February 9, 1986 Section Page Buy Reprints
THE ENGLISH department at Yale used to resemble a sort of English country estate. It included a great house of many wings and rooms (the Elizabethan Pavilion, the Metaphysical Poets Billiard Parlor, the T. S. Eliot Chapel and so forth) and, normally, one entered this house via certain well-marked paths and avenues that ran through a spacious park. The park looked as though Nature had placed it there, but it was actually quite artificial, a typical landscape a l’anglais. Now and then a dewy-eyed deer or tame peacock would walk past. Everything was in order. And despite the rival claims of such ancient estates as Oxford and Cambridge, and despite the genius of Harvard and a few other houses, Yale’s English department was in many ways the envy of the English-speaking world.
But a dense jungle has grown up around this house of literature, and the normal route these days into the Shelley Bedchamber isn’t up the stairs but through the window, by liana. The estate is choked with new theoretical plants and weird new beasts of criticism, many of them French – as if a tropical French colony, a Paris with snakes, had sprung up from the turf. Some fear the jungle also shields a guerrilla camp from which armed nihilists have been launching raids on the academic countryside.
Since the late 1970’s, a group sometimes called the ”Hermeneutic Mafia” (and at other times ”Yale Critics,” the ”Yale School” of criticism, or simply ”wildmen”) has grown astonishingly influential in the study of literature at Yale. The group is unquestionably brilliant. In fact, early last month, a quintessentially ”Yale Critic” -Prof. J. Hillis Miller, who has been attacked by some traditionalists for obscurantism and nihilism – became president of the Modern Language Association, the country’s most august group of college teachers of English and other languages and the publisher of some of the field’s most respectable academic articles. Miller’s appointment by his peers is highly significant. The ”wildmen” have evidently conquered the field.
Strange tales and lurid critical texts have been wafting out of many academic literary departments these days, but a lot of people care more about those coming out of New Haven. Why? Because Yale’s critical brains have been famously acute since the 1950’s, when Yale became the foremost center for the so-called New Criticism. The New Critics – impatient with the vague, comfortable criticism that spooned out mixtures of literary history, biography, cultural commentary and personal opinion – zeroed in on some of the elements within a poem or story by which a writer achieved his artistic effect. The New Criticism was the most powerful force in literary studies at the time, and the presence at Yale of distinguished New Critics such as Robert Penn Warren, Cleanth Brooks and W. K. Wimsatt testified to the school’s eminence.
Some of Yale’s English professors after World War II were said to have been sherry-sipping lightweights, yet Yale’s other resources were fabulous. Even apart from the New Critics, monumental scholarly editions of James Boswell, Thomas More and others have been put together at Yale. Yale is close to the literary and publishing powerhouses of New York. It has warm ties with literary journalists (John Hersey, for example, long taught English there). Its libraries are very rich. And it probably hasn’t hurt, in the traditionally Anglophilic circle of academic English, that Yale’s social reputation is one of wealth and class.
But what about these wilder new species of criticism?
In the first place, literary criticism at Yale has been distilling and reflecting intellectual currents that have been rippling through the humanities and the social sciences generally. These currents include structuralism, which sees languages and cultures determined by an unvarying, timeless ”structure”; semiotics, or the intricate new science and philosophy of signs and meanings; hermeneutics, or the science of interpretation (a science that has retained some of the traditional and even mystical preoccupations of its origins in biblical exegesis); various Marxisms and neo-Marxisms; feminism; psychoanalysis; the history and philosophy of reading. Universities across the country now deal in such marvels. But Yale has led the way in one or two of these fields, and has done so with its usual panache.
The term ”Yale School,” however, refers not to Marxism or feminism (which have their champions at Yale) but mainly to the ”post-structuralist” philosophic species known as deconstruction. ”Post-structuralism” is a term that lumps together various French and other thinkers who write as though they want to overthrow oppressive philosophic structures by subverting language. Deconstruction was invented by Jacques Derrida, a professor of philosophy at the Ecole Normale Superieure in Paris, and Derrida is still the movement’s leading theoretician and King Babar.
Just 20 years ago, at Johns Hopkins University in 1966, Derrida delivered his first lectures in the United States. The movement has been upsetting people and texts since, especially over the last decade. Yale has played a big part in these developments. For one thing, it keeps inviting Derrida to conduct yearly seminars at Yale. For another, several of Yale’s most prominent literary critics have adopted Derrida’s ways of thinking and have helped disseminate his name and style, as well as their own, through the Yale English department and into English departments everywhere.
