Presidential Criticism

John Sutherland

  • Victorian Subjects by J. Hillis Miller
    Harvester, 330 pp, £30.00, December 1990, ISBN 0 7450 0820 8
  • Tropes, Parables, Performatives: Essays on 20th-Century Literature by J. Hillis Miller
    Harvester, 266 pp, £30.00, December 1990, ISBN 0 7450 0836 4

There are up to ten thousand American academics who could claim the job description ‘literary critic’ as they make their way to the annual convention of the Modern Languages Association. J. Hillis Miller is one of the handful who matter. Like those mystic few who know the Coca Cola formula, such people shouldn’t be allowed to travel on the same plane. The collective loss would be irreparable. Harvester Press salutes Miller with a three-volume retrospective of his incidental essays. His pieces on Victorian and modern literature are published now. The theoretical essays will come out next May.

Born in 1928, Miller took his first degree in science. He converted to literature as a graduate and was steeped in New Criticism during its most doctrinaire phase. He describes his emancipation from its discipline as something comparable to Dorothea’s loss of her provincial innocence in Middlemarch:

When I think of the effect on my conception of what literary criticism might be of my reading, around 1953, first of Marcel Raymond, and then soon after, of Georges Poulet, Albert Béguin, Jean Rousset, Jean-Pierre Richard, Jean Starobinski and Gaston Bachelard, I am reminded of a passage in George Eliot’s Middlemarch. Marcel Raymond I read first in the English translation, published in 1950, of De Baudelaire au Surréalisme. It became immediately a precious book for me, both as an evidence of the power of poetry and as evidence of a power in criticism I had not before encountered. The reading of this book and then of Georges Poulet’s first volume of the Etudes sur le Temps Humain as much marked an epoch in my life as did Dorothea’s first encounter with Rome, in George Eliot’s novel, mark an epoch in her life.

Miller has written illuminatingly on Eliot, and the analogy might seem appropriate. But it can scarcely be thought to serve. Dorothea’s experience in Rome undermines her ego and her lofty Saint Theresa aspirations. She starts her life’s journey to self-extinction and the unvisited grave. J. Hillis Ladislaw (né Brooke) would have ended up teaching at some godforsaken community college in the middle of nowhere. Or perhaps he would have become a Mr Chips, beloved by generations of school children. He would not have become President of the MLA and (arguably) the most celebrated American critic of his generation.

Europe liberated Miller. But in another sense he exchanged the indentures of New Criticism for those of Geneva. He was always willing to be the Yankee evangelist for a European messiah whose shoes he was not fit to lace. In the Fifties and Sixties it was (mainly) Georges Poulet. Thereafter – and more controversially – it would be Paul de Man. The Geneva critics taught Miller to conceive of literature not as words on the page, not even as literature, but as ‘consciousness’. At its simplest, phenomenology resurrected the author whom New Criticism had killed. The text could now be known ‘from within’ as a ‘creation of self’ and an ‘act of mind’. The critical act was ‘consciousness of a consciousness’. The reader’s consciousness of the critic’s added another layer. Mentation was all. This phase of Miller’s career was astonishingly productive. For him as for Henry James, Europe made literature discutable. Always fluent, Miller now erupted with articles, books, essays and reviews – almost always prefaced with genuflection to the European sages who had inspired him.

Miller has retained two features in his work that are hangovers from his training as a New Critic and Great Traditionalist (American-style). He is adamant about close reading – scrutiny is as much his watchword as it ever was Leavis’s. (His recent attacks on New Historicists target their sloppy reading practices.) Secondly, the texts on which Miller operates have remained strictly canonical. He returns time and again to the great Victorians (Hardy, Dickens, Eliot, Trollope) and a few favoured American poets like Stevens and Williams. There are no surprises in the coverage in either of these volumes. It is no surprise, either, that Miller has a firm preference for lyric poetry and novels, the two genres principally concerned with presentations of self. Miller has little time for Roland Barthes, because for Barthes nouvelle critique cross-breeds with new, Post-Modernist forms of writing. Miller for ever renews his critical equipment in order to apply and reapply it to the same old revered texts. (It may be significant, incidentally, that Miller is the son of a Southern Baptist minister.) This conservatism about ‘literature’ verges at its extreme on stuffiness. One cannot imagine Miller, like de Man, illuminating Yeats by reference to Archie Bunker.

There was a shift in Miller’s criticism in the mid-Sixties as drastic as that in the early Fifties. It coincided with a violent spasm in the American academy. The precipitating occasion was a conference, entitled ‘The Languages of Criticism and the Sciences of Man’, held at Johns Hopkins in October 1966. Henry Ford put up the money, establishing American capitalism as the sugar-daddy of Deconstruction (a role it has since sustained with the generous provision of endowed chairs). Miller – then teaching at Hopkins – was on the conference’s sponsoring committee. ‘I thought it was terrific,’ he recalled twenty years later. The speakers included Barthes, Lacan, Derrida. De Man was also there, though not prominently so. He did, however, ask a question of Barthes which elicited the memorable put-down: ‘It is difficult to reply because you question my own relationship to what I say.’

