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.

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