Something got under my skin one day, and this came out.

On the Fine Arguments of Barthes, Derrida, and J. Hillis Miller

    In the 1970s we looked back across a tumultuous chasm to the 1950s and judged our 20-years-less-seasoned selves naive, innocent, unsophisticated.  Notions and views aside, even clothes looked funny twenty years later.  Poodle skirts, bobby socks, saddle shoes, baggy suits, rigidly white shirts, conservative ties, women's hats, veils, and white gloves--all went hand in glove with Joe McCarthy and June Cleaver.  The pre-Sputnik '50s resembled early adolescence, from a mature '70s viewpoint.  Six Apollo crews traipsing across the moon were just part of the story.
    Not much has changed in the '90s.  From here, the '70s look almost as comical as the '50s.  Care to put on bell bottoms or a leisure suit?  The world of Richard Nixon, Archie Bunker, and early cultural studies looks quaint from our standpoint.  The clunky, room-filling computer that's been replaced by a Palm Pilot, mirrors clothing and academic trends that we hardly want to be seen in now.
    So what will 1998's 4-gigabyte Ultra hard-drive, 300 MHz world look like 20, 40, or 60 years from today? Quaint--we know that much.  Names like Barthes, Derrida, and J. Hillis Miller will ring like E. M. Forster, Henry James, and Alexander Pope (if we go out far enough).  Slogans like "death of the author," and the "prison of language" will one day sound like [Forster's thing that the best lit. captures character on the page]. From which aspects of our sleek, contemporary scene will the sleek slide off?  I have no crystal ball.  But you don't need crystal to know that today's critical vogue will later hold its own with admiration for Rudyard Kipling and O'Henry.
    I will prophesy one point, however.  But only by going out 200 years or so. The short run may not prove my point. (Besides, in 200 years no one will give a flip if I'm wrong, but I'll be the wonder of this age if I'm right.)
    Here's the buildup for my Nostradamusism:
    "Zounds!" is the first word of chapter XXVII, volume IV, Tristram Shandy.  In the midst of Didius and Yorick's scholarly discussion during the Bishop's visitation dinner, Phutatorius exclaims, "Zounds!"  Author Laurence Sterne then goes round the table citing each party's conception or assumption of how this response relates to the topic at hand. The elaborate assumptions end with:

Following this parody of 18th-century mechanismic theorizing, Sterne says: "How finely we argue upon mistaken facts" (the oxymoron sharpening his point).  Phutatorius's outburst actually had nothing to do with the theories at hand; he cried Zounds! when a hot roasted chestnut rolled off the table into his open fly.  (It's funnier when Sterne tells it.)
    How finely we argue upon mistaken facts--nothing much changes under the sun. If Sterne had written his visitation dinner scene in the 1990s, the views around the table would not come from mechanistic theory.  They might reveal instead the 20th-century's extravagant fascination with the psyche, or the limitations of language.  If we replace the 18th-century's bio-mechanical rationale with language from today, Sterne's passage might read (Sterne married to Barthes):     How finely we argue upon mistaken facts--not that there's anything essentially wrong or mistaken in Barthes's concept, perhaps, but the concept is applied nine times out of ten where a hot roasted chestnut explains things better.
    In the year 2198, 200 years from now, our century's esoteric arguments over "the prison of language," "the death of the author," and "those who read or analyze fiction do so to deny the fact of their own castration" will sound as elaborately comical as Walter Shandy's exegesis of an oath "in the upper regions of Phutatorius's purtenance."  I'll put money on it.
    Oh, and one more thing about 2198. Scholars and critics will delve into literature and explain it with obscure theories, just as they did in 1759 and 1998 ("as it was in the beginning, is now, and will be forever").  Laurence Sterne saw the "school-men" of his time finely arguing, as they do today.  Much of the mistaken facts that scholars wrestle with are facts, maybe, but taken to unreasonable extremes.
    Much of today's lit.crit. is simply hyperbole.  The critic squeezes a chunk of truth (there's nothing new under the sun, or authors rewrite the same stories in new fashion) into a new metaphor, stretching it to flimsy extremes.  Maybe I'm naive, but I want the critic's purpose to be illumination.  I want the critic to bring light to the text, to show me what I may have missed in my dimness.  Instead, I seem to be hauled off by one critic after another to nose around in some dim corner of a closet or anteroom, to examine a few specks of dust that only this particular shamus has found.  (If you expect each new scholar to add something to the discussion, theory will be forced into odd territory.)
    I thought I heard an echo of my thoughts when I read, "such criticism is an odd form of mystification. The critic has caught a trick of language from the text, as one catches a disease" (Miller 30).  This passage might seem to vindicate my bias, except J. Hillis Miller is talking about an obscure fallacy of criticism ("How many children had Lady Macbeth?") that supports his larger point that characters can't be considered unitary, essential entities. (True enough.)  He goes on to show, through Nietzsche, that a person (a character) does not own one central essence from which flow feelings, thought, desire, and action.  Instead, all we know--Nietzsche, still--is that a storm of conflict (id, or maybe a pack of 'em) rages inside--and ranges too--since you never step in the same river twice--ranges over Pensacola today, the Carolinas tomorrow, and Newfoundland next Thursday.  (I may not have done precise justice to Miller, but this comes awful close and saves my reader the 38 interminable pages I had to range to get it.)  (J. Hillis Miller, Ariadne's Thread, New Haven: Yale U P, 1992. 30--an essay on character in fiction)
    From "challenge to belief in fixed substantial selfhood has been a persistent topic of post-Renaissance thought" (34), Miller goes on to make a valid (if lengthy) point: that any fixed construct of a person's (or character's) character will be erroneous. In getting to that claim, he points out: I can't concretize that in my mind (another recurrent problem with criticism, but let that slide for the moment).  But I think Miller means that people who say I am Christ or I am Superman --Are those figures of speech?-- and live in terms of "that figure" wind up in the booby hatch.  But one sentence earlier in his train of logic he equates the schizophrenic (I am Christ) with the guy who constructs himself as I am Bob, an accomplished plumber, and I bowl a 248 game.  Not only is Bob not crazy, but he'll probably buy his first Cadillac before the average critic pays off his school loans.  Technically, Nietzsche-ically, any construct of Bob will fall way short of ultimate truth.  But some sort of symbolic shorthand--character--is somewhat "essential to the holding together of society" (33).  The alternative would mean that when a pipe bursts under the sink, you couldn't say "call Bob, you know, the guy you bowl with."  Instead, you'd have to launch a narrative to characterize Bob (who is not the same Bob today as he was yesterday) and the phone by the refrigerator would be underwater before we got to it.
    When you get all the way to the end of Miller's finely reasoned thesis, what do you do with it?


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