Early Postmodernism and the Literature of Presence

In 2002, Andre Furlani used the term metamodernism in “Postmodernism and After: Guy Davenport”, to talk of painter and writer Guy Davenport (1927-2005) and several uncharacteristic postmodern writers of the Black Mountain school, such as Charles Olson, Denise Levertov, Gary Snyder, Robert Duncan, and Robert Creeley.

Levertov, one of these atypical postmodernists whom Furlani quotes, would confess:

“I long for poems of inner harmony in utter contrast to the chaos in which they exist” (Furlani 724).

This is a surprising statement coming from a poet labeled as postmodernist. For, when not succumbing to the temptation of creating for entertaining alone, the postmodernists would lament over the inescapable postmodern condition rather than instantiate art as means of coping with it. While postmodernism postulates the world as incomprehensible and chaotic, and our understanding of it as limited and biased, condemned to continual revisions (as the failure of grand narrative or all-encompassing theories indicates), poets like Levertov and Davenport, somewhat differently, see art and literature as “an intelligible world inside a largely unintelligible one” (Furlani 724).

The early postmodernists mentioned above, poetry scholar Charles Altieri indicates, conceive poetic/literary creation “more as the discovery and the disclosure of numinous relationships within nature than as the creation of containing and structuring forms” . Although accurate and sound, Altieri’s characterization “no longer coincides with what is loosely understood as postmodernism, in which notions of presence, immanence, and numinousness are regarded as wholly contingent language games (Wittgenstein’s Sprachspiele) masquerading as essences” (Furlani 710). This is so because “postmodernist thinking in the years since the publication of Altieri’s pioneering study [Enlarging the Temple: New Directions in American Poetry During the 1960] (in 1979) has largely repudiated his categories. The poetics of presence is now viewed as a modernist fata morgana” (Furlani 710).

I agree with Furlani that such categories as those used by Altieri to talk of early postmodern poetry no longer apply to what we now commonly understand by postmodernism. But there is a sense in which the ideals of early postmodernists are not entirely dated. Early postmodernism – as a mode described by Altieri in terms of a poetics of presence, of a restoration of harmony, and promotion of ethical and psychological renewal, immanentism and a search of the numinous2 in relationship within nature – still speaks to us through the texts such as Tournier’s Vendredi and Roy’s God of Small Things (see References below). Their novels surpass postmodern relativity and suspicion with metanarratives in order to reinstate confidence in meaningful existence and the individuals’ ability to perceive the numinous and to communicate with one another and across levels of existence.3

Furlani emphasizes that “inner harmony” in poetry and art as “an intelligible world” is not what we associate these days with the postmodern, thus singularizing these poets as a group apart. Moreover, these writers seem atypical because they fail to share in the widespread postmodern repudiation of the modernist sublime. Furlani explains:

The discontinuities and gaps of Davenport’s asyndetically arranged narratives

¨imply sublime recesses of extralinguistic meaning. Rather than calling into question aesthetic and even linguistic access to truth, such a strategy aspires to at least limited access to it.¨ (Fulrani 724)

Truth is non-linguistic and is associated with the sublime for Davenport.

Similarly, in The Cultural Turn, literary critic Fredric Jameson equates the aspiration for the Sublime with the search for truth and he laments “the end of the Sublime, the dissolution of art’s vocation to reach the Absolute” in postmodernism , wherein “Beauty and the decorative” return “in the place of the older modern Sublime” (Jameson 81).

Furlani makes the point that, although authors like Davenport and Levertov were active during the sixties, supposedly the heyday of postmodernism, their texts are less postmodern than metamodern.


1 Jameson thinks that art is redefined in postmodernism “as a source of sheer pleasure and gratification” (qtd. in Furlani 724).

2 Numinous means spiritually elevated, sublime, in this context; another of its denotations points to a sense of presence. The OED gives three meanings of numinous: “1. Of or relating to a numen; revealing or indicating the presence of a divinity; divine, spiritual. 2. Filled with or characterized by a sense of a supernatural presence: a numinous place. 3. Spiritually elevated; sublime.” Yet spiritually elevated has nothing to do here, as is often conceived, with retracting one’s senses and leading an ascetic life. Quite to the contrary, the Black Mountain poets were far from being saintly in the sense of self-denial, while Tournier’s Robinson “learns to accept all of himself” (Petit 19): he reaches his potentiality and cherishes in the resulting state. A good visual representation of the sul’s experience of the numinous is Blake’s “The Dance of Albion” or “Glad Day” (1796), now in the British Museum, wherein a naked Albion – symbolizing his having forsaken artificial personas – exults in his new awareness. This fact is indicated by the posture of the dancer – hands outstretched emitting energetic beams of light. Tournier describes Robinson’s experience of epiphany at the end of Vendredi in comparable terms.

3 These aspects echo Nietzsche’s Birth of Tragedy, in which the resurgence of the Dionysian reiterates the “blissful satisfaction of the primordial unity” (18), the possibility that “hearing this gospel of universal harmony, each person feels himself to be not simply united, reconciled or merged with his neighbour, but quite literally one with him” (18), and allowing nature to be reconciled “with her lost son, humankind” (18). Nevertheless, the transformations rendered in metamodern texts differ from what Nietzsche envisages as being the result of “Dionysiac drunkenness” (19). Whereas self-awareness is quintessential for the transformation occurring in metamodern fiction, Nietzsche’s “magic of the Dionysiac” (18) implies “self-abandon” (19), and is analogous with “intoxication” (17).

Moreover, metamodern transformations spring from an integration of the opposites, whereas Nietzsche’s Übermensch deliberately cultivates the tension between the Apollonian and the Dionysiac. Furthermore, while Nietzsche’s triumphalist vision envisaged that “the millions sink into the dust, shivering in awe” of the Übermensch (18), metamodern fiction portrays a transformation undergone by everyone, as in Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt’s 2006 film Odette Toulemonde. Also, Tournier’s Robinson evokes not only a single nation (as Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe), but the whole modern (Western) humankind.

4 However, Furlani hastens to add: “Jameson’s view contrasts with that of Jean-Franqois Lyotard, in whose formulation of the postmodern the sublime continues to operate” (724).


  • Furlani, Andre. Postmodern and after: Guy Davenport, Contemporary Literature, Vol. 43, No. 4 (Winter, 2002), pp. 709-735, Published by: University of Wisconsin Press
  • Jencks, Charles. Critical Modernism: Where Is Post-Modernism Going? Stafford: John Wiley & Sons, 2007. Print
  • Roy, Arundhati. The God of Small Things. London: Flamingo, 1997. Print
  • Tournier, Michel. Vendredi Ou Les Limbes Du Pacifique. Paris: Gallimard, 1972. Print

© Copyright note. The text above is an excerpt from Alexandra Dumitrescu, Towards a Metamodern Literature, PhD thesis manuscript


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