Who is afraid of the modernist individual? Who’s afraid of Federico García Lorca? What is there to be afraid of, in particular? My continuing research on Lorca’s posthumous legacy has given me ample justification for distrusting—if not fearing—the sacralization of subjectivity that arises with romanticism and persists in the canonization of the “great moderns” of the early twentieth century. This romantic ideology imbues writers like Rilke, Joyce, Woolf, or Lorca with a privileged form of subjectivity and a charismatic mystique with significant consequences for their subsequent reception.
It may be that this romantic ideology is in decline, or has in fact disappeared from our culture. This is a debatable point, and one worth exploring in some depth. Fredric Jameson made this point in his book Postmodernism, or The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, in the early 90s:
if the poststructuralist motif of the “death of the subject” means anything socially, it signals the end of the entrepreneurial and inner-directed individualism with its “charisma” and its accompanying categorial panoply of quaint romantic values such as that of the “genius.” Seen thus, the extinction of the “great moderns” is not necessarily an occasion for pathos. Our social order is richer and more literate, and, socially at least, more “democratic.” [...] [i]t no longer needs prophets and seers of the high modernist and charismatic type, whether among its cultural producers or its politicians. Such figures no longer hold any charm or magic for subjects of a corporate, collectivized, post-individualistic age; in that case, goodbye to them without regrets, as Brecht might have put it: woe to the country that needs geniuses, prophets, Great Writers, or demiurges.I have seen this passage cited several times, by equally eminent writers like Richard Rorty and Marjorie Perloff. I believe that Jameson is insightful but only partially correct. The cult of Lorca and other great moderns (to use Jameson’s phrase) demonstrates that we don’t live in a “post-individualist age,” that these paragons of heroic subjectivity continue to hold “charm” and “magic” for contemporary subjects. Concepts like genius are not merely “quaint.” In an age of “cultural producers,” we yearn for actual poets and for a literacy of more gravitas. Translations of hieratic modernist poets like Ranier Maria Rilke and Lorca himself continue to be published at a steady pace, and late modern poets like José Ángel Valente and Antonio Gamoneda still enjoy enormous prestige. In some sense, nothing has come to replace the paradigm of the heroic modern subject, even if this paradigm is (or should be) a thing of the past.
(Jameson, Postmodernism 306).
I disagree with Jameson, then, on several points: whether modernist charisma still holds sway, whether its (hypothetical) disappearance should be a cause for celebration or disappointment, and whether our contemporary social order is truly more literate and democratic. (Of course, this passage was written more than 25 years ago, so the added question is what has changed since Jameson wrote it.) In her comment on this passage Marjorie Perloff points out that Jameson—originally a specialist in modernism—returned to the subject in his 2007 book The Modernist Papers. We might also look at the success of Harold Bloom, in books like The Western Canon and Genius, in selling a normative but strangely idiosyncratic cult of romantic individualism to a middle-brow public eager to reject feminism and multi-culturalism.
Yet Jameson might be right in some sense: the continued celebration of high modernist models always runs the risk of falling into kitsch, as the example of Bloom might show. There was a brilliant insight at the heart of The Anxiety of Influence: the idea that the best readers of imaginative literature were other great writers, even when they read these other writers in distorted ways, and that great works of literature are therefore imaginative re-visionings of the literary tradition. In Bloom’s popular books, however, the oracular fetishizing of the Great and the Canonical quickly becomes tiresome.