Confessions of a Postmodern Aesthete

'I will try anything once except realism'

Kirstin Sørensen, depreciated statement
If anyone had told me, a few months ago, that I would go from being an anti-realist to defending literary realism, I would have thought it a joke expressed by someone who had very little understanding of who I am or what I stand for.

They would have been right, and known me better than I knew myself.

Jean Baudrillard was right too. It's the difference that matters.

Baudrillard posed the theory that we, as a civilization, specifically Western, have super-imposed a system of binary opposites, such as the real and the imaginary, good and evil, upon ourselves in a frenzy to appropriate and quantify reality. In doing so, we have placed these binaries in direct and hostile opposition to one another. When, really, they have awful lot in common and separating or alienating them is like stabbing yourself in the foot, seeing as you cannot have one without the other.

Baudrillard argues that the assumed opposite values are not it opposition to each other, but exist by mutual distinction and are interrelated. It is precisely the differences, not the assumed opposition, which infer each value meaning. Divest the real of the imaginary and you deplete both of any meaning.

It goes both ways, of course. No real; no imaginary. No realism; no fantasy. No difference; nothing. Depreciating one means the depreciation of the other.

I like Baudrillard; he makes everything so much more plain and so much more complicated, all at the same time.

For the same reason, literary realism has grown on me.

(Yes, I'm sorry, Oscar, I know you hate realism, but after all, isn't the basic tenant of your philosophy to embrace difference and every experience through aesthetic scrutiny, this being the only potential source of knowledge, of ourselves, and through ourselves, Truth, Beauty and Reality? I quote: the true critic will 'seek for beauty in every age and in each school, and will never suffer himself to be limited to any settled custom of thought or stereotyped mode of looking at things' nor will he 'consent to be the slave of his own opinions')

(my copy of Dorian Gray leaps from the bookshelf, slams into the opposite wall and hits my dog on the way down)

I like Oscar Wilde, too, by the way. He rather dictated my previous anti-realist stance, along with a dozen Postmodern theorists.

(my dog comments that I shouldn't throw quotes back in the face of dead people who write heavy books)

I have not become an aficionado of literary realism. I shall still prefer Hoffmann to Hemingway, but I am now more keenly aware of the subtler differences between them, but also some previously overlooked similarities. I am aware now that what I appreciate most about the gothic, the fantastic and the Postmodern is inherent in literary realism too. It opens doors, possibilities; there is room for play and deformation; that it is a means to comprehend myself and the world around me and the connections between us. I have also gained a greater appreciation of my preferred areas of study and sources of aesthetic pleasure and growth. Addressing literary realism has done this.

Thank you very much.

While much literary realism in the past has evicted the imaginary and embraced the universal, it has also embraced the difference and the understanding that life is the sum total of complexities which are at the mercy of continual change. It reflects our struggle and desire to understand something that is always out of reach and always important.

Literary realism is fiction, and like all fiction, it can tell us something about life, ourselves and what it possible. It can challenge other fictions, the ones we assume about the world and which, despite Postmodernity, are still alive and kicking. It can provide meaning, without dictating it or denying other potential meanings.

Provided we remember that it is fiction.

I apologise for the exceedingly non-academic style of this afterword. I thought that you might appreciate a relative perspective. I know I do. I also know that what I know and that relative perspective is subject to eternal variation and change. Life is good.

Works Cited

  • Baudrillard, Jean. Symbolic Exchange and Death. Translated by Iain Hamilton Grant, Sage Publications, 1993.
  • Wilde, Oscar. 'The Critic as Artist'. Collected Works of Oscar Wilde, Wordsworth Editions, 1997, pp. 963-1016.
Table of Contents


Difficulties of a Definition

Terminology and Aesthetics
- What is in a Word?
- the Real and the Realistic
- Reality and Fiction

a History of Literary Realism
- Introduction
- Early Literary Realism
- Late Literary Realism

What is Literary Realism?
- Approximating a Definition
- Attitudes
- Conventions

Critical Approaches
- Introduction
- Formalism
- Reader Response Theory
- Aesthetics
- Marxist Criticism
- Post-Structural Criticism
- Postmodern Criticism
- Postmodern Anti-Realism

Practical Appreciation
- Madame Bovary
- Everything is Illuminated

Study Proposals




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