SIR: I suspect the issue is a good deal more complicated than either Roger Poole (LRB, 5 June) or John Sturrock in your last issue is prepared to admit. There is no distinction between a man and what he writes, asserts Poole; there is an absolute distinction between a man and what he writes, asserts Sturrock, speaking for Derrida. But the central theme of art and thought since the Romantics has been a search for an answer to precisely this question: what is the relation between what a man is and what he says or does? For Wordsworth, Keats, Holderlin, Proust, Kafka, Eliot, Virginia Woolf, Pinget (not to speak of Nietzsche and Freud), the lack of a clear answer to this question is a source of doubt, despair or exaltation, depending on the context. For Poole and Sturrock, the answer seems to be obvious. Of course it is much easier to hold to the single vision of either the biographical or the textual fallacy than to try to come to terms with something which is bound to remain problematic and mysterious. But surely we need to make that effort, and we could do worse than start from Keats’s lines on reading Chapman’s Homer:
Oft of one wide expanse had I been told
That deep-browed Homer rules as his demesne;
Yet never did I breathe its pure serene
Till I heard Chapman speak out loud and bold.
Keats’s experience is surely much closer to that of every good reader: he did not study a text or discover an ‘ethical subject’; he heard a voice. It is the complex relation between what we still call a writer’s ‘voice’ and the facts of his biography, social context etc that we need to grasp, and reference neither to ‘the text’ nor to ‘the ethical subject’ will help us there.
SIR: I am very grateful indeed to Mr Sturrock for writing as he did, in the last issue of the LRB, about my recent review of Structuralism and Since, because it allows me to make a matter of wider debate the ethical and political status of structuralism.
My reaction is: ‘Methinks the lady doth protest too much’! Very eminent practitioners of post-structuralism have ticked me off again and again for querying its destruction of the ethical subject, and this must show some sort of uneasy conscience in them. Recently, Jonathan Culler has written me a violent letter of complaint from Paris, his grounds being, apparently, that if a thing is sufficiently difficult technically, it is above ethical inquiry. Mr Sturrock makes the same assumption (twice) in his letter. Now Mr Sturrock writes (of Sakharov’s statement): ‘their author’s maltreatment is of no relevance to the analysis of his arguments.’ Try telling that to Sakharov, or to the millions in Russia whom he speaks for!
Only Harold Bloom and Geoffrey Hartman, at Yale, seem to share my fears, and they do express them very explicitly in Deconstruction and Criticism. Harold Bloom worries that, in their effort to deconstruct the authorial subject, his colleagues may go so far as to destroy the meaningful subject as well. I share his fear, and am glad to find I have a powerful ally in him. Mr Sturrock writes:. ‘Deconstruction in no way entails nihilism.’ Very well. Then let him argue, not with me, but with Harold Bloom, who writes (Deconstruction and Criticism, page 4) of ‘de Man’s serene linguistic nihilism’ and of his ‘distinguished linguistic nihilism’. Let Mr Sturrock aim at the target, not at a mere observer!
SIR: Deconstruction? And about time too!
As a writer, I endeavour to make sure my work does deconstruct, and have progressed from deconstructing to reconstructing, using basic materials, with successful results; also incorporating some new stuff. As a result of this method of working, I set out to search for what is now being described; but this idea, let alone the word, didn’t seem to be causing any ripples in anybody’s literary flow in the Sixties and early Seventies, when I was trying to get to the bottom of what is proving to be the most ingenious verbal confidence trick since the serpent talked Eve into giving away her apple.
I look forward to hearing and reading more about this activity, and wish to offer encouragement – and material, possibly – to any who practise it, for I have been campaigning at length for such a structure in which to place my output. It’s matter for regret that Professor Goldberg (LRB, 22 May) can’t find a use for it, but personally, I find it has considerable inspirational possibilities – there’s a deal of timber in M. Derrida’s name alone.
Ham Street, Kent
SIR: Discussion of crapulent rubbish – and can one delve deeper than sharkshit? – demeans your valuable editorial space, and Clive James’s powerful wit, which seems to have been temporarily (one hopes) enfeebled by his reviewing Princess Daisy by Judith Krantz (LRB, 5 June). I am aware that the London Review of Books is not overendowed financially, but does this necessitate your scrabbling through the contents of other people’s dustbins? In short, by what rationale do you devote so many, or any, column inches to a work and its author who are both best quickly forgotten, or better still, completely ignored?
For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.