Book Review: The Ancients and the Postmoderns by Fredric Jameson

June 17, 2015
The Ancients and the Postmoderns by Fredric Jameson (Verso, £20)

The greatest works of art, whether modern or postmodern, have one unifying ambition: to invent new forms that grasp a specific social or political totality. So argues one of our most powerful and provoking critics Fredric Jameson in this wide-ranging essay collection, which starts with Peter Paul Rubens and ends with The Wire. Jameson likes tackling large, mythical works, teasing out their formal characteristics—whether it’s describing the “electrifying slumber” of Rubens’s Samson lying on Delilah’s lap, or noting that when Wotan in Richard Wagner’s Ring Cycle is calling for “the end,” the drama itself is “also calling for a way to end itself and wrap things up.”

As you would expect from a Marxist critic, he is closely attentive to the way work is represented in art. In The Wire, he notices that the most ingenious detective, before he is called on to the case, spends his spare time making miniature copies of antique furniture. This is, Jameson says, “a parable of the waste of human productivity and intelligence and its displacement,” within the enervating bureaucracy of the Baltimore police department.

Jameson’s prose is sometimes convoluted and his bold theoretical conclusions not always obviously grounded by evidence. He comes close to admitting this when he writes that Wagner “does not encourage modesty in the critic, who also ends up saying everything, rather than one specific thing.” But you allow Jameson his intellectual indulgences when his close readings are so often pertinent and illuminating.