A Report on the Afterlife of Culture.
Stephen Henighan rose to national prominence in 2002 when he wrote the memorable When Words Deny the World, a book that was nominated for a Governor General's award. This was a book of pure polemic, a sometimes bitter-- and only partially effective--screed eschewing the effects of globalization on Canadian Literature. It was also a self-advertisement for its author, who itemized how he had been treated by the Toronto-centric literati and concluded that that treatment and reception was a symptom of the disease.
In a long essay on WWDTW, I made one major objection to the book: the author's personality. Much has been made of the Russell Smith--Stephen Henighan brouhaha (with tribal spectators shouting Fight! Fight! from the sidelines), but Henighan did have an axe to grind with how he perceived he was being treated by critics. Attention was not being paid; or the attention was dismissive, Henighan maintained. His general tactic in WWDTW was the sneer, when it should have been savage irony.
This is not to say that Henighan did not make his points (the decline of the Canadian novel, and why) for he did possess a heft of thinking that was difficult to contradict. What one kept coming up against was the brillo pad of the manner in which the argument was being carried out. This really didn't impact the readability of the book, which was high. But one could always say that the argument came with its own inherent disclaimer.
The writing was sometimes brilliant, but the grapes were sometimes sour--see the essay "Yes, Toronto, I Do Own a Black Turtleneck" account for more--but Henighan would have been more effective if he jettisoned his attitude, and started arguing purely for the argument's sake. WWDTW was, happily, just the wind-up for something more substantial.
WWDTW's first section was composed of asides and little pieces, providing an atmosphere of slightness; Henighan, wisely, places the substantial essay first in Afterlife, and it is this essay, the central exhibit of Henighan's thought (and the best part of the book) that I shall discuss. Beginning slowly, this essay is muddled up front; Henighan tries to cram too much thinking into too small a space. But after a few pages some air is let in and Henighan writes in a stately style that does its author much credit: style is the credibility of a writer, is the bid of a writer for persuasion. And Henighan is out to win hearts and minds: in the following aphorism he riffs on the idea of an image-based culture, a point he makes and restates often: "A picture, contrary to the popular dictum, is not worth ten thousand words: a picture squelches ten thousand words of tightly argued complexity with a tendentious one-dimensional visual stamp." This is Henighan in high dudgeon, and it is a tone that was overused before; now it is the pricking lance, occasionally used, and more effective for discretion.
Indeed, as with the above, Henighan the essayist has a favourite technique: he is a sucker for the devastating aphorism. Consider the following: "We are no longer alienated by technology. Little by little, we are ourselves becoming the alienating force." This is Afterlife's great moral message: that we are responsible for what has gone on, culturally, for succumbing to the almighty image, and these aphorisms are deployed cunningly, at the end of sections; Henighan's tactic is to develop an argument, and then to cap the sections with his thunderous aphorisms.
Henighan makes the title argument at several points, but the argument is a nuanced one, conducted in steps of reasoning and exposition, and so there is no one sound bite I can excerpt to make Henighan's case in a sentence or less. That Henighan's argument isn't collapsible is perhaps a weakness. Consider the following passage, to my mind one of his briefer encapsulations:
"...under the pressure of an ideology that admits no alternatives, when the soul can be captured in a tangible space (the tourist's camera, the would-be aviator's bottles, the perfect copy of a building from an earlier century) the image (the tourist's snapshot of a Mam child, the individual's first aerial glimpse of his landscape that reveals the dominance of the city, the window and lintel that replicate 18th century contours unsupported by 18th century culture) replaces cultural engagement with a simple proliferation of material objects--the condensed form of images--and cuts us off from meaningful engagement of history."
See what I mean: this is gobbledegook without context. So much of Henighan is the summa of meticulous building that to remove paragraphs from their environs is to render them incomprehensible. Yet the heart of Henighan's argument resides in passages like this, on intricate scaffolds of thought. What is Henighan actually saying? To some extent: (1) you can't go home again. (2) Things aren't as they used to be, young whippersnapper. (3) Culture is no longer participatory, it is mediated instead; especially, it is an "a historical commodity." (4) The culture of now is one of amnesia, or worse: one of never knowing. (5) And postmodernism is perhaps not the only way to understand one another.
It is interesting that Henighan has staked out for himself, despite all of his tough love, a resolutely humanist position. One of his central images (an irony, for Henighan trusts words more than images) is that of the Stare Miasto in Poland, a town rebuilt from original materials in an effort to defuse the tensions of totalitarianism; and Henighan indicts this nostalgia memorably, saying that it's easy to reconstruct, but far more difficult to understand and access the past. Henighan indicts the Miasto, and uses it as a recurring metaphor for the intransigence of knowing something. The Miasto is the revenant of a former culture; or, in Henighan's eloquent phrase, the "afterlife" of a culture. It represents a false representation, despite its fidelity. The umbilical cord has been cut, and we are thrust into our own afterlife--though some may find this unfair, and a kind of totalitarian view in its way. Why begrudge the poor Poles of their nostalgia? They've got the afterlife of Milosz and Szymborska, after all.
