I know, I know, why am I torturing myself like this?
Well, I think it’s critically important to understand the philosophical underpinnings of our age, even if most of us (me included) walk around accepting them and seeing them and acting in accordance to them without really understanding them.
Plus, post-modernism has an element of fundamental weirdness to it: just ask any philosopher or literary or art critic what it is and you’ll get different definitions. Even worse, in order to understand just what post-modernism is, you have to understand what modernism was, which poses its own challenges. One of those challenges being the complicated place Ezra Pound holds in the pantheon of modernism.
When Ezra Pound said, “Make it new,” most writers and critics nowadays, in the present, meaning circa 2014, interpret it as a battle cry to turn the old order over, and start new. In a sense, most people see Pound’s call as a cry for destruction, like Shiva the Destroyer, and then Brahma the creator to rebuild the temple of civilization with literature and art and architecture. A perpetual revolution of the arts.
But this is not what Pound meant. Not remotely. Pound, when he said, “make it new,” meant to take the old verities, truths, stories, fables, myths, buildings and paintings and make them new—not destroy them but mold the stories into a modern context.
For example, take the Canadian author Margaret Atwood. She does this extremely well in “The Penelopiad,” the Odyssey told from a woman’s point of view, but not just any woman. She tells it from the point of view of Odysseus’ wife.
Or read Zachary Mason’s The Lost Books of the Odyssey, which tell the tale from many new angles, characters silenced in the original.
There is also the fine poet Patricia Smith who retells the story of Medusa.
Yes, all these are literary examples, but how about pop-culture? Easy enough: “O’ Brother Where Art Thou?” the Coen brothers Depression Era take on the Odyssey. These are the true inheritors of Pound’s great battle cry, ‘make it new.’
In his great olive branch of a poem Pound came to Whitman as a contrite grown child:
It was you that broke the new wood,
Now is a time for carving.
We have one sap and one root -
Let there be commerce between us.
Even Louis Menand agrees, as he writes in the New Yorker: “The “It” in “Make It New” is the Old—what is valuable in the culture of the past.”
I personally like it when old stories are told anew, but I’m weird that way.
What’s even more bizarre is that not only am I beginning to understand and intuit post-modernism, I actually kind of like it. That’s certainly not something I thought I would ever say or write.