What is deconstruction? To ”deconstruct” a text is pretty much what it sounds like – to pick the thing carefully apart, exposing what deconstructors see as the central fact and tragic little secret of Western philosophy – namely, the circular tendency of language to refer to itself. Because the ”language” of a text refers mainly to other ”languages” and texts – and not to some hard, extratextual reality – the text tends to have several possible meanings, which usually undermine one another. In fact, the ”meaning” of a piece of writing – it doesn’t matter whether it’s a poem or a novel or a philosophic treatise – is indeterminate. (A deconstructionist reading by J. Hillis Miller of a phrase from Milton’s ”Paradise Lost” is on page 25.) In Yale’s Tropiques de Critique, the text and its readings are everything. Authors, history and other contexts are secondary. Derrida, in a typically bold and outrageous way, has gone so far as to say that writing is more basic than speaking, that speaking is only a form of writing. But there’s more. Because all writing is said to be metaphorical, working by tropes and figures, it follows that trained deconstructors should be able to interpret texts of all sorts, not just ”literature.”
The above still gives little sense of the movement’s style. But you get a whiff of that as soon as you pick up the 1979 manifesto of the Yale critics, ”Deconstruction and Criticism,” which is described in the preface as ”neither a polemical book nor a manifesto in the ordinary sense.” The preface, by Prof. Geoffrey H. Hartman – who holds a joint professorship in Yale’s English and comparative-literature departments – calls Derrida and two Yale professors (J. Hillis Miller and the late Paul de Man) ”boa-deconstructors.”
An essay by Harold Bloom, another Yale professor – who is not a deconstructor but whose thought and style are comparably radical – begins this way: ”The word meaning goes back to a root that signifies ‘opinion’ or ‘intention,’ and is closely related to the word moaning.” Perfect. Derrida’s contribution to the book includes a single footnote that runs the length of his 100-page essay. Miller’s entry, ”The Critic as Host,” is an elaborate (and not only dazzling but fairly persuasive) reply to the charge that deconstructors are nothing but ”parasites” upon the plain meanings of texts.
”The word ‘deconstruction,’ ” Miller writes, ”has misleading overtones or implications. It suggests something a bit too external. . . . It suggests the demolition of the helpless text with tools which are other than and stronger than what is demolished. The word ‘deconstruction’ suggests that such criticism is an activity turning something unified back to detached fragments or parts. It suggests the image of a child taking apart his father’s watch, reducing it back to useless parts, beyond any reconstitution. A deconstructionist is not a parasite but a parricide. He is a bad son demolishing beyond hope of repair the machine of Western metaphysics.”
IT IS TIME TO enter the humid place. But first, ”why not talk to Harold Bloom?” someone says in all innocence.
Surely Bloom, of all people, can shine a light under the dripping leaves: Bloom, the most original literary critic in America; Bloom, who has been a member of the English department but has divorced it (or has it divorced him?) to become a free-floating ”professor of the humanities”; Bloom, who talks of being an academic pariah but who is so well-connected that he brunches on Sundays with A. Bartlett Giamatti, Yale’s departing president. Bloom is a one-man band. For years, he has called himself a Jewish Gnostic.
During the 1960’s and 70’s, Bloom’s hot-blooded readings of the 19th-century Romantic poets helped melt the authority of the New Critics (an intellectually cool group that distrusted Romantic enthusiasms). His dark, agonized, Freudian speculations over the process known as ”literary influence” – over the ways writers creatively misread and try to outdo their artistic predecessors – became the theme of his career.
Bloom did more than anyone else to add Wallace Stevens to the ”canon” of the best 20th-century poets, and Stevens’s work has since become entrenched in the nation’s English departments. Bloom’s tastes in more recent poets have been influential as well; John Ashbery, James Merrill and A. R. Ammons are at the top of his list.
Like some Crazy Eddie of lit crit, Bloom has been editing and writing introductions for hundreds of volumes of criticism being published by an outfit called Chelsea House (he explains the project by saying it’s ”insane,” that he can’t sleep anyway and that he’s outdoing Samuel Johnson). Last summer, he won the rich MacArthur, or so-called ”genius,” Award. Most recently, he has begun teaching and writing on Shakespeare and the Hebrew Bible, two literary monoliths outside his areas of academic certification. As a teacher, he’s known as sage, genius and comic rolled into one – Zarathustra cum Zero Mostel.
