Thursday, October 9, 2008

The past gets better to more I talk about it.

By Ted Burke

A friend phoned from Los Angeles called down last week to discuss movies, books, politics, stuff in that order, and in the course of a long talk Ridley Scott's movie Gladiator came up; I enjoyed the film, thinking that Scott's undeniable but erratic talents found a suitable epic tale, while my friend, a reader of history, a precise noter of detail, derided for being inaccurate. "It's bad history" he said, and I , not a history buff but a lover of a good yarn told well, replied half-assedly "It's not history, it's a movie."

Movie it is, but I do understand someone for whom accuracy matters tiring unto death of college kids and their aging icons looting the historical archive in order to give us tales that can easily turned into computer games. We become disconnected from our past in terms have having an sense of where we came from, and quite easily clouds any sense of a better future--a destiny, if one prefers--that can lay ahead of us. We're left in a static present, where there is only the motion of distraction, the anxiety of cabin fever, a room you cannot leave.
The postmodern habit of mind is skeptical of the idea that History can be recounted in any neat formula: what has been useful in the deconstructive era has been the realization that written history, the record we refer to for a grounding, is no less a narrative structure than are novels and poems. Elements are arranged in interesting alliances and oppositions, conflicts are stated as plot lines in a convoluted drama, and the virtue being fought is made to seem as if it emerges, self evident, from the facts.

This tendency to make our past one long historical novel has been recognized, and we've at least an awareness of a buried political agenda being worked out. This clearing-of-the-playing field may, in fact, allow the marginal populations, the less-promoted cultures, to come to the center and have their narratives eventually woven into the story so far. But it comes back to good writing, which is the problematic element of postmodern criticism: discussions of the aesthetic, the poetry, the emotional accuracy of great literature is performed little, if at all, replaced by a critical cement, dense as the tax code, that pretends to be the theoretical prep-work that is readying the populations for a stalled insight. Living up to their own conceits, judgment to the quality of work is delayed, deferred, because such elements we use to define the artistic worth of a work are ultimately indivisible given their ultimate un-prove ability. What this results in is bad writing that travels quite a distance without anyone being able to yell tripe when tripe is served.