Absent Authors

John Lanchester

  • Criticism in Society by Imre Salusinszky
    Methuen, 244 pp, £15.00, May 1987, ISBN 0 416 92270 8
  • Mensonge by Malcolm Bradbury
    Deutsch, 104 pp, £5.95, September 1987, ISBN 0 233 98020 2

‘Those who have much leisure to think,’ Dr Johnson wrote, ‘will always be enlarging the stock of ideas, and every increase of knowledge, whether real or imagined, will produce new words or combinations of words.’ The words that aren’t in a dictionary can convey nearly as much information as the words that are: the main body of the OED, which was completed in 1933, has no entry for the first word I looked up in it – ‘genocide’. There is as yet no mention of ‘Deconstruction’ in the OED or in its Supplement.

This is not to claim an extraordinary originality for the vocabulary and concerns of Deconstruction and of the other movements gathered under the Post-Structuralist umbrella. ‘Arise out of Flesh into Spirit, out of Form into Power, out of Type into Truth, out of signes into the thing signified,’ wrote the Ranter, Abiezer Coppe, in 1649: and Dr Johnson, in the Preface to his Dictionary, complains about certain words having an ‘exuberance of signification’ which makes them difficult to define. What is new in Deconstruction and the associated intellectual enterprises is the programmatic emphasis on the signifier over the signified, an emphasis not on the ways in which meaning and order can be constructed but on the ways in which they can be shown to be fractured and self-refuting. It is this – the systematic privileging of disorder and a concomitant scepticism about the ways in which received authority has constituted itself – which characterises all the movements and ideas grouped as Post-Structuralism. Barbara Johnson, a feminist and a Deconstructor, summarises the new scepticism very ably:

the training most people get from the beginning, in school and through all of the cultural pressures on us, is to answer the question: ‘What’s the bottom line?’ What deconstruction does is to teach you to ask: ‘What does the construction of the bottom line leave out? What does it repress? What does it disregard? What does it consider unimportant? What does it put in the margins?’

Trotted out today at a graduate seminar (the kind in which ‘Anglo-Saxon’ is used as a synonym for ‘stupid’ and ‘empiricist’ as a synonym for ‘wilfully stupid’), Coppe’s plea to arise out of the sign would raise eyebrows not because of its vocabulary but on the grounds of its touching confidence in the unmediated authority of the signified. It would seem nostalgic, even reactionary.

Criticism in Society is a collection of interviews with nine leading academic literary critics, eight of whom are involved in one way or another in the new movements: three bottled-at-the-place-of-origin Deconstructionists (Jacques Derrida, Barbara Johnson, J. Hillis Miller) and one sympathiser (Geoffrey Hartman), two politically-minded oppositional critics (Edward Said, Frank Lentricchia) and two unclassifiable individualists (Harold Bloom, Frank Kermode). The ninth interviewee is the daddy of academic critics, the man with whom ‘we enter the critical modern age, the era of the total professionalisation of literary studies in the university’: Northrop Frye. The interviews were conducted in the year from April 1985; the interviewees were asked to discuss a poem (Wallace Stevens’s ‘Not Ideas about the Thing but the Thing Itself’) and were shown transcripts of the preceding interviews – devices intended to help ‘make this a book of interviews, rather than simply a set of interviews thrown together as a book’. It is clear from the first sentence that Imre Salusinszky, a tutor in English at the University of Melbourne, is undertaking the interviewing from a perspective sympathetic to the self-referential scepticisms described above: ‘literary criticism, if it is a discipline, is surely that discipline which has been most exclusively concerned with the question of its own function.’

