The principles of postmodern fiction
Postmodern Fiction is a particular genre of literature spanning from about 1941 until the end of the Cold War. It severely questions knowledge and how mankind comes to use it. After WWII, the world was emerging as a technological powerhouse and questions arose as to whether or not having the technology to destroy each other meant that we necessarily should. Authors began to reject the foundations that most of their knowledge was based upon. The idea of “good literature” and “bad literature” no longer had any meaning as authors were creating unreliable characters in texts that talked directly to the readers. Postmodern fiction emerged as a blurring of boundaries and an undercutting of traditional knowledge.
“My Name is Asher Lev” and the postmodern movement
Chaim Potok’s award winning bestseller, “My Name is Asher Lev,” stands as a great work of postmodern fiction. Potok, an orthodox Jew, grew up wanting to become an artist. To appease his family, he gave it up in favor of writing. Though his parents were more supportive of literature, they wanted him to pursue an education for something that would make him a rich man.
Asher Lev, born a Hasidic Jew, is forced to choose between the traditions of his people and his undying and often compulsive obsession with drawing the world. In art, he is a child prodigy. As a son, he is a failure. Ultimately, it is Asher Lev’s obsession with art that alienates him from his family and sends him into the arms of his mentor, an unorthodox, non-practicing Jew named Jacob Kahn. Jacob nurtures Asher’s talent for painting through puberty and into manhood, insisting that good art has no religious boundaries. This idea shakes Asher to the very core as he struggles to balance his life between both art and his Hasidic roots. The painting that will define him as an artist will also be the painting that separates him from his family and community forever. “Brooklyn Crucifixion” depicts Asher’s mother, Rivkeh, crucified on a cross as a symbol of her internal struggle between her husband and her son.
Potok uses “My Name is Asher Lev” as a way to challenge decency. Asher becomes a man devoted to God but continues to paint nudes and crucifixions because it helps him become a good artist. These paintings are considered indecent to his faith yet he continues to paint them because it is a long standing tradition among artists. It shows the concrete boundaries between religion and art.
The novel asks a hard question: “Is art an extension of God’s work?” Answers begin to take shape as Chaim Potok parallels Asher’s ability to paint with the world’s use of technology. Just because he has the ability to paint a brilliant painting doesn’t mean he necessarily should. Painting his mother’s image on a crucifixion brings heartache and despair to his devoutly Hasidic parents, forcing Asher to leave his home forever.
Asher’s love for his mother is a major theme throughout the book and it is clear that he paints her out of tribute. When dealing with any religion that is so devout in its faith, people aren’t going to see the meaning behind art, just what is on the surface. Chaim Potok’s postmodern answer is therefore: “Yes, art is an extension of God, but only when it doesn’t hurt people.”
Potok, Chaim. “My Name is Asher Lev.” New York: Anchor Books, 2003. ISBN 978-1-4000-3104-7