Deconstruction and Criticism
Allegories of Reading: Figural Language in Rousseau, Nietzsche, Rilke, and Proust
For the past forty or fifty years, teachers of literature in American colleges and universities have acted upon a few simple assumptions, mainly derived from I.A. Richards’s early books Principles of Literary Criticism (1924) and Practical Criticism (1929). The first assumption is that in reading a poem you think of the words on the page as a transcription of a voice speaking; not necessarily the poet speaking in his own person, but a hypothetical person, speaking in imagined circumstances sufficiently indicated by what he says. The second assumption is that you are interpreting the poem, trying to understand the context, the speaker’s sense of it, and the cogency of that sense. The meaning of the poem is what the speaker means to say. The third assumption is that you read poems to imagine experiences you have not had, to exercise sympathy and judgment upon them, and to take part in richer communications. It follows that it is essential, in reading a poem as in taking part in a conversation, to judge the speaker’s tone correctly, because tone indicates his relation both to his own feeling and to the person or persons he is addressing. These assumptions, suitably elaborated, prescribe an orthodoxy of reading.
Take, for instance, Robert Frost’s poem “Acquainted with the Night,” which begins
I have been one acquainted with the night.
I have walked out in rain—and back in rain.
I have outwalked the furthest city light.
I have looked down the saddest city lane.
I have passed by the watchman on his beat
And dropped my eyes, unwilling to explain.
In an orthodox reading, you follow the speaker’s feeling from first word to last. In the first line, for instance, you think of the degree of assertiveness in “I,” the precise degree of knowledge claimed in “acquainted,” the relation between the apparent precision of “acquainted” and the vagueness of its object, “the night.” You gauge the tone of those repeated “I have” phrases. And so on. Reading a poem is like meeting its speaker.
These assumptions are defined and proposed in most of the textbooks that have established themselves in American courses in literature, whether survey-courses or more advanced classes in the criticism of literature. The most influential textbook is still Understanding Poetry (1938) by Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren, a book that begins with these sentences: “Wordsworth called the poet a man speaking to men,” and “Poetry is a form of speech, written or spoken.” The best motto for the orthodoxy of reading is “hearing with eyes,” as in Shakespeare’s Sonnet 23:
O learn to read what silent love hath writ,
To hear with eyes belongs to love’s fine wit.
The orthodoxy has been challenged from time to time, mostly by people who feel that Richards, Brooks, Warren, and the New Critics generally have ignored the historical understanding of literature and encouraged students to raise only the questions that can be answered by pointing to a few privileged terms, notably irony, ambiguity, tension, and complexity. And it has sometimes been remarked that certain poems, such as Pound’s Cantos, defeat the elocutionist and have to be read in some other way. But generally the orthodoxy has stood up pretty well. The vocal and acoustic character of poetry is widely accepted.
Within the past ten years or so, a new challenge has arisen. If it were to prevail, it would surround with anxiety and misgiving not only the reading of poems but the negotiation of every major theme in Western literature and philosophy. The most vigorous challenger is Jacques Derrida, and the name of the challenge is Deconstruction, a form of commentary that relies upon a diverse if selective reading of Nietzsche and Freud. Derrida reached Deconstruction mainly by an aggressive reading of Husserl and Heidegger, a discipline there is no reason to think all his followers have practiced. He does not claim that Deconstruction is in every respect a distinctive activity: how could it be, since it is mainly a commentary written in the margin of other philosophical and literary texts? And it shares some of the arguments put forward by Structuralism, even though it eventually accuses structuralists of many follies ascribed to traditional forms of thought.
What form would a deconstructive reading of Frost’s poem take? I have not seen one, and it might surprise me, but if it did not surprise me it would start by suffusing the “I” of the first line with doubt; questioning its neo-Cartesian assumption, and the blatant punctuality with which it implies a speaker. It would note that the printed words are given only as script, and that the reader is urged to convert them into acoustic signs: speech is supposed to be more fully present than print. The deconstructive critic would question the apparent assumption, in the first line, that someone—the speaker—exists, and has existed even before the “I” of his self-assertion; and that this “person” guarantees the authenticity of what he says by presiding over it as a controlling consciousness.
The critic would then question the confidence with which Frost’s first line begins and ends; begins, in the assertive presentation of the “I” who speaks; and ends, with the equally assertive presentation of whatever experience “the night” is supposed to denote. He would ask himself whether the apparent slide from the dogmatic “I” to the vague, third-person-pronoun “one” is an evasion making possible the more extreme evasiveness of “the night,” a phrase as sonorous as it is obscure; or merely a decent confession of misgiving about the assertiveness of “I” in the first place. The critic would then go through the poem, diagnosing every example of blindness or naïveté in Frost’s relation to his language; the false confidence with which he proceeds; the uncritical assumption that by miming a voice he is verifying a personality.
