SCOTS: WE’LL DO IT OURSELVES, THANK YOU . . . The scoffers-delight literary theory known as deconstruction, “staggering about for 20 years like a decapitated, one-eyed hen . . . has never much influenced Scottish writers, who have their own tradition of skepticism,” says Alistair Fowler in Times Literary Supplement (TLS) 8/20/04 review of Christopher Whyte’s Modern Scottish Poetry (Edinburgh). One of these Scottish poets, Norman MacCaig, he says “was too well educated to follow such a fashion.”
Whyte’s book “teems with ideas,” says Fowler, who retired in ‘98 as professor of English Lit at U. of Virginia. Head deconstructionist Jacques Derrida (whose recent passing was mourned publicly by another Jacques, Chirac) he calls “the prophet of aporia” – a word that calls for elaboration.
Various sources say aporia, a word of Greek origin, refers to the difficulty in establishing truth, confusion in establishing the truth of a proposition, or as a postmodern term, putting it in a favorable light, wonder and amazement before the confusing puzzles and paradoxes of our lives and of the universe (!). Socrates and other ancient philosophers tried to evoke the philosophic spirit in young men by awakening their aporia, not by simply providing answers to these puzzles. In other words, beware the philosopher.
Whyte assumes “interest in language” to be ipso facto deconstructive, so that MacCaig’s “a hen stares at nothing with one eye” becomes a pointing to “the ambiguous status of language, conveying meaning by stating the impossible.” (Yes!)
WHAT’S THAT YOU SAY? . . . Meanwhile, the late Derrida is chewed up and spit out by an Economist obituary writer on 10/21/04:
The inventor of “deconstruction”—an ill-defined habit of dismantling texts by revealing their assumptions and contradictions—was indeed, and unfortunately, one of the most cited modern scholars in the humanities, says the obit.
His work was impossible to critique, he himself said – credibly because he was obscure and self-contradictory. Socrates knew the type, said the obituarist. “If you ask one of them a question,” he said of Heraclitus and his followers, “they draw out enigmatic little expressions from their quiver, so to speak, and shoot one off; and if you try to get hold of an account of what that one meant, you're transfixed by another novel set of metaphors. You'll never get anywhere with any of them.”
Serving up “weak puns” such as “logical phallusies” (yuk-yuk), “bombastic rhetoric and illogical ramblings,” he was nonetheless “sincere and learned . . . if confused.” (Again The Economist.) He had what some in academe were looking for, however, especially American comparative literature teachers, among whom his thinking “became interwoven with Marxism, feminism and anti-colonialism.”
Derrida’s fellow Frenchmen stopped trying to figure him out in the early ‘80s, but not Americans, who (apparently in the spirit of the Music Man) embraced his “impenetrable new vocabulary” with its added benefit of not “having to master any rigorous thought.” Armed with Derrida, they seemed to think they had undermined or refuted “the notion of objective truth.” Derrida denied his ideas did that, but unconvincingly, since “his work could not easily be interpreted in any other way.”
Then came Derrida’s deconstructionist defense of two philosophers revealed in 1987 as one-time Nazi sympathizers – Paul De Man and Martin Heidegger – the first a leading disciple of Derrida, the other one of his earliest inspirations, “laying down a fog of convoluted rhetoric” and looking very bad in the process. “Deconstruction means never having to say you're sorry,” quipped the NY Review of Books.
NO SPICKA DA PSYCHO . . . The Austrian novelist Robert Musil (1880-1942) was not about to analyze himself a la Freud. “As a sceptical scientist, he rejected Freud’s theories as unsubstantiated speculation,” said Philip Payne, reviewing Robert Musil: Eine Biographie in TLS 8/6/04.
FULL OF FUN . . . The conversation of William Godwin (1756-1836), The Apostle of “Universal Benevolence,” was full of “futile sophisms in jejune language,” said Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who was himself known for scintillating conversation. The reformer was apparently a bore.
ZIP A LIP . . . Rev. Michael Becker, a Philadelphia priest, has “seldom if ever” heard gossip confessed. But telling another’s faults is OK only if the other is “a danger to the community,” he said in a 9/10/04 letter to Commonweal.
DO AS HE SAYS . . . David Crystal rejects standardizing of English but uses standard English throughout his The Stories of English (Allen Lane-Penguin) in part because he couldn’t get it published otherwise, but in the process seems “only theoretically sympathetic to non-standards,” says reviewer Tom Shippey, TLS 8/20/04.
Pursuing the standardization business, Shippey wonders how vowel shifts and the like make it to “the Oxford-Cambridge-London ‘Golden Triangle’ . . . infiltrating the BBC and the media.” Same goes for American and Australian language. We may ask how usage gets to networks. Baseball announcer Joe Garagiola said “on [not for] the season,” as in hitting .300 on, not for the season; and by reason of his energy and personality and popularity it took hold.
Shippey finds Crystal’s “sentiments . . . perfectly sound” but notes that they are neither arguments nor analyses. Nice distinction there. He teaches at St. Louis U., wrote JRR Tolkien: Author of the Century, 2000, and was editor of Oxford Book of Fantasy Stories, 1994.
ERIN GO MUSLIM . . . The IRA foot soldier envisions a “pure ethno-state of extremist-republican fantasy,” suggests John Derbyshire in Claremont Review of Books, Summer '04, reviewing and praising RF Foster's book, WB Yeats, Vol. II, The Arch Poet (Oxford). It's a lost cause, Derbyshire adds, in a "euro-ized, globalized" Ireland of today, asking us consider the seven mosques now standing in the Republic. Seven?
PRAISE INDEED . . . The poet and essayist John Dryden “elastically paced the limits of a dry and well-packed mind,” said Mark Van Doren.
