One of the main characteristics of post-modernism; especially in fiction, is its portrayal of the complex absurdity of contemporary life, such as, moral and philosophical relativism, alienation, and the loss of faith in moral and political authority. The advocates of post-modernism proclaim a desire to find happiness in the here and now, to transcend, be enlightened, and find a spiritual connection in both high and low status, the elevated and the mundane. Unfortunately, for society as a whole, the proclamations of religious freedom have proven to be as biased as preceding ideologies; and that prejudice has made its way into the fiction of the era.
Like society, in general, post-modern authors grew-up in an education system favoring science over spirituality, and individual transcendence over organized faith-based beliefs. Theology cut its faith foundation and became, predominantly, another philosophical pursuit, with names like Hegel, Descartes, and Nietzsche gaining prominent topic status, with atheism and agnosticism the predominant result. The Gay Science, by Friedrich Nietzsche, is considered “the fountainhead of post-modernism” (McConnell, 163). The lunatic who runs to the marketplace and proclaims Nietzsche’s belief in fictional exuberance “God is dead! God remains dead! And we have killed him!” (163) was the fuel to spark the last century-and-a-half of theological and philosophical upheaval. And when you view a slew of peer-reviewed fare, such as, “God is Dead and We Have Killed Him: Freedom of Religion in the Post-Modern Age” (McConnell), “God Himself is Dead: Luther, Hegel, and the Death of God” (Depoortere), and “How to Vanquish the Lingering Shadow of the Long-Dead God” (Taylor), it is obvious that the controversy is alive and well and making a mockery out of the religious freedom proclamations relating to post-modernism. McConnell writes the following:
Why is it that most of the post-modernist movements that we see
in law – critical law studies, feminism, critical race theory and so
forth – seem by and large in their actual political activity to be
hostile and detrimental to religious freedom? (174)
And the religious caricatures and personas within the majority of fiction published by mainstream post-modern authors’ exhibit similar hostility, as well as apathy, for religious freedom.
In Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, we read metaphors pertaining to the aforementioned philosophy: “When he was gone Dean pointed to the empty seat. ‘God’s empty chair,’ he said… God is gone; it was the silence of his departure” (128). And yet, while clearly a non-believer in God, Kerouac’s character, Sal Paradise, blames that which he disbelieves for the negatives in life: “We lay on our backs, looking at the ceiling and wondering what God had wrought when he made life so sad” (58).
In Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49, we are given various other pathetic representations of faith-based characters. One is a campy B-movie scene with a father, Baby Igor, and the pet dog dying in a submarine. The father’s dying declaration is, “Your little eyes have seen your daddy for the last time. You are for salvation; I am for the pit” (30). And another example is when a character named Fallopian says, “Who cares?… We don’t try to make scripture out of it. Naturally that’s cost us a lot of support in the Bible Belt” (36).
In Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye the mother of the two girls is the standard hypocritical Christian, a persona writers’ in the post-modern age seem addicted to, as seen in the following: “My mother’s fussing soliloquies always irritated and depressed us. They were interminable, insulting, and although indirect… extremely painful in their thrust” (24). And the sociopathic character with the “keen sexual cravings” (166) is named Soaphead Church, with its obvious connotations, and the narrating character states, “No one knew where the ‘Church” part came from – perhaps somebody’s recollection of his days as a guest preacher…” (167).
In Rudolfo Anaya’s Bless Me, Ultima, the curundera is portrayed with common sense, wisdom, and spiritual power. But Antonio’s mother and the priest are portrayed with fanaticism and intolerance: “My mother was a devout Catholic, and so she saw the salvation of the soul rooted in the Holy Mother Church, and she said the world would be saved if people turned to the earth” (31); and “Once the priest had preached in Spanish against the women in Rosie’s house and so I knew that her place was bad. Also, my mother admonished us to bow our heads when we passed in front of the house” (37).
In Don Delillo’s White Noise, we see another obviously related metaphor. The main family does not believe in God, yet Babette is teaching adults in the basement of the Congregational Church “how to stand, sit, and walk” (27). And, later, she considers teaching them how to eat and drink, which is even more disrespectful with regard to their biblical connotations: the Bible refers to the Bread of Life and the Living Water. And when taking communion the bread depicts the body of Christ, and the drink depicts His blood.
The post-modernists equally show many examples of what society – which believes God is dead and only pretends to care about religious freedom for all – attempts to fill the void left by their loss of faith: atheism, agnosticism, humanism, hedonism, narcissism, commercialism, materialism, and an infinite number of other isms. But I’ll only touch on a few.
Anne Chambers, who wrote the introduction for On the Road, states the following:
As Ginsberg wrote in his journal, they experimented with drugs
to facilitate their discovery of a new way of life that would enable
them to become great writers. “The poet becomes a seer through
a long, immense, and reasoned derangement of all senses. All
shapes of love, suffering, madness. He searches himself, he
exhausts all poisons in himself, to keep only the quintessences…” (xi)
And that real life example is not much different than the lengths the fictional characters will go.
Look at the length Babette was willing to go, in White Noise, to get her hands on Dylar. Months of lies, deceit, and adultery, for the proverbial “magic pill” to cure her fear of death. It is a fear that many fictional characters portray. And such behavior is well-known to psychologists. You read about similar fears in relation to Terror Management Theory and Mortality Salience. But what did society think would happen when they chose the path of Nietzsche and the others? And yet, isn’t it ironic that there has not been a sequel proclaiming the devil dead? If the Kerouacs and Ginsbergs are examples, society needs Hell’s madness to fulfill their quest to “greatness.” And if the most recent numbers of mental health cases is any example, a sign of things to come, than post-modernists must be hopeful that the populace is collectively getting closer to madness on their way to greatness.
Anaya, Rudolfo. Bless Me, Ultima. Grand Central Publishing, Hatchette Book Group. N.Y.1972, 1999.
Delillo, Don. White Noise. Viking Critical Library Ed., Penguin Books. New York. 1985, 1998.
Depoortere, Frederiek. “God Himself is Dead: Luther, Hegel, and the Death of God.” Philosophy & Theology. Vol. 19, 171-195
Kerouac, Jack. Introduction by Anne Chambers. On the Road. Penguin Classics Ed. New York. 1991.
McConnell, Michael A. “God is Dead and We Have Killed Him: Freedom of Religion in the Post-Modern Age.” Brigham Young University Law Review. Vol. 1, 163, 1993.
Morrison, Toni. The Bluest Eye. Vintage Books, Random House. New York 1970, 2007.
Pynchon, Thomas. The Crying of Lot 49. Harper Collins Perennial Modern Classics Ed. 2006
Taylor, Kenneth. “How to Vanquish the Lingering Shadow of the Long-Dead God.” Midwest Studies in Philosophy. Vol. 37, Issue 1, 68-86, 2013.
© JW Thomas