Wild, Fierce Yale

Geoffrey Hartman

  • Deconstruction: Theory and Practice by Christopher Norris
    Methuen, 157 pp, £6.50, April 1982, ISBN 0 416 32060 0

There are no Departments of Literary Criticism; and even proposals to have a Criticism question in official examinations can cause turbulence in academic circles. What is at stake? By now, of course, a political element has entered, and many suspect that under the name of ‘criticism’ all kinds of illegal goods may be smuggled in. Customs is instructed to make a proper search. Is ‘criticism’ a hidden agenda for Marxism, Lacanianism, structuralist anti-humanism etc?

Originally, the resistance to allowing criticism the curricular dignity of, say, the Age of Pope came from a simpler source. It was argued that criticism had no existence apart from the works it scrutinised, and that, on the whole, critical texts did not form a special tradition: nothing that could or should be institutionalised. Though René Wellek’s History of Modern Criticism tried to show that Saints – bury’s attitude of connoisseurship was inadequate, and that critics used something more than rationalised notions of taste – they also borrowed or converted ideas that might be said to constitute an unacknowledged philosophy – there was a reluctance to extend self-consciousness in that direction. Criticism, it was thought, should remain auxiliary. If it intended to raise the question of its universal or principled basis, it might apply to Philosophy, not to Literature, for its academic entrée.

It is certainly unusual to read essays about literature that oblige us to think about them rather than primarily about their object or occasion. Not that we don’t enjoy some of these essays, especially time-honoured ones: Charles Lamb on Shakespeare’s plays in relation to their stage representation is as delicious as it is dated. Yet unlike Lamb’s piece, the contemporary critical essay often demands a knowledge that is highly specialised, and uses a vocabulary drawn from various theories. One can feel terrorised rather than instructed – let alone delighted.

Specialisation is not the only problem. There need be no objection to the linguistic analysis of a literary work, if it is clearly conducted as such. But essays that mix linguistics with psychoanalysis or social remedies seem basically uncritical, in the sense that even the educated reader cannot tell, faced by such ‘motley in the brain’, what is scientific or scholarly, and what is not so. There is a deeper problem, caused by our very hope that criticism could save us from specialisation, or fragmentation: we have identified it as the re-humanising activity, so when it becomes technical or claims a field of its own – when criticism says, ‘Let us be like other departments of knowledge’ – it seems not only to mistake but even to betray its nature.

Criticism, in any case, is no longer what it was; and Christopher Norris’s compact book on deconstruction is more useful, in its open-minded descriptive acuity, than other, more complex and defensive, treatments. Occasionally Norris falls into distancing gestures about ‘going too far’ or ‘rhapsodic philosophising’; most of the time, however, he clarifies the present situation by defining the intellectual milieu of a controversial array of writers active in America since about 1955, though not achieving full notoriety till the advent of Derrida and his invasion of American academic criticism in the 1970s. Deconstruction in America, he sensibly remarks, ‘is not a monolithic theory or school of thought but a gathering point for critics who are otherwise divided on many central issues of technique and style’. His book has considerable range, therefore: not only in philosophical backgrounds, but in its focus, which goes beyond the ‘Yale School’ to Jakobson, Macherey, Althusser, Barthes and Foucault on the Continental side, and Leavis, Empson, Eagleton, Jameson, Culler, Said, Rorty and others on the Anglo-American side. Wittgenstein’s relation to language and scepticism is too skimpily treated: but at least it is there.

Norris’s account centres on ‘the American Connection’, but he does not overemphasise it. He corrects the historical equivalent of an optical illusion by showing that the Yale critics had their own practice with roots in the New Criticism, a movement they questioned long before Derrida arrived on the scene. They questioned it by a more rigorous application of its own emphasis on the text rather than on the text’s historical frame. But even the text as its own frame is questioned by this group, which did not privilege unity by vesting it in the ‘achieved’ or ‘coherent’ form of a literary work. Their tendency, fed by many sources including Freud, was not so much, to radicalise ambiguity and to delay closing the interpretation as to see through literary form to the way language or symbolic process makes and breaks meaning. To hold that making and breaking together risked, sometimes, giving the impression of enchanting disenchantment; the word ‘flower’ (to cite Mallarmé) evoked something absent from all bouquets: but the main thrust of this American deconstruction that did not know its name was to create a more dialectical and open view of how literature worked. The rhetoric of ‘tension’, refined by the New Critics as irony, paradox and controlled ambiguity, seemed too self-enclosing a version of literariness. It was felt that they promulgated-under aesthetic cover a language-ontology that made poetic and religious claims converge. So Father Ong could point out that wit and paradox also characterised the language of faith: the New Critics had shown how a transcendent presence could be brought, by analogy at least, into the confines of a secular (literary) construct.

