A Report on the Afterlife of Culture

By Stephen Henighan

In the most recent volume of his literary memoirs, Shut Up He Explained, John Metcalf notes an observation made by a friend that the central concern of all his work is entropy: “decline, fallings away, defeat, degeneration.” Entropy is a historicist critical position – one that locates models of the good in the past – conjoined with a myth of decline and fall. It is an attitude that is typical of cultural commentators, who tend to see history taking a bell-curve shape – peaking at some point before the dissociation of sensibility or the coming of the antithetical cycle (for Metcalf one such peak is achieved in the prose of Wodehouse and Waugh), and then sliding into our current condition of chaos. (Mythic historians, like Gibbon and Macaulay for example, more often invert the bell curve with their theory of progress. Art, however, does not progress.)

Though one suspects he might recoil at the label, Stephen Henighan is clearly a mythic critic in this tradition. He knows, however “unfair” it may seem, that “Western thought is always lamenting paradises lost.” And while it “is important not to lapse into repetition of these complaints; it is equally important not to ignore real change when it occurs.” It just so happens that in the case of his “Report on the Afterlife of Culture” real change fits the traditional mythic pattern.

For Henighan the bell curve spans the period of “high literacy” – starting somewhere around 1610 (Don Quixote, the King James Bible) and “concluding at an end point that is probably too recent for us to discern it.” Though not exactly identified with it, that end point is obviously related to the end of the Cold War and the “end of history.” What this led to is the “extinction of historical consciousness,” which is “inseparable from the weakening of the grip exerted on readers by great literature.” Such an argument makes a nice companion to Henighan’s earlier critical work When Words Deny the World. There the emphasis was more on grounding culture in a specific place (the local, the regional). Here it is concerned with locating cultural historically, less in place than in time. The arguments against globalized, mass-market media systems are still being made, but he isn’t talking so much about words in the world as culture before and after.

What is meant by the afterlife of culture is culture that is now just an empty vessel, consisting of forms of expression (really reproductions of those forms) that “possess only a vestigial relationship to the reality that [gave] them birth.” In the afterworld, literature (to take just one traditional form culture takes) is both geographically uprooted and divorced from its historical context. Like the globalized fiction that is both everywhere and nowhere, afterworld fiction is both always now and never. Today’s historical novels provide a good example of how this works,

arrogat[ing] to themselves the privilege of commenting on a past which they view from a vantage point that enables them at once to romanticize and denigrate it. The underlying message of these books is that having severed ourselves from the history that bred us, we may declare our autonomy from preceding epochs of human life and our moral superiority to them. History ceases to be what shaped us and becomes simply the raw material for new book-shaped consumer products. We package it up in the forms of popular entertainment in order to dispense with it. Some of the novels even articulate an explicitly anti-innovative, anti-chronological critical ideology; nearly all abdicate the realist novel’s responsibility to engage with the present.

What follows this paragraph is a critical takedown of Ian McEwan’s Atonement that illustrates Henighan’s thesis nicely, but which also highlights the limitations in such an approach. In the end, what Henighan seems to really want is to see McEwan return to his lefty roots instead of writing pop-historical romances for the booboisie (and this essay was written before the egregious On Chesil Beach!). It’s clear he thinks McEwan has shirked his social duty; but what isn’t clear is why he thinks Atonement is an aesthetic failure. One senses a reduction of literature to arguments over political and market forces. What exactly is the writer’s responsibility to the past anyway? How often has it been fulfilled? I’m not a fan of much historical fiction either, but couldn’t a Disneyfied costume drama still be a good book? I loved Neal Stephenson’s Baroque Cycle trilogy, even though its sense of history doesn’t rise much above Pirates of the Caribbean.

Which is perhaps another way of saying that Henighan paints with a broad brush, and is less convincing when it comes to the details. How much this matters is a point of personal preference. The “Report,” which is the long essay that makes up the entire first part of this collection, is one of the most engaging and provocative pieces of critical writing I’ve read in years. And for those who enjoy seeing blood on the floor, well, you might want to go right to the final section and witness the flaying of Globe and Mail reviewer T. F. “Rave” Rigelhof. In the face of such a globe-trotting, erudite onslaught, caveats register like speed bumps. Henighan does sometimes overstate his case. Anecdote and rhetoric, while entertaining, don’t always persuade. This happens most often in the shorter pieces drawn from his work writing a column for Geist, as well as reviewing for publications like The Walrus and the The Times Literary Supplement. It is not, for example, true that the “big publishers” have “banished short story collections” in Canada. By my desk now I have hardcover releases by first-timers Neil Smith and Craig Boyko (published by Knopf and McClelland & Stewart respectively). Hyperbole like this doesn’t help make a point that sticks.

And then there is “Kingmakers.”

In the context of a collection like this, we can see what a shame it is that Henighan achieved such notoriety for what is, in fact, one of his least persuasive efforts. But such was the fate of “Kingmakers,” a column about the 2006 Giller Prize that ran in Geist. The essential argument of “Kingmakers” is that the establishment, personified by “old guard” faithful like Margaret Atwood and Alice Munro, presented the award to Vincent Lam in order “to enable the old WASP establishment to claim parentage over the new multicultural establishment” by publicly welcoming him into our literary Family Compact. Most of the fallout from that essay (Henighan’s response to which is included here) had to do with what was perceived to be the racist bias in its criticism of the new dominant ideology of multiculturalism. My own take on the 2006 Gillers is that it was less about a conspiracy of the old guard and the dawn of a new multicultural establishment than about the “corporate suffocation of the public institutions that build our literary culture” Henighan begins by talking about. I don’t believe Atwood really has the power to point a finger at her successor, or that Munro’s withdrawal of her book that year for consideration was part of a “canny strategy” to join Atwood as kingmaker. Munro was on the jury, after all, and could hardly have judged her own book.

Why did Bloodletting & Miraculous Cures win the Giller? For the same reason that Elizabeth Hay’s Late Nights on Air won the following year: It was the most commercial “book-shaped product” on the shortlist. Indeed, in 2006 Lam’s book was the only viable product on a list dominated by first-timers and small-press titles. Both the 2006 and 2007 winners take the form of soap operas, and were both purchased by the same film company to be produced as miniseries. In other words, they were good television. This is a point that fits well with the “triumph of the image” thesis set out in the “Report,” and makes more sense than the multicultural angle, which was a place Henighan really didn’t need to go.

But disagreeing with a book like this – and I disagreed with a lot – is the whole point. For jagged insight and provocative, anti-establishment rhetoric there’s probably no other commentator on literary matters in Canada more worth reading. Or so much fun.

Review first published online June 1, 2008.