Postmodernism As Liberty Valance: Notes on an Execution

The Ritual Killing of Postmodern Literature Is a Three-Man Gunfight at the O.K. Corral (Allegorically Speaking)
Priggish Young Lawyers from the East, Amoral Thugs, Pynchonian Names, Contradictory Imperatives for American Novelists, “The Way We Live Now,” Murderous French Critics, The Value-Neutral Fog of Culture, Gorgon-Headed Monsters, The Unabomber, Those Guys, Sacrificial Chalices, Innovations of Bebop
by Jonathan Lethem
Film still from The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962). Courtesy of Paramount.

Postmodernism As Liberty Valance: Notes on an Execution

Jonathan Lethem
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(1) Spoiler alert. John Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is an allegorical western that I am now going to totally pretzel into an allegory for something else entirely. Actually, I’ll reverse it: The original allegorizes the taming of the western frontier, the coming of modernity in the form of the law book and the locomotive, and memorializes what was lost (a loss the film sees as inevitable). My version allegorizes the holding at bay, for the special province of literary fiction, of contemporary experience in all its dismaying or exhilarating particulars, as well as a weird, persistent denial of a terrific number of artistic strategies for illuminating that experience. The avoidance, that’s to say, of any forthright address of what’s called postmodernity, and what’s lost in avoiding it (a sacrifice I see as at best pointless, an empty rehearsal of anxieties, and at worst hugely detrimental to fiction).

(2) The chewy center of TMWSLV is a gunfight. A man stands in the main street of a western town and (apparently) kills another man. The victim—for this is, technically, murder—represents chaos and anxiety and fear to all who know him, and has been regarded as unkillable, almost in the manner of a monster or zombie from another movie genre; his dispatch is regarded by the local population with astonished relief and gratitude, such that they will shower the killer with regard (he’s destined to become his party’s nominee for vice president of the United States). The secret the movie reveals: the killer was not the man in the street, but another.

(3) The three persons in TMWSLV: James Stewart, a.k.a. “Ransom Stoddard,” the upstanding, even priggish young lawyer from the East, defined by his naive sincerity and dedication to the rule of law; John Wayne, a.k.a. “Tom Doniphon,” cynical veteran of the frontier, who tends to an isolationist-libertarian approach toward civilization but is essentially lovable and will become heartbreaking by film’s end; and Lee Marvin, a.k.a. “Liberty Valance,” a sadistic, amoral thug who delights in sowing chaos and exposing the fragility of social convention (by terrorizing family restaurants, newspaper offices, elections, etc.).

(4) Stewart/Stoddard believes he’s “the man who killed Liberty Valance” (he stood, after all, in the center of town, visible to all, with a gun in his hand). More important, the witnesses believe he’s the one. In fact, it was Wayne/Doniphon who did the deed, while hidden in a shadowy alley, after having elaborately conspired to goad the helpless and pacifistic Stewart/Stoddard into his public role as a gun-toting defender of public peace against the savage anarchy of Marvin/Valance.

(5) Liberty Valance, i.e., “Free Persuasion”—what an absurd, obvious, Pynchonian name! But then, the characters in Dickens and Henry James have odd names, too.

(6) “The American novelist is buffeted by two increasingly contradictory imperatives. The first comes as the directive to depict ‘The Way We Live Now’… Cliché it may be, but the notion that no one is better suited to explain the dilemmas of contemporary life than the novelist persists… [The] other designated special province of the literary novelist: museum-quality depth. The further literature is driven to the outskirts of the culture, the more it is cherished as a sanctuary from everything coarse, shallow and meretricious in that culture… If these two missions seem incompatible, that’s because they are. To encompass both… you have to persuade your readers that you have given them what they want by presenting them with what they were trying to get away from when they came to you in the first place.” —Laura Miller, the Guardian

