- Calinescu’s Dialogue with Ihab Hassan
Matei Calinescu and Ihab Hassan engage in a dialogue about thought at a key point in the careers of both thinkers. Hassan had established himself as an innovator in applied criticism, explicating contemporary American fiction in Radical Innocence (1961) and studying the establishment of its trends, via the novels of Samuel Beckett and Henry Miller, in The Literature of Silence (1967). Calinescu’s first major American work was Faces of Modernity (1977), an examination of how modernism takes various turns in expressing itself as avant-garde, decadence, and kitsch. At this early stage, neither critic takes serious notice of the other, as the former immerses himself in recent fiction and the latter probes the essence of previous theory. Then in the early 1980s, Calinescu begins pondering how contemporary fiction seems different from the styles his earlier definition of modernism encompassed, just as Hassan redirects his efforts toward finding a basis for innovations in and disruptions of literary history. The moment is an important one, when applied criticism calls out for theory just as theory seeks a body of writing to test its beliefs. Hassan has become a master of the former just as Calinescu establishes himself as a major force in the latter. Each has precisely what the other needs. And so they talk. Their dialogue begins with a series of international conferences. The first set of proceedings, edited by Ihab and Sally Hassan, is published as Innovation/Renovation (1983), and the issue is plainly stated in the first paper’s opening. “We speak much of change and have no theory of it,” Ihab announces (1983, 15). In seeking to remedy this problem, he has assembled a broad range of thinkers who will have a great variety of suggestions for handling the “Indeterminacy” (27) Hassan feels is the major tendency of this age. “In literature alone, our ideas of author, audience, reading, writing, book, genre, critical theory, and of literature itself have all suddenly become questionable” (28). This interest is referred to among similar concerns voiced by Leslie Fielder (freaks and mutants), Raymond Federman (surfiction and playgiarism [sic]), Norman N. Holland (intimacy and incompleteness), Herbert Blau (the theatre of impossibility), and Hassan himself (paracriticism and parabiography). These figures and others will state their case, but the issue Calinescu raises will be the one that most profoundly shapes Hassan’s thinking—and vice versa.
“From the One to the Many: Pluralism in Today’s Thought” is Calinescu’s contribution to Innovation/Renovation, and it marks the beginning of a [End Page 287] dialogue that will influence both his and Hassan’s publications of the coming decade, which is to say the most influential period of their respective careers. His premise is a clear one: that the determinacy of the modern period was founded on a monism that was itself reinforced by the “cultural prestige of science, and particularly on the materialist-physicalist versions of science, with their built-in passion for reductivism” (263). In present times, all that has changed. “After the One, after its largely absentee reign in the modern period, we are witnessing a return of the Many” (264). Calinescu points out, citing Hassan’s two most recent books (Paracriticisms  and The Right Promethean Fire  as evidence, supported by a more general frame of references to work by Paul Feyerabend, Julia Kristeva, and others (including Calinescu himself). He finds Hassan the most outspoken, refusing the “tyranny of wholes” that as a totalizing force “is potentially totalitarian” (1983, 266, citing The Right Promethean Fire). But a simply defined pluralism fails to serve as a practical alternative, because “There are monism’s which are axiologically pluralistic; there are pluralisms which are axiologically monistic” (268). What is important to remember in either case is who makes the statement, why, and with what kind of authority. If this sounds like the dialogy of Mikhail Bakhtin, Calinescu will agree, but only to take the similarity on (remarkable) step farther: that this manner of thinking is nothing less than the Christian mandate to “treat others as you would yourself be treated” (269).
That is the first major conjunction Calinescu has to make, one that...