“The individual is the only reality.” (Jung, Part 1, location 778)
When I was in grad school, one of the first courses I took as an English major was an introduction to postmodernist literature. On the timeline of literary movements, this made sense. Modernist literature threw aside the antiquated conventions of copious descriptions, happy endings, and linear narratives of the Victorian era and postmodernism took the modernist eye towards the irrational and the sparse even further.
I’ll admit that I never really connected to the “there is no beauty, life is dead, what’s the point” pessimistic vision that seems to permeate much of postmodernist literature and art. But one idea that I do take to is the postmodernist acceptance of subjectivity over objectivity in art.
My professor explained it to us as the battle between “Big ‘T’ Truth” and “little ‘t’ truth”. The postmodernists did not believe, as the Victorians did, that there is one reigning objective truth in the world (Big “T” Truth) – one set of rules, morals, values, beliefs that are the blueprint that every heart should follow. There is only the individual and what we make of our world and our perception of what we see and hear and feel – our little “t” truths. So the ideas that the Victorians held as to the standard of behavior and conditions in the world are simply not possible in the postmodernist age.
As a writer, I try to give readers stories that engage in beliefs, perceptions, feelings, in a psychological reality that are personal and subjective to my characters. They may be world views that I share and they may not be. I try not to lecture, preach, or teach anyone how to live. I don’t say that every writer or artist must do this, but this is how I see my own work.
Though Anais Nin was not a postmodernist, she constantly refers to the value of the subjective over the objective in art. In her book The Novel Of The Future, she talks about how the post-World War II literary scene favored the objective novel over the individual one, an attempt to democratize art and appeal to the masses. But she points out,
“The objective novel has an illusionary range, like Cinerama, a big screen, but does not indicate a deeper drama.” (Nin, Ch. 3, location 1450)
In the quest to appeal to a wide audience with objective ideas of politics, society, relationships, etc., literature lost its ability to appeal to the individual through personal experience. The attempt to touch the many backfired because individualizing the one touches us on so many complex levels.
I do think objectivity has its place in literature, in non-fictional works where a controversial topic requires seeing all sides equally (for example, a book about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict). But fiction is not fact, it is emotion:
“There is a concept that objective listing of facts allows you to form your own interpretation. But that was not the function of the novel. It was to make you experience it… Experience means to feel, it comes by way of the senses, not the intellect.” (Nin, Ch. 3, location 1454; emphasis added)
While there is no guarantee that what the writer or artist feels or has experienced as an individual will touch others, many believe this is the best way to transfer the experience of fiction to a wider audience (method actors work from this premise, among others). When I wrote the short story “A Birthday Gift”, I wanted a way to convey the estrangement that Leanne feels towards her husband Calvin whose emotional frailty has left her unfulfilled. I used a real incident to convey this rather than a more dramatic fictional one because I felt the simple act of Calvin’s colleague paying for the birthday dinner showed the affection and consideration that was important to Leanne which her husband lacked.
Sometimes the most poignant moments of fiction are the ones that are not the most sensational but true to the writer that he or she can transpose, in the natural transformative powers of art, into something that makes the reader experience it.
Jung, Carl G., Von Franz, M.L., Henderson, Joseph L., Jacobi, Jolande, Jaffe Aniela. Man And His Symbols. Dell Publishing, 1964. Kindle digital file.
Nin, Anais. The Novel of the Future. Sky Blue Press. The Anais Nin Trust, 2014 (original publication date 1968). Kindle digital file.