Text: Douglas Robinson, “Dogmatizing Discourse,” Poe Studies / Dark Romanticism, December 1986, Vol. XIX, No. 2, 19:35-41


[page 35:]

Book Reviews

Dogmatizing Discourse

Evan Carton. The Rhetoric of American Romance: Dialectic and Identity in Emerson, Dickinson, Poe, and Hawthorne. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1985. ix, 288 pp. $25.00.

Ross Chambers. Story and Situation: Narrative Seduction and the Pou“er of Fiction. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984. xxii, 279 pp. $14.95, paper.

Ken Frieden. Genius and Monologue. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1985. 211 pp. $19.95.

Jefferson Humphries. Metamorphoses of the Raven: Literary Overdeterminedness in France and the South Since Poe. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1985. xix, 196 pp. $25.00.

It is one of the great ironies of radical discourse that the more persuasively it presents its challenges to the reigning ideology, the more likely it is to supersede that ideology as the new orthodoxy, the new authoritarian discourse to be dislodged by a new generation of radicals. So fared the New Criticism, which taught my high school teachers how to teach me literature — though by the time I entered college in 1972 the edifice was already crumbling under the combined assault of phenomenology, structuralism, psychoanalysis, myth criticism, and so on, and by the time I started on my Ph.D. in 1981 it was already defunct.

And the same thing now seems to be happening to deconstruction. The fifties were the decade of dogmatization for the New Criticism, when a new set of interpretive practices were transformed into an institutionalized belief structure; the seventies, or the late seventies and early eighties, were (in America) the period of dogmatization for deconstruction, when Derrida’s assaults on the metaphysics of presence became the new metaphysics of — well, of absence, but an absence which (as Derrida would of course cheerfully admit) assumes the ideological function of presence. To believe in nothing, and to interpret all beliefs as fundamentally a belief in nothing: thus is Derrida vulgarized by his dogmatic imitators. With such vulgarizations in the air, the end is surely near (though predictably, it delays).

I am certainly not the first to point out this dogmatization of Derrida; attacks on deconstruction as the new formalism, the new orthodoxy, the [column 2:] new normative interpretive institution, are legion. But as Gertrude Stein says, there is no repetition, only insistence.(1) And I insist on this new orthodoxy in the face of four new booka, all very different, all mining different intellectual traditions — historicism in Frieden, Richard Chase’s notion of self-conscious American romance in Carton, structuralism in Chambers, Southern literature in Humphries — but all through the lens (much filed and shaved at) of deconstruction, which seems to be the lens to use. Is it? Is deconstruction now unavoidable!

All four authors use Derrida (Heidegger, Lacan, Bloom, and so forth) creatively, to work to integrate deconstructive (anti)concepts into their own pressing methodological concerns, some more successfully than others (in Carton it is virtually flawless; in Humphries it is flawed but much more interesting for its flaws). But what does this fact say about the future of deconstruction? Is the institutionalization of a set of interpretive practices a good or a bad thing? Should we be content or troubled to see graduate students flocking in the tens of thousands into the latest trendy critical camp? Personally, I am troubled; but that may have something to do with the fact that not too many years ago I was one of those graduate students flocking into the deconstructive camp: I wrote my own dissertation, in 1983, in the same trans-Derridean mode as Evan Carton’s (give or take), and it appeared in book form, a few months after his, on the same publisher’s list.(2) But of that, more later.

For now, note Frieden’s introductory remarks: aDespite my disclaimers, some readers will misunderstand Genius and Monologue as a history of ideas” (p. 7). It is not one, he says; it just “considers key words and literary forms associated with inspiration and individuality” (p. 23). He does do it in the grand tradition of intellectual history — maybe not as “solidly” as Lovejoy and Curtius and Auerbach and company (intellectual solidity is one of the things Derrida insistently puts under erasure, as Paul de Man used to say), but in much the same way. He traces the concepts of genius and monologue from Socrates’ daimonion, through Philo on angels and Satan, Shaftesbury, Addison, and others on genius, to Heidegger and Derrida on monologue. Then he shifts from philosophy to literature: Shakespeare, Coleridge, Poe, and the modern internal monologists. This work is very neatly done; the two key words are excellent choices, excellent mates, just surprising enough to make the obviousness of the juxtaposition a discovery.

One of Frieden’s models, I would imagine, is [page 36:] Auerbach on figura.(3) But another is Heidegger on the pre-Socratics (and Derrida on Heidegger and everybody else): the bringing of etymology to bear on philosophical problems, not in the discredited historicist mode of Auerbach, but heuristically, rhetorically, hermeneutically. What Frieden is manifestly trying to do is to update or revivify a discredited scholarly tradition, and he puts distance between himself and the tradition for rhetorical reasons: not because he is so different from Auerbach in fact, but because he does not want readers to assume that is all he is doing.

This rhetorical maneuver is tried and true, and I certainly have nothing to say against it. What nags at me as I read Frieden is that the negative tradition of Heidegger and Derrida is really not much of an addition to the old historicism. Deconstruction has been institutionalized so easily in American critical circles because Derrida and company are ultimately in pretty fundamental agreement with their historicist and other “metaphysical” predecessors on key discursive issues (monologue and dialogue, especially, as I will argue below). Hence, finally — and the apparent irony here is only apparent — Frieden uses Derrida to help tame his key words, “genius” and “monologue,” into a tidy monological history.