Unfortunately, Bloom is in an elegiac mood.
One of his sons opens the door of his house north of campus. Suddenly, Bloom emerges from a closet under the staircase and stretches out his hand in greeting. He is large, shaggy-haired and courteous. His belly sags. His pants look as wide as two old shopping bags. His hands tremble (but then so do the hands of many critics at Yale). His face is as white as a whale in a high-Romantic ocean, and (astonished visitors keep noting this) he does look like Zero Mostel.
Chuckling, he swims toward a sort of Danish Lazy Boy and stretches out, nearly supine. Instantly, he is thinking aloud, his large dark eyes gazing at the ceiling, his brow a wall of hieroglyphic runes.
For a while he talks happily about ”influence,” his one gigantic idea. His hand drops from his raft into the surf of books rising all about him. It picks a volume of Samuel Johnson. It finds ”The Rambler, No. 121.” Bloom reads a passage aloud – one in which Johnson mocks Virgil for a clumsy borrowing from Homer. Bloom laughs with pleasure. No critic is greater than Johnson, he says. He adds: ”I shall never write anything like that, alas. Alas, alas, alas.”
There are some talented people around, Bloom says later, thinking about literature at Yale. Prof. John Hollander, for example, his friend in the English department, whom Bloom describes as ”the best talker I have ever known,” is a poet, a scholar, a critic. As for the others, Bloom says, there are too many ideologues.
”You cannot go anywhere,” he cries, ”without running into various covens and sects and various new orthodoxies of a self-righteous kind. There are the purple-haired semioticians; there are the deconstructionists; there are those who have abolished anything like a coherent discourse, for whom every text is an aberration.
”To try to find out what’s going on at Yale now is beyond my power,” he says. But he gives it a thought or two. He mentions a certain ”fierce neo-Marxist” in the English department and a certain ”fierce Lacanian,” or a follower of Jacques Lacan, the late French neo-Freudian post-structuralist whose theory of literary creation, to vulgarize it only slightly, portrays writers as deluded animals through whom universal images and compulsions get put into words.
Bloom is not finished. He speaks of ”punk ideologies,” of ”vicious feminism,” of new modes of ”stifling doctrine” and of new Stalinisms. He describes one young member of the English department as ”an out-and-out Marxist agitator” and ”a horse’s ass,” and he says some leftist notions of bourgeois art have grown so crude as to be unrecognizable. ”It’s almost the poet-as-slumlord theory. They have their colleagues terrified.”
One wonders if he has gone over to the neoconservative camp. But, no. Not Bloom. The neoconservatives call Bloom a wild man, he says. He calls them ”fourth-rate reactionaries.” As for neoconservative literary critics, Bloom says, ”They don’t know a poem from a hole in the ground.”
”There is no method except yourself,” says Bloom, ”and this is what they refuse to learn.” Ideologists of every description hate the self, he says. ”They all deny that there can be such a thing as an individual.”
There will be no simple map from Harold Bloom. Yet, listening to him, one can almost see the ghostly jungle canopy hanging over his sun-less face. One can almost hear the kaawhoop-whoop whoop of hermeneutic hoopoes.
B LOOM ISN’T THE only one to have that effect. One senior professor of English – tracked into his gothic nest of books, gray stone and dirty panes of leaded glass (as typical a habitat of Yale’s tropicritics as one will find outside a certain pizza parlor called the Naples) – is asked why people keep talking about texts. Why not essays, novels, odes and so on? Why always text? It is a question uttered from the deepest ignorance, and the professor responds patiently. But theory isn’t his specialty, he warns in advance, and he doesn’t want to discuss the word text unless he can do it off the record. Kaaawhooop! ”There was life before Derrida, of course there was,” another senior professor says, trying to explain what has happened at Yale. ”But. . . .” His voice trails off. Derrida has been a catalyst, he says. Things really bubble when Derrida appears.
To understand a critical catalyst you need more than impressions. You have to go back to the books. But once in the stacks, one is caught in the web of text. There is Aristotle and Longinus and Sir Philip Sidney and Goethe and Coleridge. There is Matthew Arnold, who once wrote that ”the world is forwarded by having its attention fixed on the best things. . . .”