Norris has important remarks on this earlier phase, which struggled to break with incarnationist and imagistic theories of expression. The practice of deconstruction was forged in America, even if the theory had to await Derrida; moreover, such émigré scholars as Paul de Man began to suggest that the problem did not rest exclusively with literary studies, whose practice was in advance of its theory, but also with philosophy, whose theory tended to avoid reflection on its own linguistic and figural character. Norris’s book is therefore a great advance on Frank Lentricchia, whose After the New Criticism depicts the Yale critics as camp-followers of changing philosophical fashions. Norris describes an independent and difficult search, which is attracted to philosophy not as a saving mechanism but as a lost relation. A critique of philosophy’s neglect of its own style leads the American dissidents of the 1960s and 1970s to recognise the importance of Heidegger and Sartre, then Derrida, and to come up with a reading-list very different from that of Anglo-American literary studies. It includes Rousseau, Hegel, Nietzsche, Mallarmé, Freud, Saussure and Lévi-Strauss.

In dealing with deconstruction, one is obliged to take up the polemic swirling around it. Norris, fortunately, does not blame that polemic simply on the obtuseness of the opposition. He knows that vital prejudices are involved, and they go beyond the curriculum and departmental territorial imperatives. I have mentioned the feeling that deconstruction is a philosophy of disenchantment. It has been accused of fostering an extreme linguistic scepticism and of undermining the creative or reconstructive side of language. The fear is often expressed that literary studies so conducted may lose what small hold they have on the practical mind; or that reading will be replaced by premature and corrosive habits of analysis. The Common Reader (if still alive) tends to view criticism, like reviewing, as an extension of civilised conversation; and an urgent, severe or enthusiastic style creates embarrassment. What motive can there be for making literature more rather than less difficult? The difficult critic is initially the guilty one: he has committed a kind of solecism, which estranges him from his equals, sets up the suspicion of cultic or solipsistic behaviour, and is not atoned for except by longevity.

Norris generally avoids vulgar polemics in favour of historical placement and a careful résumé of terms and concepts. This is all to the good, and it has produced an outstanding primer. His book is by no means an apologia, however. Though Norris maintains that de-constructive critics have ‘provided the impetus for a total revaluation of interpretative theory and practice’, he then distinguishes impetus from achievement by dividing these critics into two groups. Both are contained within Derrida, the largest phenomenon on the scene. Yet Derrida, like Humpty Dumpty, falls apart into tendencies that converge without coinciding. One tendency is characterised by an exuberant attempt ‘to turn the resources of interpretative style against any too rigid convention of method and language’. The other is ‘more toughly argumentative’; its courage is intellectual as well as stylistic.

Norris, clearly, prefers the second to the first, acknowledging the liberating play and iconoclasm of the first group, but seeing more impetus than achievement in it. For him the rigour of Paul de Man is central, because it allows no conceptual bypass in the way challenges are put and a drastic shift in reading habits is demanded. De Man does not play about: his sentences are succinct to the point of being ascetic. Texts are read for symptoms of blindness that limit and constitute them. ‘Blindness and Insight’ (the title of de Man’s first collection of essays, written in the Fifties and Sixties, but published in l97l) go together in ways that no method can resolve. Critical texts must therefore be read ‘with the same awareness of ambivalence that is brought, to the study of non-critical texts’. De Man, Norris concludes, is ‘the fiercest of Yale deconstructors, with a rigour nor easily explained unless in ethical terms’. Harold Bloom, too, is admired, because of a related if antithetical fierceness: he ‘sets up as the opponent from within, meeting the deconstructors point for point on rhetorical ground of their own choosing’. Bloom does this to limit their ‘serene linguistic nihilism’ and their Pascalian dislike for terms that acknowledge the pathos of self or subject.

