It has become rather difficult of late to make an impact with a book informed by postmodern theory and practice. The “horizon of expectations” for postmodern innovation has been significantly flattened both became postmodern theory seems to have settled into comfortable truisms and became readers in this age of growing insecurities have gravitated back to reassuring notions of narrative ordering. And yet, the attentive reader will be amply rewarded reading Paul Maltby’s recent book that revises our consensual understanding about both traditional narratives of enlightenment and the postmodern challenges to them. The author had already proven his capacity to reread imaginatively postwar fiction: his 1991 book, Dissident Postmodernists: Barthelme, Coover, Pynchon, reoriented discussions of postmodernism towards more rewarding sociocultural issues, retrieving a dissident strata in what had up to then been regarded as an apolitical, quietist production,
The Visionary Moment engages us in a similar rethinking of key literary and cultural issues (representation, visionarism, subjectivity, truth) within a sophisticated theoretical and analytical framework. Maltby’s focus on “visionary moments” (i.e., moments of “sudden enlightenment” that “dramatically raise [our] spiritual awareness to the level of a transcendent and redemptive order of knowledge” [2002, 1]) is doubly relevant: first, because it recognizes the persistence of a visionary-redemptive strain in contemporary fiction; secondly because it brings to bear upon it the skeptical epistemology of postmodernism in a way that allows both discourses to interact and challenge each other. This focus relocates the discussion of fiction in a stronger cognitive framework, while at the same time moving us beyond generational divisions in contemporary writing, finding surprising commonalties in the works of Flannery O’Connor, Saul Bellow, Jack Kerouac, Alice Walker, Paule Marshall, Raymond Carver, and Don DeLillo.
While only DeLillo qualifies as a “postmodern” fictionist, the other writers discussed in some detail also undercut certain narrative conventions (both modernist and realist), so that their use of “visionary moments” does not simply reinforce the Romantic-modernist tradition of the literary epiphany (from Wordsworth through Browning and Hopkins to Joyce, Woolf, and Faulkner [2002, 35]). As Maltby explains, their visionary moments start from “a critical situation or incident that upsets a routine mindset” (13). Furthermore, while these writers are interested in the eruption of a higher order of meaning in the contingent, they tend to understate its significance, their visionary moments being rendered in largely denotative terms, with a minimal use of literary artifice (26). Their style is often hesitant, with the writer speaking from an “unprivileged, culturally grounded position” that reflects the post-1945 undermining of the writer’s authority (27).
While recognizing that the visionary strain in contemporary fiction is significantly qualified, Maltby confronts it with a postmodern critique in order to demystify its metaphysical vestiges that emphasize narratives of conversion, the preeminence of the nonrational cognitive faculty, the authority of inner experience and of the writer’s endowed perspective, and the ideology of individual salvation (2002, 31). Maltby challenges the notion that the visionary moments “announce [their] own meaning, as if [they] were intrinsically significant” ), arguing that they cannot be experienced outside of literature; “literature itself suppl[ying] the forms that enable us to encode certain subjective experiences as visionary” (24). Contrary to the forms of mystical experience where the source of the revelation lies allegedly in a transcendental agency, these visionary moments have their sources in psychology and they are indistinguishable from the textualized forms they receive.
The analyses of specific literary examples problematize even further the metaphysical claims of visionary moments. A number of the writers discussed (Auster, Borges, Pynchon), themselves reject the metaphysics of the visionary moment in the name of textuality (2002, 53); or they derive abstract generalizations from them (Naipaul, Dillard, DeLillo) that reflect more the cultural situatedness of their authors than the singularity of the events; or again, they record sudden experiences of cosmic union (Bellow, Marshall, Walker), which suggest a universal spiritual community that works like a version of Benedict Anderson’s “imaginary communities” (61-67), both affirmed and questioned. Even a self-proclaimed “Catholic mystic” like Kerouac has to mobilize a whole “rhetoric” of time and spontaneity “to validate the truth claims he makes in the form of visionary moments” (99).
While exposing the “awkward epistemological and ideological questions” raised by the metaphysical/redemptive underpinnings of the “visionary moment,” Maltby remains committed to a “political model of regeneration” (2002, 8). In spite of his skepticism about the use of visionary moments as a literary convention, Maltby concedes that they can have a certain political value. He thus interprets the persistence of the visionary moments in contemporary American fiction as a reaction against the alienating effects of the late capitalist degradation of information, the enfeebling of public discourse, and the usurpation of the Real by simulacra (37, 102). Based on examples from Alice Walker, chapter seven foregrounds the critical function that the visionary moment can perform on behalf of a radical democratic politics (111). More precisely, the visionary moments can be invoked in the name of a “counter-hegemonic discourse,” affirming “precisely the values and orders of knowledge that have been disqualified by a technological-rationalistic culture (111).
At the end of Maltby’s fine analyses, the reader takes away the idea that the visionary moments can empower an oppositional stance, as in Walker or DeLillo, but can also have conservative-nostalgic implications as in Faulkner or Bellow. The book’s concluding chapter suggests that the conservative inflections of the visionary paradigm are more numerous, reinstating thus a clear-cut opposition between the experience of visionary moments that locate themselves in a transcendental relation to the world, and the post-modern critique that situates itself “squarely in the domains of culture, the conjunctural, and the contingent” (2002, 123). Still, the book’s interest at least for this reviewer lies not in its emphatic theoretical conclusion but rather in its analyses that partly belie it, allowing the visionary paradigm to not only reinforce but also challenge “spiritually atrophied late capitalist culture” (83) with potentially transformative visions.