Critical thought has been rudely shaken since Matthew Arnold. It has had to deal with modernists and quantum physics and genocide. It has, occasionally, as Arnold expected it would, viewed literature as if literature would replace religion. Up and down, criticism’s academic priests grew more important as Latin and Greek vanished from the basic curriculum and the status of English rose; they grew insecure as science and the social sciences gained power; they grew proud again as philosophy, anthropology and other specialties began to converge on the study of language itself – but this is moving ahead of the story.
Early in this century, and into the 1920’s and 30’s, a typical academic specialist in English literature viewed his materials historically, as a matter of periods and as a reflection of civilization. Authors and their biographies were extremely important. So was the development of literary styles and themes -”influence” in the conventional sense. Many scholars and students of literature who think and work along these lines are still at it, at Yale and elsewhere.
But the old approach had disadvantages. The scholarly side of things could get exceedingly historical, or methodical, or quaint. Some students of literature wanted more art, more timelessness. The old critical methods could also get vague, limp, dilettantish.
So the New Critics appeared: critics such as William Empson and I. A. Richards in England, and John Crowe Ransom and Allen Tate in the United States, and T. S. Eliot over all, straddling the Atlantic. They focused on individual texts, particularly short poems, and they read very closely, elucidating elements such as irony and paradox. They tried to put all that earlier vague literary chitchat aside, and figure out how imagery, surprise and appropriate language actually functioned in creating meaning and pleasure. They were thus practical and hard-headed about literature, but with a strongly idealistic streak; like Coleridge, they believed that certain great works were ”organic” and worth revering and essentially unapproachable. One of Yale’s old New Critics (who were, in America anyway, a predominantly Southern and conservative group) called poems ”verbal icons.” A shelf of such artifacts made up ”the canon” – indeed, ”the tradition” itself.
It’s easy to imagine in retrospect how such ideas might eventually have grown stale. A short poem can be pretty confining. The stress on organic perfection could become deadening, mechanical, frustrating – or just false. Were the lives and times of authors irrelevant? Did individual psychology play no part in the greatest art?
During the 1960’s, Romantic poets such as Shelley and Romantic critics such as Harold Bloom came in like typhoons, and the New Critics faded. A lot of other intellectual forces also appeared: Sartre, Marx, Freud, Jung, Nietzsche, Wittgenstein, Heidegger, Levi-Strauss. In came the structuralists and the declaration by the late French critic Roland Barthes of the death of the author. In came feminism.
This period of experimentation and upheaval is still in progress, but it has tossed up a few trends, such as deconstruction, that are more popular than others.
First Johns Hopkins University, then Paul de Man, a revered critic at Yale, began taking deconstruction very seriously. Derrida’s extreme skepticism about language and his apparent philosophic rigor appealed to literary people who felt in need of a theory. De Man began deconstructing literary texts, watching their conventional meanings fall to bits. As Miller has written, the closer one looked at images and words, the more their meanings ”oscillated.” Then the non-manifesto ”Deconstruction and Criticism” appeared.
Dozens of books and several periodicals have since been published on deconstruction, and not a few of them focus on Yale. ”Rhetoric and Form: Deconstruction at Yale” -published last year by the University of Oklahoma Press – includes a profile of Paul de Man (who died in 1983), essays by Hillis Miller and Geoffrey Hartman, thoughtful (sometimes critical) pieces on deconstruction and psychoanalysis, deconstruction and the problem of referentiality (do words refer to things, to other words, or to both, and how?), deconstruction and gender theory, plus a symposium on the meaning of it all.
For better or worse, deconstruction has become widely institutionalized. Derrida has lectured at the University of Virginia on the deconstruction of the Declaration of Independence, and the stuff is spreading like kudzu. ”I’ve just come back from Uruguay,” Hillis Miller said last December about a trip with his colleague Geoffrey Hartman. ”It wasn’t our idea, but what the Uruguayans wanted us to do was to explain deconstruction.”
N OT SURPRISINGLY, some people would like to see deconstruc-tion stay in Uruguay.
For one thing, the field is strewn with hard words and notions, and deconstructors haven’t always been conscientious about keeping the path clear. They also delight in wordplay, which can make their ideas even more complicated.
Several of the tropicritics, allegedly so free-spirited, are forever writing about what ”we” feel when ”we” read Rilke, as if their sensibilities were attuned to the pulse of the age. The reader’s irritation may lead to more thoughtful doubts. It’s often said, for instance, that the radical skepticism of Derrida and his friends about what words ”mean” is far too impatient with the multiple, practical functions of language. Moreover, the writings of the deconstructors themselves obviously ”mean” certain things.
