College Literature 30.4 (2003) 177-180
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Maltby, Paul. 2002. The Visionary Moment. A Postmodern Critique. Albany: SUNY Press. $54.50 hc. xi + 176 pp.
It has become rather difficult of late to make an impact with a book informed by postmodern theory and practice. The "horizon of expectations" for postmodern innovation has been significantly flattened both because postmodern theory seems to have settled into comfortable truisms and because readers in this age of growing insecurities have gravitated back to reassuring notions of narrative ordering. And yet, the attentive reader will be [End Page 177] amply rewarded reading Paul Maltby's recent book that revises our consensual understanding about both traditional narratives of enlightenment and the postmodern challenges to them. The author had already proven his capacity to reread imaginatively postwar fiction: his 1991 book, Dissident Postmodernists: Barthelme, Coover, Pynchon, reoriented discussions of postmodernism towards more rewarding sociocultural issues, retrieving a dissident strain in what had up to then been regarded as an apolitical, quietist production.
The Visionary Moment engages us in a similar rethinking of key literary and cultural issues (representation, visionarism, subjectivity, truth) within a sophisticated theoretical and analytical framework. Maltby's focus on "visionary moments" (i.e., moments of "sudden enlightenment" that "dramatically raise [our] spiritual awareness to the level of a transcendent and redemptive order of knowledge" [2002, 1]) is doubly relevant: first, because it recognizes the persistence of a visionary-redemptive strain in contemporary fiction; secondly because it brings to bear upon it the skeptical epistemology of postmodernism in a way that allows both discourses to interact and challenge each other. This focus relocates the discussion of fiction in a stronger cognitive framework, while at the same time moving us beyond generational divisions in contemporary writing, finding surprising commonalties in the works of Flannery O'Connor, Saul Bellow, Jack Kerouac, Alice Walker, Paule Marshall, Raymond Carver, and Don DeLillo.
While only DeLillo qualifies as a "postmodern" fictionist, the other writers discussed in some detail also undercut certain narrative conventions (both modernist and realist), so that their use of "visionary moments" does not simply reinforce the Romantic-modernist tradition of the literary epiphany (from Wordsworth through Browning and Hopkins to Joyce, Woolf, and Faulkner [2002, 35]). As Maltby explains, their visionary moments start from "a critical situation or incident that upsets a routine mindset" (13). Furthermore, while these writers are interested in the eruption of a higher order of meaning in the contingent, they tend to understate its significance, their visionary moments being rendered in largely denotative terms, with a minimal use of literary artifice (26). Their style is often hesitant, with the writer speaking from an "unprivileged, culturally grounded position" that reflects the post-1945 undermining of the writer's authority (27).
While recognizing that the visionary strain in contemporary fiction is significantly qualified, Maltby confronts it with a postmodern critique in order to demystify its metaphysical vestiges that emphasize narratives of conversion, the preeminence of the nonrational cognitive faculty, the authority of inner experience and of the writer's endowed perspective, and the ideology of individual salvation (2002, 31). Maltby challenges the notion that the visionary moments "announce [their] own meaning, as if [they] were intrinsically [End Page 178] significant" ), arguing that they cannot be experienced outside of literature; "literature itself suppl[ying] the forms that enable us to encode certain subjective experiences as visionary" (24). Contrary to the forms of mystical experience where the source of the revelation lies allegedly in a transcendental agency, these visionary moments have their sources in psychology and they are indistinguishable from the textualized forms they receive.
The analyses of specific literary examples problematize even further the metaphysical claims of visionary moments. A number of the writers discussed (Auster, Borges, Pynchon), themselves reject the metaphysics of the visionary moment in the name of textuality (2002, 53); or they derive abstract generalizations from them (Naipaul, Dillard, DeLillo) that reflect more the cultural situatedness of their authors than the singularity of the events; or again, they record sudden experiences of cosmic union (Bellow, Marshall, Walker), which suggest a universal spiritual community...