Postmodernism and sublimation of epiphany


Sublimation is the act of transforming something unwanted into something less harmful, more palatable.  In psychology it refers to channeling taboo or socially inappropriate desires — nihilism, hypersexuality, etc. — into other, often creative enterprises.  The idea is that we seek an outlet for a desire that can’t be fulfilled within the prevailing social structure, and that the desire can be at least partially fulfilled by that outlet.

Thinking about postmodernism here (as I work through ideas for the Pynchon piece).  Doesn’t postmodernism sublimate the desire for epiphany, for some kind of great transcendent experience?   Or even the desire for meaning itself?

In the postmodern worldview, such a desire can’t be acceptably fulfilled by or within society.  So we sublimate that desire by accepting something in its place.  One of postmodernism’s substitutes for the sublime and for epiphany is ironic detachment.   Modernism’s embarrassing nakedness — its vulnerability as it announces its grand plans and profound intimations — is exposed most clearly when it reaches for the sublime.  To mock its nakedness and pounce on its vulnerability, as postmodernism does through irony and parody and pastiche, is to deny the existence of the sublime as a way of avoiding just such a vulnerability.

Still, that seems too clean a division.  Pynchon doesn’t mock our desire for meaning.  If anything, Lot 49 is a tragedy about the need to find meaning within an empty culture.  But Pynchon resists anything that looks like transcendence, while never making fun of Oedipa’s quest to find it.   It’s hard to argue that he doesn’t take such a quest seriously, not when he invests so much intelligence and genuine lyricism in her philosophical questioning toward the book’s conclusion.

(What’s more interesting is that Doc, in Inherent Vice, really does seem like a transcendent character, or at least a liminal character.  If anyone could take us with him to the other side in postmodernism, it would be doc.  If Inherent Vice is really postmodern at all.)

About the author

Tom Howard

Tom Howard is the author of Fierce Pretty Things (Indiana University Press, 2019).

He received his MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts. Fierce Pretty Things won the 2018 Blue Light Books Fiction Prize, and his individual stories have won the Ninth Letter Literary Award in Fiction, the Indiana Review Fiction Prize, the Robert and Adele Schiff Award for Fiction, the Carve Magazine Prose & Poetry Contest, the Tobias Wolff Award in Fiction, the Innovative Short Fiction Prize, the Willow Springs Ficiton Prize, the Rash Award in Fiction, and the Robert J. DeMott Award for Short Prose.

He lives with his wife in Arlington, Virginia.

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