Colin Falck has written a book that seeks to bind a critique of postmodernism to a plan for salvaging what is best about it. He wants to devise “a true post-modernism,” because until now the movement’s goal has been “the Abolition of Reality.”
The critique is the stronger part of the book. Falck offers several reasons why the currently fashionable versions of postmodernism are unsatisfactory. Identifying it with “post-Saussurian theory” (p. xiii), Falck traces the fundamental mistake of postmodernism back to Saussure’s rejection of one linguistic theory in favor of another, sliding from the view that language is based on “the baptismal labeling of some kind of already-differentiated and pre-baptismally identifiable item of the world’s contents” (p. 22) to seeing it “as a disembodied and contextless process” (p. 11). To Falck, though, the notion that a rejection of the first requires an acceptance of the second seems “entirely fallacious.” And yet “the whole internally interdependent substructure of post-Saussurian literary theory” depends upon the unexamined assumption that the two are inextricable.
Falck finds other instances in which poststructuralists leap from true but trivial premises to otherwise unsupported conclusions. Jacques Derrida, for example, moves from an uncontroversial rejection of theories about “fully-experienced ‘presence’” (p. 21) to the very different issue of the priority of speech over writing. The goal of such non sequiturs is “in effect the Abolition of Reality” (p. 31).
Such abolitions are always subject to the refutation Samuel Johnson made to Berkeley’s idealism. Kicking a stone, he vindicated the materiality of the external world. Now any textbook will point out that Johnson’s gesture was not an argument, but Falck argues that gestures do indeed possess philosophical significance. Speech is prior to writing because it is in speech and the gestures that accompany it that the location of language within “our necessary embodiedness” (p. 115) is most evident. Exploring the implications of the thesis that “all knowledge must be based in bodily awareness” (p. 119) along lines suggested by Merleau-Ponty among others, Falck argues that any satisfying account of language and, especially, literature must take account of dimensions of experience that contemporary theory peremptorily dismisses with the slogan “Nothing outside the text!”
Although Falck’s refutation of postmodernism is telling and effective, it parallels the critique offered by other critics, such as John Ellis in Against Deconstruction. The true originality of his book lies in its admirably straightforward call to take up again the project of English and German Romanticism. For [End Page 264] Falck “the essential function of the literary text is one of revelation or disclosure” (p. 90). Myth, Truth and Literature argues that literature can reveal truths otherwise inexpressible through the use of myth. The romantic revival that he calls for will, however, also be a true postmodernism, because it will share the postmodernist rejection of transcendence in favor of “the essentially Romantic, but philosophically profound, recognition of the necessarily embodied and located nature of all human experiencing” (p. 84). Considering Romanticism “the third great advent of spirituality to the Western world” (p. 140) after Hellenic paganism and Christianity, Falck looks forward to a postmodernist literature that will reaffirm the truths of paganism while avoiding the “imaginative exclusiveness” of Christianity.
One may share Falck’s refusal to accept postmodernism’s Abolition of Reality and yet have serious doubts about his proposed alternative. A reconsideration of the theories of Friedrich Schlegel and Samuel Taylor Coleridge offers more hope for literary criticism than an acceptance of the dominance of postmodernism and cultural studies, but it is not clear that Falck’s version of romanticism avoids the pitfalls of the contemporary approaches he rightly criticizes.
He may not attempt to abolish reality, but Falck does seem to neglect the lessons of contemporary history. He opens his book by asserting that “romanticism looks forward to Marxism, psychoanalysis, and to every significant modern attempt to persuade men to take control of their own destiny” (p. 1). Apparently, then...