BENCH IT . . . "Spot-on" is due for early retirement, having passed the mildly irritating state and entered the very irritating on its way to the grindingly chalk-scraped-on-blackboard stage, after which there is no redemption. Too bad. The first million times it had cachet.
RARE IS GOOD . . . Gardener Andrew Fairservice in Scott's Rob Roy, "no friend to the ladies," calls women "slices of the spare rib,” says, "I keep up the first gardener's quarrel to them."
EARTHY . . . Not Dante but (the younger) Boccaccio dubbed Dante’s commedia “divina,” having understood it as grand and its characters exalted, says Gabriel Josipovici in an 8/6/04 TLS letter. This divinizing by Boccaccio “signals the first romantic reading of Dante,” which is “not at all ‘grand’ in this sense,” but “down to earth in its language, precise and plain – and all the more powerful for that.”
Reviewer Barbara Reynolds responded: Grand characters yes, including Vergil, his guide through hell. Language down to earth yes, like Boccaccio’s. Boccacio appreciated it and had more in mind that exalting, not to say divinizing, the commedia. Rather, he spent years resuscitating it in the view of people of Florence, who had ignored it.
HE’S SO HAPPY . . . In the novel 360-Flip, by Molly McGrann (Picador) are “wounded and sollipsistic characters,” says reviewer Laura Barber, TLS 7/9/04. McG describes the “American Dream-Nightmare.” Nothing like happens in Hugh Hefner’s life, according to the Sun-Times religion writer who showed there is something new under the sun by interviewing HH about his belief in God and spiritual values. (He walks in his garden having noble thoughts.) Out of merde comes something, however, in HH’s recalling the affection-free household he grew up in. He’s been dying for affection ever since and knows how to get it.
CRUEL . . . The novel Canarino, by Katherine Buckness, “like its main character, is devoid of pleasure,” writes Terri Apter, TLS, 7/9/04. It “lingers in the mind,” as the cover blurb promises, but “with a bitter after-taste.” The heroine’s “inability to love her children,” for instance, “crosses over to the unbelievable.” She realizes that “they discover they want things when they see her and . . . are unpredictable, lurching towards her with a hug, even when they are wet,” and so neglects them. They make “terrified adaptation” to the situation. Grim book here, like Hugh Hefner’s life as a child.
GETTING READY . . . In A Complicated Kindness (Counterpoint), Miriam Toews has a Manitoba Mennonite heroine characterize her people’s situation: “We are supposed to be cheerfully yearning for death and in the meantime until that blessed day, our lives are meant to be facsimiles of death or at least the dying process.” (TLS, 7/9/04, review by Stephanie Cross)
MISUNDERSTOOD . . . Most people don’t like irony: The “Free Indirect Style is misunderstood,” as Michel Foucault employed when discussing sexual liberationism, which he was lampooning in La Volonte de savoir in 1976, says reviewer Jonathan Ree, TLS 8/13/04.
ON THEE I SING . . . Sun-Times reviewer Mark Athitakis 9/19 says he found “engaging and thoughtful exegesis on Elizabethan burial rituals” in the Stephen Greenblatt bio of Shakespeare, Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare. But an exegesis is an explanation of something. He uses it as if it were “riff” (transferred from musicology) or “meditation,” which may be the word he was looking for.
ENOUGH ALREADY . . . Was it redundant for Democrat political consultant Don Rose to say in 9/19 Chi Trib that emphasis on voter polls – “detracting” from the issues, he said, meaning distracting – is “more than redundant”? I’d say so.
PLUGGED . . . Will all those who want to read “a creative novel that bends time, space and language,” as headlined in Chi Trib book section 9/19, please write your congressman or get Cloud Atlas, by David Mitchell pronto? Not only does this book bend time etc., but its “various parts . . . are virtually unrelated by events [though] strongly tied by themes,” a subhead says. No standardized English either, I bet.
POKED IN FACE . . . The recent Society of Midland Authors award winner Positively Fifth Street, about playing poker, flies in the face of the time-honored requirement of literature, that it suggest rather than spell out, leaving most details to the imagination, which is all too ready to supply them, even when scatological or gruesome. It’s why this book is boring as well as offensive.
Instead, this author, James McManus, indulges in endless comment, leaving no thought unexposed to our all too forgiving perusal. With ourselves, when tempted to go and do likewise, let us not be so forgiving.
HOPE FOR US ALL . . . Authors such as Dan Brown (DaVinci Code) and Michael Moore (numerous filmed cartoons) should attach a memo to each book or performance saying, “You can make this up. I did!” as encouragement to auteurs, provocateurs, foolers and liars everywhere.
Response from a sadder but wiser English major of the 90s:
John & I were discussing the death of Jacques Derrida just the other day. John has a long-standing distaste for deconstructionism. Me, I lived it!
It took me 6-8 years to realize and admit that I spent many wasted hours wading through the mud of Derrida, Heidegger, and many other Marxist, feminist, and anti-colonialist theorists. For a long time, I thought I just didn't have the right kind of mind to navigate their essays, but that there must be some truth that I just hadn't grasped. My English Lit professors at Swarthmore certainly presented them as roadmaps for reading the "primary sources."
How very affirming to read Alistair Fowler call Derrida "the prophet of aporia," and then to learn from you what that means!
Aporia, a word of Greek origin, refers to the difficulty in establishing truth, confusion in establishing the truth of a proposition, or as a postmodern term, putting it in a favorable light, wonder and amazement before the confusing puzzles and paradoxes of our lives and of the universe (!).
That is what I experienced. And I wish I had spent more hours reading books. If I ever look for a good English Lit program again, I will certainly look for more of a focus on "primary sources" (including both classics and new literature) and the teaching of writing.
- posted by Blithe Spirit @ 10/25/2004 11:08:51 AM