Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Welcome to Brutalism

It was one of those tossed-off comments that made François Camoin such a great teacher: "The next phase of the novel is going to be post-Romanticism, if you want to give it a name."

We'd been talking in class about postmodernism, its relation to Robbe-Grillet and the nouveau roman, to earlier modernism—all of that. But we, the young writers, didn't want to know where we'd been (modernism) or where we were (postmodernism); we wanted to know where we were going. We wanted to take the novel to its destiny.

That was thirteen years ago, and we now know that François was right. Welcome to the post-Romantic era. Welcome to the Age of Brutalism.


It's one of the ironies of history that Romanticism arose from Voltaire, the scientific method, and the Industrial Revolution.

Voltaire incinerated Enlightenment optimism and, in Candide, left us one of literature's great portraits of the meaninglessness of life.

Science materialized the planet and our bodies in a manner unknown to the West since the pre-Socratic era.

And the Industrial Revolution introduced into our aesthetic lives the metaphor of the machine. (We know from history that we become our metaphors.)

No one foresaw the dangerous implications of these revolutions as dramatically as Sade, who carried them to their logical conclusion: life is nothing; systematically steal from it what pleasure you can, by any means necessary.

Sade constituted a kind of endgame for the novel at the end of the eighteenth century (despite being a supremely tedious writer). He created, for other artists, a genuine dilemma: How does one respond to the logical case for sodomizing children for fun?

It was necessary, in other words, to imagine a way out of Philosophy in the Bedroom. That way, cleared first by the Germans, came to be called Romanticism.

But—to paraphrase John Barth—Romanticism is exhausted. We once again stand with Voltaire in the ruins of Lisbon. To that horror we add Oppenheimer in the ashes of Hiroshima and Robert Downey Jr. in his Ironman suit.

To put it another way: we're back in Sade's bedroom.


Roberto Bolaño's 2666 inaugurates a new era in literary art. I'm calling that era the Age of Brutalism.

Unlike modernist and postmodernist novels, which are, in essence, romantic, 2666 doesn't deny the reality of Sade's bedroom. (Exhibit A: Bolaño's novel within his novel: 'The Part About the Crimes.") But it's Sade's bedroom seen without Romanticism's delusions. We see Sade through the clarity of mourning, and with sad relief.

What gives Brutalism its pathos—what makes Brutalism art—is its awareness that all our songs (they still echo across the canyons of memory), all our political exercises, all our romantic odes to love and the human spirit failed to save those sodomized little girls. Sade still stands over them with a shrug. And it's his shrug—the sense of its inevitability, exacerbated by the philosophical failures of the last 200 years—that sends us back to language.

Brutalism is the representation and the contemplation of the Sadean shrug. That shrug, according to Bolaño, is "the secret of the world." Literature must rise to its challenge.

Brutalism recognizes that the rhetoric and the philosophical content of Romanticism have failed to rid of the world of Sade's shrug. Romanticism—after the Holocaust, after Cuidad Juarez—is an evasion. Religion? Ni hablar. Science? Sade is nothing if not a scientist.

Confronted by Romanticism's failure, Brutalism takes a new path—I'm not just thinking of Bolaño but also of Michel Houellebecq—employing the rhetoric of Sade against itself. Brutalist art is characterized by its emphasis on explicit sex and extreme violence, Voltairian cynicism, scientific and academic discourse, misogyny disguised as adoration, satire, and a cold delight in insult, which it constructs as a mode of honesty.

Brutalism's ambition seems to be, at least in part, to undermine Sade by appropriating his discourse. To defuse the bomb by blowing it up.

It's an open question if this will work. The great risk, of course, is that one becomes what one hopes to destroy. Another problem is that we're no longer sure what we're rescuing. The idea of love? Human dignity? Promethean hope?

Regardless, there's something in Bolaño, and perhaps even in Houellebecq, that's not in Sade, yet not Romantic. For all their brutalism, there's something other than a shrug at the sight of a sodomized child; and there's something other than a Blue Flower.

That new thing might be our future. It might be what fills the void left by the end of the soul.

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