MARCH 22, 2010 10:09PM

Everyone wants to be a hero

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Above all, Shields' book yearns to be what its subtitle proclaims: a manifesto. That desire is really the easiest thing to nail down about "Reality Hunger."

[. . .]

Shields is far from alone in his taste for bold and sweeping aesthetic calls-to-arms. A manifesto makes people feel that their writing (and reading) is caught up in and contributing to some greater movement or cause -- possibly one that will be looked back upon by future generations with as much admiration as we feel today toward, say, the surrealists, the beats, or the writers who clustered around the old Partisan Review.

[. . .]

Culture is always evolving, of course, but the idea that new forms make the old ones obsolete and therefore useless is relatively recent. It's part of the core creed of modernism, a broad artistic movement insisting that art and literature needed to be entirely rethought and reconfigured to respond to the unprecedented conditions of modern life -- conditions brought about in large part by technology.

The irony is that even modernism got old. [. . .] The champions of various modernist movements announced that their new art would sweep away the old, but when the dust cleared, this mostly turned out not to be the case. [. . .] This history should make anyone leery about sweeping claims that certain commonplace art forms are "dead" -- because what does that even mean?

[. . .]

Because when you write a manifesto, you are, after all, telling a story, and casting yourself as its hero. It's a story every bit as familiar and traditional as the plot of the most conventional middlebrow novel: A visionary revolutionary fights for progress by bravely challenging the reactionary old guard. It's an old-fashioned tale, no doubt -- well, let's face it, it's really pretty hokey. But it still plays. (Laura Miller, “RIP:The novel,” 9 March 2010)

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So his efforts are useless because he's up against all of history, which proves different. And even if he's successful, he isn't -- because he'd be just another hero bringing down a giant, and they've been telling that one since "Moses."

If Nietzsche didn't say we shouldn't let history dwarf our own individual lives -- and I think he did -- he should have. Even if it's the truth, this "your efforts have been done before, your claims will not last," is one of those we are better off forgetting. If it's only one of those things we keep in reserve, to spring on those who presume too much, we should serve to prove that however many of us have been defeated in the past, how boringly familiar the story of our own defeat, heroes still are right to keep smacking us down. They may be crazy and done-before, but can't you smell how elitist-awful we've become?

I would suggest some other way of shooting down slips to a regressive, me vs. you states-of-mind (which may well be what this is all about). Though you grossly diminish and humiliate when you contextualize, you clearly aim to sound broad-minded, urban, and adult; but to me you sound about as smug and silly as David Denby did when he said he couldn't imagine having much fun living in Avatar-land (never played sports, David? Never?), with nary a New Yorker or coffee shop in sight.

Link: RIP: The novel (Salon)

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