The term “postmodernism” is usually used in relation to the philosophical ideas that mark the transition from modern views to something that goes after, and beyond, modernity. Postmodern thought is, in fact, based on the critique of modernity rejecting most of the universal values established by humankind, and, first of all, by Western civilization. Postmodern worldview has found its reflection in philosophy, literature, art, music, etc. Chronologically postmodernism is the last word of the human thought, and it reflects the realities of today’s world that often contradict and question the established values of Enlightenment and modernism. Postmodernism tries to find new answers to the old questions, and it is important to examine the views of the major representatives of this philosophical system. The founders and ideologists of postmodernism are Jean-Francois Lyotard, Jacques Derrida, and Jean Baudrillard with their ideas of “little narratives”, deconstruction, and “simulacra”. The paper will also deal with some of the major representatives of postmodern fiction such as Gabriel Garcia Marques, Umberto Eco, Margaret Atwood, etc.
The beginning of postmodern age refers to the late 20th century when many ideas that were regarded undoubtedly true had proved their bankruptcy in the face of new challenges. As a reaction, a new understanding of reality appeared, and it is connected first of all with the name of Jean-Francois Lyotard whose work The Postmodern Condition was published in 1984. In this work, Lyotard comes forward with the critique of the “great narratives” that form the basis of Western civilization and used to be regarded as a universal truth. According to Lyotard, such ideas as rationalism, progress, social justice, free market have discredited themselves as they were actually used for oppression of the great parts of the world by the West. Lyotard states that these beliefs can have only a local value rather than universal and advocates for the advancement of “little narratives”, or local truths, that are aware of their limitations and do not pretend to be regarded as a universal truth (Bertens and Bertens 111).
Thus, Lyotard questions the values of modernism. The next prominent representative of postmodernism Jacques Derrida goes further and questions the language as a medium of communication. According to Derrida, language is too unreliable and cannot communicate the ideas without aberrations, thus our knowledge that we gain with the help of language is fundamentally flawed (Bertens and Bertens 113). Derrida proclaims “the end of linear writing” and insists on the need to “reread differently” since “we are beginning to write differently” (Grenz 140). The view put forward by Derrida got the name of deconstructionism as he invites to deconstruct the habitual concepts and reread the familiar texts.
At last, the views of Jean Baudrillard have also added to the interpretation of contemporary reality by postmodernists. Baudrillard underlined the fact that the value of original works has fallen down and only copies are used and produced in postmodern society. He calls this phenomenon “simulacra” (Klages). As a proof of Baudrillard’s views, one may only recall the copies of the famous works of art that are hanging on the walls in many offices and houses or virtual reality that is created as a simulation of true reality.
The works of literature have reflected the above-mentioned underlying ideas. Postmodern writers prefer to avoid “drawing conclusions or suggesting underlying meanings” since the world is viewed as being full of contradictions and ambiguity where no common and universal ideas can be established (An Introduction to Modernism and Postmodernism). Thus, the Italian writer Unberto Eco in his novel The Name of The Rose published in 1984 concludes with the idea that “the only truth lies in learning to free oneself from the insane passion for truth” (qtd. in Greer and Lewis 712). The novel portrays life in a medieval Benedictine monastery where quiescence is disturbed by the inner intrigues and a seeming murderous plot. The protagonist investigates the plot but comes to a conclusion that there was no plot at all. However, as Greer and Lewis note, the events in the monastery are connected with the conflict of the rival version of truth, the version of Catholic Church and its opponents (712). Thus, Umberto Eco establishes the insignificance of universal truth and states that the attempts to find it are useless as it is in fact inexistent.
The Colombian writer Gabriel Garcia Marques also questions reality by blurring the boundaries between reality and illusion. In his story One Hundred Years of Solitude published in 1967 supernatural and unrealistic events take place alongside natural ones, and the events of the remote past are described as if they were taking place in present (Greer and Lewis 712). This technique of “magic realism”, as Greer and Lewis call it, mixes reality and imagination, and it becomes unclear whether reality is really as important as it is usually perceived.
The Canadian author Margaret Atwood follows the path of postmodernists by questioning the traditional values of Western society. In her novel The Handmaid’s Tale published in 1985, Atwood questions the value of religion in modern society and warns against religious fundamentalism that can lead to the horrible distortions. The story shares the common traits of postmodern art as its very form portrays the view of the world as fragmented and unstable. The reader has to guess about many important events in the lives of the characters. The same uncertainty, combination of reality and fiction, doubt about the value of traditional norms can be found in the works of many postmodern writers like Ken Kesey, Jorge Luis Borges, Peter Esterhazy, William Golding, etc.
Therefore, the exact definition of postmodernism can hardly be provided as postmodernism deny the value of any systems and prefer deconstruction and multiple truths. The major ideas of postmodernism were formulated by its ideologists Jacques Derrida, Jean-Francois Lyotard, and Jean Baudrillard, and were developed by the means of literature by such writers as Gabrial Garcia Marques, Umberto Eco, Margaret Atwood, Ken Kesey, and others. As Greer and Lewis note, postmodern writing is “a new way of doing justice to the richness and strangeness of human experience” (712). Postmodernism is a reaction to the failure of traditional values to meet the challenges of contemporary reality.