Yale's Fab Four
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 pastDryden, Johnson, Coleridge, Arnold, Eliotdemand 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, Dissemination rounds 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 essayson Plato, Mallarme, and Phillippe Sollerssupplement 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 logosthe self-present plenitude of the living, speaking voice.
Speech came first, and writingdead, different, poisonous writingfollowed after; so runs the tale of logocentrism. Deconstruction, as Derrida performed it, plots this tale through any textfinding 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 Wake of 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 readnot, at least, in the usual sense of "reading," another deconstructible system.
But Glas can be criticized, which Geoffrey Hartman has done in his latest book, Saving the Text: Literature/Derrida/Philosophy (Johns Hopkins, $12.95). Like Derrida, Hartman has grown fecund in the heady air of post-deconstruction. Just last year he gave us Criticism in the Wilderness: The Study of Literature Today (Yale, $18), where he coolly stepped outside the Anglo-American tradition of criticism, which he called "sublimated chatter." In Saving the Text he still interprets, still explicates, but the sportiveness of his subject-text leads him to something like playtoying with dualisms, letting them flip unexpectedly into each other.
Criticism in the Wilderness was dedicated to Hartman's students, but Saving the Text is "For the Subject"Derrida, of course, with whom Hartman has been known to have lunch, but also the capitalized Subject, the object of subjection. He plays with Derrida's subjects as well as with his own, and he's obviously been lunching with Harold Bloom, too, since he comments on Bloomian favorites like Gershon Scholem, kabbalism, and Bloom himself. As the Yale critics advance they join hands, enriching each other mightily but also turning rather coyly intramural.
There's no coyness about Paul De Man, however. Germanically meticulous and icy, De Man is the outsider even within the dancing circle. He's the tester of truth, the rigorous tribunal, and an uncommonly unprolific writer, having produced only two books in the last decade. Already in 1971, in Blindness and Insight, he has digested deconstruction and metacriticized it, turning the avant-garde back upon itself at a time when the avant-garde had barely gotten started. Two years ago, in Allegories of Reading (Yale, $22.50), he confirmed his place with Nietzsche and Derrida among the "Archie Debunkers" of Western thought.
That phrase is a rare playful stroke from De man. His dense, formidable deconstructions of Rousseau, Nietzsche, Rilke and Proust are uncompromising in their purity as well as their demands; in his unamiable way, De Man is the most radical of his bunch. Harold Bloom calls him the "prince of deconstructors," confessing that of all critical theorists (After Nietzsche) Dem Na "troubles and wounds" hi most. This may be because, as Bloom says, De Man sees in all authentic poetry and criticism a rehearsal for "the random, meaningless act of death." But it may also be because the troubled, wounded persona of Bloom the creative critic requires the figure of De Man to give it pain.
I've been quoting from Agon: Towards a Theory of Revisionism (Oxford, January, $19.95), the latest in the almost yearly succession of books (everything from a science-fiction romance to a study of Wallace Stevens) that Bloom has been cranking out since The Anxiety of Influence (Oxford, $12.95, $4.95 paper) in 1973. Agon returns to that book and its next successors, A Map of Misreading (Oxford, $14.95, $4.95 paperback) and Kabbalah and Criticism (Continuum, $6.95, 1975), supplementing and revising them. Bloom is now, like Freud, his own most important precursor. Everyone makes him anxious, especially his colleagues at Yale, but in this book, at last, his worst anxiety is inspired by himself.
Bloom belongs to no school and doesn't care (so he says) if he founds one. He's his own Yale department, and though he drops the names of all his fellow Yalies in a cordial, clubby way, he does so only to set himself apart from them. Bloom practices what he calls Antithetical Criticism, an intellectual bouillabaisse mixing Freud, Gnosticism, classical rhetoric, American patriotism, and emphatic Jewishness. To read him is a vertiginous, invigorating experience, but it's doubtful that it "teaches" you anythingexcept how to cavort with the mind of Harold Bloom.
There's the rub. Hinterlanders resent the New Haven avant-garde for its frank cliquishness and air of privilege, but the most common argument voiced against it is a practical one. The four critics I've discussed here share more than a place of employment: their pugnaciously playful manner, their unabashed difficulty, their refusal to don the old critic's mask of servant to creative originalityall these outrages strip them of the "usefulness" and "value" than American academic criticism has pretended to throughout the 20 th century. If you can't use a critic, what can you do with him?
You can dance with him, as I've suggested, but if the new Yale critics teach any lesson it's that you'd better not let them lead. Home-grown "structuralists" used to glut academic journals and conferences; today they've been replaced by flat-footed deconstructors a la Derrida and weak misreaders who strain to seem as strong as Bloom. This is distasteful, but time will probably cure it. Meanwhile, the ethical implications (if there are any) in the work of Yale's newest critics go unexplored by them and unrecognized in the provinces. We're left, perhaps forever, with the outrageous fact that these writers offer pleasurerare and special, arcane and strenuous, but pleasure even so.
Who'd have ever thought that professors would do that?
Get the ICYMI: Today's Top Stories Newsletter Our daily newsletter delivers quick clicks to keep you in the know
Catch up on the day's news and stay informed with our daily digest of the most popular news, music, food and arts stories in New York, delivered to your inbox.