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Mario, Luigi and The Spanish Inquisition Sketch

I was actually going to entitle this essay, “Postmodernism”. But then I realized that no one – not even me – would, in this day of information overload, open a post with that title. So I chose one that at least some folks – especially those with a more nostalgic bent – might be curious enough to check it out. That being said, I assure you there’s no cheating involved.

As readers of my posts will know, I’ve been reading Stranger Than We Can Imagine: Making Sense of the Twentieth Century by John Higgs (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2015).

Stranger than we can imagine

The penultimate chapter of this terrific book deals with postmodernism, but that’s only the half of it. The astute reader might well ask – what does postmodernism have to do with Nintendo and Monty Python’s Flying Circus? A lot it seems, if you accept the author’s premise.

In this brief (26 page) essay, Higgs manages to talk about  – Nintendo Entertainment System’s Super Mario Bros.; the appearance of Marshall McLuhan in Woody Allen’s movie, Annie Hall; Monty Python’s Flying Circus (and not just any sketch, but my favourite one of all time, the Spanish Inquisition [as in ‘nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition, etc.’], and the Philosopher’s Football Match); the pop art of Roy Lichtenstein and Andy Warhol; and the Broadway musical Hair.

Now, anyone who can connect these seemingly unconnected dots together and use them to explain postmodernism deserves praise in my book.

The word postmodernism comes from the Latin – post meaning “after” and modo meaning “just now”. Together the word essentially means “after just now”. (p. 280). The term postmodern was first used in the late 19th century (1870) to distinguish the new forms of art from the impressionist school. According to historian Paul Johnson, ‘postmodernism’ was first employed in 1934, but only came into general use in 1971. The term has been expanded upon, gets confused with the various art deco/art moderne offshoots and applied to everything from furniture (Bauhaus), industrial design, film (Luis Bunuel), music (Philip Glass), art (Sidney Nolan’s Ned Kelly paintings), architecture (Michael Graves), philosophy (Michel Foucault) and literature (Jorge Luis Borges).

To Higgs, postmodernism is about “a collision of unrelated forms that are put together and expected to work on their own terms”, (p. 276) without any outside opinion and authority declaring them to be so. Postmodernism contains six elements, he declares:

  • it must contain seemingly disconnected elements;
  • it must be playful (he says that the French word jouissance works best);
  • it must be mass-produced;
  • it must be self-aware;
  • each time it is used it is different (this applies to video games obviously but not so much elsewhere), or open to being perceived differently by each viewer, reader or watcher; and
  • it transcends the concept of highbrow and lowbrow, being simultaneously “high art and populist fluff”. (p.278)

Higgs admits (or declares) that postmodernism is now a hated concept, a word that ‘has become an insult’ and, for academics, like quicksand – ‘the more you struggled [to escape from it], the further in you were pulled’. (Wikipedia has much to say on the subject – Higgs even begins to reflect on what he’s just written in this essay in a post-modernistic fashion (p. 282), which may be the high point of the whole exercise. Brilliant. Kudos to him!

But what about writing fantasy novels? Is The Ravenstones a postmodern fantasy story?

On several counts, I could easily argue that it is. Being a fantasy tale, it is automatically playful. Being distributed by Amazon, it is clearly mass-produced. It is also open to interpretation by each reader who brings with him or her a set of ideas, memories and biases to the reading.

Finally, it is self-aware, especially in the opening chapters of Volume 1. Here, our heroes talk about their adventure, what it might become and what kind of story would be created. The polar bear thinks about what kind of story he might be in and the raven riffs off on the nature of heroic tales, noting the usual tropes, and then adds how the one or the other of the trio will become famous as a result. After that opening, of course, the story settles down into a classic fantasy tale.

On the other two counts, it may miss the mark. Whether The Ravenstones amounts to either/both highbrow or lowbrow art will be in the eye of the consumer. I wouldn’t presume to judge. And as for “disconnected elements”, probably not. Apart from what I’ve noted above, The Ravenstones contains the usual elements of a fantasy tale, nothing more nothing less.

But really, I just wanted to post a blog that allowed me to talk about two great wonders of modern culture – Nintendo and Monty Python. And for all you fans who can’t get enough of the Spanish Inquisition, here it is: w

I can now check off that ambition. Now if only I could find a way to weave Fawlty Towers into one of my posts…

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