From the political left, growing bands of literary critics have been castigating deconstruction at Yale as an empty, elitist, bourgeois game. A notable recent example is the British Marxist literary theorist Terry Eagleton, whose ”Literary Theory: An Introduction” has become something of a campus best seller. Eagleton (who has a fairly straightforward agenda in what he writes: as a Marxist, he would have literature change society) says the deconstructionists’ obsession with the self-immolation of texts is sheer escapism. Plenty of academic deconstructionists, Eagleton adds, who have been furthering the deconstructive work of earlier academic deconstructors are engaged in nothing more than ”a mirror-image of orthodox academic competition.”
As for the political right, it’s probably safe to say that deconstruction drives neoconservatives mad. At a neoconservative academic conference last spring, for instance, Peter Shaw, a professor of English, roused his audience at New York University to lusty approval when he warned that deconstruction and other post-structuralist excesses were demolishing traditional values and meanings. Shaw also compared the new intellectuals’ personal style to the ”moralistic,” ”intimidating” and ”elitist” tactics of the New Left during the 1960’s. He sounded as if deconstruction were a kind of nerve gas designed to complement the conventional megatonnage of Marxist-Leninists. He and other writers have used neoconservative journals such as Commentary and The New Criterion to spread the alarm.
Rene Wellek, a distinguished intellectual historian and critical theorist who retired some years ago from Yale, is one prestigious name that has joined in the attack from the right. He has written that J. Hillis Miller’s typically Derridean reference to nihilism as ”an inalienable alien presence within occidental metaphysics, both in poems and in the criticism of poems” is a boast of Miller’s own ”allegiance to nihilism.” The doctrine of ”the prisonhouse of language” (words referring only to other words) is absurd, Wellek says.
He has written in another essay that ”the blurring of the distinction between poetry and critical prose, the rejection of the very ideal of correct interpretation in favor of misreading, the denial to all literature of any reference to reality are all symptoms of a profound malaise.”
At least a few other detractors of deconstruction tend to see professors of English as frustrated poets and novel-ists. One of them is Vicki Hearne, a Yale poet and teacher who has been described by her colleague John Hollander as ”an animal trainer who reads Wittgenstein.” Sitting one recent evening in a booth at New Haven’s Anchor restaurant, her thick-nailed fingers wrapped around a glass of whisky, she suddenly exclaims that she respects Derrida himself, and Bloom, and de Man, because at least they are ”people who have something at stake when they write criticism, the way a poet or a novelist has something at stake.” But, she says, a lot of other critical Yalies strike her as mediocre, scarcely better than clever graduate students.
Criticism, in theory, might be as great a game as poetry or philosophy. ”But I’d like to see them put their money where their mouth is,” she says of squads of academic literary interpreters. ”The fact remains that their prose is execrable, and if it’s litera-ture it’s bad literature and if it’s philosophy it’s often lousy philosophy.”
Vicki Hearne is an oddity at Yale. She has no doctorate and no plans to get one, but a couple of years ago some senior people in the English department liked her poetry and considered her smart, and they offered her a job as an assistant professor (”only the Yale English department could get away with something like that,” she says). Vicki Hearne really is an animal trainer; she trains dogs and horses, and she writes what she calls ”a weekly metaphysical animal column” for The Los Angeles Times. She used to live in the high desert of southern California, and it was a shock moving to New Haven. There are too many trees, she says. It is all too green, too lush. She can’t think.
I T’S TIME TO SEE GEOF-frey H. Hartman – sometime poet, prolific essayist and one of the original Non-Manifesto Five – and let him answer these potshots.
It isn’t easy getting to Hartman. The comparative-literature department (where he can be found) has its offices in the tower of Bingham Hall. But the elevator to that tower is generally locked. To lure someone from upstairs to come down to unlock the elevator, one must first find the emergency telephone, which is bolted to the outer wall of the entrance next door to Bingham’s main entrance, and dial the department’s number. Unfortunately, comp lit has only two phone lines and they’re both busy. A man with a package to deliver arrives, waits, curses and departs. At length, a woman appears in the doorway and says she ”had a feeling” there might be someone downstairs.
