The World is Flat

The World is Flat

Amy Elias

According to Amy Elias, Paul Maltby’s negation of the mystical Other forecloses ‘the most interesting conversation’: between a critic who does not believe in visionary moments and those writers and critics who do believe in them.

One would expect a postmodern critique of visionary moments in literature to take one of two tactics: either (1) a full-out (materialist or epistemological) geneology of artistic “vision” (from Plato to the British Romantics’ Divine Imagination to perhaps Harold Bloom’s kabbalistic schemas), or (2) a critique of how “vision” as an attribute of religious revelation has recently been defrocked (in sources ranging from Jacques Derrida’s negative theology to pragmatist philosophy’s conception of secular piety to new work in religious studies that attempt to define “postmodern religion” under the aegis of poststructuralist theory). In his study The Visionary Moment, Paul Maltby elects to do neither kind of analysis. Instead, Maltby states forcefully that he will perform a postmodernist critique - delegitimizing, denaturalizing, decentering, defiguring, textualizing, particularizing, and stressing contingency and contamination - on the idea of the literary visionary moment itself. He wants to prove that the visionary moment in literature is politically suspect and epistemologically unsound because it is premised on (essentialist) assumptions about truth, cognition, and subjectivity. To accomplish this, he examines the metaphysics and politics of the visionary moment, particularly in the writing of Don Delillo, Saul Bellow, and Jack Kerouac, but in numerous other twentieth-century writers as well.

For Maltby, the visionary moment is a more inclusive category than the Joycean notion of literary epiphany but a more limited category than mystical revelation. Unlike the Joycean epiphany, the literary visionary moment “is not dependent on the catalytic effect of a commonplace object or mundane gesture or snatch of conversation”(13). Also, while Joyce imports the religious term “epiphany” into specifically secular contexts (such as Gabriel Conroy’s self-revelation in The Dead), “to insist on the secular status of the visionary moment is to exclude those moments that take the form of a sudden manifestation of the sacred.” Maltby writes that “in Christian usage, the term [epiphany] refers to the manifestation of Christ to the Magi” (12). That is in fact how Joyce talked about the term, but that is not what epiphany means today in many Christian churches, particularly of the Protestant denominations that are so important to Maltby’s provenance for the visionary moment. While Epiphany (the day) began in the eastern Church as the celebration of the nativity of Jesus, today it is defined as the series of revelations of Jesus’s identity as the Christ, beginning with his baptism; it is celebrated on January 6 and kicks off a season of Epiphany ending on the day before Lent. And finally, while Joyce scattered many examples of epiphany in texts such as The Portrait, the visionary moment “is a singular and rare occurrence” around which often is built an entire fictional narrative (14).

Using Carl Keller, Mircea Eliade, and the Christian tradition as definitional sources, Maltby also distinguishes the mystical experience from the visionary moment. The former involves the purification of the intellect; illumination and exhaustive knowledge of the noetical world as achieved through arduous contemplation; the revelation of something purely sacred; and a vision whose source is internal (nothing is physically sensed, though the vision may be induced by bodily abuse or illness)(19). William James [ The Varieties of Religious Experience (New York: The Modern Library, 1999), 414-15] offers similar characteristics of mystical experience: ineffability, noetic quality, transiency, passivity, and an intuition of “the more.”

In contrast to mystical revelation, the visionary moment is defined by literary convention. It consists of illumination effortlessly achieved in a sudden “flash” of awareness that lasts only a moment; in most cases, a secular type of spirituality whose power lies within the human psyche; a vision that is triggered by an external stimulus such as an overheard comment or a smell and that cannot be summoned at will; a moment that is a signal that a spiritual birth or rebirth has or will occur and that is often validated in the name of a transcendent power or force such as Grace (16, 19). The visionary moment “stops time,” universalizes a conception of truth to all humankind, encourages a passivity that keeps one from social action, and offers an escape from history (119-21).

Yet a contradiction in these comparative definitions immediately surfaces. When comparing the visionary moment to Joycean epiphany, Maltby writes that the moment “is not dependent on the catalytic effect of a commonplace object or mundane gesture or snatch of conversation”; its stimulus is, rather, “a critical situation or incident that upsets a routine mindset” (13). I was confused about why this phrase did not describe Gabriel Conroy’s experience in The Dead (which Maltby was arguing was not visionary moment but Joycean epiphany); moreover, six pages after this statement Maltby specifically says that the literary moment may be triggered by an overheard comment or smell (19), which means the catalyst could be “a snatch of conversation.” Likewise, when contrasting the visionary moment to Joycean epiphany, Maltby writes that insisting on the secular status of the visionary moment “is to exclude those moments that take the form of a sudden manifestation of the sacred” (14). But just a few pages later, Maltby insists that most visionary moments are not premised on external divine revelation but are rather “of a secular type” whose power lies within the psyche. Finally, the ideological characteristics of visionary moments listed above sound precisely like the materialist complaints against mysticism.