He does so most clearly, I think, in his treatment of monologue. He says in his introduction that “On the level of discourse, monologue is a turn away from dialogue. The language of an individual is monological to the extent that it deviates from dialogical conventions of speech” (p. 17). But I am not sure I know what he means by “dialogical conventions of speech.” Certainly speech tends to be dialogical, but do we have “conventions” of dialogical speech? Because Frieden never broaches theoretical inquiries into either aconvention” or “dialogue,” it is hard to tell. I am also not sure whether he is simply paraphrasing the above (offering a synonym for “conventions”) when he says that monologue is a deviation from dialogical norms, two paragraphs down:

Extraordinary language philosophy comes into being when, unable to secure its authenticity, the singular subject allies itself with phenomena of linguistic deviance. Radical mono-logofl arises as a divergence from norms of ordinary dialogical language; internal speech is only the most familiar form of solitary language, distinct from and yet associated with semantically isolated modes. While internal speech is not necessarily deviant, literary monologues are typically bound up with difference, as if the monologist had an inherent tendency to deviate. At the same time that monological swerves produce illusions of individuality, the achieved individual expressions threaten communal norms and tend toward [column 2:] meaninglessness. (pp. 17-18)

I for one am not aware that there are, or ever have been, any dialogical norms in the West. The norm as far as I know has always been monological. In fact, more than monological it is logical, “logocentric” Derrida would say, the Logos, the single all-encompassing, all-creating Word of God, which is pure and unified and ideally resistant to scattering. The scattering of tongues at Babel was a turning away from (or falling out of) the monological norm set in Eden, but ever since we have been trying to get back, trying to imitate the high purity of the Logos, trying to pare off all dialogical complexity and reachieve the ideal divine monologue.

Frieden is in fact centrally concerned with a mythic “fall” of this sort and in his first two chapters looks closely at precisely the Platonic and Old Testament accounts of the shift. But the concepts of monologue and dialogue remain strangely opaque, largely, as I say, because Frieden does not deal with the problem of norms and deviations. “According to Hegel,” he writes, “the daimonion turns Socrates inward, away from Athenian norms, and makes Socrates a forerunner of modern subjectivity” (p. 28). Not only does Frieden nowhere establish what the Athenian norms were (or ask whether such a thing can be established), but he also nowhere even wonders how we can determine their normality apart from the Socratic act of deviation. Did the norms exist in Athens, just waiting for Socrates to come along and deviate from them, or did Socrates’ deviation teach us to imagine a set of norms as a calculus-fiction, to explain his deviation as a deviation, after the fact?

The historical myth Frieden sets up proceeds along roughly Derridean lines. Hayden White would call it ironic, in his adaptation of Frye’s mythos:(4) the first stage (Biblical) is dialogue on God’s terms, in which the human reply is introjected into the divine Logos (which is to say, monologue in disguise); the second stage (Romantic) is human monologue, in which the divine Logos is introjected into human solitary speech; the last stage (modern, via Derrida) is the impossibility of monologue. Monologue disappears up its own deconstructed fundament. And yet — and here I think Frieden’s reliance on the combined institutionalized methods of historicism and deconstruction begins to let him down — monologue continues, in Frieden’s voice, or in the voice Frieden borrows from two and a half millennia of philosophical, theological, and scientific discourse, the one voice that is no voice, the Voice That Tells The Truth. Frieden elucidates the impossibility of monologue [page 37:] in modern discourse; but does so monologically.

In the passage I cited earlier Frieden claimed, “At the same time that monological expressions produce illusions of individuality, the achieved individual expressions threaten communal norms and tend toward meaninglessness” (p. 18). But that is really only rarely true. It is true only in a few iconoclastic cases, where artists defy communal norms of monologue (not dialogue), univocal norms of clarity, rationality and the like, and push monologue to an extreme where meaning begins to break down. Mostly monologue is ritualized, institutionalized, tamed in the bourgeois image of the Enlightenment (or of Aristotle): be clear, be reasonable, be logical, be decorous (do not swear for God’s sake), speak in a single unified voice, and depersonalize that voice until you no longer speak, but the voice of truth (institutionalized genius) speaks through you.(5)

Thus, I believe, Frieden ignores far too much of the intellectual history of his key word “monologue“ — largely because, I think, his history is itself monological. Monological method blinds him to his complicity in what he describes. I am deconstructing Frieden, of course, but I think not in an entirely Derridean mood; my conclusion is not that Frieden was destined by différance to err in this way, or that all anybody can do is go round and round the same circles forever, but the opposite: that a few steps out of the institutionalized analytical games that Derrida shares with the intellectual historians might have opened his eyes to the dialogical complexity of real speech, to the possibility that there are ways out — there are other ways of understanding things, other modes of knowing which lie beyond the reach of the monological inscription: intuitive understanding, understanding through laughter or tears — bodily understanding, emotional understanding. Visionary understanding (Frieden’s subject) often gets reduced to the univocity of monologue, once the single true interpretation has been imposed on the cacophonic and “caciconic” dream sequence, but it need not be reduced like that. And I would deny Frieden’s basic assumption, his totalizing assumption that modern literature is fundamentally and increasingly monological. It is only if that is what you are looking for.