But there are immediate difficulties with the book, difficulties of a kind once ascribed by David Lodge to a figure seen at academic conferences: the figure of the Deconstructionist who, radically sceptical about the existence of selfhood, identity and the subject, nonetheless continues to go for an early-morning jog. The jogging Deconstructionist – a living oxymoron – is an encapsulation of the difficulty facing Salusinszky in Criticism in Society, because an interest in the approaches espoused by several of the interviewees runs directly counter to the implications of the interview form, with its hidden agenda of assumptions about personality, intentionality and the unity of the subject. ‘The interviewer had to be a complete unknown,’ Salusinszky says, ‘in order to become a transparent cipher for the thoughts of the interviewees.’ This is fine, and shows an awareness of the potential difficulties, but it bears little relation to Salusinszky’s practice in the book. At one point he brings himself to say to J. Hillis Miller: ‘It is a good thing that an Australian is doing these interviews, because it is necessary to be quite without tact, and Australians are naturally gifted in this regard. When I first met you ... I noticed that you did not have the complete use of both arms. The reason I ask you what is the source of that is that it may well have had a determining effect on making you more bookish as a child.’ It is hard to know what is most grotesque about this: the initial attempt at charm, the question itself, or the discrepancy between the assumptions implicit in the question and the kinds of thinking fostered by a (in Salusinszky’s phrase) ‘systematic deconstructor’ like Hillis Miller.

Never mind. Read as a book of interviews of the usual prurient type, Criticism in Society affords the usual interview-reading pleasure at the sense we are getting of what the interviewees would be like to meet. The interview with Derrida is the first he has given in English, despite the fact that ‘he seems to enjoy having questions – even stupid ones – thrown at him; he visibly savours those which are less stupid.’ Derrida’s interview is striking in the way it gives very little impression of a personality in operation. He will not discuss the Wallace Stevens poem on the grounds that he will not talk about things he is not fully acquainted with. Elsewhere he closes off a line of thought with ‘It is a difficult problem; I cannot improvise on it.’ He talks about his work at the International College of Philosophy and its concern with ‘the problem of the institution in its international problematic’. ‘I also asked Derrida what he saw as the main events of his life,’ Salusinszky tells Northrop Frye later, ‘and rather to my surprise he came out with a reading list.’ Derrida does admit that his ‘deepest desire’ is ‘to write literature, to write fictions’, and hints at the possibility of a Barthes-like late period of (‘in quotation-marks, many quotation-marks’) ‘autobiographical’ writing: but notwithstanding this mini-confession, almost any single page of Derrida’s writing would give a more concentrated impression of his originality and concerns than this interview does.

Not all the interviewees are as self-effacing as Derrida: the one who leaves the strongest impression of his character is Harold Bloom, because he is the vividest and least restrained in speech, whether on the subject of his enemies (‘mental defectives’), academia and the literary world (‘dominated by fools, knaves, charlatans and bureaucrats’), Northrop Frye’s Fearful Symmetry (‘I thought it was the best book I’d ever read about anything’), or the atmosphere at Yale in the late Fifties (‘an Anglo-Catholic nightmare’). Salusinszky’s collusive and unsearching approach with his interviewees works with Bloom, who seems to respond well to a friendly listener (the first words he says are ‘I hope there will be no phone calls, my dear’). Salusinszky manages to ask Bloom about something which is often said of him: whether his theories about the ‘anxiety of influence’ are affected in any way by his famous total recall of virtually the entire canon of English Romantic poetry. ‘Ask Bloom what it’s like to have all that stuff perpetually battling away in his head,’ someone tells Salusinszky. Bloom says here that it has no effect. This aside, readers eager to learn more about the anxiety of influence will be disappointed – again, a single page of the relevant works would give a clearer and more concentrated idea of the interviewee’s thought – but at least the interview has a vividness of its own. ‘My favourite prose sentence by Mr Ezra Pound is in one of his published letters: “All the Jew part of the Bible is black evil.” And they ask me to take that seriously as a Western mind?’