These observations may seem like nit-picking, but they illustrate the confusion of categories that seem to characterize this study. Throughout the book, for example, no distinctions are made between types of visionary experience (ranging from Christian spirituality, ecospiritualism, process theology of the constructive postmodernists, Romantic visionary Imagination, gnosticism, and general epiphanic insight). All are lumped together as examples of the visionary moment. The confusion seems actually to signal real intention: what is in fact in Maltby’s gunsights is any kind of spiritual or metaphysical claim. This becomes clear early in the book, in a passage I need to present in its entirety:

All this is to say that it is a category-mistake to think of a “real-life visionary moment” as a type of spiritual experience; rather, it is a way of understanding one. If the moment is visionary, it is so only after the fact and in particular, by force of ideological and narrative construction. After all, while one can actually experience awe, wonder, or some other spiritual state, one cannot actually experience transcendent knowledge or the omniscient viewpoint; one can only claim to. The alternative is to believe that an individual, even Allen Ginsberg, can step beyond the historically available configurations of knowledge and thus attain a cosmic knowledge of existence or of one’s place in the Creation. Put another way, to believe in the possibility of authentic visionary moments is to believe, contrary to the conventionalist terms of postmodern epistemology, that there is a presocial order of knowledge, which has always existed in some dimensionless realm. And it is to believe that the subject can acquire this knowledge by virtue of some occult mode of cognition, a channel of understanding - “insight’ or “intuition” - that has instantaneous and direct access to the Truth…. [w]e may well speculate that it is our belief in the real-life moment that is largely derived from the widespread practice of using visionary moments in fiction. (24)

It is important to note that Maltby is not saying that the literary visionary moment is rhetorical, a claim that would make sense even by New Critical standards of analysis. He is saying that the real-life visionary moment is. The famous example of Allen Ginsberg’s “revelation” of cosmic oneness to which Maltby refers in this section in fact appeared in a Paris Review interview, not in a scene in a short story or in one of Ginsberg’s poems. (And to believe in this kind of metaphysical claptrap would mean that even people like Allen Ginsberg could experience transcendent revelation.) This claim is logically unprovable (how does one prove that there is no such thing as transcendent knowledge?). Likewise, logically, just because something runs counter to the terms of postmodern epistemology doesn’t mean that it is incorrect. To say that according to postmodern thinking epiphanies of Being are untenable (39) is analogous to saying that according to Hindu epistemology, historical materialism is untenable. It is simply to say that what I believe doesn’t allow me to believe what you believe. It is not to prove that the proposed idea is false. Furthermore, the claim that belief in real-life visionary moments derives from the widespread practice of using such moments in fiction may be good poststructuralism of a Derridean type, but it is suspect history. It is essentially to claim that the world’s religions - and not just the Christian ones - came about because everyone got brainwashed by short stories. Such a claim is contestable because it is built on the assumption that visionary moments are only contiguous with capitalist modernity, something asserted rather than proven here.

When Maltby asserts that the visionary moment transcends historical situatedness and hence “projects knowledge that is distorted by exclusions and stereotyping, and marked by vacuous generalization” (54), his motivated reconstitution of the Other and bigotry against all forms of religion, spirituality, and metaphysics shut down any hope of dialogue. Disturbing to a postmodern pluralist is the manner is which the claims in the paragraph cited above rely on unsupported assertion that lacks any kind of engaged dialogue with actual difference (in the form of mystical belief). What seems to need “denaturalizing” here is the absolute belief (and I use the term intentionally, since these categories are by definition theoretical and ideological) in materialist praxis that disallows any consideration of non-materialist categories. In this book, the latter is simply dismissed as unnatural or unthinkable and hopelessly compromised ideologically. This claim of natural logic cries out for Foucaultian analysis. The claim also is not congenial to a postmodern pluralism that opens itself to multiculturalist claims that the experience of spiritual awakening is the genesis for storytelling, or that they are the same thing. It is to not take seriously the idea that the Cheyenne or Navaho medicine man, the Yoruba shaman, the Tibetan monk, or the Christian mystic may in fact have experienced something real as they say that they do.