Poe too provides good examples of monological genius, of course, and in his chapter on Poe Frieden discusses several of them: the narrators of “The Tell-Tale Heart,” aThe Black Cat,” “The Imp of the Perverse,” “MS. Found in a Bottle,” and aThe Cask of Amontillado.” But that is not all Poe provides. Again, that is just all Frieden is looking for. Frieden never even mentions the dialogues, [column 2:] for example. The mesmeric revelations, the angelic colloquies — these may just be monologues in disguise, as we will see Evan Carton arguing in a moment, but Frieden does not seem to be aware of the problems they pose for his argument.(6)

In fact, he seems in his readings of Poe tales to be more concerned with deviant genius than with monologue. For example, he quotes the narrator of “The Imp of the Perverse” as saying “For weeks, for months, I pondered upon the means of the murder,” and comments that this speaker, as well as that in aThe Tell-Tale Heart,” “break accepted conventions by employing the definite article, where ‘the idea’ and ‘the murder’ have not been previously explicated. If we read these narrators as mimetic characters, their linguistic deviations may be signs of defective mental processes. From another perspective, however, ill-formed syntax is a contradiction embedded in the narrative by Poe, to enhance the contradictions in the narrator’s account” (p. 164).

This reading is fairly typical of Frieden — and of his uncritical invocation of adialogical conventions” and “dialogical norms.” Not only is it an old novelistic convention to use “the” with no previous reference, a way of putting the reader in the middle of the action, but real people also do it all the time in speech, start in with “the” without first referring to the thing they are talking about, when they break from thought into speech carelessly, without dressing their words up in conventional grammatical norms.

And in any case, conventional grammatical norms are themselves only monological fictions, maintained by the monological ideology that is trained into us early on and enforced by Western linguistics, imposed by that ideology onto the creative interaction of real speakers in order to minimize innovation, inadvertent or deliberate. “Ordinary dialogical language” has always been the other in Western language theory, the uncontrolled and possibly uncontrollable locus of creativity that the monological tradition has always sought to bring to heel — Derrida to the contrary, of course, who says that writing is the other and speech is the logocentric favorite.(7) But that has only been true of idealized speech: divine speech, speech as the speaking of the all-creating Logos, borne on the breath of God. It has never been true of real speech, what people actually say; real speech has never interested logocentrists, not even contemporary logocentric linguists (discourse analysts, say), who are not interested in what people say, but what idealized (monologized) patterns they can extract from what people say.(8)

Interestingly, Evan Carton, who promises only [page 38:] to elucidate American romance, sheds more light on monologue and dialogue in Poe in passing than Frieden does in his entire chapter. Here is the kind of thing Frieden should have been writing, for example, from Carton:

It may strike us that the relation between mesmerist and subject, as described here, mirrors Poe’s relation to many of his deathly and supersensitized visionaries and suggests, as well, his desired relation to his readers. The mesmerist may be seen as a type of the manipulative artist, ironically detached even at the height of his apparent involvement with his subject, which many readers (those who have not taken him for the obsessed visionary) have taken Poe to be. (p. 65)

This lays the groundwork for a study of genius and monologue in Poe. As does this:

Indeed, “The Colloquy of Monos and Una,” whose initial interrogative — “Born again?“ — suggests the conflation of baffled infancy and spiritual transcendence, betrays its own pretense to linguistic viability in the names of its principals; the indifferentiation of Monos from Una challenges the need and the possibility of the dialectic upon which colloquy, and language itself, depends. Una’s early voice, always echoing or anticipatory, soon yields entirely to Monos, and the colloquy becomes a monologue. (pp. 79-80)

Carton’s project in The Rhetoric of American Romance might, as I suggested earlier, be described as an attempt to rewrite Richard Chase’s The American Novel and Its Tradition (which is to say, to rewrite Frye on American literature) via Derrida9 — an Americanized, yalized and johnshopkinsized Derrida, of course. Derrida’s absence is everywhere present in Carton’s argument:

Emerson’s sentence [the last from “Experience”] finally yields no epistemological claim for romance, although it initially appears to be proceeding toward one, nor does it deliver the eschatology that it has certainly heralded. “Genius,” in the end, does not unite with essence but is transformed, instead, into apractical power.n And power is potency, or potential, which implies transformation while it defers realization [that’s vintage Derrida, of course, la di“ranec]. Romance, in Emerson’s construction, foretells a potential transformation and harbors a transformative potency: it dwells, that is, in possibility, in dialectical process or self-conscious quest. Its crucial difference from Spirit . . . is that it dwells, ineluctably, in language. (p. 4)

Expression, then, the poet’s single means to realize and possess an elusive inspiration, inevitably thwarts its own purpose, distorts or destroys its originating impulse, and substantiates only loss. (p. 44)

