining walls. If there is any realism left here, it is a "realism" that is meant to derive from the shock of grasping that confinement and of slowly becoming aware of a new and original historical situation in which we are condemned to seek History by way of our own pop images and simulacra of that history, which itself remains forever out of reach.


7. For further on the 50s, see chapter 9.

8. See also "Art Deco," in my Signatures of the Visible (Routledge, 1990).

9. "Ragtime," American Review no.20 (April 1974): 1-20.

10. Lynda Hutcheon, A Poetics of Postmodernism (1988), pp.61-2.

11. Jean-Paul Sartre, "L’Etranger de Camus," in Situations II (Paris, Gallimard. 1948).


—from Fredric Jameson’s Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. Duke UP, 1991.