Well, sort of. In a late chapter of the book, Maltby actually seems to reverse his previous claims in the face of a vaguely defined African American spirituality. Giving a basic formalist reading of Alice Walker’s much anthologized short story “Everyday Use,” Maltby suddenly finds that the visionary moment is invested with a sacred significance but is “an affirmation of a value system marginalized by late-capitalist development” (114). Suddenly, the visionary moment - even in the form of Christian doctrine of justification - has “counterhegemonic” power and can affirm “precisely those values and orders of knowledge that have been disqualified by a technological-rationalist culture organized under the imperative to maximize productivity” (111). Alice Walker, who is quoted as affirming belief that artistic insight is “a communion with divine spiritual presence,” is not shown to be deluded or even ideologically imbricated by this belief, as Allen Ginsberg, Flannery O’Connor, Saul Bellow, Jack Kerouac, V.S. Naipaul, Annie Dillard, John Steinbeck, Paule Marshall, and Don Delillo are shown to be. Rather, Walker’s story is used to show how a visionary moment “may acquire a progressive political meaning” (114) - not because it is true or even provocative in its truth potential, but because it is an “endorsement of self-worth” (112).

The comparison with Falkner is instructive. Faulkner’s visionary moments “clearly present a nondialectical temporality.” (His Snopes novels and myriad complications of class, thematics of lived history, and opposition to “a technolgical-rationalist culture” are not considered.) Indeed, “Faulkner’s moment, invoked in the context of the South’s modernization, makes sense primarily as an agrarian reaction - a mythifying nostalgia - for a precapitalist relationship with the natural world. And Walker’s moment, invoked in the context of an invasive postmodern culture…makes sense primarily as a source of empowerment for a subaltern voice…. The former moment is read as encoding a conservative ideology, while the latter is read as an instance of postmodern radical pluralism” (119). Beyond the fact that the difference between Southern modernization (which takes place in Faulkner’s fiction well into the twentieth century) and an invasive postmodern culture is not articulated, it is unclear why Walker’s story is not at least as “nostalgic” as Faulkner’s Snopes stories. (The story ends with the mother giving the quilts, a symbol of lived agrarian history, to her homely daughter and upholding tradition and place even though it is clear that Dee’s urban, intellectual world eliminates a good deal of the racism and poverty that still plagues Mama on the farm.) While at every other point in the book Maltby defines the visionary moment as existing “as if in some transcendent realm, outside the space of intertextuality” where “an individual must be beyond the mutability and instability of the subject-in-process” (49), when he comes to Walker, he redefines the moment as the expression of progressive counter-hegemony, rooted in history, asserting a positive individualism (self-worth).

A major claim in this book is that the visionary moment originates in capitalist economies. This claim also needs more support. For example, Augustine’s conversion experience, which I think everyone would agree predates capitalist economies but is also recalled in a memoir that is accepted as a highly literary and stylized conversion narrative, seems to fit Maltby’s definition of a visionary moment. As recounted in his spiritual “autobiography,” Augustine’s conversion is prompted by an external stimulus (a voice he thinks is a child’s singsong game that enjoins him to “pick up and read”); is effortlessly achieved in a sudden “flash” of illumination that serves as the central defining moment of the entire narrative; is a moment signalling that a spiritual birth, validated in the name of a Grace, has occurred; is a visionary moment that “stops time” and universalizes a conception of truth to all humankind; and is a moment that offers an eschatological escape from history. The idea that this and other Christian literary conversion narratives are precursors to the visionary moment rather than examples of it seems to rest on the claim that the visionary moment is secular in its insights, a revelation of individualistic or psychic power only. But Maltby categorizes Allen Ginsberg’s mystical epiphany as a visionary moment - and this non-literary ephiphany concerned a revelation of cosmic infinitude and Oneness with the universal that I would categorize as essentially mystical rather than individualistic (Ginsberg’s chant in “Footnote to Howl” that all is holy, holy, holy). Capitalist modernization produced alienation, which made the visionary mode of writing attractive to the masses: they want to believe in this cultural fiction because it offers the solace of a unifying, transcendent vision (4). This fiction of the visionary moment has three sources: the Western religious conversion narrative, particularly in the Puritan tradition; the British Romantics’ theory of visionary Imagination; and “the ideology of bourgeois individualism that encourages the view of salvation as a personal, private matter” (31). The resulting literary convention breeds workers for a class-based social system and “blind[s] them to a politically relevant understanding of that system…. A radical transformation of the external, social order is not recognized as a precondition for individual salvation” (36). Here is the familiar assertion that individualism is a fiction of capitalism and incompatible with collectivist action and the dogeared claim that metaphysical belief precludes social action. The idea that religion or a belief in Being can simultaneously assert a doctrine of individual subjectivity while defining salvation as essentially a social project is not considered. A few counter examples: Catholic priests leading draft-card burnings during the Vietnam war; the self-immolation of Buddhist priests as acts of social protest; Christian organizations that supported the Underground Railroad during the U.S. Civil War; liberation theology in general, particularly as it is theorized and practiced in relation to South and Central American politics; the importance of the Black church (both Christian and Islamic) to the U.S. civil rights movement; the environmental and socio-political activism of Native American religious leaders; the absolute centrality of social justice agendas to Judaism.