Still, Carton does not do to his chosen texts what so many American deconstructors do to theirs, reduce them inexorably to the same tiresome [column 2:] image of self-contradiction, their rhetoric to the same trope of inversion. As he sets up his intertextual passage through the works of Dickinson, Emerson, and Poe in Part One (too complex, in the best tradition of deconstruction, to summarize), and then turns to Hawthorne in Part Two, the different authors remain distinguishable, even (though sometimes just barely) recognizable in terms of older readings. Carton deconstructs texts, but he does not deconstruct them to death — to gray anonymity. One might even say he retains some sense of writerly personality — that despised bourgeois fiction for orthodox deconstructionists. Or, perhaps, rather, the notion that the major writers of the American Renaissance were all proto-deconstructors has become so orthodox that Carton does not have to argue it any more, but instead can narrow in on their divergent deconstructive gifts, their various talents for distorting and destroying and so on. For example,

Poe’s fiction, then, resists definition as a method of filling or of emptying the category of the real, a mode that establishes truth as its origin and end or one that obliterates the notions of origin and end and enshrines pure artifice in the void [orthodox essentialist and deconstructive readings, respectively]. Rather, it is an expression of and a response to the amalgamation of truth and artifice that Eureka identifies as the world’s originating and informing principle: the necessarily derivative and “abnormal” (xvi, 210, 265) representation of God. . . . Poe’s universe is permeated by truth but is constituted as fiction. (p. 154)

That strikes me as being right on the money. Carton reads deconstructively, but not dogmatically; he is willing to allow Poe some vestige of historical otherness.

I will not summarize his readings of Poe tales; let me just say that they are almost always “new” readings, and that “newness” in his interpretive practice does not mean facile ingenuity, as it too often does in the most dogmatic of deconstructionists, but rather surprising and persuasive link-ups with American cultural and intellectual trends of Poe’s day (as in Irwin, whom Carton does not cite either). His reading of William Wilson as UPoe’s foremost exemplar of the self-reliant Emersonian individual, the creative sayer (and writer) who would enjoy a wholly original relation to the universe” (p. 36), is a case in point; but he does “MS. Found in a Bottle,” aThe Fall of the House of Usher,” “Loss of Breath,” “The Oval Portrait,” and “The Man That Was Used Up” equally well, with constant flashes of insight, constant turns that open up new perspectives on much-read tales, or that open interpretive avenues into little-read tales like “Loss of Breath” and “The Man That [page 39:] Was Used Up.” Other readings of Poe tales — aThe Domain of Arnheim” and aLandor’s Cottage,” “Ligeia“ — did not seem to me quite as interesting and fruitful, but that may just be a matter of personal preference; the book in any case is full of exciting material for Poe scholars, as for scholars of the American Renaissance in general.

My one serious criticism of Carton’s book is that it is at least implicitly sexist, that it remains uncritical of the male-dominated canon that enshrines a certain kind of complexity (which we have recently learned to call self-deconstruction) as the definitive criterion for inclusion among the great works. I say this diffidently, since I am aware that my own American Apocalypses commits the same sin: the pill neither book can swallow is a writer like Harriet Beecher Stowe, who simply does not fit into the canonical construction of a self-conscious amainstream” American Renaissance, and so must be spit out. Uncle Tom’s Cabin is both an American romance and an American apocalypse, but it is not a proto-deconstruction, so neither Carton nor I could say anything about it. It is propagandistic, it is sentimental, and it is written by a woman, to and for women. So it is out: unserious, unmajor, unimportant.(10) I could not find a mediatory icon in it, and Carton certainly could not find his brand of high-powered self-deconstructing romance in it.

Again I return to my old plaint: Derrida has been dogmatized so readily in recent years because he is ultimately not a particularly radical thinker, ultimately not substantially critical of metaphysical tradition; in fact, he rather seems to like it, to feel at home in it, like mistletoe in the oak tree (to invoke the parasite metaphor deconstructors and their detractors alike promote).(11) Derrida is a brilliant, exciting parasite on the metaphysical tradition, which is also the analytical, rational, logical tradition, which is also, I would claim, the patriarchal tradition of Western discourse. Certainly there is nothing in dogmatic deconstruction that would encourage a recognition of the sexism of one’s analysis; analysis, after all, is analysis, the way things are done, the way thoughts are thought, the way sense is made of things in the West. The way, the unified, universal, transcendental, monological way, which is to say, men’s way, or rather Man’s way, the way of Man, that depersonalized patriarchal ideal.

Am I making too much of a small point? To judge from recent feminist critiques of the theory industry, no. Why is it, as so many feminists have insisted, that the tolerant pluralistic atmosphere of current theoretical debate is intolerant only of feminism? Could it be because feminism is truly radical, does offer real alternatives to the monological [column 2:] tradition whose impossibility Derrida and his legions are so content monologically to iterate? Because feminists are urging their colleagues to step out of the old intellectual ways and means, to stop being satisfied with the old games (which get more and more self-conscious but, as long as they are all defined monologically, do not really change), to look around at the personal/political reality around (and in) them that their analysis-generated structures had concealed from their view?

