Sunday, July 22, 2012

Cold Mountain and Postmodernism

What is post-modernism and how does Cold Mountain embody post-modernist characteristics?

First: Is there a difference between modernist and post-modernist works?

Modernism: 1900-1950
Post-modernism: 1950-today (as of now; I think we might need a new label for works from let's say 1980-today. Start thinking!)

We're going to use poetry to compare and contrast modernist and post-modernist works.

Modernist poems about Nature:

1) Desert Places by Robert Frost

Snow falling and night falling fast, oh, fast
In a field I looked into going past,
And the ground almost covered smooth in snow,
But a few weeds and stubble showing last. 

The woods around it have it--it is theirs.
All animals are smothered in their lairs.
I am too absent-spirited to count;
The loneliness includes me unawares. 

And lonely as it is that loneliness
Will be more lonely ere it will be less—
A blanker whiteness of benighted snow
With no expression, nothing to express. 

They cannot scare me with their empty spaces
Between stars--on stars where no human race is.
I have it in me so much nearer home
To scare myself with my own desert places.

2) The Snow Man by Wallace Stevens

One must have a mind of winter
To regard the frost and the boughs
Of the pine-trees crusted with snow;

And have been cold a long time
To behold the junipers shagged with ice,
The spruces rough in the distant glitter

Of the January sun; and not to think
Of any misery in the sound of the wind,
In the sound of a few leaves,

Which is the sound of the land
Full of the same wind
That is blowing in the same bare place

For the listener, who listens in the snow,
And, nothing himself, beholds
Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.

Note: The trinity, symbolized by units of three here in the three-line stanzas and the three types of evergreen trees, is replaced by the trinity of "nothing's" in the last stanza, making this poem, in my mind, the quintessentially nihilistic Modernist poem.

And do we really need any more examples of Modernist works than these? The deep despair, the alienation from anyone and anything that is good or hopeful in the world. How did these people get up in the morning?

Post-modern poems about Nature:

1)   The Death of a Toad by Richard Wilbur
       A toad the power mower caught,
Chewed and clipped of a leg, with a hobbling hop has got
   To the garden verge, and sanctuaried him
   Under the cineraria leaves, in the shade
      Of the ashen and heartshaped leaves, in a dim,
          Low, and a final glade.

       The rare original heartsbleed goes,
Spends in the earthen hide, in the folds and wizenings, flows
    In the gutters of the banked and staring eyes. He lies
    As still as if he would return to stone,
        And soundlessly attending, dies
           Toward some deep monotone,

       Toward misted and ebullient seas
And cooling shores, toward lost Amphibia^Rs emperies.
    Day dwindles, drowning and at length is gone
    In the wide and antique eyes, which still appear
        To watch, across the castrate lawn,
            The haggard daylight steer.
Note: Wilbur imbues the toad's death with nobility, even going so far as to say  the toad moves on to his Elysium, "Amphibia's emperies."

2) Digging by Seamus Heaney

Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests; as snug as a gun.

Under my window a clean rasping sound
When the spade sinks into gravelly ground:
My father, digging. I look down

Till his straining rump among the flowerbeds
Bends low, comes up twenty years away
Stooping in rhythm through potato drills
Where he was digging.

The coarse boot nestled on the lug, the shaft
Against the inside knee was levered firmly.
He rooted out tall tops, buried the bright edge deep
To scatter new potatoes that we picked
Loving their cool hardness in our hands.

By God, the old man could handle a spade,
Just like his old man.

My grandfather could cut more turf in a day
Than any other man on Toner's bog.
Once I carried him milk in a bottle
Corked sloppily with paper. He straightened up
To drink it, then fell to right away
Nicking and slicing neatly, heaving sods
Over his shoulder, digging down and down
For the good turf. Digging.

The cold smell of potato mold, the squelch and slap
Of soggy peat, the curt cuts of an edge
Through living roots awaken in my head.
But I've no spade to follow men like them.

Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests.
I'll dig with it.