Over the next few years Post-Structuralism spread throughout the American literary-critical profession like wildfire. Miller was probably the first to join up. In 1967, honorific references to Derrida and de Man begin to appear in his writing, and the Geneva critics fade away. Dickens, the subject of his first book (1958), was duly reread and re-explicated in terms of Derridean ‘rhetoric’ rather than Pouletian ‘mind’.

Miller is often accused of opportunism in his conversions. Most people think one or two a lifetime quite enough. Miller has undergone at least four. His justification for the embrace of Post-Structuralism/Deconstruction is pragmatic: ‘The ultimate justification for this mode of criticism, as of any conceivable mode, is that it works. It reveals hitherto unidentified meanings and ways of having meaning in major literary texts.’ The defence raises as many questions as it settles. Any number of critical modes ‘work’ in the sense of generating new and exotic meanings. But are those meanings worth generating? And what does Miller mean by ‘major literary texts’? By what critical procedures do we get to the point of determining that some texts are more major than others? Surely not Deconstruction.

The new turn in Miller’s work was confirmed in 1972, when he left Johns Hopkins for Yale, where he became chairman of the English Department in 1976. Here he was a disciple of Paul de Man, next door in the French Department. With de Man and his other colleagues, Geoffrey Hartman and Harold Bloom, Miller achieved national prominence for the ‘Yale school of criticism’ – a prominence certified in 1985 with a wildly overwritten denunciation in the New York Times (‘The Tyranny of the Yale Critics’). Despite all this celebrity, Miller continued to ownehis primary debt to Europe. But the imagery had changed. No longer was it on the ‘provincial’ scale of Dorothea’s bridal visit to Rome. Now Miller’s engagement with Europe was pictured in terms of those battering waves of European immigration that had transformed America at the end of the century. The clash was epic in scale, drastic in its consequences. The fate of the nation seemed to be at risk.

A distinctive feature of literary study in America at the present time [1981] is its internationalisation. The result has been a fissuring of what not too long ago seemed perhaps to have become a seamless whole ... The diffusion in America of new linguistic theories of various sorts, of Slavic formalism, of phenomenology, of structuralism, of Continental Marxism and Freudianism, and of so-called ‘deconstruction’, has put an end, for the moment at least, to any dreams of unification. Nor can the various invading theories be reconciled among themselves. This penetration, fracturing or ‘crazing’ has made the institution of literary studies in America a house divided against itself, its domestic economy invaded by alien hosts or guests from abroad ... For better or worse literary study in America can never be quite the same again.

There is a paranoid jumbling of apocalyptic imagery just under the surface of this passage: the rending of the ‘seamless’ temple veil, the fall of the Tower of Babel with all that Slavic jabber, the American Civil War (‘a house divided against itself’), unhappy marriage (‘better or worse’), gang rape (‘penetration’), battery (‘fracturing’), Paradise Lost (‘never be quite the same again’), even the invasion of the body-snatchers (‘alien hosts’). Miller was evidently a worried critic in 1981.

In December 1983, Paul de Man died from cancer. Three years later, Miller moved from Yale to Irvine, a new campus of the University of California. It was as far, geographically, as one can get from New Haven and remain on the US mainland. His recruitment was regarded as a wonderful coup for the new and not very fashionable college. According to the Los Angeles Times, Irvine professors were ‘dancing in the streets’ on being told that Hillis Miller was coming. The terms of the appointment, as published by the paper, were opulent (‘$91,000 annual salary, subsidised housing and freedom from administrative chores ... two graduate courses a year’ – no undergraduates apparently). The deal took a year to work out. Enviable as it is and more enviable as it must since have become, it is highly unlikely that Miller, who is austere personally, was selling out. Harold Bloom professed to be mystified at his friend’s leaving Yale, adding: ‘I don’t know if any of us knows why he does anything.’ Miller himself gave at least three reasons for the move to Irvine. The first was that he was hoping to recover ‘some of the fun’ that had left his life when de Man suddenly died. Secondly, he wanted to cultivate his garden – both in a Voltairean and a literal sense (Miller and his wife are enthusiastic gardeners and California has a 12-month growing season). The third and most paradoxical reason was the attraction of Southern California’s notorious cultural thinness – the fact that there is no there there. This Californian lack of thereness is an emblem for Miller of the deconstructive critical act. Civilisation (so-called) in California is erected on nothing and deconstructs itself perpetually in the eye of the intelligent beholder. The house (2300 square feet, 8.9 per cent fixed loan) that Irvine was building for the Millers was rising out of the abstract desert and the campus itself was rising on the arid hills above Laguna. All this arbitrary construction out of nothing was pleasing to America’s leading deconstructor.

