Interpretation, Deconstruction, and Ideology: An Introduction to Some Current Issues in Literary Theory

By Christopher Butler | Go to book overview
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5.2 Ambiguity and Self-contradiction

When we call a book realistic, we mean that it is relatively free from bookish artificialities; it convinces us, where more conventional books do not. It offers us realiora, if not realia, as Eugene Zamyatin succinctly puts it; not quite the real things, but things that seem more real than those offered by others. By rereading these other books too and reconstructing their conventions, we can relate them to our comparatively realistic book and specify its new departures more precisely. We can define realism by its context.1

The deconstructionist view of the literary text as inherently self- contradictory really depends upon a play of this kind between our construction of a context of situation and literary convention. To put the matter crudely, the assumption is that the reader expects nothing but a transparent version of the former, and is thus undeceived when he is persuaded by the critic that the text depends upon the latter. Literary language thus gestures toward an end which is perpetually subverted: for the very conventions by which the gesture is made (towards 'reality' or 'truth' or the 'transcendental signified') will reveal fictional (i.e. unsatisfactory representational, or non-referential) conventions. Where we expect the literal we find the metaphorical; where we expect realism we find literary convention, where we expect something to be made present to us, we find that it is perpetually put off or deferred.

Under this sort of examination the text is perpetually ironized it is shown to be ambiguous, not so much by way of praise, as in New Critical method, designed to reveal a 'richness of meaning' which is ultimately reconciled through irony, paradox, and so on, but at its own expense. For the author often seems unaware of his inability to achieve his aims. Indeed once the notion of a free play of language is allowed to take over, the author, as director of our attention to aspects of reality, and for much else, can be dispensed with.2

Thus the writer's attempt to reveal the world to us by taking a particular view of it, by thematizing it, or by projecting a situation which may be construed as like what we know of the world, may always be compromised by the language he uses:

Though X's works are always suggesting the possibility of some ultimate reference point for making sense of the world, they no sooner do so than they defer the presentation of this reference point or expose its purely fictive or

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