In point of fact, Maltby does assert as true and non-contingent a specific ideological position and very specific value claims. He reduces postmodernist critique to a narrow band of truth assertions, a marxist metanarrative about what society and social action is and Being is not. Maltby picks out some of the most sophisticated and complex Western writers of the twentieth century in both fiction and theory and calls them vacuous because they claim a belief that he feels is not truly postmodern. When the religious Right makes a claim of this sort - e.g., reading a sophisticated marxist theorist as “vacuous” and calling her deluded and dangerous because she espouses an ideology contrary to Christianity - we in the academy rightfully call foul, understanding not only that this is bad argument but also that this kind of intolerance for alternative views shuts down the public sphere. The text’s assertion of metanarrative contradicts the deconstructive project Maltby supposedly champions, a postmodern project that argues for multiplicity, a recognition of real and profound difference, and negotiation between competing petit recits.

He also asserts a rather outdated critical narrative about what postmodernism is, reducing it not only to a marxist tributary but also limiting its appearance in literature pretty much to metafictional texts and specific kinds of political literature. The idea that postmodernism is a discourse that exists simply to knock things down without asserting anything - the mantra of “denaturalize,” “decenter,” “deligitimize” being now nearly a critical cliche - is not only a limited understanding of what postmodern critique does (Pynchon asserts values, as do Jameson and Baudrillard). It also ignores the past ten years of writing about postmodernism that puts it in complicated relation to political agendas and, yes, metaphysical speculations. For example, this study ignores an entire region of postmodernist theory that specifically defines the postmodern as a return of the secular-sacred or quasi-metaphysical. In a book about mysticism and visionary moments, a discussion of the postmodern sublime is relegated to a short appendix. Maltby seems astounded to find that “within academia itself, credibility is accorded to notions of cosmic interconnectedness” (64), ideas such as a profound sense of spiritual connectedness and community, and the existence of a human essence or soul (62). He specifically cites David Ray Griffin’s series on constructive postmodernism out of Claremont College in this light. Maltby reduces the useful aspects of the postmodern sublime to the technological sublime; he dismisses Lyotard as peripheral to postmodern theory: “The postmodern sublime, as formulated by Lyotard, with a reverence for the ineffable that verges on obscurantism, cannot serve my purpose” (128).

Here then is the argument strategy: rather than engage with Lyotard and work through the implications of his postmodern theory for a concept like the visionary moment - the two seem made for one another - Maltby dismisses Lyotard as irrelevant and attacks the visionary moment with an ideological theory clearly, and always historically, antithetical to all of its premises. Maltby’s disciplinary categories not only peremptorily dismiss Lyotard and Bataille and Ricoeur, but so also by implication or application Thomas Pynchon’s Mason & Dixon, Don Delillo’s White Noise and Underworld, Leslie Marmon Silko’s Ceremony (actually, a lot of the Native American literary canon), Charles Johnson’s Dreamer - writers and texts that defined postmodernism (but of a different strain). The literary visionary moment is not seen as a postmodern rebellion against an exhausted (and historically unique) Enlightenment epistemology that negated the value of spiritual or non-productive knowledge; rather, the literary visionary moment is “a symptom of the defensive posture of mystical truth claims in the face of the ascendancy of anti-metaphysical thinking” (123).

Maltby is obviously a very smart scholar who is committed to social action and the exposure of false ideologies. His study absolutely prompts a response, which is what intellectual work should do. He is a good writer stylistically, and his project of investigating the idea of the visionary moment in literature is a wonderful one. But his marxist metanarrative is unproblematized and derivative, and his superior and intolerant attitude toward mysticism is troubling. William James wrote that the nature of faith and of God may be that one can only have the experience of either if one is first open to them; doubt may preclude the possibility of the experience that would erase doubt. This is an interesting way to state a problem that invites speculation about the nature of insight and inspiration as well as about tolerance and social dialogue between people of radically different beliefs and experiences. A cardinal in the fifteenth century could assert vehemently that the world was flat, never having seen the round earth; people who have not experienced and don’t believe in mysticism can assert with impunity that such belief is dangerous hogwash. The interesting and hard conversation, the postmodernist cultural work, that is left undone in this book is the investigation of how an intellectual who does not believe in epiphanies of Being can talk to writers and intellectuals who do believe in them without assuming that the believers are dupes or pawns of an ideology from which the unbeliever is somehow exempt. To dismiss either position - the secular materialist one or the mystical visionary one - by claiming the other to be politically deluded or the product of ideological coercion is easy. To take seriously the idea that both ideas are valid in a pluralist society (or even that elements of both positions may be true without either being false) and that a space between them must be negotiated both ideologically and practically is the difficult (postmodernist) position.