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Deconstruction: An Exchange

In response to:

Deconstructing Deconstruction from the June 12, 1980 issue

To the Editors:

Denis Donoghue’s patient explanation of the deconstruction fever [NYR, June 12] so rife not only in universities but also in Soho lofts and midtown cocktail parties, really makes it easier for us all, at least for me, to close the dossier and file it away among earlier forget-table fads. I would not, however, be inclined to include the surrealism of the Thirties in this list. In fact I find it grievous that Mr. Donoghue is so reminded. And his quote from William Empson’s poem to the effect that the surrealists enjoyed (my italics) “a nightmare handy as a bike” is sadly irresponsible. Do these two men realize that the “nightmare” was the tragic aftermath of the world’s most lethal war? And that recovery seemed not only slow but impossible to a group of enraged young people in revolt against a society that had sent a number of them to fight that war?

Handy indeed. So, then, we must consider the holocaust of war no. 2: a handy nightmare for all those who have poured out in writing their unbearable sufferings, the writers who still agonize in its remembered terror.

Any attentive perusal of the body of surrealist literature will reveal for that movement a profound concern for liberty and intellectual survival, to say nothing of its astonishing experiments with language. Automatic writing, for example, a depersonalized activity if ever there was one (see Breton-Soupault, “Les Champs Magnetiques“) and psychic automatism (Crevel, Desnos).

As early as 1926 Michel Leiris wrote:

By dissecting the words we love, without concern for etymology or accepted signification, we discover their most hidden virtues as well as their secret sounds shapes and ideas. Then language becomes oracle and hands us a thread, however tenuous it be, to guide us inside the Babel of our mind.

The writings of these men—precursors Raymond Roussel (ask Robbe-Grillet), Jacques Vaché (a suicide), and their suite: Marcel Duchamp, Salvador Dali, André Breton, Antonin Artaud, Paul Eluard, Max Ernst, René Crevel (a suicide), Georges Bataille, to name a few—were not solemn but were often exuberant, ironic, even hilarious. Obviously, the hilarity served to draw a merciful veil over their despair.

Dorothea Tanning

New York City

To the Editors:

I suspect that Denis Donoghue’s intentions were rather different, but it seems to me clear that with the publication of his “Deconstructing Deconstruction” and of Roger Shattuck’s “How to Rescue Literature” [NYR, April 17], The New York Review has decided to declare war on deconstructive criticism.

My own work would never be identified or associated with this school of criticism, and I am well aware how irritating and self-indulgent its products can be. But I think the broad phenomenon these critics represent—the bringing of a wide range of European thought to bear on literary matters—has been a necessary and fruitful development in American academic criticism. In my own work, which concerns various genres and modes of Renaissance literature, it has made me and helped me address basic problems of literary theory and literary history, and to question, in a fundamental but useful way, the status of my own terms and categories. It therefore seems to me that the challenge of this newest new criticism should be met with something other than polemics and rooted hostility. Many of the traditionalists who have politicized the current debates have put themselves and their students in the position of opposing not only de Man and Bloom, who may (like the rest of us) be dispensable, but Marx, Freud, and Nietzsche, who most assuredly are not.

I think the present atmosphere of critical contention is particularly harmful to the younger critics and scholars for whose sake The New York Review has unfurled its banners and joined battle. Of course there are graduate students whose interest in Deconstruction, as Denis Donoghue says, is to enable them to feel superior to everyone, including the authors they study. But the argumentative force of this observation depends on two assumptions, both of which seem to me false. The first is that deconstructive criticism is uniquely corrupting in the way described, whereas every mode of academic criticism has this lamentable effect: it is a function of universities, their demands and atmospheres, and those of us who work in older literatures are still contending with the arrogance and dogmatism of the champions of tradition. (Recently, the young author of a book on Sir Philip Sidney—a study remarkable for its judicious use of psychoanalytic concepts—heard his work derided by two “experts,” the more intelligent of whom began her remarks by wishing that the notion of ambiguity had never been allowed to enter the study of Renaissance literature.) The second assumption is that the Yale critics have had a wholly harmful influence on their students and readers. In my judgment, this is not at all the case. There have been a number of excellent dissertations and first books directly influenced by Yale, and other excellent work derives from the larger movement to question and understand the status of literary institutions, conventions, and discourse.

Let me cite simply one example, which happens to speak to some of the fears expressed in Donoghue’s review:

If you want a deconstructive reading of, say, Daniel Deronda, you can have one. But there are several problems. Deconstructive readings are written mostly for the sake of the theory they are supposed to endorse; the strings are attached before the essay is sent off to Diacritics or Glyph or Semiotexte. Further: nothing I have read in deconstructive criticism is likely to suppress the common desire of readers to believe that in reading a poem they are listening to someone saying something about something—whatever critical questioning they may bring to the act of listening.