Deconstruction is a style of accusation. Its main charges are these. One: Western thought, whether in literature or philosophy, has been grounded upon bogus axioms of being and presence; upon being, understood as presence. Meaning has been offered by analogy with presence; the presence of an object to one’s sight; the self-presence of subjectivity and consciousness, as in the speaking “I” of Frost’s poem.
Two: what Derrida calls “the metaphysics of presence” has been endorsed by the presentation of meaning as speech. He calls this prison house of language “logocentrism” or “phonocentrism,” and claims that it involves “the absolute proximity of voice and being, of voice and the meaning of being.” The meaning of Frost’s poem begins with the reader’s feeling that he is in the presence of its speaker. According to Derrida, the cardinal word in Western thought is logos, taken to mean the original uttered word, identified in some theologies with the audible presence of God. The entire philosophic tradition is infatuated, Derrida alleges, with the notion of a first moment, authentic and paternal.
Three: the axiom of being as presence is mere wish-fulfillment, and those who indulge themselves in it are inauthentic; it testifies not to presence but to absence, to a desire for presence; it keeps us always turned back toward an ostensibly first moment in which we were guaranteed authenticity by the speaking voice of the Father. Reading Frost’s poem by translating it into an individual voice, we are really consoling ourselves, trying to persuade ourselves that our entire lives are dialogues, continuous in some sense with the original moment in which God uttered Himself.
Four: the logos-prison has forced upon us delusions of self, personality, subjectivity, creativity, imaginative power, ego-psychology, and so forth. Frost’s poem is full of these delusions of personal grandeur: “And dropped my eyes, unwilling to explain.” Five: psychological terms (such as feeling, emotion, desire, motive, drive) are misleading, they encourage us to think of them as attributes of our suffering and masterful selves; they must be replaced by linguistic terms.
So the best answer to our infatuation with voices and presences is writing—writing stripped of all delusions. Writing in this sense has given up yearning for a lost father, it knows that it is an orphan, it is merely what it is and therefore it has vetoed nostalgia, accepted its separation from any origin and settled for that separation. Deconstruction seeks, in Geoffrey Hartman’s phrase, “the eclipse of voice by text.” Text in that phrase means language set not to work but to play among its internal possibilities, having been released from all the old claims of meaning as voice, personal presence, and dialogue.
What Deconstruction urges is not a new system of thought but skepticism toward all the old ways, which are construed as really only one way. It proposes a certain critical position.
Deconstruction and Criticism is offered as a manifesto of “one of the most stimulating movements in contemporary letters.” It is an odd book. The critics who have joined to produce it have only one property in common: they teach at Yale. The book has more to do with the rhetoric of power in American universities than with its ostensible subject: its evident purpose is to claim that Yale houses a major school of deconstructive criticism. But the truth is that only two of the five critics are deconstructors: Derrida and Paul de Man. J. Hillis Miller practices occasional conformity, he has written essays in the spirit and according to the letter of Deconstruction. But he seems to me still what he ever was, a phenomenologist, a critic of consciousness, his heart in the Geneva of Georges Poulet. Geoffrey Hartman is one of the most vigorous opponents of Deconstruction. His essay in the present book is a meditation on Wordsworth’s poem “A Little Onward”: a fine essay, indeed, but it has nothing to do with Deconstruction, and it could have been published with greater propriety in the Review of English Studies.
What Harold Bloom is doing in this book, I have no idea; he is not a deconstructor. A rabbi, a prophet, he would never let himself be shamed out of the language of self, presence, and voice. His essay in Deconstruction and Criticism rehearses his famous theory of poetry, using for his text John Ashbery’s “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror.” As always, Bloom’s categories are psychological rather than linguistic, he does not claim for language anything more than an instrumental and referential function.
Derrida’s essay is an account of Maurice Blanchot’s fiction, L’arrêt de mort, concentrating on one motif, that of living and living on (vivre; survivre): it has much to say about ghosts, the narrator as one who lives on, corpses embalmed, and so on. I seem to have heard parts of it in Derrida’s lecture at New York University a few months ago, the most opaque and withholding lecture I have ever heard. So far as I can understand it (but that’s not far), the essay is trying to dislodge from the story a language that retains an old-fashioned affection for truth and being; to dislodge it by projecting it beyond itself (la sur-vérité) into an empty future. In his earlier books, Derrida tried to dislodge such language by consigning it to an empty past for which the key word has always been déjà. Hence, in the new essay, his emphasis falls on the motif of a stairway that figures in Blanchot’s fiction; there are pages upon pages of word-play on escalier as escalade of truth, “one truth about another, one truth on (top of) another, one above or below the other, each step more or less true than truth.” These pages are pretty hectic, but I read them as part of the deconstructive effort to show that truth and word never coincide.