Always a bugbear nowadays, and a bete-noire of Henighan's last book, globalization comes in for a drubbing. Henighan, otherwise possessing a prose grandeur, can resort to blunt cant: "The impact of globalized commerce on culture has been to transmute democratic ideals into the I-express-my-individualism-by-shuffling-a-personal-selection-of-products- available-at the-shopping-mall mass consumerism." It's a kind of Naomi Klein facilism. No Logo, man! Furthermore, Henighan's repetitive bashing of book clubs is, again, too easy, and is countered by the retort that at least people are reading books. That is, of course, the lowest common denominator--and paints Henighan, in his rejection of it, as elitist. But this is a trait that is not necessarily problematic for a writer, and it has been toned down since his last book of nonfiction. But it does become problematic when it becomes unfair: "We persist in reading, or listening to classical music (while washing the dishes and talking about recycling with our mother-in-law) because we possess a vestigial historical memory that these things are good for us..." This is unnecessarily harsh, and Henighan's paean to reading should recognize that, first, people must read. It is, I believe, an odd position to hold in a book ostensibly about culture, unless the author purports to mean that his culture is better than yours.
The only disclaimer for this book? That Henighan is, as I have said in a minor key before, in Chicken Little mode, and that this is already doomsday:
To imagine past cultural, and particularly literary, events in a present-day context is to predict their annulment. Would Arthur Rimbaud's flight to Abyssinia have made the same dramatic impact if the guardians of the French poetic milieu he abandoned had been able to contact him by email.'? Messages from Verlaine picked up at the internet cafe in Harrar might have persuaded impetuous young Arthur to return to France to forego gun-running and inveigled him to return to France to live out his career as an ordinary working poet. Flaubert would not have been left alone at the country house in Croisset, not Faulkner in Oxford, Mississippi, not Chaucer in his writing retreat in Kent, long enough to gestate their masterpieces. Televised news reports of the bubbling of talent in Paris in the 1920s would have precipitated a tidal wave of tourism and inflated Paris property prices to the point where James Joyce, Gertrude Stein, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ezra Pound and Ernest Hemingway would have had to decamp from Montparnasse...
On and on he goes, and one can't help but think: one can do this sort of thing for any age. Damn you, Gutenberg, damn you! Progress is not perfection! I used to walk back and forth to school five hundred miles, in the snow, all uphill, both ways ... to his credit, Henighan anticipates this criticism, and tries to abate it. "It is a long-standing, unfair tradition to criticize young people for not being as knowledgeable, respectful or well-educated as young people 'in the old days.'" But this is lip service, really. Henighan is all about establishing "the old days" so that he can create his afterlife idea. He is acutely aware of the way things were, that things were better; he is constitutionally incapable of de-oldifying himself, and statements like this are attempts at insurance. The conflict that arose in me, reading this book, is how much I agreed with him, notwithstanding.
But there is definitely an out-there aspect to this book. Henighan can get a little crackpot:
...the lifestyle of well-off people in wealthy countries [the Club of Rome] predict[s], will reach a peak of comfort and convenience around 2020, and will then go into very rapid decline. By 2050, wars and famines induced by the scramble to seize dwindling resources of water, food, oil and electrical power will have reduced the world's population to about one-fifth of its present size...
Sure, Nostradamus. Also in the paranoid vein:
As a Canadian, one has to think about how we plan to survive next to a belligerent empire whose decadence has reached the stage of 'totalitarian democracy.'
Never mind the silliness of democracy being totalitarian; Henighan does sometimes lose his way in the bizarre. He's best when he sticks to culture, but he can't help himself imagining the dismantling of culture. But why begrudge Chicken Little his allotment of sky?
The central irony of this book is how Henighan indicts Ian McEwan, his own students, and the rest of "us" for feeling supposed moral superiority over the past, without knowledge of historical reality; he puts this memorably when he says, "History becomes a succession of cliches to be manipulated from the knowing-but-sentimental vantage point of the present." Henighan himself does this in reverse, with his "afterlife" thesis, by judging the present on the basis of the past.
Henighan's bite is chewy, and whereas the last book was marred by polemicism, this book benefits from reasoned consideration, and Henighan uses nuance and a broader catalogue of evidence with which to make a case. This book is longer, more pleasant, more edifying, more balanced, and has less bizarre pronouncements. In the reviewer's own encapsulation, Henighan has evolved since his last book of non-fiction. He has become less egocentric and more logical, and The Afterlife Of Culture, including both its main essay and its smaller skirmishes, is a welcome addition to the unnourished culture of critical books in Canada.