Criticism in Society improves after the Bloom interview, in part because Salusinszky and his subsequent interlocutors have Bloom’s remarks to refer back to. Arguments in literary studies tend to polarise along lines of linguistic versus historical, or aesthetic versus political. Bloom is very much in the former camp (‘there is no social dimension to what we do ... the experience of literature is the experience of an isolate and solipsising glory’) and asserts that what he understands least about the current academy ‘is this lust for social enlightenment, this extraordinary and, I believe, mindless movement towards proclaiming our way out of all introspections, our way out of guilt and sorrow, by proclaiming that the poet is a slum lord.’ Edward Said thinks Bloom’s remarks ‘obvious nonsense’; Frank Lentricchia says that ‘that statement is so far off the wall that I don’t know how to begin to respond to it.’ Frank Kermode, in the course of his sane and lucid interview, gently derides Bloom’s rhetorical posture of splendid and beleaguered isolation: ‘The world is full of Bloomians.’ Hillis Miller makes the convincing point that Bloom’s noisily proclaimed debt to Frye (‘The major literary critic in the English language ... a kind of Miltonic figure’) conceals his real obsession with Eliot (‘the abominable Eliot’). Bloom’s whole critical project, which emphasises the struggle for imaginative breathing-space between a poet and his precursor, is a response – a response, incidentally, very much in keeping with his own notion of how writers’ identities are formed – to Eliot and to Eliot’s vision of a timeless order of masterpieces, ever-ready to accommodate new works of genius, which are written in the belief that ‘there is no competition.’

If Henri Mensonge existed and spoke English, he would be a possible interview-subject for Imre Salusinszky. Unfortunately or otherwise, he is only a figment of Malcolm Bradbury’s imagination: the legendarily invisible and absent author of La Fornication comme Acte Culturel, a Deconstructionist account of sex which includes within it ‘the Deconstruction of Deconstruction itself’. Mensonge is one beyond the ‘absent presence’ of other Deconstructionists: he is himself a genuinely ‘absent absence’. La Fornication is said to have been published in 1965 or 1966 – no one is quite sure – the point being that it preceded the Derridean annus mirabilis of 1967, in which La Voix et le Phénomène, L’Écriture et la Différence and De la Grammatologie all burst on the world.

Mensonge is an expansion of an article originally published in the Observer on April Fool’s Day, 1984. It comes with a bogus index and bibliography and an afterword by David Lodge, written in the persona of Michel Tardieu, the fictional Professor of Structuralist Narratology from Lodge’s novel Small World (Tardieu claims to have once had a glimpse of Mensonge, perhaps at ‘one of Samuel Beckett’s increasingly brief first nights’). As well as being an account of Mensonge’s ‘life’ (about which nobody knows anything) and ‘work’ (just the one very short, unobtainable book), Mensonge is a jokey potted history of Structuralism, starting with Saussure and going through to ‘our “postmodern condition” – a state of affairs where, in the wake of the Holocaust and in an era of terrible nuclear anxiety, we not only lose all hope in technological, human and social progress but start wearing green Liberty scarves as well’.

The non-relation of Post-Structuralism to common sense and its close thematic counterpart, the paradox of the jogging Deconstructionist, are the source of much of the comedy in Mensonge. The book also allows the reader to feel the kind of pleasure which comes from being sufficiently in the know to get its jokes. The sentences tend to contain their comic component in a facetious little kick at the end: for instance, Bradbury says of Post-Structuralism that it is ‘the philosophy that goes along with everything else we know so well now – our chiliasm, our apocalypticism, our post-humanist scepticism, our metaphysical exhaustion, our taste for falafel’. Mensonge depends on an attitude of sympathetic scepticism towards the ideas it describes, and in that sense it is a very British contribution to the Structuralist and Post-Structuralist paideuma. After all, a reader genuinely hostile to Deconstruction might not have much time for Mensonge the thinker, but he or she would be unlikely to have much sympathy either for the Post-Modernist trickery of Mensonge the book. The blurb hints that Mensonge is targeted on the ‘Thinking Person’s’ Christmas stocking, and that seems about right for it. If it is an unsatisfactory book to sit down and read at a sitting, that is, perhaps, because of its length, and also because of the unremittingness of the facetious humour it employs: I could not help thinking that Borges would have dealt with a fictional Mensonge in ten pages and without wisecracks, though not of course without humour. Not that Bradbury can be blamed for not being Borges: but it is probably true that Mensonge would have been a funnier book if it contained fewer jokes.