In 1986, Miller accepted the presidency of the MLA – the highest honour the profession has to offer. His presidential address was a masterly performance and wholly authoritarian. He denounced the upstart New Historicist school, thus alienating most of the young scholars in his audience. He asserted the ‘triumph of theory’ achieved principally by him and by de Man (whose Resistance to Theory, 1979, was proclaimed ‘already a classic’). Theory had won. Not even bibliography could now be done outside ‘the context of the triumph of theory’. More significantly, perhaps, it was American theory. Miller had at last freed himself from any sense of national inferiority. The imagery with which he expressed his (America’s) final liberation from Europe was as chauvinistic as a boot in the face: ‘Although literary theory may have its origin in Europe, we export it in a new form, along with other American products all over the world – as we do many of our scientific and technological inventions, for example, the atom bomb.’ By ‘export’ Miller does not mean ‘sharing our technology’. The last thing America wants to do is export the atom bomb to countries like Libya and Iraq. Miller’s remark is more in the spirit of the redneck bumper sticker ‘Nuke Teheran!’ (or ‘Tripoli!’, or ‘Damascus!’, or ‘the Whales!’). He was paying off all his years of discipleship to foreigners with a cathartic outburst of ugly Americanism.

Miller’s confidence in the final triumph of American(ised) theory took a terrible knock in summer 1987, when Ortwin de Graef discovered the wartime essays of Paul de Man. The existence of these writings – their contents sensationalised and exaggerated – was publicised first in the New York Times, then everywhere. Miller, with Derrida, lined up as his dead friend’s main apologist. Miller wrote a courageous piece in the TLS, 17-23 June 1988. In it he observed with some justice that the real aim of the hounding journalists was ‘to discredit that form of interpretation called “deconstruction”’. But Miller’s defence of de Man was hampered by his (Miller’s) incorrigible honesty. De Man, he declared with suicidal accuracy, ‘was by no means in these early writings totally fascist, anti-semitic and collaborationist’. Being partly any of these things was quite sufficient for those who were not de Man’s devoted admirers. More significantly, perhaps, Miller issued a redefinition of Deconstruction that was so cut back as to make nonsense of what he had been asserting and practising for years. ‘Deconstruction,’ he now declared, ‘is not nihilistic, nor anti-historical, nor mere play of language in the void ... nor is it committed to the notion that readers and critics are free to make texts mean anything they like.’ This prohibitionism is entirely opposed to what Miller wrote in 1976, at the height of his Deconstructionist infatuation. Then we were told that

the interpretation or solving of the puzzles of the textual web only adds more filaments to the web. One can never escape from the labyrinth because the activity of escaping makes more labyrinth, the thread of a linear narrative or story. Criticism is the production of more thread to embroider the texture or textile already there. This thread is like the filament of ink which flows from the pen of the writer, keeping him in the web but suspending him also over the chasm, the blank page that thin line hides. In one version of Ariadne’s story she is said to have hanged herself with her thread in despair after being abandoned by Theseus.

If Miller didn’t mean by this farrago that Deconstruction was the ‘play of language in the void’, what did he mean? And surely this harping on abysses, inescapable labyrinths, chasms and suicide invokes a wholly nihilistic view of the critical enterprise?

Miller has defiantly not withdrawn his allegiance in the light of de Man’s disgrace. But since the mid-Eighties, and particularly since 1987, there has been yet another move in his critical position. Miller nowadays is primarily concerned with the ‘ethics’ of his profession. How should literary criticism be conducted and institutionalised so as to produce the highest social good? It’s a good question, but Miller’s answer strikes one as pretty unrousing stuff:

The proper ethical decision that a teacher of literature should make ... is to teach the irrelevance of the thematic assertions of even the most apparently morally concerned literature for the making of moral decisions, since the moral decisions within the work are only an allegory of the way language works ... My recommendation is that we should give up the attempt to transfer ethical themes directly from literature to life ... departments of literature should reduce their function to a kind of linguistic hygiene – that is, to a study of the rhetoric of literature, what might be called ‘literariness’. The rest should be left to departments of history, philosophy, religion, American studies, Victorian studies, programmes in ‘modern thought’, and so on, where that rest belongs.

It’s hard not to resent that presidential use of the imperative ‘should’. Says who? And it seems self-evident that any lively young student would be more interested in the ‘rest’ than in the doings of Miller’s ideal English department ‘hygienically’ extracting ‘literariness’ from texts like so many white-uniformed Roto-rooter operatives cleaning out clogged waste-pipes (that hygienic image, incidentally, seems even stranger than Miller’s theoretic bomb). When he was younger and livelier himself, one suspects that Miller, too, would have disdained President Miller’s ethical English academy. Once upon a time he compared his 25-year-old self to Dorothea Casaubon. Without question, he was ‘transferring an ethical theme directly from literature to life’ in a way that he now forbids. But one can’t help thinking that Middlemarch was a richer possession in those unregenerate days when it had ‘moral reference’ and ‘relevance’ to the crisis of his own life, and wasn’t just a desiccated allegory of the way language works.