In this sense, to move from Carton’s Rhetoric of American Romance to Ross Chambers’ Story and Situation is to jump from the fat into the fire. What Carton does, he does well. No matter what our opinion of monological deconstruction, Carton puts it to good use. Chambers seems very much out of his depth. He is working in the structuralist tradition, back in the transitional mode of the sixties, in fact, back in that time when structuralism first began to gesture toward semiotics and Rezeptionsasthetik and to be transmogrified into deconstruction. Here is a fairly typical passage: aIf readability (or interpretability) is the power literary texts have of producing meanings, a power achieved by virtue of the reification of literary discourse into ‘text,’ then seduction is the inevitable means by which the alienated text achieves value by realizing its potential of readability” (p. 13). Literary texts, which Chambers reifies as active agents, possess a potential essence or power called readability, and they actualize that potential by seducing the reader — or rather, by harboring a textual feature that seduces whatever reader happens to come along.

Chambers’ approach is, of course, vaguely reminiscent of half a dozen more or less recent theoretical trends — especially, perhaps, Wolfgang Iser’s notion of the implied reader from the midseventies(12) — and it seems to be Chambers’ intention to synthesize much of what has been said on several theoretical fronts into a coherent, inclusive system (the old monological ideal: a single explanation for all the facts, one truth, one word, monologos). In order to do that, of course, he has to introduce a new distinction or two, along with the new terms that distinguish his distinctions from everybody else’s distinctions. Chambers is an unabashed dualist, structuralist, analyst, and wouldbe empiricist (on page 28 he wonders how arepresentative” his acorpus” is) who firmly believes that there are two kinds of everything; he proliferates oppositions like nobody’s business. (There are two kinds of people: those who say there are two kinds of people, and those who do not.) Having redefined Barthes’ distinction between “readerly” and “writerly” texts in his own rather opaque way (the [page 40:] old argument that analysis is necessary for clarity’s sake always seemed to me a bit fishy: who can keep straight all those finer and ever finer distinctions analytical thinkers typically go in for?), he goes on to distinguish between literary and nonliterary discourse, narrative and narratorial authority, duplicitous and self-designating narration, narrational and figural embedding, and so on.

Chambers goes on for forty pages before he gets down to showing what his oppositions can do to texts. Pure theory first, the structure of reality in the abstract, and only then the descent to the slum of practical interpretations. It takes a hardcore theory freak to keep reading.

But then there are plenty of those to go around. That I am not one is probably not Chambers’ fault. He is “normal,” plugged into the monological norms of the West; I am the deviant one and probably should apologize for not liking his book. But I do not think I will. (In fact, I kept rubbing my eyes and glancing back at the first words I read about this book, Wlad Godzich’s opening lines in his foreword to it: “Ross Chambers is a critic of modest pretensions: Eschewing the current tone of theoretical pronouncements, he prefers to analyze the way in which stories make their point” [p. xi]. If this is modesty, God save us from critical arrogance.)

Very briefly, what Chambers is trying to do is to open up structuralist narrative theory to the “transaction” between the writer and the reader, which he reductively images as seduction. (Do texts only seduce?) This transaction might be thought of as a dialogue between real people, writer and reader, except that that would be rather unscientific, real people being unstable variables that science has never felt very comfortable with. (Nor has any logical metaphysics, for that matter: it is no coincidence that Plato gave us both dialectical logic and the first great totalitarian utopia. The logical attempt to stabilize all variables always implies and ultimately demands conformity to the robot ideal.) In other words, because Chambers wants to remain a structuralist, he has to bring the transaction into the text — has to reify intentional and interpretive acts as textual facts.(13) Thus he yields literary transaction as pure structure, no messy, chaotic unpredictable people — which is, of course, right where the structuralist wants to be.

Chambers devotes his third chapter (first interpretive chapter) to an analysis Of aThe Purloined Letter,” which, it will surprise no one to learn, he comes to via Lacan and Derrida.(14) His thesis, as he summarizes it himself, is that aDuplicity versus self-reference as artistic modes form the very substance of ‘The Purloined Letter’ when [column 2:] one chooses to read it in terms of narratorial authority, and as a text concerned with its own illocutionary situation” (p. 53) — which of course neatly shazams interpretive choice into textual substance, a move typical of the book. “Illocutionary situation” (“illocutionary relationships” and the like) is a term Chambers never defines; he seems to assume that it is semantically transparent or unproblematic.(15) The chapter is substantially a restatement of the Lacan-Derrida debate in terms of Chambers’ coinages, which do allow him to dissociate, for example, the duplicity of Dupin’s narration from the self-referentiality of the general narration — which I suppose is a good thing to have done, if one cares about such matters.

My problem is, I guess, that I do not. Chambers has written his book for people who actually believe in Barthes and Benveniste and the rest, and his Poe chapter for people who believe that the Lacan-Derrida debate is the seminal statement of the story’s key issues. People who believe — not think, or assume, or suppose, but believe, doctrinally. Chambers is working in a dogmatic tradition; (post)structuralist semiotics is not one of many straitjackets to strap reality into but the truth, normal science, a representation of the universe whose reliability is not even in question. For someone who shares those preconceptions, Chambers’ book may have something to offer, new insights, useful new critical tools. For me, it was just more of the same.

