IT'S THE first horror movie about English teachers. It's called "The Beast From the Unfathomable" or, if you prefer, "Humanity vs. the Deconstructionists." It's in black-and-white and 2-D, but there are those who find it plenty scary just the same.
The plot up to now:
Alien spacecraft (rumored to bear the "Air France" emblem) have been sighted over college campuses from Yale to northern Alabama. Meanwhile, red-blooded young American scholars have begun speaking a strange language thick with words like "semiotics," "prosopopoeia," "apotropaic" and "diacritical." Attempts to treat the condition with bed rest and vitamin C have come to naught.
Dissolve to Cambridge, Mass., headquarters of the national resistance to just about everything that has happened in the criticism and teaching of literature over the last 15 years, for a word from the resistance leader, Walter Jackson Bate, Kingsley Porter university professor at Harvard.
"At least a quarter of the profession acts as though it were intimidated," says Bate, by a "nihilistic view of literature, of human communication and of life itself."
He sees a trend that, unchecked, will "isolate literature still more into a self-sealed and autonomous entity, into which few students, few of the general public, indeed few -- if any -- writers of the past 2,000 years, could be able to enter or could wish to enter."
And he is not alone.
"As if our society had not rendered literature unimportant enough already," says Gerald Graff, a professor of English at Northwestern University, "literary intellectuals have collaborated in ensuring its ineffectuality."
And Cornell's M. H. Abrams warns against a view of literature "in which meanings are reduced to a ceaseless echolalia... intended by no one, referring to nothing, bombinating in a void."
What has these people so troubled -- and the rest of us so mystified -- is a brand of literary criticism that takes no interest in the author or his intent, questions the idea that words refer to anything but themselves, and has produced formidable statements like this one (by the French philosopher-critic Jacques Derrida):
Thus it has always been thought that the center, which is by definition unique, constituted that very thing within a structure which governs the structure, while escaping structurality... The center is at the center of the totality, and yet, since the center does not belong to the totality (is not part of the totality), the totality has its center elsewhere.
"Deconstruction" is the name by which this school of criticism goes, if not always willingly. The deconstructor assumes that literature has been held captive by traditionalist critics and teachers who stand for a comfortingly humanist view of life, even as they pretend to be mere "midwives delivering the poem," as the phrase has it. To rescue literature from this bondage, the deconstructor wants to go back to basics. The only indisputable thing about a piece of writing, he says, is the image of the characters on the page. Just about everything else is up for argument.
And argue about it he does, probing for the confusions, contradictions and verbal tricks that undermine established interpretations -- or, as Yale's J. Hillis Miller puts it, "the loose stone which will pull down the whole building..."
Thus Yale's Paul De Man, perhaps the country's leading deconstructionist, writes about "the obliteration of thought by 'measure'" in Shelley's final, unfinished poem, "The Triumph of Life," in which a narrator dreams of watching a procession of figures marching toward death, and queries them about the meaning of life. De Man writes:
"The Triumph of Life" warns us that nothing, whether deed, word, thought or text, ever happens in relation, positive or negative, to anything that precedes, follows or exists elsewhere, but only as a random event whose power, like the power of death, is due to the randomness of its occurrence. It also warns us why and how these events then have to be reintegrated in a historical and aesthetic system of recuperation that repeats itself regardless of the exposure of its fallacy.
Bate and his allies indict deconstruction as nihilistic, whimsical, abstruse and incapable of distinguishing great literature from trash -- and for spreading these maladies not only within the relatively small circle of avowed deconstructionists, but out among a far broader and more dangerous community of dupes and fellow travelers.
Right or wrong, Bate's Paul Revere-like alarm, first sounded in Harvard Magazine, has been widely heard. "I've never written anything that got so much in the way of correspondence," says Bate, whose previous works include Pulitzer Prize-winning biographies of John Keats and Samuel Johnson.
It is never easy to look at alien beings with a clear eye. Which explains, according to the alien beings of this saga, why they have been so colossally misunderstood.
Barbara Johnson, a translator of Derrida who teaches at Yale, concedes that deconstruction is the product of "a negatively dialectical moment" in intellectual history, but insists, "It's not nihilistic but rather critical. It doesn't say that everything is meaningless, but it questions the way meaning is produced and achieved."
"Suppose you were in therapy," says Johnson, "and you came to the point where you realized, 'Aha, this is the contradiction I have been struggling to repress. This is what has been structuring my behavior...' What good deconstruction does is to say, 'Here is the conflict, or here is contradiction, or here is the aporia, which drives the work. And it can't be reduced further.'"
Bate, for his part, deplores the "progressive trivialization" of literary study. The last annual meeting of the Modern Language Association, he notes, had group sessions on such umbrella topics as "Lesbian Feminist Poetry in Texas." To avoid becoming a national "laughingstock," he says, the profession should rededicate itself to "the Renaissance ideal of humane letters," using the great works of western literature as a tool for building "that mysterious, all-important thing called character as well as the generally educated mind."
Johnson counters with a "deconstructive reading" of Bate in which she observes that he "uses the word 'human' or 'humane' all the time," but uses those words to mean "anything that makes a white, dominantclass Harvard-affiliated male feel good about himself." If certain topics "are trivial to him," she reasons, it is only because "none of them are what he is."