It would be dishonest not to mention that my own work (together with that of Hillis Miller) is placed ‘on the wild side’. It has vigour but not rigour. Norris sees it as playful and skirmishing, a kind of sacrificial scouting action. Its style matters, but what matter is that? Norris is half-grateful to find someone without ‘deconstructive violence’ or ‘tactics of double reading automatically generated’, and at least he does not dismiss the playful aspect as ‘a kind of textual fiddling while Rome burns’. Yet there is, in Norris, something very Roman or latin-severe, which restricts issues to ‘the age-old quarrel between “literature” and “philosophy” ’. Reduced to that ground, he demonstrates the philosophical rigour of de-construction and objects to the rhetorical virtuoso. But if the virtuoso may be faulted for substituting an ideal of brilliance for the lost ideal of certainty, can we be sure rigorous de-construction aims for certain knowledge rather than being a doctaignorantia in secular guise – an uncompromising anti-foundationalist kind of thinking? And if that is the case, how do we judge between rigour and serious play?

Norris’s expository talent is marked by a certain reticence. He does not analyse his own, pressured situation. Perhaps the genre of the handbook is to blame; or he admires, despite himself, the ‘great virtue of the English’, which is, according to Basil de Selincourt, ‘their unconsciousness’. One can only guess at another factor: the problem, with so much disinformation around, of presenting deconstruction as a movement necessary for the survival of literary studies.

In England, as in America, literary studies are being absorbed by cultural studies and advocacy teaching. It is unlikely that the conservative curriculum and the inertial force of traditional criticism can do anything about this. A fortress, however redoubtable, is still a retreat. That American deconstruction is often accused of being a new formalism suggests it may indeed be a ‘third force’: one that refuses to shut literature in on itself or to abandon it for an ideological, text-transcendent position.

It is, I hope, this recuperative and truly conservative strength of deconstruction that appeals to the younger generation, rather than its esoteric and sophisticated mechanics. By situating deconstruction historically, Norris helps to disclose some features that make it an important form of literary commentary. Some even claim there is no theory of deconstruction, only a highly volatile mixture of philosophical analysis and literary analysis. Norris himself makes a similar point when he characterises it as post-structuralist: opposed, that is, to ‘a mode of analysis’ whose ‘insights are set on nothing less than a total explanation of human thought and culture’. Deconstruction remains ‘closely tied to the text it interrogates’ and does not ‘set up independently as a self-enclosed system of operative concepts’.

The Frankfurt School (not mentioned by Norris), though prior to both structuralism and deconstruction, also opposed totalising explanations. It reinforced deconstructive thought and sometimes provided a political alternative. The influence of the Frankfurt group, however – Adorno, Marcuse, Benjamin, Loewenthal, among others – did not break out of social and into literary thought until recently. Norris, in any case, sees that deconstruction made an impact on literary studies precisely because, unlike structuralism, it did not seek to be a ‘science of literature’, and rejected all projects for a meta-language or master-code.

When Barthes, therefore, in his post-structuralist phase, proposes a ‘theory of the text’, it is not an attempt to overcome the text by an arrogant movement of thought. The roles of letter and spirit are reversed: the letter of the text lives on and undoes idealisations that seek to get rid of the letter. Derrida’s essay on ‘White Mythology’ makes the same point by extracting from Western metaphors of luminosity (such as the ‘light of reason’) their bias toward unmediated vision. There is no transparence of thing to thought. The meaning cannot displace the medium. A text, precisely when authentic, will not do away with itself: we never reach the luminous limit where words disappear into their objects like shadows at noon.

There is no necessary relation, then, between theory and arrogance. Reading Norris on deconstruction dispels that defaming prejudice. But the moral question raised is really an intellectual one. What positive force is there in abstract thought; and does that kind of thought have a place in literary studies?