Modernist poem on the parent-child relationship:

Daddy by Sylvia Plath

You do not do, you do not do
Any more, black shoe
In which I have lived like a foot
For thirty years, poor and white,
Barely daring to breathe or Achoo. 

Daddy, I have had to kill you.
You died before I had time—
Marble-heavy, a bag full of God,
Ghastly statue with one gray toe
Big as a Frisco seal 

And a head in the freakish Atlantic
Where it pours bean green over blue
In the waters off beautiful Nauset.
I used to pray to recover you.
Ach, du. 

In the German tongue, in the Polish town
Scraped flat by the roller
Of wars, wars, wars.
But the name of the town is common.
My Polack friend 

Says there are a dozen or two.
So I never could tell where you
Put your foot, your root,
I never could talk to you.
The tongue stuck in my jaw. 

It stuck in a barb wire snare.
Ich, ich, ich, ich,
I could hardly speak.
I thought every German was you.
And the language obscene 

An engine, an engine
Chuffing me off like a Jew.
A Jew to Dachau, Auschwitz, Belsen.
I began to talk like a Jew.
I think I may well be a Jew. 

The snows of the Tyrol, the clear beer of Vienna
Are not very pure or true.
With my gipsy ancestress and my weird luck
And my Taroc pack and my Taroc pack
I may be a bit of a Jew. 

I have always been scared of you,
With your Luftwaffe, your gobbledygoo.
And your neat mustache
And your Aryan eye, bright blue.
Panzer-man, panzer-man, O You--  

Not God but a swastika
So black no sky could squeak through.
Every woman adores a Fascist,
The boot in the face, the brute
Brute heart of a brute like you. 

You stand at the blackboard, daddy,
In the picture I have of you,
A cleft in your chin instead of your foot
But no less a devil for that, no not 
Any less the black man who 

Bit my pretty red heart in two.
I was ten when they buried you.
At twenty I tried to die
And get back, back, back to you.
I thought even the bones would do. 

But they pulled me out of the sack,
And they stuck me together with glue.
And then I knew what to do.
I made a model of you,
A man in black with a Meinkampf look 

And a love of the rack and the screw.
And I said I do, I do.
So daddy, I'm finally through.
The black telephone's off at the root,
The voices just can't worm through. 

If I've killed one man, I've killed two—
The vampire who said he was you
And drank my blood for a year,
Seven years, if you want to know.
Daddy, you can lie back now. 

There's a stake in your fat black heart
And the villagers never liked you.
They are dancing and stamping on you.
They always knew it was you.
Daddy, daddy, you bastard, I'm through.

Note: Give yourself a minute to recover from that poem. OK. Ready? Oy, poor Sylvia. I just want to hug her. Plath killed herself by putting her head in an oven, death of the "good little wife" and fulfillment of destiny as a Jew?

Things get better between parents and children:
Post-modernist poems on the parent-child relationship:

1) The Writer by Richard Wilbur

In her room at the prow of the house
Where light breaks, and the windows are tossed with linden,
My daughter is writing a story. 

I pause in the stairwell, hearing
From her shut door a commotion of typewriter-keys
Like a chain hauled over a gunwale. 

Young as she is, the stuff
Of her life is a great cargo, and some of it heavy:
I wish her a lucky passage. 

But now it is she who pauses,
As if to reject my thought and its easy figure.
A stillness greatens, in which 

The whole house seems to be thinking,
And then she is at it again with a bunched clamor
Of strokes, and again is silent. 

I remember the dazed starling
Which was trapped in that very room, two years ago;
How we stole in, lifted a sash 

And retreated, not to affright it;
And how for a helpless hour, through the crack of the door,
We watched the sleek, wild, dark 

And iridescent creature
Batter against the brilliance, drop like a glove
To the hard floor, or the desk-top, 

And wait then, humped and bloody,
For the wits to try it again; and how our spirits
Rose when, suddenly sure, 

It lifted off from a chair-back, 
Beating a smooth course for the right window
And clearing the sill of the world. 

