The Dismemberment of Orpheus (Michael Green)
The Dismemberment of Orpheus (1971)
By Ihab Hassan
Orpheus was a poet and musician in Greek mythology who almost rescues his wife Eurydice from Hades by charming Pluto and Persephone with his lyre.
Ihab Hassan is a prominent critic, scholar, and theorist in the study of literature. While focusing his scholarship on the post-war novel, Hassan was among the first to develop and promulgate the concept of the postmodern. In his best-known works, he theorizes a vision of the postmodern that stresses formal characteristics such as discontinuity, indeterminacy, and irony.
He begins by saying that “Radical questions engage the total quality of our life; they are questions of being. Often, they arouse large hopes: to change consciousness, to banish death from our midst. They have a radical innocence. This work may imply such questions.”
In his book, Hassan is trying to advance some idea of postmodern literature, which moves towards the “vanishing point.” In order to do this he examines modern literature especially in terms of the idea of silence.
Hassan says that we still stand in the “domain of literature” but that literature does not suffice. He says that modern literature writes the future of mankind in an invisible hand and that he tries to evoke this invisible writing.
He says that the Modernists in literature——have come up with something new to explain the human condition. He quotes the literary critic Edmund Wilson who said that the modernist writers “ wake us up to the hope and the exaltation of the untried, unsuspected possibilities of human thought and art.”
But then he says that it is time to make a new construction of literary history. He says that a different line has emerged “within” the tradition of the modern. It leads to a literature to come.
Questions: what is the nature of modernism in that it may be “scattered in the life we imagine for ourselves?” What model of modernism can best serve the avant-garde of the future?
Hassan speaks of a doubleness within the modernists: their respect for life and their unwillingness to mix it up with something so inferior as art and (2) art and language may seek transcendence in a state that can be evoked anagogically, or spiritually.
When Hassan speaks of modern literature he speaks of it in two ways as the early 20th century modernists: Eliot, Proust, Joyce, Gertrude Stein, Hemmingway, etc. And he also speaks of modernist literature as far back as the 18th century and early 19th century: Sade, Blake and Wordsworth, all of whom, in their own ways were looking beyond a medium, in other words, beyond words, which leads to the idea of “silence.”
How the modernists use silence as sort of a revolution in art, language and consciousness is one of the primary ideas advanced by Hassan. He explicates the idea of silence in many ways, but ultimately he means that the traditional methods of literature--language and form—are inadequate to convey meaning or a true idea of the human condition.
He also says that silence refers to an avant-garde tradition of literature (from Sade past Beckett). Silence implies alienation from reason, society and history. Silence betrays separation from nature. Silence demands the self-repudiation of art. Silence requires the periodic subversion of forms. Silence creates anti-languages. Silence fills the extreme states of the mind—void, madness, outrage, ecstasy, mystic trance—when ordinary discourse ceases to carry the burden of meaning
Continuing to draw on the Orpheus myth, he speaks of silence and man’s only recourse in modern literature, as playing a lyre without strings.
One writer who I thought summed it up nicely is Esslin, quoted by Hassan, who says, “The time has passed when an identity was believed to exist between the structure of language, the structure of logic and the structure of reality.”
Hassan also says that the negative, acting through art language and consciousness, shapes the boundary state I call silence.”
The revolution in traditional language takes many forms. Words can appear as gibberish, nonsense. Language has become the language of math, logic and chemistry.
To support his theories, Hassan examines the modernist writing of Sade, Hemingway, Kafka, Genet and Beckett.
A quick summary of what he says of some of the writers:
Of Sade he begins with a short biography and says that the movement in Sade’s works is towards total terror. Everywhere Sade focuses on the energy of evil. Sade rejects conventional morality and focuses on the truth of nature, which is indifferent to what men call vice or virtue. Men have no freedom to choose.
Hassan shows the ways in which Sade can be considered the first modern writer, the first avant-gardist, the first creator of an anti-literature. His literature is silent in several ways, because language can not really communicate the annihilations, the voids that he dreams up. Sade is also further silenced by his solipsistic attitude--with whom can he communicate? He alone is the subject and all others are objects of his pleasure. Hassan says “Without full comprehension of his role in Western thought, Sade may be the first to wrench the imagination free from history, to invert the will of art, and to set language against itself.”
Hassan also says of Sade, “He needs the erotic release of transgression against authority” and this reminded me of the play.
Hemingway is next. Again, Hassan provides a short biography. He is providing these biographies to show what in life might make these writers modernist. With Hemingway, as with Sade, it is Hemingway’s knowledge of death (his father killed himself, Hemingway was almost killed in the war, etc), his familiarity with death, his understanding of the emptiness behind things that makes his writing silent. Hassan says that among the modernist American writers, Hemmingway may prove “closest to our consciousness, our blankness and rage. Familiar now as it may seem, the work engages modernism on the deepest levels. Hemingway minimalism rejects traditional language and “holds the world of Hemingway together against madness.”
Kafka, like Hemingway makes his home “in the void.” Hassan sees Kafka as the key figure in the search for a post-modern literature. He says that Kafka brings the “future into our midst.” He sees Kafka as a visionary and that his importance in culture moves beyond literary history. He plays out a “luminous drama of human consciousness that few of us can attain. For him completion lies on the other side of art, the scrupulous and holy art of ambiguity, on the far side of silence where all is pure meaning.”
I can summarize the conclusions that Hassan comes to in terms of looking out to the vanishing point but he says it so well himself. “I am aware of the difficulties in bringing this work to its necessary incompletion. Yet neither can the imagination abandon its teleological sense: change is also dream come true. I can only hope that after self-parody, self-subversion, self-transcendence, after the pride and revulsion of anti-art have gone their way, art may move towards a redeemed imagination, commensurate with the full mystery of human consciousness.”