Monthly Archives: March 2012

A few words on Irrational Man

I read a selection of an Al Purdy poem in Keath Fraser’s Bad Trips anthology—this was a few months ago now—which depicted a persona, perhaps Mr. Purdy himself, trying to take a shit in the arctic while reading Irrational Man, except a pack of dogs was trying to eat his shit at the same time and they kept nipping at his anus while an Inuit boy threw rocks to try to fend them off. Interesting, I thought, that he was reading Irrational Man, because there was a scene of the type Mr. Barrett’s modern artists would have proffered as an example of the ugly or the mundane, recontextualized into art. Poetry about taking a shit—a radical break from the epic teleology that characterizes Western poetry.

At any rate, Irrational Man is a good book, but what of the lack of criticism that Barrett might have otherwise levelled at existentialism? Perhaps my chagrin is related to the fact that I was educated in the postmodern tradition, for better or for worse, and Barrett wrote this book well into the modernist period, and thus ideas about reflexive self-criticism may not have been as entrenched in the academic left at that point in time; but that raises a question in my mind about how postmodernism relates to existentialism, because at face value they appear to be more or less the same thing: a detailed critique of Enlightenment techniques and values. Based on what I remember from The Condition of Postmodernity, I could say that postmodernism is maybe an intellectual extension of existential ideas, but that postmodernism is characterized in particular by an aesthetic break from modernism, as exemplified by those modernist apartment complexes, the Pruitt-Igoe development in St. Louis, that were dynamited at 3:32 pm on July 15, 1972. But this doesn’t seem exactly right; it seems to be leaving something out; and I think that something is closely related to the atomizing of grand theories.

Barrett still talks about existentialism as a solution to the problems with Enlightenment arts and sciences, as if it’s getting closer to the truth of the matter than the enlightenment did by examining all of those dirty and unpleasant aspects of life that the enlightenment left out; he talks about existentialism as if it’s a more complete picture that should be substituted for the Enlightenment stuff, more or less; and even though he refers to the embracing of the fractured and contradictory nature of man as a central tenet of existentialism, he still depicts it as a coherent worldview, or at least a complete one. Postmodernism criticizes the ability of a worldview to be complete. It questions the utility of substituting one view for another on the pretext that the new one is truer or more accurate than the first. Existentialists might criticize science and technology because it has little bearing on how we feel, but postmodernism would criticize science and technology for characterizing itself as the truth. Although these approaches might be different, I still think that the existential concern for how we feel in the age of spritual impoverishment (i.e., post-religion) still underlies a lot of postmodernist concerns; this, plus the relativity of truth, plus the acceptance of the fractured and contradictory nature of human life, leads to a focus on things like cultural relativism and identity politics and whatnot, where there is an effort made to listen to alternative points of view and give credence to them based on the fact of their making someone feel a certain way.