Jefferson Humphries’ Metamorphoses of the Raven both is and is not more of the same. Humphries too works in an institutionalized deconstructive tradition, but he is-too much the Reb (in the best sense of that word) to work in it slavishly. I have never seen anybody explain the French Poe the way he does, or rather the translational interchange between France and the South, Poe to Baudelaire to Mallarme to Valery to Faulkner and Tate to Appollinaire and Rene Char, and so on. If Carton’s book was The American Novel and Its Tradition rewritten with an eye on Derrida, Humphries’ book is The French Face of Edgar Poe rewritten with an eye on Derrida, Lacan, and Harold Bloom.16 And like Carton’s book, when this one works, it really works. The tropic creativity of translation is a wonderful tool for explaining what happens when Poe crosses the Atlantic and then returns, half a century later, transmogrified in weird and uncanny ways. (One of the things Humphries offers is the makings of a totally new theory of translation, one that is no longer dedicated to norms of equivalence; unfortunately, he does not take it much past the makings stage.)

But Humphries is not only a Reb — he is a [page 41:] Southerner, and not only a rebellious one. When he says that “an adapted and modified Lacanian paradigm will provide a theoretical framework for the readings that follow” (p. 4), he does not mean aparadigm” in the linguistic sense he gives in the glossary, he means “paradigm” in the Kuhnian sense: he is doing normal science, testing and expanding on the paradigm generated by Lacan, the revolutionary scientist.(17) It is Lacan’s Schema L, from the ecrit on the treatment of psychosis,(18) which Humphries transforms ingeniously (p. 28):


This point is really the main one he wants to make, and if you look at it long enough, the schema does make a lot of sense. It opens up new perspectives on Poe and the French. It is good, a useful critical device. Out of Poe’s problematic relationship with both his own Northern birth and the country’s cultural topheaviness, or Northheaviness, is born a new Southern literature that engages the French symbolists in ways that Emerson never could; and the dotted line back from the French to Poe suggests something of the power of retroactive literary history, or what Harold Bloom calls the necessity of misreading.(19) Once Baudelaire and Mallarme have taught us to misread Poe as they did, he no longer is merely the Poe of Richmond, Virginia; he is also the French Poe, whom Humphries, coming out of Bloom, can explain as Quinn, coming out of historicism, could not.

The only problem I have with Humphries’ schema is that he rather egregiously overuses it. It is provocative, interesting, even exciting, the first time you see it; after he has sprung it on you for the tenth and then the hundredth time, over and over again, it begins to pall. In fact, the schema is rather like the raven that marks the beginning of each chapter:(20) the schema comes to mark the end of an interpretation and the advent of a new text, to have a semiotic rather than a representative function. And because he does not bother to comment on how he has put each schema together, it becomes a kind of game that the reader is invited to play — try to figure out what I am trying to say in this one or, if you do not feel like [column 2:] playing, just move on to the next interpretation. Sometimes the point has already been made, and the schema is superfluous; sometimes the point is embedded only in the schema, and the reader is left to construct the point any which way (these are the enjoyable ones).

It may not need saying, but Humphries does not say much about Poe, qua Poe — about the writings conceived in terms of New-Critical autonomy, or about the writer conceived as a historical personage, a man who happened to live in a certain place and time, the old, boring, predeconstructive approaches to literature. In principal, anyway, his approach is intertextual; what has been done with Poe on both sides of the Atlantic, in France and in the South. I say in principle, because only Poe and his first French readers (Baudelaire, especially) are really treated intertextually; Humphries soon slides back into rhetorical analyses of individual American and French texts that continue the tradition in some way. Even the Lacanian schemata soon become mere tools of textual analysis, charts for the symbolic and other “structures” of the texts he examines. It is hard to hold onto the “purity” of the intertextual project as it is pursued by, say, Harold Bloom. All too soon, despite all the high-powered terminology, despite ever fancier and finer distinctions, despite ingenious diagrams, things start sliding back into New Criticism.

Of course, as any deconstructor worth his or her puns knows, that ideal of purity is itself suspect. But what in place of purity? Impurity as the new purity? What does that mean? What else is there?

My own suggestion is that we start looking past the monological inscription that teaches us the importance of purity, unity, clarity, and economy, at the messiness and the unpredictable political and personal power of real speech. For me, recently, that means writing in dialogue — when the noms will let me. For Rachel Blau DuPlessis, it means writing collectively, in fragments. For Joanna Russ, it means blurring the old Cartesian distinctions between fiction and non-fiction, subjectivity and objectivity. For Susan Griffin, Robin Morgan, and a host of other feminist innovators, it means writing in a wide range of personal voices, styles, and forms, whatever best seems to elicit the richness of an experience, the intensity of an anger or a love.(21) What do you think? Any ideas?

Douglas Robinson, University of Tampere


[page 42:]


1 - Stein, “Composition as Explanation,” in Look at Me Now and Hcre I Am: Writings and Lectures 190915, ed. Patricia Meyerowitz (1967; rpt. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1984), pp. 21-30.

2 - American Apocalypsee: The Image of the End of thc World in American Literature (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1985).

3 Erich Auerbach, “Figura,” in Scencs from the Drama of European Literaturc, trans. Ralph Mannheim (New York: Meridian Books, 1959), pp. 11-76.

