Morality and Criticism

by Mark Wallace

I was perusing the pages of the latest New York Review of Books today and found a review of a collection of essays by a critic named Daniel Mendelsohn, of whom I had never heard. The review was by one Edward Mendelson (no relation?). The headline is “Triumph of a Moral Critic” – meaning in this case not a critic of morals, but a critic whose work is informed by a moral position. The great moral problem of our times, says Mendelsohn, is the “reality problem”: “the blurring between reality and artifice” that he attributes to new technologies and that permeates all our conduct; a problem called post-modernism. This problem, I would suggest, is hardly a necessary consequence of technology. That post-modernism has seeped its way into intellectual discourse in our culture was not inevitable, yet now it is a myth, in Barthes’ sense, depoliticized, just there, natural, as if no one in there right mind could say No, existence isn’t just a simulacra. That’s just one way of talking about it. And at this point, not a helpful way. In the terms of Thomas Carlyle, post-modernism seems to me to be an old coat going out at elbow, and one which may now be safely cast off, even at the risk of going naked for a while as we try to retailor our ways of thinking.

Alas, until someone comes up with some system, some way of thinking that has a name, we may be stuck with post-modernism. Carlyle says at the beginning of Sartor Resartus: “Surely the plain rule is, Let each considerate person have his way, and see what it will lead to”, and in the same passage quotes from Daniel 12:4:

Many shall run to and fro, and knowledge shall be increased

Unfortunately many won’t run to and fro. They’ll form a line and run after each other! And they won’t increase knowledge at all! They need, as Carlyle knew better than anyone, a flag or banner to run after, then all will be well:

It is in and through Symbols that man, consciously or unconsciously, lives, works, and has his being; those ages, moreover, are accounted the noblest which can the best recognize symbolic worth, and prize it the highest.

While I don’t quite agree with the last part, and would account an age that managed to see symbols as only symbols as the noblest, I don’t doubt that Carlyle is practically right in this case. Yet all Daniel Mendelsohn and the rest of us can do is sit and wait the Rise of the New God, or the new intellectual paradigm, before which, I perceive, post-modernism will crumble into dust.