Clearly, each side in this fracas feels it has a message that hasn't gotten through. And nowhere have the moaning and groaning been more painful than at those two old powerhouses of the Ivy League, Harvard and Yale.
Yale has become "a real circus," says David Bleich of the University of Indiana."The deconstructionist critics are like an industry, like a factory."
The parents of a comparative lit student at Yale sent her a copy of Bate's article as a warning against slipping into the clutches of Yale's notorious "deconstructionist mafia" or "gang of four," consisting of De Man, Miller, Harold Bloom and Geoffrey Hartman. A recent Yale PhD says she found herself telling a friend -- "someone who really loves to read" -- that "the trouble with going to Yale is that you might end up studying more theory than literature."
Bate remembers two members of the "gang of four" from their days as Harvard graduate students, and says "they weren't all that good. There is something about Yale that has always been that way" -- faddish, that is. "They're great on doctrine."
But while Yale has been attacked for its theoretical preoccupations, Harvard has been attacked for excluding theory at all costs -- for remaining traditional "almost by legislation," as Johns Hopkins' Stanley Fish puts it.
Bate, in Fish's view, is out to "regain the control that he and his colleagues at Harvard have lost over the last 20 years over the way literary business is done in this country. Twenty years ago Harvard men -- almost invariably -- could be found in key positons in departments all over the country... and there was a whole sense in which even in the Midwest and Far West, the life of a department of English remained centered in Cambridge... The chairman and key members of a department would make annual pilgrimages to Harvard."
Today, says Fish, "departments around the country are getting their inspiration from other places... from Hopkins, from Yale, from Berkeley, from Cornell. Also from France, from Slavic studies and from English Marxism." And Harvard is "still operating in the world of 1955 or 1957."
The nastiness of the quarrel, according to those on both sides of it, is partly the result of deepening professional insecurity among the teachers and aspiring teachers of literature.
"The economic times have upped the viciousness of the debate considerably," says Eric Cheyfitz, an American literature specialist at Georgetown University. "There are no jobs. Tenured positions are frozen. If we had a more normal -- a more fluid -- market, there would be a lot less rancor."
The anger, like deconstruction itself, is "very much tied into questions of authority," says Cheyfitz. "Younger people in the profession are now confronted with authorities that don't have room for them."
Cheyfitz points out that the godfather of deconstruction, Jacques Derrida, has been a lifelong outsider -- a Jew in a Christian society, a Frenchman in Algeria, and North African in France. At 51, Derrida has yet to receive a PhD from the French academic establishment.
On this side of the Atlantic, deconstruction -- and the larger web of current literary theory to which it belongs -- poses an awkward professional dilemma for young teachers and graduate students. An interest in such matters doesn't usually enhance a person's prospects for advancement, but as with moths and flames, the lure is there nevertheless. "All of us have been indoctrinated to one extent or another to be theorists," says Georgetown's Michael Ragussis. "That's the place to be. To give readings of the kind that were given 10 or 15 years ago is passe."
And it is even more passe at such centers of theory as Yale, where, to judge by the more alarmist accounts, you can hardly walk through a quad without hearing talk of "self-consuming artifacts" and works that "unravel" their own assumptions. Actually, says one recent Yale emigre, the "gang of four" is not so bad, but "their proteges are worse than they are. Deconstruction is a dangerous gun in the hands of young graduate students."
No one has accused the deconstructionists of writing simple, lucid prose.
Leaf through the pages of "Critical Inquiry" or "Glyph" or "New Literary History," the principal journals of today's theoretical debate, and you are likely to come across statements like this one (by Frederic Will, who teaches comparative literature at the University of Massachusetts):
"As we read him now, Homer is to us both what he is and what he is not. What he is not is the silent potential surrounding all that he is, and yet existing there, definingly, only because he is what he is in his work."
But if current criticism is hard to read, "so are the major works of literature," argues Yale's J. Hillis Miller. "I happen to be teaching Milton's 'Paradise Lost' in a freshman course in literature. It's a marvelous experience, but anybody who says that poem is any easier than reading Derrida or reading De Man is very wrong."
Among those most unsettled by deconstructionism and its kindred isms, a cautiously upbeat mood is starting to take hold.
"The long, solemn imposture of what passes for 'modern literary theory' may now be reaching its point of turn," writes Cambridge University's George Watson. "Its more recent pronouncements, certainly, have a pale, autumnal air..."
Of course, the casual observer may not find the next vogue in academic literary criticism all that easy to distinguish from the last. Some of the fiercest enemies of deconstruction are capable of generating statements every bit as dense as Derrida.David Bleich, for example, abhors deconstruction, but has written:
"When interpretation is conceived as motivated resymbolization, the idea of response, which otherwise has an inapplicably wide range of minimal meanings, becomes specifiable in experience... The sensory experience has become part of the sense of self, and in this way, we have identified it."
So when the horror story of current literary criticism reaches its resolution, not everyone may feel moved to cheer. But in those pockets of the audience where a certain sense of discomfort lingers, it should still be possible to let out a hearty cry of: The monster is dead. Long live the monster.