Towards tenderness : postmodern empathy in the novels of Damien Wilkins
Degree GrantorUniversity of Canterbury
Degree NameMaster of Arts
The following represents an attempt to outline the significance of an author (Damien Wilkins) about whom little or no critical work has, as yet, been written. Primarily the context for this 'outlining' is postmodernism, and what I shall argue is that Wilkins' novels represent a treatment of the postmodern (essentially a process of aestheticisation) whereby the possibility for a social and interpersonal mode of empathetic, meaningful and coherent relation is, in fact, seen as a possibility of postmodernism itself. For myself the possibility of postmodern empathy is something Wilkins invests in his term "tenderness" which, in relation to this context of postmodernism, operates as an abstraction or metaphor for an aesthetics/politics of contingency, irony and affect. In Wilkins' texts this tender aesthetic is examined and foregrounded by what I see as the primary concerns of the fiction, subjectivity, history and language. However, it is language which represents the basis for the sort of empathy Wilkins outlines; just as it is in the structure of language (a polar model proposed by linguist Roman Jakobson) that Wilkins is best able to perform his critique of postmodernism. Essentially it is on the question of language (and the aesthetic) that, as Wilkins seems to argue, claims to social and inter-relational empathy and continuity may be heard. For this reason Wilkins' fiction (and its treatment of postmodernism) connects with a tradition of aesthetics through which something like fiction (in Wilkins case it is more accurate to say metafiction) or art are metaphor for a politics of social engagement, affect and the expression of intimacy and "tenderness". In Wilkins' figure of the 'little master' we find a figure of a certain authority who, because of their abilities with language, is able to 'write' or construct contiguous relationships with others, and with history, within the contingency of the postmodern condition. In Wilkins' fiction it is the characters I refer to as 'little masters' who represent the postmodern empathy Wilkins, as I see it, sets out to record.