If the reader will obtain the March, 1978 issue (volume 93) of PMLA (!), he or she will find an article by Cynthia Chase which is a deconstructive reading of Daniel Deronda. It is written not for the sake of the theory, but to explain two peculiar problems in the text: one specific passage (Hans Meyrick’s letter to Daniel in book 7, chapter 52) and one notorious large problem, which has bothered readers from Henry James’ Pulcheria (in “Daniel Deronda: a Conversation”) to F.R. Leavis and many others in our time—the feeling that Daniel’s discovery of his Jewish birth is sentimental and manipulative, rigged by George Eliot in the most shameless way. Chase’s essay has enough in the way of jargon and word-play to irritate those who choose to be irritated. But her account of this central problem in the novel is brilliant, as is her discussion of the problem formulated earlier by Stephen Marcus (no friend to Yale and its ways): “It is only when he is a grown man, having been to Eton and Cambridge, that he discovers he is a Jew. What this has to mean—given the conventions of medical practice at the time—is that he never looked down. In order for the plot of Daniel Deronda to work, Deronda’s circumized penis must be invisible, or non-existent—which is one more demonstration in detail of why the plot does not in fact work.” Chase gives an acute and plausible account of how George Eliot manages to bring off this evasion and of the double-think involved in the discovery of Daniel’s birth—that it must be seen as both the cause and the result of his spiritual development in the novel. One may not, finally, accept her argument or (perhaps) her way of framing it. But there is no doubt that she has done what a critic should do—advanced discussion and understanding of an important literary work. (I should add that the tone of Hans Meyrick’s letter is of the essence of her argument, and that she has illuminating, though sometimes elusive, things to say about the narrator’s presence and way of addressing us.)

I take it as axiomatic that a holy war deforms the spirits of its participants, and academic holy wars particularly deform the spirits of students, whose sense of intellectual presence is inevitably involved with the stances and gestures of their teachers. The justification for the recent polemics is that young people need to be freed from the enchantments of the wizards of New Haven. But the effect of the various knights who have come to rescue them—and again, I suspect Denis Donoghue did not mean to cast himself in this role—will be less to free them to think for themselves than to enlist them as foot soldiers in one army or another.

Paul Alpers

University of California

Berkeley, California

To the Editors:

Denis Donoghue’s sometimes constructive deconstruction of deconstruction leaves out what some of us have found to be Jacques Derrida’s greatest virtue—his infusion of playfulness into a set of disciplines—from poetics to political philosophy—which have been drearily serious virtually since Aristotle. One might point out that his accusatory skepticism is nothing new; one finds it in David Hume as well as in Nietzsche, and long before that as well. (But then, the French discovered Freud, as if to invent him, only in this decade too.) Derrida’s philosophical skepticism, clearly stated, may boil down to nothing more than a series of problems about reference, which philosophers (in America and England) have been discussing for most of this century. But even so, the function of that skepticism, as in Hume and Nietzsche, is to throw into question the whole self-righteous seriousness of academic gamesmanship—which it does by going one game better.

Still, it is no small joke that a movement whose main theme is the unimportance, if not the nonexistence of the author, should have turned its own spokesmen into academic demi-gods and encouraged a style that is so inimitable (as evidenced by the dreadful facsimiles attempted by some of our graduate students). And it is also ironic, at least, that a movement that so deemphasizes the integrity of the text, undermines the intentions and workmanship of the author, and celebrates the importance of the reader’s own contribution to reading, should come at a time when most of our undergraduates are neither interested in reading nor able to write at all….

Robert C. Solomon

Department of Philosophy

University of Texas

Austin, Texas

Denis Donoghue replies:

To Dorothea Tanning: Empson’s phrase was not meant, I’m sure, as a full account of Surrealism. It merely suggested the way in which a particular style can be taken up, cultivated, generalized, turned into a routine. Lionel Trilling made much the same point about recent devotees of madness. I think it applies also to apocalyptic gestures in modern literature. Nightmare and terror can be domesticated, converted into an artistic bureaucracy. Deconstruction has already reached its bureaucratic stage: that was what I had in mind.

To Paul Alpers: There was certainly no collusion between The New York Review of Books, Roger Shattuck, and me to do a hatchet-job on the Yale deconstructors. I was asked to review two books, and I reviewed them. I was not asked to write about Marx, Freud, Nietzsche. Or about Cynthia Chase’s essay on Daniel Deronda. In fact, I had read Chase’s essay before I wrote my review. I have also read Professor Alpers’s book on Spenser and, a few weeks ago, his new book on Virgilian pastoral. But I haven’t seen any evidence that his work has been affected, one way or the other, by Deconstruction. His avowed master is Empson, not Derrida or de Man. As for “the bringing of a wide range of European thought to bear upon literary matters,” it would be more accurate to refer to “a very narrow range of European thought.” Besides, European thought was brought to bear upon literary matters in America long before Derrida had written a line; notably, in this century, by T.S. Eliot, Kenneth Burke, Trilling, Edmund Wilson, John Crowe Ransom, William Troy, and Francis Fergusson.

To Robert C. Solomon: Derrida doesn’t seem to me at all playful, though he has much to say about play. I don’t see how his work can be taken as a delightful exception to the rule of “self-righteous seriousness” which Professor Solomon describes. Derrida seems pretty glum by comparison with Plato, Berkeley, Hegel, Nietzsche, Bradley, Moore, Santayana, Merleau-Ponty, Ryle, Strawson. But I’m not sure that anything worthwhile can be said by setting up categories of seriousness and playfulness.

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