4 - White, Metahistory: The Historical Imagination in Ninctcenth-Ccnturv Europc (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1971); and Northrop Frye, “Theory of Myths,” in An Anatomy of Criticism: Four Essays (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1957).

5 - Mea culpa, here, on two counts. I originally wrote this review essay dialogically, in order to enact the point I was trying to make discursively — and the piece was sent back to be rewritten monologically, not because there is anything inherently wrong with dialogue, of course, but because my dialogue sacrificed clarity to complexity, decorum to abrasiveness, scholarly credibility to personal intensity. But let me cite the reader that Poe Studies sent my (solicited) essay to: “No matter how sympathetic a reader might be with Robinson’s antipathy to institutionalized monologue and the motives that lead him to make this subversive gesture with his dialogic form, the gesture itself is too weak to be worth the sacrifice of clarity and economy on several counts: 1) It is easily dismissable as simply ‘too obvious,’ ‘too cute.’ He runs the risk of not being read — which, presumably, he wants to avoid,” and so on. Yes, anything that does not knuckle under to institutionalized norms of monological clarity does run the risk of not being read; therefore, let us by all means avoid rocking the boat. So I am guilty of rocking the boat (with this note, here, though no longer dialogically). More than that, I am guilty of what the existentialists used to call bad faith: monologically criticizing Frieden for monologically elucidating the impossibility of monologue — which is why I had to include this note. Submitting to being muzzled can still be productive if you leave signs of a struggle.

6 - This may be the place to note that Frieden has not done his homework on Poe and Poe criticism. Not only has he not read John Irwin’s American Hieroglyphics (New Haven: Yale Univ. Presa, 1980) and the other deconstructions of Poe relevant to his chapter — indeed he has hardly read anything on Poe. The only sources he cites are David Halliburton, Edgar Allan Poe: A Phenomenological View (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1973) and a piece by John Carlos Rowe, “Writing and Truth in Poets ‘Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym,‘” Glyph, 2 (1977), 102-121. He covers writers like Plato and Philo and Shakespeare better, but even there most of his secondary sources are from the fifties and sixties. In fact, of his ninety-three secondary sources, only two were published after 1980; only twelve after 1975; only [column 2:] twenty-six after 1970 — strange in a 1985 book.

7 - See especially of Grammatology, trans. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1976), Part I.

8 - See, for example, R. M. Coulthard, An Introduction to Discoursc Analy“i. (London: Longman, 1977); W. Edmondson, Spoicn Diecourec: A Model for Analysis (London: Longman, 1981); or Lauri Carlson, Dialogue Gamce: An Approach to Discourse Analysis (Dordrecht: D. Reidel, 1985).

9 - Chase, The Ameriean Novel and Its Tradition (1957; rpt. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1980).

10 - I am thinking, of course, of recent feminist rereadings of “classic” or “canonical” American literature and its long history of excluding women, especially women who, like Stowe, nre sentimental or propagandistic. See especially Jane Tompkins, “Sentimental Power: Uncle Tom’s Cabin and the Politics of Literary History,” in Elaine Showalter, ea., The New Feminist Criticism: Essays on Womcn, Literature, and Theory (New York: Pantheon Books, 1985), pp. 81104; and, more generally, Nina Baym’s “Melodramas of Beset Manhood: How Theories of American Fiction Exclude Women Authors,” pp. 63-80 in Showalter; and Joanna Russ, How to Suppress Women’s Writing (Austin: Univ. of Texas Press, 1983). One gets quite a different picture of “American Romance” reading Carton’s book and, say, Janice Radway’s Reading the Romanec: Womcn, PatriareAv, and Popular Literature (Chapel Hill: Univ. of North Carolina Press, 1983).

11 - See, for example, J. Hillis Miller, “The Critic as Host,” in Harold Bloom et al, Deconstruction and Criticism (New York: Continuum, 1979), pp. 217-253; and Jacques Derrida, “Limited Inc abc . . . ,” trans. Samuel Weber, Glyph, 2 (1977), 162-254.

12 - See Iser, The Act of Reading: A Theory of Aesthetic Response (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1978).

13 - This move, of course, is made by all “scientific” thinkers, for whom all aunanalyzed” (read unidealized, undepersonalized, unstabilized) matter is anathema. It is also, interestingly enough, the move repeatedly made by the supposedly phenomenological reception theorist Chambers relies heavily on, Wolfgang Iser, who is actually more of a structural positivist than a phenomenologist. I discuss Iser in these terms in my aReader’s Power, Writer’s Power: Barth, Bergonzi, Iser, and the Modern-Postmodern Period Debate,” Criticism, 28 (1986), 307-322. Norman Holland’s transactional theory of reader response offers a useful counterpoint to these scientific reifications; see, for example, aA Transactive Account of Transactive Criticism,” Poetic“, 7 (1978), 177-189,or “Literature es Transaction,” in Paul Hernadi, ed., What is Literature? (Bloomington: Indiana Univ. Press, 1978), pp. 200218.