(7) Let’s wade into the unpleasantness around the term postmodernism: nobody agrees on its definition, but in literary conversations the word is often used as finger-pointing to a really vast number of things that might be seen as threatening to canonical culture: author-killing theories generated by French critics; collapsings of high and low cultural preserves into a value-neutral fog; excessive reference to various other media and/or mediums, especially electronic ones (ironically, even a Luddishly denunciatory take on certain media and/or mediums may be suspect merely for displaying an excess of familiarity with same); an enthusiasm for“metafiction” (a word that ought to be reserved for a specific thing that starts with Cervantes, but isn’t), for antinarrative, for pop-culture references or generic forms, for overt (as opposed to politely passive) “intertextuality,” for unreliable narration, for surrealism or magical realism or hysterical realism or some other brandof“opposed-to-realism” affiliation, for “irony” (another term that’s been abused out of its effective contour and function, and its abusers, by the way, have fewer excuses than do those of postmodernism), etc., etc., etc. Now, any writer espousing, let alone employing, all of the above things would be a Gorgon-headed monster, surely deserving rapid assassination for the safety of the literary community in general. (Or maybe not, maybe they’d be splendid.) But—and I present this as axiomatic—such a person, and such writing, is impossible to consider seriously, because all of the modes denounced under the banner of“postmodernist” are incompatible: you can’t, just for instance, exalt disreputable genres like the crime story and also want to do away with narrative.

(8) The reverse person, a literary person inclined toward or at least compelled by none of the above-named modes or gestures—and I present this not as axiomatic but as an obnoxious opinion—would be dull beyond belief. They basically would have declined the entire twentieth century (and interesting parts of several others). You’ve read our entire menu, sir? And nothing was of interest? Really, nothing?

(9) “… as a phenomenon, postmodernism is either specifically aesthetic or more generally cultural; it is either revolutionary or reactionary; it is either the end of ideology or the inescapable conclusion of ideology… It is expressed in architecture, art, literature, the media, science, religion, and fashion, and at the same time it is equivalent to none of these. It is both a continuation and intensification of what has gone before and a radical break with all traces of the past. It is, above all, simultaneously critical and complicit.” —Kathleen Fitzpatrick, The Anxiety of Obsolescence

“Critical debates about postmodernism constitute postmodernism itself.” —Steven Connor, Postmodernist Culture

(10) I suggested that abusers of the word postmodernism had excuses. I offer the above quotes as exculpatory evidence. The serious use of the term manifestly propagates bewilderment. But the quotes are also a reminder that the term has serious uses. It means more than “art I don’t like.”

(11) What postmodernism really needs is a new name—or three of them.

(12) The first “postmodernism” that requires a new name is our sense—I’m taking it for granted that you share it—that the world, as presently defined by the advent of global techno-capitalism, the McLuhanesque effects of electronic media, and the long historical postludes of the transformative theories, movements, and traumas of the twentieth century, isn’t a coherent or congenial home for human psyches. Chuck Klosterman details this suspicion in his essay on the Unabomber, called “FAIL” (though it might as well be called “Sympathy for Theodore Kaczynski”). His conclusion, basically, is that in the teeth of contemporary reality we’d all be a little bit crazy not to sometimes wish to kill that sort of postmodernism. I speak here as one who’s spent loads of his own good faith hurling tiny word-bombs at the rolling edifice of the triumphalist Now. This postmodernism we’ll call Kaczynski’s Bad Dream.

(13) The second substitute term I’ll offer is for the avowed, self-declared postmodernist school of U.S. fiction writers: Robert Coover, John Barth, Donald Barthelme, Stanley Elkin, William Gass, John Hawkes, a few others, many of them one another’s friends, and many of them influential teachers. A few non-teachers—Pynchon, of course (unless he was teaching high-school social studies or geometry somewhere). This clan, when Barth and Pynchon were scooping up major prizes, rode high enough that they seemed worth knocking down. This is the epoch John Gardner tilted against in On Moral Fiction. True, this tribe once had the effrontery to imagine itself the center of interest in U.S. fiction, but if you still hold that grudge your memory for effrontery is too long. To go on potshotting at these gentlemen is not so much shooting fish in a barrel as it is shooting novelists who rode a barrel over Niagara Falls twenty or thirty years ago. Or the equivalent of the Republican Party running its presidential candidates against the memory of George McGovern. (Of course, both are done, routinely.) We’ll call these guys Those Guys.

