The Literary Salon

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Friday, October 20, 2006

Blindndess and Insight

(This post is probably my most arcane one yet, but I will try to make it intelligible, in the short space, to most readers)

I was reading, believe it or not, Paul de Man's Blindness and Insight recently. He has the distinction of being probably the only "Deconstructive" critic still read (and even that's a stretch). Having something of a New Critic/Formalist background, I was interesting by his comments on the dead end of either approach (though I think he confuses the philosophies with the actual practices). He shows, quite logically, how the New Criticism/Formalism of I.A. Richards and his disciple William Empson breaks itself down. In other words, if you push their logic far enough, it will say something they didn't wish to say, namely, that poems are so ambiguous an differential that there is nothing unified about them (in like manner, Hume took Locke's epsitemology to its logical extreme, saying, in effect, "if you believe this, you must then believe this. Similarly, the post-structuralists differ from the structuralists only in that the latter believed that meaning was the product of differences only, and the former took this to its logical extreme).

In any case, arguing against de Man is something that requires much patient though and effort, things I am in short supply of right now. However, he did say something fairly straightforward which made me pause. In a 1970 essay on the New Critics/Formalism, de Man maintains that it is because of the logical inconsistency of the New Criticism that it had not (within 30 years or so) produced any lasting works of criticism. That was 36 years ago. Now, from a safe distance, we can make a similar pronouncement: though people still read Derrida, and Deconstruction has left its mark on literary studies (and other areas), I can't think of one single lasting work of Deconstructive literary criticism. Names like Hartmann, Hillis Miller and, to a lesser extent, de Man are rarely if ever mentioned anymore. Conversely, people still read Empson and Cleanth Brooks, both of then New Critics writing in the 30s-50s. I respect de Man's logical rigour, and I'm not sure if I agree (or understand) with everything he says, but this is an instance of blindness on his part.


Anonymous RK said...

I think that the difference in what people read now is a factor of fashion. The guys who did "all that French stuff" (including the Murrcans who took it over) are now at the nadir of "oh man, that's so over". While Cleanth and Co. are, like, antique and thus colectible again. De Man I recall as a fine thinker. Barthes I love as an artist of the mind. Derrida is scarily intelligent when he's doing his real thing and not posturing in California. Foucault had the guts to wait eight years between vol. I and vol. II of the History of Sexuality and to do the whole thing again because he realized he'd been wrong. And two you may not have looked at are worth a side-trip: Georges Bataille, who went farther into the taboo than any serious thinker/writer I know; and the most magisterial of them all, the sublime Maurice Blanchot. I should add that they are ALL much better read in French. The only one I know who can compete in English was Geoffrey Hartman -- and he was German! (A colleague of mine once heard GH say, with the utmost seriusness, that he had seen the Spirit of Poetry, and that it was hovering somewhere wbove Rhode Island.)
The reason all these guys are so hard to argue with is that they were the products of a first-class French education -- which includes philosophy in high school, at the very least. And Derrida and Foucault were professional philosophers. This means they can think small elegant rings round most of us literary dorks and blunderers. It also means you cannot and do not "deconstruct" literary texts, ever. "Deconstruction" applies to metaphysics. The point, said Derrida (who followed and extended Heidegger), is that you cannot fight metaphysics from without, as yhou are always already inside it. So you can only "deconstruct" it, patiently, from the inside, by remiving one brick at a time until the edifice collapses on top of your grandchildren's grandchildren (that last bit is mine, not D's).

6:45 p.m.  
Blogger Pious Labours said...


you're not alone in saying that these thinkers are better in French. I've recently been reading Barthes and Benveniste (a terribly underrated thinker) in French, even though mine's less than perfect, and it's much, much better: it's actually clearer and more elegant. English translations are terrible and more complicated. Don't even get me started on translations of Racine!! Horrible and dry.

Foucault and Derrida, at their best, are great, and de Man has a rigour that can't be beat. It must be said though that some of them (not so much de Man) have their silly moments.

As I think Dr J will agree, the problem is not these thinkers, but the "literary dorks" who have misappropriated and bastardized them. I seem to remember Derrida denouncing some of these literary "deconstructionists" in an interview.

Hartmann: never read him, but that's a name you don't hear anymore.

9:09 p.m.  

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