- The Visionary Moment: A Postmodern Critique
"An old theory of truth still enchants us," Paul Maltby says at the outset of his new book, though it certainly does not seem to enchant him (1). This theory, which Maltby calls "insidious," "politically suspect," and "epistemologically unsound," is that "truth, in the sense of a 'higher' spiritual knowledge, can be apprehended in an illuminating instant" (9, 3, 1). What Maltby calls "visionary moments" are distinguished by their sudden appearance and their precarious brevity; they signify that "a spiritual rebirth either has occurred or will [End Page 490] occur" and is "often validated in the name of a transcendent power or force" (16). They have been with us, Maltby tells us, in some form or another, at least since that great and dubious light shone on Paul as he made his way to Damascus, and Maltby traces this tradition as it moves through Western literature, from John Bunyon's Grace Abounding through Wordsworth's "spots of time," to the epiphanies of Joyce and Heidegger's analysis of aletheia in Being and Time. Because Maltby's interest is primarily in writers since 1945, he also analyzes—and finds "fantastic and fallacious" (62)—visionary moments in works by Flannery O'Connor, Allen Ginsberg, Raymond Carver, Thomas Pynchon, V. S. Naipaul, Annie Dillard, John Steinbeck, Alice Walker, Don DeLillo, Saul Bellow, and Jack Kerouac.
The case for his critique of visionary moments is that they are "enmeshed in metaphysical and ideological assumptions—assumptions that, by the standards of postmodern critique, are theoretically untenable and . . . in most contexts, are irreconcilable with progressive political thinking" (3). Such assumptions, primarily religious or humanist ones about the "nature of truth, cognition, and subjectivity," don't hold up against "the postmodern critique," which for Maltby is characterized by a wholesale distrust of universals, of revealed truth, of the concept of an integrated self capable of receiving truth, and of the compelling demand to ground all discourse in the contingencies of language and history (3, 6). Furthermore, visionary moments tend to be mysterious, private affairs whose political aftereffects are unpredictable and conservative, a wholly unacceptable state of affairs for one who makes a point of highlighting his "own commitment to a political model of human regeneration" and whose guiding premise is that there can be no "sustainable regeneration of the individual" unless there are "prior transformations at the social (institutional and macrostructural) level of existence" (8).
The argument is rigged. Just about all literary visionary moments (except Alice Walker's) are illegitimate (that is, unpostmodern) and perhaps pernicious because they're naggingly logocentric—in other words, they appear to reveal truth to the individual self, while "the postmodern standpoint" assures us that there is no truth and that there is no self (66). The first thing to be said about this is that those who have had visionary moments—presumably writers who write about them—couldn't care less about Maltby's "postmodern critique." Their revelations belong to a different order of knowledge altogether, and the self-evident power of such experiences makes them immune to charges of unsound epistemology. The very intensity of visionary moments provides its own built-in sense of justification; rational or political arguments about the self as "an aggregate of discursively constituted and contradictory 'subject positions'" or [End Page 491] of the transcendent moment being undermined by the historical contingency of all experience feel pale and bland by comparison (7).
The more serious problem here, though, is that Maltby's "postmodern critique" hardly deserves the name. Maltby's critique really issues from a particularly straitjacketed form of social constructionism. Social constructionism, it must be said, is quite distinct from postmodernism, which Maltby rightly suggests emerges from neo-Nietzscheans like Derrida, Foucault, and Lyotard, but whose astonishing philosophical breakthroughs have been domesticated by Maltby into a self-admitted "methodology" and a series of uncontested assumptions that have neither the extraordinary sense of play nor the ubiquitous sense of anxiety of his forebears (7). In addition, Maltby gets his idea of genuine postmodern fiction writers from those...