Soul and Reason in Literary Criticism: Deconstructing the Deconstructionists

By Chaves, Jonathan | The Journal of the American Oriental Society, October-December 2002 | Go to article overview
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Soul and Reason in Literary Criticism: Deconstructing the Deconstructionists

Chaves, Jonathan, The Journal of the American Oriental Society

I begin with a poem:

Sonnet to a Postmodernist

--variation on the 43rd Sonnet from the Portuguese

   How do I hate thee? Let me count the ways. 
   I hate thee to the depth and breadth and height 
   My soul can reach--and yes, you heard me right, 
   I said my soul, the part of me that prays-- 
   I hate thee for denying words of praise 
   To words, to language, wasting day and night 
   Denying meaning, claiming wrong is right, 
   That brilliant colors melt to murky grays. 
   I hate thee for insulting Milton's muse, 
   For sentencing our Shakespeare to a death 
   Of sick perversion--but his shade now sues 
   Your empty mind for slander, and his wrath 
   Shall force you in the end to pay your dues: 
   You'll realize that you've just wasted breath. 

I am delighted to be able to present my thoughts on the role played by literary criticism over the last three decades or so, even though I am hardly qualified to do a systematic analysis of all the questions involved. By training and profession, I am a scholar of classical Chinese poetry, in itself and in relation to Chinese thought and Chinese art. But I can say that my field, like all others in the Humanities today, has been infiltrated by the approaches to literature that may have originated in departments of English, but are now universal.

The most influential of these modes of literary criticism have been "Deconstructionism," "New Historicism," feminist criticism, and the sexual and "body" criticism of Michel Foucault, all of which actually overlap and reinforce each other. They have all but swept from the field traditional approaches to literature, and, even more importantly, have spilled out of literary studies altogether into art history, history proper, and indeed all the humanities. What is more, they have further spread to such fields as the law; one of the leading deconstructionist literary critics, Stanley Fish, when he was at Duke University, held chairs in both the English Department and the Law School. This fact alone serves to make a crucial point: that the distinction between reality and fiction is simply denied by the likes of Fish. Their idea is that there is no reality, only interpretation. The "stronger" interpretation wins out, in "real life" as in "literature." And while the abstract version of this doctrine may originate in the groves of academe, it easily spills out and affects the popular culture. In the realm of art and entertainment, a Woody Allen is able to make a film called "Deconstructing Harry." And in the realm of law, we have seen one outcome of this mere willfulness in the jury nullification during the O. J. Simpson trial: the jury had simply made up its mind that it would acquit him as a statement against "racism," despite the DNA evidence linking the blood in his vehicle to that of the murder victim. Will trumps reason; thus the triumph of postmodernist criticism throughout the intellectual world has contributed to the general decadence of our times.

But I get ahead of myself here. I have used the term "postmodernist" (always to be understood with quotation marks around it when I use it; our side can use ironic quotation marks too) as a catch-all phrase for the types of literary criticism I am discussing. This word, however, is a misnomer, a chimera of no substance. Those features which it is alleged to possess have all along been part and parcel of the modern era, in which we are still living, whenever one may date its point of origin, and however much our jaded intelligentsia may yearn for radical change.

One may say that the triumph of postmodernism has occurred on the watch of the Baby Boomers, since the 1960s, really coming to full fruition from, say, the mid-'70s through the '80s, '90s, and to the present moment. And so it may be taken to be the intellectual equivalent of the general Long March through our institutions that has been conducted so successfully by this radicalized generation.

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Soul and Reason in Literary Criticism: Deconstructing the Deconstructionists


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