Tuesday, March 13, 2012


"Translit" is a term that Douglas Coupland either made up himself or picked up somewhere and, whatever else you might say about him, Coupland has a genius for picking the term that nails a trend.

He also has a bit of a genius for writing stuff that seems meaningful when it comes out but that you will look back at years later and wonder why you ever wasted your time reading Generation X.

Let's start at the beginning where Coupland indulges in some clever word play:
I mention this because it has been only in the past decade that we appear to have entered an aura-free universe in which all eras coexist at once — a state of possibly permanent atemporality given to us courtesy of the Internet. No particular era now dominates. We live in a post-era era without forms of its own powerful enough to brand the times. The zeitgeist of 2012 is that we have a lot of zeit but not much geist.
Isn't that fun? You can tell it's  a steaming pile of it conjured up by a wheel-spinning clever person of no moral depth because the word zeitgeist appears but it's important to pay some attention to what these people are thinking if only to avoid doing it ourselves. And there is something here: the lack of geist (spirit) is a marked feature of modern intellectual culture. A "zeitgeist" or "spirit of the time/age" is always an illusion but geist tout court can be important.

One "solution" that artists have come up with, says Coupland is "translit" and it's worth reading his description of it at some length. I'll split his definition of "translit" into two parts. The first part is just a bunch of meaningless jargon:
This new reality seems to have manifested in the literary world in what must undeniably be called a new literary genre. For lack of a better word, let’s call it Translit. Translit novels cross history without being historical; they span geography without changing psychic place. Translit collapses time and space as it seeks to generate narrative traction in the reader’s mind. It inserts the contemporary reader into other locations and times, while leaving no doubt that its viewpoint is relentlessly modern and speaks entirely of our extreme present.
Wow. Does that mean anything at all?  Think of the expression "extreme present". Luckily, Coupland lets the veil slip for the the rest of the paragraph and tells us in rather plain, perhaps too plain for the sake of his own argument, exactly what he means:
Imagine traveling back to Victorian England — only with vaccinations, a wad of cash and a clean set of ruling-class garb. With Translit we get our very delicious cake, and we get to eat it, too, as we visit multiple pasts safe in the knowledge we’ll get off the ride intact, in our bold new perpetual every-era/no-era.
In other words, it's fantasy fiction for intellectuals. Instead of traveling off to some distant and unhistorical Cetic past we travel off into a not-so-distant but completely unhistorical past. A past where intellectuals can pretend that modernism didn't fail: a past where it is always on or about December 1910 and never the 28 March 1941.  It's no small thing that one of the books Coupland cites as an example of Translit is Michael Cunnigham's The Hours.

What Translit really is is intellectuals trying to create art that will replace the religion they no longer believe in. It's a major shift is that they are now trying to do this for themselves. Much of modernism was driven by the fantastic notion that ordinary people had lost religion and needed intellectuals to come up with art to replace it. In fact, ordinary people never lost their religious belief and therefore never needed a replacement. But intellectuals did and they live in a world with lots of zeit and not much geist.

But will it work. We heard a lot about The Hours about a decade ago but does anybody read it now? Or is it just yesterday's fashion?


  1. "Translit" is a kind of stupid name, but yes, it does seem like he's identifying something real. I can think of a few novels like The Satanic Verses or Underworld, and also the movies of Iñárritu, that attempt to make a single narrative by jamming together a collage of scenes that have to do with various characters disconnected in time and space. They seem to be unified more by tone than by theme.

    But I don't understand why the second part of his explanation is supposed to be so damning. Isn't it true of most fiction that you can "get off the ride intact"? Victorian England seems to be just a random example of his.

  2. I hope I didn't imply it was damning. Rather, Ithink itis terribly deflating.

    The first part, with all the jargon, makes it sound like something rather highfallutin' is going on, e.g. "span geography without changing psychic space". But the plain language in the second part puts me in mind of a something not unlike the old Hercules cartoons done for intellectuals with Virginia Woolf in the place of Hercules and his magic ring.