She escorts Hartman’s visitor through a gothic hallway furnished with nothing but a case of empty beer bottles. (Does Derridean D-Con knock out roaches?) ”There are student dormitories on the first four floors,” the woman explains as she starts the elevator with her key. ”So we have these keys. I assume there’s a security problem.” (Beautiful old Yale sits in the middle of a very poor American city, and things get stolen.) Hartman’s office is a low-Romantic chaos of books. Hartman is famous for his erudition. (”He knows everything,” Prof. Patricia Meyer Spacks, the chairman of the English department, remarks later.) There are so many books that there is no place to put a tiny Styrofoam cup of coffee.
Hartman sits behind his desk, his back to the window.
He nods to various political objections to deconstruction, concedes that the French are apt to toss their critical coconuts too playfully, and he speaks of the Bible and some Jewish themes, a growing interest of his. He responds softly, rationally. He makes Les Critiques des Tropiques sound almost ordinary. This is especially interesting because deconstruction originally seemed such a hard, strange, tooth-breaking sort of nut. Might it, after all, have a humanistic core?
Left and Right: He feels obliged, now that he is in his 50’s, to involve himself in public matters, but he wants to do politics his own way. ”We’re caught in a squeeze play between the neoconservatives and the New Left,” he says. Conservatives (”fundamentalists and foundationists,” he calls them) suffer from ”the anxiety of frontiers” when dealing with thinkers such as Derrida and the late Michel Foucault, a French structuralist historian. The radical new skepticism, and impatience with the ethnocentricity of conventional history and literary criticism – these trends look like nihilism and revolution to a lot of American intellectuals. This is natural, he explains, but overdrawn. Certain Continental thinkers refuse to be labeled ”humanists” because the word smacks of complacency and habitual middle-class categories of thought. No big deal.
Conservatives imagine, he says, that there is one bedrock truth beneath a text, but there is more. ”I think that hermeneutics and literary studies are essentially antifundamentalist or antifoundationist,” Hartman says. Schools, he adds, should not deaden texts by insisting on one proper interpretation. ”It needs, sometimes, generations to understand a text. Think of Shakespeare. Think of the commentators on the Bible. They had to amend the text and pass it on with certain questions. And you become aware that a text is a constructed thing.”
Students are drawn to such ideas not because of any special doctrine but because the new ideas are interesting, Hartman says. Naturally, some teachers have objected. ”For them, it’s a fight for the soul of the students.”
As for charges from the left that deconstructors are elitists, he sighs. He recalls having been attacked by one ignorant fellow when he attempted to add the Bible to a group of select literary texts. The Bible was a racist, sexist document, the fellow said. But even less benighted lefties tend to like their literature clothed in determined meanings.
Coconuts: Yes, some ”bad jokes” are being tossed about, he admits. Some of the wilder new criticism is ”variable in quality.”
”You could charge Derrida with being too cute and deliberate, too self-conscious,” Hartman says. Why do deconstructors behave this way? ”They want to give off signals, sexy signals,” he replies, ”that they don’t want to be controlled by particular forms of discourse. And that can be a bad habit.” Hartman’s own style has been described as playful in the extreme. But he seems otherwise as he sits in front of his office window with his red sweater on and his white beard fluffy against the light.
Derrida might go too far, he says, but who else, he asks, smiling, would have thought of doing a book like Derrida’s ”Glas,” which is printed in two parallel columns of quotations: one from Hegel, the other from the literate French criminal Genet. One has to admit, he says, that Derrida is ”a fascinating episode in the history of criticism.” Hartman likes the idea that responsible commentary in the largest sense can take creative forms. ”Criticism is only the tip of the iceberg,” he says, ”the visible part of commentary.”
Religion: Hartman’s interest in commentary has led him to the Hebrew Bible, the text that has attracted more commentary than any other. He has also urged biblical literature on students from a sense of ”intellectual equity” – pagan and Christian writers (Homer, Milton, and so on) are well represented. Hartman as a young man fled his birthplace in Frankfurt, Germany, because his family was Jewish; he has since helped start Yale’s Program in Judaic Studies.
What is it that Hartman resembles? An owl! The light behind him has cast his face in shadow and surrounded it with the pale fire of his hair and beard. He looks like a snowy owl. (It is only later, uncannily, that comes across Hartman’s essay ”Centaur: On the Psychology of the Critic,” in which he spends little time on centaurs – an image for the philosopher-critic – but much time on owls. Remember the boy in Wordsworth’s ”Prelude” who ”blew mimic hootings to the silent owls,” and how the real owls hal-looed back? Remember Thoreau’s owls, in which Thoreau rejoiced because their ”idiotic and maniacal hooting” was so ”admirably suited to swamps and twilight woods . . . suggesting a vast and undeveloped nature which men have not recognized”? Hartman does.) Now Hartman is running late. There is so much more to talk about, he says as he hurries through the building’s beery lobby and onto the icy quad. Consider, he says, the deep suspicion that many English and American scholars harbor toward practically anything Continental. Who? Who? But there is no time.