(14) Last, the “postmodernism” consisting simply of what aesthetic means and opportunities modernism and an ascendant popular culture left in their wake (or not their wake, since both, or at least popular culture, are still around). By “means and opportunities” I’m alluding to the vastly expanded and recombinant toolbox of strategies, tones, traditions, genres, and forms a legacy of modernist-style experimentation, as well as a general disintegration of boundaries (between traditions, tones, etc.), has made available to a writer, or to any kind of artist. Louis Menand made this very simple in an essay on how Donald Barthelme’s stories go on stubbornly regenerating their uses and interest for new generations of readers;he suggested that postmodernism, as an artistic movement, represents the democratization of modernism’s impulses and methods. We’ll call this third principle, for the sake of my allegory, Liberty Valance.

(15) I’d like to suggest that the killing of Liberty Valance in order to preserve safety and order in the literary town is a recurrent ritual, a ritual convulsion of literary- critical convention. The chastening of Those Guys, and the replacement of their irresponsible use of Free Power with a more modest and morally serious minimalist aesthetic sometime in the late ’70s, was a kind ofGunfight at the O.K. Corral, a point of inception for the ritual. Who first played the role of Stewart/Stoddard, the true-of-heart citizen shoved into the street to take on the menacing intruder? Was it Raymond Carver? I think Raymond Carver might have been the original Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. Who’s played the role recently? A few: Alice Munro, William Trevor, Cormac McCarthy, Marilynne Robinson, Jonathan Franzen.

(16) The worth, or the intentions, of the writer propped up on Main Street as the killer of postmodernism is not the point. The person (or book) in the street is a surrogate. The Wayne/Doniphon figure is the critic in the shadows, maneuvering the writer in question in a contest of the critic’s devising (excepting, I suppose, the John Gardner or Tom Wolfe scenario of self-appointment, where both roles are played by the same actor). According to the critic’s presentation, the writer has, at last, killed Liberty Valance on behalf of the terrified populace. Yet the terrified populace is probably a straw man, too, a projection of the critic’s own fear of disreputability or disorder.

(17) The persistence of the ritual disproves the ostensible result: Liberty Valance is shot, but never dies. (“Leopards break into the temple and drink the sacrificial chalices dry; this occurs repeatedly, again and again; finally it can be reckoned upon beforehand and becomes part of the ceremony.”—Kafka) Books don’t kill other books, nor do literary stances or methods kill, or disqualify, differing sorts, and those—stances and methods—don’t actually originate from moral positions per se. A given book elaborates its own terms, then succeeds or fails according to them, including on the level of morals. None of this ensures the accomplishment of any writer working in any methodology (whether conscious of a choice of method or in merry obliviousness to the range of options from which he’s selected). A book as full of misrule, as seemingly heedless to ethical consequence as Marvin/Valance in John Ford’s film, might be as sacred as any other.

(18) The reason postmodernism doesn’t die isn’t that the man in the shadows has a peashooter instead of a weapon. Critics do kill things: books, frequently; careers, from time to time (just ask Those Guys). The reason postmodernism doesn’t die is that postmodernism isn’t the figure in the black hat standing out in the street squaring off against the earnest and law-abiding “realist” novel against which it is being opposed. Postmodernism is the street. Postmodernism is the town. It’s where we live, the result of the effects of Liberty Valance’s stubborn versatility and appeal, and the fact of Kaczynski’s Bad Dream.

(19) Yet Liberty Valance and Kaczynski’s Bad Dream aren’t the same “postmodernism.” The freedom and persuasiveness of the full array of contemporary stances and practices available to the literary artist aren’t something to renounce even if the Full Now makes us anxious to the verge of nervous breakdown. At its best, one is a tool for surviving the other—the most advanced radiation suit yet devised for wandering into the toxic future.

(20) Changing metaphors entirely at the last minute: both Kabuki and Noh theater began as fluid popular forms, licensed to depict their own contemporary reality, before sealing themselves within sacralized pools of approved forms, metaphors, and references. And in the history of twentieth-century popular music there’s a name for the school of jazz that glanced at the innovations of bebop and all the implications and possibilities of what lay beyond, but declined to respond. The name for that school is Dixieland.

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