Pastiche: Cultural Memory in Art, Film, Literature
Ingerborg Hoesterey
Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2001.
$18.95, 150 pages, ISBN 0253338808

Georges-Claude Guilbert
Université de Rouen

To begin with, the subtitle of this book, Cultural Memory in Art, Film, Literature, is misleading. The book is much more than that, and pastiche is much more than that, as indeed the book demonstrates.

Ingerborg Hoesterey is Professor of comparative literature and Germanic Studies at Indiana University. She has published a great deal on art, and I remember reading with tremendous interest a collection of essays she edited back in 1991, entitled Zeitgeist in Babel: The Postmodernist Controversy. Hoesterey studied art history in Berlin, and literature at Harvard, and both those backgrounds very much permeate every page. The reader is never quite permitted to steer away from Germanic concerns, even when the author strives for universality. But that is no hindrance to the enjoyment provided by the book, nor is it a flaw to speak of.

As everyone should, Hoesterey begins with dictionary definitions. Call me Old School, but this has always seemed very commonsensical to me, in the best sense of the word, though many scholars seem to view the method as below them. This book being a product of the twenty-first century, the word “postmodern” crops up very early in the introduction; and quite rightly so, as it would be difficult to discuss pastiche without examining its current principal haunt: postmodern artistic productions. Very soon afterwards, Hoesterey quotes Fredric Jameson; but she soon reassures us, as it becomes clear that she does not quit agree with his views on pastiche and the postmodern. Jameson’s theoretical position is steeped in Marxist aesthetics, she reminds us, perhaps to the point of invalidating his art criticism. One of the valuable points the book does not fail to make is that one should not hesitate to separate postmodern paintings or books from the notion of a postmodern era.

Hoesterey continues with a “discourse history of pasticcio and pastiche”, summing up the fascinating origins and evolution of the word and the concept through Italy and France, from painting to literature via music and back again. She does remind the reader, however, of the difficulty of establishing an absolute truth (whatever that is) about the meaning of the word and the definition of the genre. It is obvious that she is immensely cultivated, having read Deleuze, Foucault and Derrida, talking as she does about “forests of origins”. It is not altogether clear, though, why she insists on calling pastiche a “genre mineur” (half ironically?), and why in French, since “minor genre” seems to do the trick – but maybe some subtleties have eluded me. In a postmodern context there is no such thing as a minor genre anyway.

The book moves on to a clever succession of elusive words in bold type followed by short texts (from four to thirty lines), which is entitled “the semantic environment of pastiche: a glossary”, although I am quite certain it is a pastiche. I cannot resist listing them here, as they are bound to draw the reader in, rather than spoil the suspense: adaptation, appropriation, bricolage (Hoesterey has read Lévi-Strauss), capriccio, cento, collage, contrefaçon, fake, farrago, faux, imitation (pity she doesn’t quote Colton – or was it Wilde? – about imitation being the sincerest form of flattery), montage (she has read Benjamin), palimpsest (she has read Genette), parody, plagiarism, recycling, refiguration, simulacrum (she has read Baudrillard) and travesty.

On pastiche in the visual arts, Hoesterey is unbeatable. She mentions only a few examples, but they are, it seems to me, an extremely adequate selection: the Austrian artist Leopold Forstner, the Irish artist Stephen McKenna, and the Italian artist Carlo Maria Mariani. It does not matter if you don’t know them, plates are provided that speak for themselves – with just a little welcome help from Hoesterey, who speaks of pastiche as “a challenge to the canonization of the classical” before tackling the American photographer Cindy Sherman. Sherman gets a bit more than a page, and a reproduction. Confidently waiting to find her as I read the book, I was slightly disappointed. But Sherman’s pastiche strategies are decoded, and again the plate is well-chosen (her rendering of the Judith and Holofernes motif). She finds her way into the book later in the Cinematic Pastiche chapter, anyway. Very logically, after Sherman, Hoesterey writes about the American painter Mark Tansey. Tansey’s art not only pastiches high brow and low brow graphic art of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, it also incorporates theory, to the vertiginous point where you simply don’t know how you’re going to theorize his art any longer (Auseinandersetzung?). Every one of his paintings is a mise en abyme, most famously the one which shows Derrida and de Man dancing / fighting on the brink of an abîme (abyss), whose Conan Doyle hypotext Hoesterey establishes (Derrida Queries de Man, 1990). There is also, of course, the one which displays “Barthes, Baudrillard, and Lacan [gazing], Narcissus-like, at their reflection in the water while Derrida opens his coat to exhibit a modelled bare chest, the gesture as signifier rather than signified” (Mont Sainte-Victoire, 1987). Jeff Koons and David Hockney also make an appearance, but Tansey makes them look almost naïve and – God have mercy – spontaneous.