There is truth in what he says about cultural nationalism. As Prof. Martin Price -a learned Yale scholar-critic of 18th-century English literature and the modern novel – says over lunch, ”My gut feeling is not to trust anyone who has read Heidegger.”
N IHILIST?” RE-peats Prof. J. Hillis Miller, the closest -personally and professionally – to Derrida among the Yale critics. The charge makes him angry. It is a total misreading. (One can, obviously, still misread and misinterpret critics who deny that texts have stable meanings.) Miller is sitting in a booth at the Naples Pizza, a regular hangout for tropecritters. He is eating a French doughnut. It is Saturday morning and too early for anchovies.
”I remember de Man looking me in the eye,” Miller recalls, ”and saying, ‘For me, the most important questions are religious questions.’ So much for ‘nihilism.’ ”
Miller himself is a lapsed Baptist whose father was a Baptist minister, and he says he retains the low-Protestant eye that dislikes stained-glass windows and ritual, that prefers the world natural and clear. He has just written a book, he says, on ”the ethics of reading.” It explores the ways in which novelists such as Henry James have reread their own works and adorned them with prefaces. He’s planning a second book on the ethics of reading. So much for nihilism.
It is curious, Miller says, how he and his low-Protestant tradition have run smack into the old New Criticism, whose spirit is decidedly high-Protestant and Anglo-Catholic. He thinks it is interesting, too, that three of the five contributors to ”Deconstruction and Criticism” -Bloom, Hartman and Derrida – are Jews who have found medieval Midrash (rabbinical explanations of the Scriptures that sometimes roam far from apparent meanings) and cabala (a body of occult Jewish doctrines) more or less compelling models of interpretation.
Miller wears a gray beard. The frames of his glasses are colorless. He speaks precisely, and in several ways is the most formidable of the Yale critics. He is a ”wildman,” but also a close reader and careful writer. These talents, as well as the surging fortunes of deconstruction, help account for his elevation to the presidency of the Modern Language Association.
If Miller and his colleagues have caused a panic by running rational riot through time-honored genres and periods – well, says Miller, what can you do? Dull clubs need shaking up. In other respects, he says, the alarm is exaggerated, as when Miller and Derrida and some others are charged with saying that words are a meaningless cobweb referring to absolutely nothing external. ”It’s not that nothing is referential,” Miller says, ”but that it’s problematically referential.”
If the critique seems opaque, so does literature, Miller says. There is an irreducible ”strangeness” about it. In physics, which Miller studied as an undergraduate, he expects nature to be complicated, and he expects no less of literature.
H AS THE STUDY OF literature at Yale been hijacked by philosophic terrorists, as some claim? Has criticism there grown intolerant and coercive? One wanders the campus, listening to professors and graduate students, and there is a sense of insistent doctrines in the air and a certain counterlonging for an end to controversy.
Yale has grown wild, no one doubts it. But amid the creepers and the crawlies, a lot of English majors are still being taught to read more closely, and they are still moving on to jobs and law schools and wherever college graduates move to these days, with their brains unrotted.
Fair numbers of graduate students, moreover, have been stimulated, but philosophically unconverted, by the French colonial presence. Donna Heiland, for instance, a Canadian, is editing a volume of Boswell’s correspondence as her doctoral dissertation. Pamela Schirmeister is doing her dissertation on Melville, Hawthorne and other American ”romancers.”
As for the faculty, Patricia Spacks, the English department’s new chairman, has been writing about humble forms of discourse such as gossip and personal letters. (Gossip has it that Pat Spacks became the department’s first female chairman because of her solid scholarship and ability to see the other person’s point of view; she is not a deconstructor.) Vicki Hearne, the animal-training poet, says her great ambition is to rid Yale of Handsome Dan. ”I think it’s disgusting,” she says, ”that an American university has a mascot that is not only an English bulldog but is a deformed creature that is the product of the fevered fantasies of 19th-century English aristocrats – when in fact the pit bull, or the American bull terrier, also called the American bulldog, is a dog whose bloodline is thousands of years old, celebrated in prose and cartoons by no less than James Thurber.”