14 - See Jacques Lacan, aSeminar on ‘The Purloined Letter,‘” Yale French Studies, 48 (1973), 39-72; and Jacques Derrida, “The Purveyor of Truth,” Yale French Studies, 52 (1975), 31-113. For an excellent discussion [page 43:] of both readings, see Barbara Johnson, “The Frame of Reference: Poe, Lacan, Derrida,” Yale French Studies, 55-56 (1977), 457-505; rpt. in her The Critical Difference: Essays in the Contemporary Rhetoric of Reading (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1980), pp. 110-146.

15 - I take it Chambers is using “illocutionary” to at least gesture toward a speech-act approach to language, an approach that stresses not the structure of language but what people are trying to do in saying something. The term is, of course, J. L. Austin’s from How to Do Things with Words, rev. ed (London: Oxford Univ. Press, 1980). Austin talks of the aillocutionary force” of an utterance; the usual terms for what Chambers calls the aillocutionary situation” (if I understand him right) are aspeech situation” or “language-use situation.n If an Uillocutionary relationship” means anything, it must mean a relationship between people, people doing things to each other with words, as opposed to an abstract structural relationship between concepts.

But as I see it, that real relationship is precisely what Chambers the structuralist cannot touch (analysis by definition always discards reality early on as aunanalyzed matter”). Another way of saying the same thing might be that Chambers follows John Searle in Speech Acts: An E“sav in thc Philosophv of Languapc (Cambridge: Cambridge Un*. Press, 1969), and Emile Benveniste in Proble‘mce de lingui“tiQuc gencralc (Paris: Gallimard, 1966 and 1974) in reducing speech acts from what people actually do to each other in real dialogical situations to textually controlled (or controllable) speech act types, abstract analytical (monological) patterns. To do so, of course, guts the rhetorical force of Austin’s theory: “illocutionary” as Austin’s “followers” beginning with Searle use it refers not to what a real person tries to do with a word in a real situation (which cannot be Uknown,” that is, empirically stabilized, experimentally controlled, and so lies beyond the analytical pale) but the abstract function of the word in the null context (a clever coinage by which formal linguists make no context seem like the purest context of all). For an excellent discussion of this idealization of Austin by his followers, see Shoshana Felman, Thc Litcrarv Speceh-Act: Don Juan with J. L. Austin, or Scduction in Two Languapce, trans. Catherine Porter (Ithaca: Cornell Univ. Preas, 1983).

16 - Patrick F. Quinn, Thc French Face of Edgar Poe (Carbondale: Southern Illinois Univ. Press, 1957).

17 - See Thomas S. Kuhn, The Structure of Seicntific Revolutions, rev. ed. (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1970).

18 - Lacan, “On a Question Preliminary to Any Possible Treatment of Psychosis,” in Alan Sheridan, trans. Iterit”: A Seleetion (New York: W. W. Norton, 1977), p. 193. Lacan’s “L” is actually shaped like a “Z” it starts off with the subject in the top lefthand corner, sets up a dialectic between the subject and the othersmall-o or other person in the top righthand corner, which then generates what Lacan diagrams aa o-prime, the image of self generated in the specular relation [column 2:] with the other-small-o, back on the subject’s side, in the bottom lefthand corner. The final dialectic is between o-prime and the Other-capital-O in the bottom righthand corner (the unconscious, in one simplification; whatever it is in all relations that aspeaks us”). In Humphries’ modification of the schema, the subject becomes any (X), the other-small-o becomes the asymmetrical other,” o-prime becomes the asymmetrical self,” and the Other-capital-O becomes the “heterogenous other” (p. 28). Humphries’ and Lacan’s point is to move beyond symmetrical dialectics (which Lacan derogates as aimaginary”) into the complicated (crisscrossing fourway) dialectics of the asymbolic.” Where two of you are gathered, there are always two more, your specular image and the shadowy Other. Humphries also draws another line, from the aheterogenous other” back to the (X) (which in fact turna the aln into an aX”), a dotted line, implying that there is no real road back through here, but that the (X)‘B unstated and unstatable dialectical relationahip with the heterogenous other somehow conditions our understanding of it.

19 - The phrsse anecessity of misreading” is the title of the concluding chapter in Bloom’s Kabbalah and Criticism (New York: Seabury Press, 1976); aee also A Map of Mi“rcading (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1975).

20 - Or, for that matter, like the use of the maroon paper off of the Mabbott edition of Poe in Humphries’ dustjacket, whose semiosis seems designed to read: this is a central, seminal Poe Book.

21 - See Rachel Blau DuPlessis, “For the Etruscans,” in Showdter, ed. Feminist Criticism, pp. 271-291; Joanna Russ, The Female Man (New York: Bantam, 1975); the essays and book extracts Susan Griffin has collected in Made from This Earth: Selections from Her Writing (London: Womenta Presa, 1982); and Robin Morgan, The Anatomy of Freedom (New York: Anchor Press/Doubleday, 1982). Do you auppose there is any connection between the Poe Studies reader’s claim that my dialogical experiment waa too aweak” to juatify the sacrifice of clarity and economy (see n. 5) and the age-old patriarchal characterization of women as the aweaker” sex? aStrong,” of course, ia defined in anormal,” monological, patriarchal terms.


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[S:0 - PSDR, 1980]