Friday, July 26, 2013

Oliver's Embarrassment

The Meaning of Life by Terry Eagleton is a compact little book published by Oxford University Press in 2007. I picked it up at the library by pure chance, where someone had left it on a table with an abandoned stack of other books. What prodded me into actually reading this one was the dedication page  For Oliver, who found the whole idea deeply embarrassing.

"One reason why modernists  like Chekhov are so preoccupied with the possibility of meaninglessness is that modernism is old enough to remember a time when there was still meaning in plenty, or at least so the rumour has it. Meaning was around recently enough for Chekhov, Conrad, Kafka, Beckett, and their colleagues to feel stunned and dispirited by its draining away. The typical modernist work of art is still haunted by the memory of an orderly universe, and so is nostalgic enough to feel the eclipse of meaning as an anguish, a scandal, an intolerable deprivation. This is why such works so often turn around a central absence, some cryptic gap or silence which marks the spot through which sense-making has leaked away. One thinks of Chekhov's Moscow in Three Sisters, Conrad's African heart of darkness, Virginia Woolf's blankly enigmatic lighthouse, E.M. Forster's empty Marabar caves, T.S. Eliot's still point of the turning world, the non-encounter at the heart of Joyce's Ulysses, Beckett's Godot, or the nameless crime of Kafka's Joseph K. In this tension between the persisting need for meaning and the gnawing sense of its elusiveness, modernism can be genuinely tragic.

Postmodernism, by contrast, is not really old enough to recall a time when there was truth, meaning, and reality, and treats such fond delusions with the brusque impatience of youth. There is no point in pining for depths that never existed. The fact that they seem to have vanished does not mean that life is superficial, since you can only have surfaces if you have depths to contrast with them. The Meaning of meanings is not a firm foundation but an oppressive illusion. To live without the need for such guarantees is to be free. You can argue that there were indeed once grand narratives (Marxism, for example) which corresponded to something real, but that we are well rid of them; or you can insist that these narratives were nothing but a chimera all along, so that there was never anything to be lost. Either the world is no longer story-shaped, or it never was in the first place."