The fear of abstraction is a fear that the thinker will be abstracted from realities. So Yeats declared that Chaucer’s poetry was vital for him: it saved his imagination from abstraction. The worried social thinker also turns to the humanities to prevent imagination from going abstract, from losing itself to pseudoscience or vicarious fantasy. This worry makes strange bedfellows: it is common to the Leavis tradition and to certain Marxist groups. Both link an abstracted (distracted) imagination to the consumer values of a dominant culture in which the diffusion of mental or material goods may lead to their dilution. When Jean Baudrillard, in France, develops a critical semiology which views the ‘sign’ as an abstraction of image from product brought about by commodification, and sharply differentiates it from the more organic ‘symbol’ of pre-modern societies, we are reminded of T.S. Eliot’s thesis (taken up by Leavis) that there was a dissociation of sensibility from thought during the 17th century. Leavis seeks to prevent further cultural decay by drawing a firm line between literary language as a medium of ‘lived’ experience and philosophy’s concern with explanation and abstract methodology. ‘Criticism on Leavis’s terms,’ Norris writes, ‘is a matter of communicating deep-laid intuitive responses, which analysis can point to and persuasively enact, but which it can by no means explain or theorise about.’

Leavis pushes to the limit a markedly English distrust of abstraction. In the modern period, moreover, that distrust is exacerbated by the survival of visionary poetry. Milton’s Paradise Lost is a scandal: a monument to dead ideas, a petrification of the English tongue. Wordsworth, great reformer that he was, saw that mythology, like science, was the source of ‘mighty abstractions’, and struggled to refuse them. Yet mythology, as the science of the divine, continued to produce powerful science fiction as late as Blake and Shelley. Yeats needed Chaucer, precisely because he was drawn to Blake’s Star War epics with their Giant Forms expanding and contracting in mysterious space. Blake thought he had bounded abstraction: we are less sure. Yeats flirted not only with the fantasy world of the Celtic twilight but also with ‘Babylonian starlight’: the spirit of geometry haunting the gyres and diagrams of A Vision.

Modern visionary poetry is itself, then, a symptom of the drift to abstraction. More exactly, it seems both to embody and oppose that drift. A crucial problem for modern criticism is how to value modern visionariness. In England the problem was often evaded by the strange historical simplification which saved Dante’s kind of vision, but not Milton’s or Blake’s, by positing a fall from grace (the ‘unified sensibility’) into an Era of Abstraction.

Before deconstruction hit, critics in America, from Northrop Frye to Harold Bloom and Paul de Man, had already questioned that myth of history. (Its more sporadic critique in England is summarised by F.W. Bateson in the first volume of Essays in Criticism.) Here again what seemed to be a humanistic matter concealed a religious sanction, for the myth was clearly intended to limit ‘abstract’ (unauthorised) vision as well as abstract or rationalist thought. The ‘abstract’ or belated visionariness of the Romantics projected them into the foreground of literary polemics and induced a hermeneutic perplexity which even today is not resolved. For to reject Blake (or Shelley or Milton) is to admit that they cannot be read according to humanistic criteria: that they lack worldly and anthropomorphic grounding. It is to accord them ‘unreadable’ or pseudo-scriptural status. Yet to accept them is to show that their ‘mighty abstractions’ are not abstract at all: that they have redeeming social value. It is tantamount to demythologising them and replacing their abstractions with clear, referential meanings.

What deconstructive thought has done is to generalise this perplexity: to see it as endemic to all literature, not only visionary literature. Our philosophy of reading, in short, is inadequate. By dichotomising art and abstract thought we have developed a method of reading too exclusively phenomenalist in character. To read was to realise: to stress the imagistic or presentational power in words, to put creative language totally on the side of embodiment and vividness. Even if it was understood that some sort of abstract or generalising effect inhered in figures of speech, the assumption that linked quality of life to qualitative language also favoured interpreting that quality as sensuous and organic.

Derrida points out that the entire history of ideas, insofar as it is based on the notion of the idea as a faint image, capable of being restored to some of its original lustre by the artistic thinker – that this entire history may be built on a reduction of the ideas it seeks to honour. Using Hegel’s ‘Thinking is a verbal matter,’ Derrida promotes the link between word and concept rather than between word and image, and criticises as ‘logocentric’ those who claim to think in words while thinking of words as images – as verbal icons that reflect, however faintly, the Johannine logos or incarnate Word.

