Yale's Fab Four

Deep in the Heart of Texts

October 21, 1981

A local wit once told me that New Haven was the American capital of two isms; literary criticism and transvestism. As a Yale grad student, I saw daily proof of the first, but the second was a puzzle. America's top transvestites, I was told, flocked to New Haven to stay at a certain motor inn and eat at a certain diner. Why, then, hadn't I ever seen any?

"That's easy," my witty friend replied. "If you're a really successful transvestite, of course you don't look like one."

The same might be said of literary critics: the better they are, the less they look like themselves. The finest critics of the past—Dryden, Johnson, Coleridge, Arnold, Eliot—demand to be read as artists; their commentary comes detached from, and sometimes even overwhelms, the "creative" work it comments on. No one complains: those great men wrote plays and poems as well as criticism, and besides they're dead. But how do you respond to a crew of hard-core academics who flaunt their criticism as if it were creation?

If you're a run-of-the-mill lit. professor, teaching remedial English in a one-horse burg like Oshkosh or New York City, you mutter something nasty about New Haven. Not since the early '50s has the mention of that unprepossessing town (or its principal university) evoked such knee-jerk outrage from academic critics who have the good fortune to be employed elsewhere. Thirty years ago the tsk-tsks went to Cleanth Brooks, W.K. Wimsatt, and the other avatars of New Criticism. They wrote unconventional, unsettling books; they wrote them with, for, and about each other; and they revolutionized the reading and teaching of literature all over America.

Now in the hinterlands it's fashionable to deplore a new gang of Yalies who are shaking up academe with an even more profound revolution than their precursors'. Next time you meet a provincial lit. professor, try dropping the name of Jacques Derrida, Geoffrey Hartman, Paul De Man, or Harold Bloom. Chances are his eyebrows will rise, the corners of his mouth will turn down, and he'll ask something judicious about the "value" of what they do.

Yale's new Gang of Four has no label. They're certainly not structuralists; structuralism is as passé as hydropathy. They're no semioticians; they leave that to the purple-haired ephebes at Semiotext(e).Derrida and De man are often called deconstructionists, because Derrida devised deconstruction and De Man deconstructed him almost at once. But deconstruction is big in Oshkosh now; the avant-garde has moved on into nameless territory. And Bloom, as always, like the cheese at the end of the nursery rhyme, stands alone.

Strictly speaking, Derrida isn't a literary critic, nor does he belong to Yale. He's a philosopher, and his home is the Ecole Normale Superieure in Paris, where he teaches the history of his proper discipline. But for several years he's been traveling to New Haven to offer seminars, and from the American point of view he's indelibly tarred with the Old Blue brush.

If any single person deserves credit (or blame) for having instigated the current shake-up in American literary criticism, it's Jacques Derrida. His influence has been slow to catch on here, thanks to long delays in translation, but it's already widespread and growing. Next month the University of Chicago Press will add Dissemination(tentative price, $22.50) to the shelf of Derrida in English, completing the splendid triad of books that a decade ago announced to the world of philosophy that Heidegger had a successor.

Published in French in 1972, Disseminationrounds off the critique of "logocentrism" begun in 1967 with Of Grammatology (Johns Hopkins, $24.50, $6.95 paper) and Writing and Difference(University of Chicago, $20, $6.95 paper). Its three large essays—on Plato, Mallarme, and Phillippe Sollers—supplement Derrida's earlier deconstructions of Rousseau, Freud, Artaud, and others by showing that, from classical Greece to the present moment, Western philosophy and literature have been centered on the logos—the self-present plenitude of the living, speaking voice.

Speech came first, and writing—dead, different, poisonous writing—followed after; so runs the tale of logocentrism. Deconstruction, as Derrida performed it, plots this tale through any text—finding the belated, external thing always already there at the center, unveiling a trace of the necessary supplement at the heart of original fullness. Any text: Derrida treats literature as philosophy and philosophy as literature. The deconstructor knows no discipline, adheres to no genre; he stands simultaneously inside and outside them all. He is constantly, as the computer scientists say, jumping out of the system, even when that system is the text that he himself constructs.

Derrida's early work resists this lust in his technique, but his more recent books have aggressively surrendered to it. There is already a trace of his now-past future in Dissemination's "Outside the Book," prefaces about prefaces; but deconstruction here still looks like a method, something you could learn or at least ape. In 1974, in his probably untranslatable Glas, Derrida jumped out of that system for good. Since then, he's been dancing.

Glas is the Finnegans Wakeof what, for want of a better term, has to be called criticism; it combines literature, philosophy, autobiography, and a heavy dose of Space Invaders. The "book" is "about" Genet and Hegel, but its two-columned, multi-type-faced, polyglot pages not only refuse translation and proper naming; they also can't be read—not, at least, in the usual sense of "reading," another deconstructible system.

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