From France, Derrida says that, starting next month, he will be at Yale for five weeks. Until then he cannot discuss philosophy or politics or his American cult over the telephone. ”As you can imagine,” he says amiably, ”all this is very controversial, very dangerous, really.” Is it true that he and Bloom were born on the exact same day? ”This is a factual question,” Derrida replies. ”I answer with no hesitation. I was born on the 15th of July, 1930.” But that was four days after Bloom, he is told. ”He is older than me, he has more experience,” Derrida says – and in any case, Bloom is no deconstructor. Might Derrida abandon deconstruction when he reaches Bloom’s age? ”Perhaps,” the philosopher answers.
The venerable Bloom, who has heaped such scorn on Yale, is asked where, after all, one might best study literature. ”If somebody asked me,” Bloom replies (why does he say that? someone has asked), ”I would say Yale University, alas.” HOW DECONSTRUCTION WORKS Deconstruction, which derives from the teachings of the French philosopher Jacques Derrida, dominates the thinking of the Yale critics and has spread through the English departments of other American schools. Here, J. Hillis Miller, a critic and one of the leading deconstructors at Yale, gives a deconstructionist explanation of a phrase from Milton. Shee as a veil down to the slender waist Her unadorned golden tresses wore Dissheveld, but in wanton ringlets wav’d As the Vine curls her tendrils, which impli’d Subjection . . . – ”PARADISE LOST,” IV, 304-308 DECONSTRUCTION is by no means just one more ”method” of reading. It is a transformation of ways of thinking and doing that coincides with wide-ranging changes going on in Western societies today. Deconstruction therefore has many dimensions – institutional and pedagogical, familial and sexual, political and juridical, even theological and scientific.
All of these dimensions are involved when I, for example, read Book IV of Milton’s ”Paradise Lost” and come upon the phrase ”as the Vine curls her tendrils.” The phrase occurs in a 100-line passage of extraordinary beauty describing Satan’s first view of Eden, and within that of the Garden of Paradise, and within that of Adam and Eve: ”Two of far nobler shape erect and tall.” Adam’s ”Hyacinthin Locks” do not fall below his shoulders, but Eve’s hair falls as a veil to her waist.
The passage describing Eden has both moved and troubled many readers, among them John Ruskin and William Empson. Milton’s language, here as so often, goes against the apparent intention of his argument, so that it is impossible to say decisively that it says only this or that.
On the one hand, Milton tries to incorporate Eve within the general economy of creation, to say that like Adam she is still unfallen and free to fall or not. Although in her, as in Adam, ”the image of thir glorious Maker shon,” they are ”Not equal, as thir sex not equal seemd”; she is made for subjection to Adam and to God through Adam: ”Hee for God only, shee for God in him.” On the other hand, the echo in ”the Vine curls her tendrils” of an earlier description of Eden – of ”umbrageous Grots and Caves/ Of cool recess, ore which the mantling Vine/ Lays forth her purple Grape, and gently creeps/ Luxuriant” -places Eve in the general disheveled and untamable luxuriance, or ”wantonness,” of Nature. This wantonness is a figure for the luxuriance of Milton’s poetic power, present here in what Ruskin called the ”pathetic fallacy” of personifying inanimate nature. Eve’s disheveled wantonness means that she has in effect already fallen when we (and Satan) first see her, whatever Milton may say about those tendril curls implying subjection. This makes it impossible to include her in the general scheme of creation – in fact, it puts her above Adam or outside his control and identifies her with Milton’s independent power of poetry. Eve’s curling tendrils imply independence as well as subjection. Within the phrase ”as the Vine curls her tendrils” is the interference of one meaning with another, of figuration with theology, independence with subjection. A critic who is not a deconstructor might reconcile the diversity in the phrase or in the poem by finding an ”organic unity,” or by subordinating one meaning to another, or by absorbing the divergent meanings. Such a critic might, for instance, argue that Eve’s disheveled wantonness is only a momentary suspension of the harmony of creation (and of Milton’s poem), that this deviation is corrected when Eve turns back to Adam and to God through Adam.
In a deconstructionist reading, the two meanings are asymmetrical and irreconcilable, like rhetoric and logic. Such doubleness is only one of the things deconstruction finds in texts. To identify such an interference in the words is far from implying that the reader is free to make the phrase mean anything he or she likes. — By J. Hillis Miller
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