It is always a matter, my darling,
Of life or death, as I had forgotten.  I wish
What I wished you before, but harder.

2) 35/10 by Sharon Olds

Brushing out our daughter’s brown
silken hair before the mirror
I see the grey gleaming on my head,
the silver-haired servant behind her. Why is it
just as we begin to go
they begin to arrive, the fold in my neck
clarifying as the fine bones of her
hips sharpen? As my skin shows
its dry pitting, she opens like a moist
precise flower on the tip of a cactus;
as my last chances to bear a child
are falling through my body, the duds among them,
her full purse of eggs, round and
firm as hard-boiled yolks, is about
to snap its clasp. I brush her tangled
fragrant hair at bedtime. It’s an old
story—the oldest we have on our planet—
the story of replacement.

Post-modern poem on science:   

My love is as a fever longing still by Christopher Bursk

(You first have to know Shakespeare's sonnet for this, so here it is:
My love is as a fever longing still,
For that which longer nurseth the disease;
Feeding on that which doth preserve the ill,
The uncertain sickly appetite to please.
My reason, the physician to my love, 
Angry that his prescriptions are not kept,
Hath left me, and I desperate now approve
Desire is death, which physic did except.
Past cure I am, now Reason is past care,
And frantic-mad with evermore unrest;
My thoughts and my discourse as madmen's are,
At random from the truth vainly expressed;
   For I have sworn thee fair, and thought thee bright,   
  Who art as black as hell, as dark as night.)

So now here's Christopher Bursk's poem:

It didn't take a Harvard Medical School degree
to detect you and I were not lovers destined to wed
but two viruses doing their best to infect each other,
two fevers that'd spread, different symptoms of the same
sickness. Past cure I am, now reason is past care.
Did I really wish to die? The doctor dismissed me
with the professional ease with which one might swat a fly,
as if for the fly's own good. So what
if you loved me more intimately than anyone ever would?
A cancer cell could say that of any body
it refused to let go. Once the heart was infected,
how could it be corrected? So what was I waiting for?
The truth is, the doctor smiled,
the microbe adores the flesh it's dating.

Note: Post-modernism plays with past genres and eras, often mixing them in fun and amusing ways. Modernism may use humor, but Modernist humor is dark and deeply chilling, a knife slicing cleanly through the heart.

Conclusion: To me, there's a darkness and nihilism at the heart of Modernist works that is missing from post-modern ones. When I read a Modernist work, I seriously don't know how we humans are pretending we can make the world a better place. When I read post-modern works, I think we have a chance and I might be laughing at how that chance to improve the world has been presented.

One final post-modern work that I love as a teacher and that to me shows that though the post-modern world is fully aware that all sacred cows are gone and that life can be meaningless and harsh, we can make of our world what we will, if we have strength and humor and if we reach out to each other in positive and meaningful ways:
Did I Miss Anything? by Tom Wayman  
Question frequently asked by students after missing a class 

Nothing. When we realized you weren't here
we sat with our hands folded on our desks
in silence, for the full two hours         

            Everything. I gave an exam worth         
            40 per cent of the grade for this term         
            and assigned some reading due today         
            on which I'm about to hand out a quiz         
            worth 50 per cent 

Nothing. None of the content of this course
has value or meaning
Take as many days off as you like:
any activities we undertake as a class
I assure you will not matter either to you or me
and are without purpose          

            Everything. A few minutes after we began last time         
            a shaft of light descended and an angel         
            or other heavenly being appeared         
            and revealed to us what each woman or man must do         
            to attain divine wisdom in this life and         
            the hereafter         
            This is the last time the class will meet         
            before we disperse to bring this good news to all people                        
            on earth 

Nothing. When you are not present
how could something significant occur?          

            Everything. Contained in this classroom        
            is a microcosm of human existence         
            assembled for you to query and examine and ponder         
            This is not the only place such an opportunity has been     

but it was one place          

And you weren't here

 Returning to our point:

Is Cold Mountain a post-modern work? If so, how?

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