Maybe I have found the reason why I can’t read most modern and postmodern literature.
As I read Frenzen’s interesting essays in How to Be Alone, I am impressed by how much I enjoy his writing. His essays are about contemporary topics:
The first essay, My Father’s Brain, was about his father’s Alzheimer. His perspective and first hand experience with this illness was something I’m glad to have heard. Essays like this give us understanding when we have not experienced those things ourselves, it’s a great help to make us more human, compassionate, and to help us make sense of what’s around us.
On an unpredictable detour from my planned readings, I also started to read Erasmus’ In Praise of Folly in Spanish, Elogio de la locura. It’s a very thin essay first printed in 1511. Erasmus also notices something that has been going on for half a millennia, and that’s the loss of memory the elderly suffer, which makes them come full circle to a second ‘childhood’. (Of course we know it’s not as idyllic as it may sound, but there’s some truth in Erasmus statement than old men become more forgiving, and some may even learn to love. It’s not unusual to see the old enjoying the company of the young.) But one thing is old age people, and another Alzheimer afflicted old age people.
Erasmus book is full of allegories, references to mythology to illustrate concepts, and while not that difficult to comprehend, it is not close to us. Authors don’t write like that anymore. In 1511, an educated man like Erasmus, was familiar with Latin, Greek, and steeped in the classic culture and literacy heritage of the times. Wikipedia describes the book like this:
The essay is filled with classical allusions delivered in a style typical of the learned humanists of the Renaissance. Folly parades as a goddess, offspring of Plutus, the god of wealth and a nymph, Freshness. She was nursed by two other nymphs, Inebriation and Ignorance. Her faithful companions include Philautia (self-love), Kolakia (flattery), Lethe (forgetfulness), Misoponia (laziness), Hedone (pleasure), Anoia (dementia), Tryphe (wantonness), and two gods, Komos (intemperance) and Nigretos Hypnos (heavy sleep). Folly praises herself endlessly, arguing that life would be dull and distasteful without her. Of earthly existence, Folly pompously states, “you’ll find nothing frolic or fortunate that it owes not to me.”
Don’t be disheartened, it’s not obscure or difficult to follow. However, it was hard for me to see, as a 21st century reader, that this short essay posed a direct attack to established religion. (Erasmus was in different schools and places where he experienced the hypocrisy and double standards of many men in power, and at the time, religion and politics were tied together in a way that’s alien to us today). Take Franzen’s essays, on the other hand, and we know immediately what he is talking about, what he is uncovering, criticizing, or discussing, even though some concentration is required.
But I started by saying I may have found out why I cannot read postmodern or modern literature; or most of it. This is why: postmodern and modern writers write about our reality. Our reality is full of despair, information overload, media alienation, bombardment of the newest, the latest, it’s a dizzy spectacle of all we are, all our evils and pains. In the essay I am reading right now, Lost in the Mail, Frenzen talks to us about the collapse of the post office services in Chigago in 1993. In an essay form, I can read about the carriers doing drugs or drinking during service hours, about the nepotism, the abuse of power. All of this is presented as part of the essay, just mentioned like I did, not explained in detail. If you were to write a novel about this, I’m sorry, I won’t be able to read it. Many of the recent books (and some not so recent, since Modernism in literature goes as far back as 1912), that I start reading and I have to abandon, or that I know beforehand that I can’t read, or don’t wish to read, happen to be full of the modern and postmodern topics and horrors that I won’t find worth my time.
There’s, though, some books considered modern and postmodern that I value. A postmodern title is Catch 22. I think I could read it, even though it’s clearly postmodern, because it takes place in an out of the ordinary scenario (pilots in war). It makes sense why many military men cannot stomach the book. (It’s too close to them for them not to take offense). And Catch 22 is also a critique of the war, so, no matter how hilarious the situations in the first 3/4’s of the book, the last quarter of it is a jarring depiction of the insanity and horrors of war. It sobers any reader as much or more as it made us roll with laughter previously.
Coincidentally, Frenzen talked about Catch 22, and how he felt embarrassed about recommending it to his students while he taught literature, because of its poor portrayal of women. I’m making lots of connections at this point. Another of my reads, Why Homer Matters, explains also how women in Homer are portrayed as possessions, loot, they are objects of manly gratification or exchange. We are studying the Book of Esther, and there too, we are told how those many virgins were being prepared for a full year for that six month party Xerxes was going to throw to find Vashti’s replacement. Homer is not modern or postmodern, but his Iliad wasn’t an easy read for me (an many of the other women that I read it with), for the same reason that Xerxe’s exploits are hard to read, the more so if they were detailed in a novel, and for the same reason that a postmodern book such as Lolita is a book I will never read. And this extends to TV and movies.
Sometimes, in some books, I don’t see myself as a woman but just as a reader. I see something else in the book and I seem to lift my look on the poor portrayal of women, it’s as if that poor portrayal is part of the book, of the worldview of the book, and though it’s something I detest and condemn, there’s more to learn in the book that keeps me reading.
And the last of my musings is this, if I am a Spaniard, do I have to read or have a dutiful interest in Spanish literature? (I happen to like reading Spanish writing authors, not just from Spain, but from Latin America). But, should we assume, for example, that given that in Houston ISD (Independent School District), 61% of the population is Hispanic, they have to read Hispanic literature, and support Latino artists, etc? I say this because I listened on the radio a program where two Latino men were promoting a book store that was a center for Latino artists of all sorts (writers, musicians, painters, film makers, actors…), and they were promoting Latino culture in the schools, etc. On one hand, I cannot but praise those who promote their heritage, but this is part of a profound debate. What’s our heritage? There’s sometimes, some artificiality, a contrived atmosphere that sees value with lower case “v”, when I say that Value, or Worth is bigger than any collective, gender, race, nationality.
Frenzen, in Why Bother?, also notices the proliferation of literature in the small partitions of society that we call the diverse minorities. I will come back to this conversation. I have to leave for now, though. And, as I said, I think I’ve found out why I cannot read most modern and postmodern books. Would you agree?