Hoesterey might be just a trifle less convincing when she addresses design and architecture, though what she writes of Ricardo Bofill cannot really be questioned. Naturally she calls the unavoidable man to the rescue, Charles Jencks, without whom postmodern criticism wouldn’t be quite what it is. And when she conjures up the Caffe Bongo in Tokyo, it makes you very much want to fly to Japan and have a look at it. Her mini essays on pastiche in cinema are brisk and to-the-point, and once more I like her choices, on the whole: Blade Runner, Wings of Desire, Caravaggio, The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover, Blue Velvet… Though I must admit I could have done without Zentropa (Europa). Maybe it’s just me; call me stupid and illiterate, but I have yet to see what the fuss is about. Everybody’s raving about Lars von Trier, who will soon run out of shelves to deposit his awards on, and to me he remains a charlatan, a poser busy making pseudo-intellectual films full of pretentious rubbish. I am 100% behind Hoesterey when she commends the work of the late Derek Jarman, a pure genius if ever there was one. I agree with her praise of Peter Greenaway or David Lynch, but I refuse to even try to see what might be interesting about the would-be pastiche of Lars von Trier. I call it rip-off, in every sense of the word; and believe me, I know I am an endangered minority on this one. But don’t let me get carried away. Mercifully, Hoesterey ends her brief exploration of cinematic pastiche with Quentin Tarantino. Pulp Fiction, she writes, “is already historic, a stroke of genius that is hard to follow”. Quite.

Then, Hoesterey deals with literary pastiche. She appropriately starts with Jorge Luis Borges, the author of Pierre Ménard autor del Quijote, the ur-pastiche, what Jean Franco calls the ur-text of contemporary Latin American pastiche. As I always say, if Flaubert is the grandfather of the postmodern in literature, Borges and Nabokov are its joint fathers. Borges is followed by Donald Barthelme, Milan Kundera, Ilya Kabakov, Christoph Ransmayr, A.S. Byatt, Umberto Eco, Patrick Süskind, Tom Stoppard, Terry Eagleton, David Lodge, Heiner Müller, Roberto Calasso, Julian Barnes (Flaubert’s Parrot – of course), and Avital Ronell. There were two writers in that list I’m ashamed to say I’d never heard of. I would not have made the same choice as far as Barthelme is concerned (Conversations with Goethe), but then I am not a Germanic Studies specialist. I am, though, utterly scandalized by the conspicuous absence of John Barth.

To conclude, Hoesterey convokes Wittgenstein, Lyotard and Baudrillard to glance at popular culture. She confesses that she is not a specialist, which is just as well, because she then writes quite seriously: “What I do know is that the old opposition of high and low culture has been challenged in many quarters by popular music culture, once the vernacular that appealed only to the taste of the masses.” You don’t say. She is soon forgiven, however, when she asserts: “Even a cursory familiarity with Madonna’s styles leaves no doubt that the Material Girl is an artist at deconstructive practices, whether it is [sic] the ironic disjunction between performance and lyrics or rapidly changing pastiche moves that dismantle what they seem to fetishize.” I couldn’t agree more. Don’t you know, some of us have built entire careers on that sort of statement.