The New Absurdism: the emergence of an American literary sensibility (or, don’t conceal the real)

Absurdism is not the cheap toilet-paper irony of white school children who have just learned to masturbate. Absurdism is rooted in a blues sensibility and a blues aesthetic. Once again, it must be made perfectly clear just what we mean when we define a “blues aesthetic” in neo-modernism and absurdism. It is not merely “singing the blues,” let alone wearing Ray-Ban sunshades and pork-pie hats and playing bad imitations of Son House. The “blues aesthetic,” for us, is rooted in an acknowledgement of our historical and contemporary struggles to stay afloat in a hostile universe. Fiction, like the Blues, is a vehicle by which we give expression to our anger, our sense of confusion and outrage; it is a vehicle by which we keep alive the “jagged edges” of the experience and by which, we transcend that experience, at least through art. To quote Elif Batuman in “Get A Real Degree,” her rebuttal of Mark McGurl’s defense of “program writing”:

At a certain point in the history of the novel, Jewishness, having ceased to be a merely comic or villainous attribute, had come to operate as a reality principle that exposed the machinery of social life. Swann’s way – the prosaic way of the narrator’s half-Jewish next-door neighbour – revealed the truth about the Guermantes way, and Jewishness became, to an extent, identifiable with the mechanism of the novel itself: the comic, slightly vulgar exposure of the world as a place where would-be knightly heroes have to eat, sleep and carry money…. To justify its perpetuation, the novel itself had somehow to become Jewish. Jewishness, which had once been a codeword for the changing of the times, came to represent a kind of tragedy that would never change, no matter how much time passed. (Italics mine)

As with us, the American and/or modern novel, if it is to exist, must become Black. Our fiction requires distillation, rejection of the academic aesthetic and creation of and/or appropriation of older techniques and aesthetics in expressing what is real to us: we, the so-called “marginalized,” whose thousands of deaths each year barely get an inch of space on some off-beat web-blog. It should be understood that the academies of the West, or even the non-West, are not going to take us seriously; they have trained themselves not to take us seriously, except when we function in the capacities they have created for us. And these capacities, of course, have nothing whatever to do with so-called “high” art.

We writers need to assess for ourselves what constitutes “high” art. How any form of art became “high” in the first place is cause for careful examination. Students of Dante Alighieri often forget that the Divine Comedy was written in what was considered a “low” language of 13th century Florence: Italian. Before Pushkin Russian literature, as a rule, did not exist; the Russian elite wrote and spoke in French. Russian was considered a “rude” language.

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The African American is in more of a disadvantageous position than he or she realizes. The main disadvantage has less to do with the sorry state of the American publishing industry and more to do with actual matters of craft–or, to be more specific, matters of language. Each black American writer (providing he is serious, and not a hack) has to reinvent the American literary language in his or her own way. He must virtually reinvent the Black vernacular by reclaiming it, by taking it out of the hands of rednecks and clueless minstrel rappers. This is not an easy task. Much of the so-called Black vernacular defines African-Americans in ways that are just as trite, just as stale and stereotyped, as that of the dominant American vocabulary. (Which is tantamount to saying that no true Afro-American language really exists!!) Furthermore, the Vernacular itself often comes off as sounding really hackneyed–the whole “whassup, nigga” thing is more than just played out. Enough should be enough: it’s time to step outside of the narrow confines of the American and Afro-American vocabularies and at last give a true account of what it means to be black and American in the world today.

The African or Arab writer, by contrast, has it easier: armed with his or her own language, he or she is already in an advantaged position over the poor native black writer: the Ghanaian-American or Nigerian-American–unlike the native black–already speaks a language that does not define him as a nigger. This is not to say that African or Arab writers don’t have their own hurdles to jump over. The Nigerian novelist, by and large, writes in English, not in Edo, Yoruba or Hausa, nor in any of the dozens of languages of Nigeria. The “Arab” writer, who in reality is an Egyptian, a Yemeni or a Moroccan, writes in a language that virtually no Arab speaks anywhere in the world. This is tantamount to saying that Egyptian literature, for example, doesn’t really exist…

African-American literature doesn’t really exist, either: when Amiri Baraka proclaimed “Negro Literature” to be a “myth” he was not necessarily hyperbolic. There are a few examples but by and large, African American literature has been deformed by the expectations and demands of American publishing editors, almost exclusively white, who think they know what “black” writing is supposed to be like. “Black” literature has been largely tailored to the expectations of a reading public that wishes to see what it wants to see of Black America, and the end result is that there is a distinct unreality about most Black writing, as it is for Latino, Asian and Native American writing. (For white writers, the problem is virtually the same, save that ethnicity and race are more or less out of the question. There is a 180-degree difference between Raymond Carver in book form and Raymond Carver on manuscript. “Will You Please Be Quiet, Please?” was not written by Carver; it was written by Gordon Lish. Carver merely handed in the manuscript.)*

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Today, in place of Absurdism, we have polite writers (largely white and upper-middle-class) who–to be concise–are in the business of concealing more about life on this planet than revealing it. To genuinely reveal anything in literature one must be willing to face reality: our inner reality, our true feelings and passions as well as the sorry state of the world outside of ourselves, outside of our neighborhoods, outside of our cities. Reality is often unpleasant and unnerving; it all to often provokes feelings which make us, in some form or another, extremely uncomfortable. Contemporary Anglo-American literature functions in much the same way as cutesy-poo cat designs on the panties of Japanese schoolgirls: cheap kitsch to conceal the real.

American literature does not exist. Maybe it had existed in the past, but it does not now. In order for American literature to exist the point-of-view must change; the cultural referents must be considerably broadened to take in the Asian as well as the African, the Latino as well as the Native American, the Jewish as well as the Arab, and so on and so forth. Meaning that from now on the American writer, if he or she is to be a writer, must have a lot more on the ball than before. No more of that cozy provincialism of the past decades, slumming in one’s own ethnic ghetto writing only of Puerto Ricans or Jamaicans or Italians or Jews or Jordanians. And no more of that phony inclusion, writing of Puerto Ricans, or African Americans, or Jews, or Irish, or Armenians, as mere gaudy novelistic decoration to make the book “colorful.” A thorough grounding in the concerns and problems of each group is necessary before any real American literature is to be written, and as always, the viewpoint must be that of an outsider, one who has rejected the national fantasies.

*I will make more personal observations on Raymond Carver later.

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