Most theories of art must therefore be ‘deconstructed’ to disclose the way they substitute thinking in images for thinking in words, and overvalue the representational function of art. Consider the following exposition of Bergson’s aesthetics by Hulme: ‘Artists attain the original mood and induce us to make the same effort ourselves by rhythmical arrangements of words, which, thus organised and animated with a life of their own, tell us, or rather suggest, things that speech is not calculated to express.’

For Derrida as for Valéry – both reacting to this kind of theory – speech is calculation: a very potent form of abstract thought which can use mimesis for its own ends but is not limited to mimesis. Norris does not go back far enough to spot the lingering presence of Bergson. He tries to fit deconstruction into the tradition of language scepticism, which is a mistake, since the defects of language are far more important to Hulme than to Derrida. ‘It is only the defects of language,’ Hulme writes, ‘that make originality necessary ... You could define art, then, as a passionate desire for accuracy, and the essentially aesthetic emotion as the excitement which is generated by direct communication.’ To read or write is not – for Derrida – to enhance a faded image or direct referent, and so attach an abstraction (the conceptual word) to its worldly source. Such grounding is just as reductive as the opposite move, the relève of scientific thought. Think of ‘primal scene’ interpretations of fiction: they may humanise a figurative passage, but can they explain its peculiar verbal energy?

My point here is not to denounce humanistic modes of grounding or relevancing: it is rather to focus on the incurably conceptual force of verbal thinking, and to identify that, even in literature, as a force rather than a failing. One might argue, in fact, that humanistic kinds of relevance, which make a text understandable in worldly terms, lead to their own relève (the English word ‘relief’ would also be appropriate), because such an understanding is a reductive and potentially vulgar simplification. Hence a second kind of relevance appears on the scene, no more abstract than the first, but which maintains fiction in its strange and abstruse – because insistently linguistic rather than iconic – aspect. But since there is a picturing-power in words it would be fairer to say that the relevant image is always deferred. Writing, as a system, keeps differentiating itself, aiming to be descriptive, aiming to be image as well as idea or, to quote a minor poet, ‘to be the thing it sings’. Without a ‘logocentric’ ambition, always undone by a movement Derrida has named différance, there would be no play in language, and the variety of tongues would be even more mysterious than it is.

What is truly offensive in deconstruction is not, then, the dread aporia, the doubleheaded chiasmus, the treacherous if trivial mise en abysme, and other guild-mysteries. Nor does the offence lie, despite much rumpus, in opening the curriculum to include critical texts as primary, or refusing sharp distinctions between critical and creative. The stumbling stone remains close to the issue of scepticism – not about language, but about grounding the conceptual force of words in a referential system, especially one dominated by idea, icon or unified image. In philosophical circles this problem manifests itself as ‘undecidability’ (of intention as the basis of meaning). In literary circles it is the notion of ‘unreadability’ which causes most trouble. ‘Unreadability’, however, like ‘misreading’, may give the wrong impression: for rarely has reading been taken so seriously.

Recently the ontological difficulty of defining what is literary and what is not has revived the role of the reader and of interpretive communities. Reader reception theories abound. Yet deconstruction does not take that particular tack. It is absolute rather than relativising when it describes reading the unreadable as an ‘allegorical’ process. Allegory, in fact, once despised as bloodless and abstract (compared with image or symbol), makes its comeback as a structure governing both writing and interpreting. Allegory has always had a riddling side, so that its connection with ‘unreadability’ is almost commonplace. But what is the logic of a figure so obvious in form and devious in meaning? It is tempting to take evasive action at this point by alluding to Walter Benjamin’s work. I won’t do so except to quote his famous aphorism: ‘Allegory always leaves empty-handed.’

You cannot, in short, fill the figure (allegory is not allegoresis, and even the latter, practised by the great Medieval interpreters, does not guarantee fullness of meaning); and this suggests once more the unreadability of major texts, or a residual and powerful abstractness disclosed in works that have resisted reading time after time, and so produced a more than provisional conflict of interpretations. The classic work of art becomes a classic, i.e. secular, by sustaining itself within and against readerly appropriation. As Wallace Stevens declared in ‘Notes towards a Supreme Fiction’: It must be Abstract.