We may or may not be witnessing the collapse of American democracy, but we’re certainly getting a crash course in literary theory.
Democrats trying to reconstruct omitted words from the president’s transcript are like Shakespeare scholars struggling to deduce the original script of “Hamlet.” Meanwhile, Freudian critics are analyzing Trump’s Oedipal frustration with the Mother figure who tempts but rejects him: “When I was speaking to Angela Merkel,” the president complains, “she talks Ukraine, but she doesn’t do anything.”
Oh, Angie — assume a virtue if you have it not!
Forget Watergate. The real precedent here is Allen Tate. In the mid-20th century, Tate and other writers, particularly John Crowe Ransom and I.A. Richards, developed a school of thought called New Criticism. Reacting against their genteel predecessors, these New Critics claimed that the meaning of a written document — like, say, a metaphysical poem or the transcript of a presidential phone call — was self-contained, discoverable and stable. Whether you think the call is “perfect” and “beautiful” is entirely irrelevant to the New Critics. They wanted to get away from such subjective tweets. They said, in essence, “If you look carefully at the words on the page, you can determine with scientific objectivity what the president’s dialogue means.”
We may want to know what the president intended, but that internal motive is “neither available nor desirable,” as two New Critics wrote in “The Intentional Fallacy” (1946). Stick to the words on the page!
New Criticism held sway over English departments for decades, forcing countless high school kids to pick apart John Donne’s images the way Adam Schiff pores over Donald Trump’s threats. But as you may have heard, this rigorous approach to literary criticism has not brought Americans together. We can all agree that the imagery in “A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning” is oddly erotic. But when we read the transcript of Trump’s conversation with Zelensky, we see very different things in such phrases as “I would like you to do us a favor.” Some hear a presidential gangster using the federal government to shake down a foreign official; others hear a leader trying to root out corruption in a fragile ally.
Don’t despair, confused voter! Reader-response critics can help. These ecumenical scholars claim that divergent interpretations demonstrate that meaning is produced by each individual's subjective experience with the text. Of course, Nancy Pelosi and Devin Nunes see different things in the president’s transcript; they’re approaching it from entirely different “interpretive communities.”
That’s so clear in the separate reports issued by Democrats and Republicans on the House Intelligence Committee. Read together, these narratives feel like two sections of a novel experimenting with radical shifts in point of view — something like “Trumpman Is in Trouble” (apologies to Taffy Brodesser-Akner). Democrats claim that “the President placed his own personal and political interests above the national interests of the United States, sought to undermine the integrity of the U.S. presidential election process, and endangered U.S. national security.” Republicans counter that “the evidence presented does not prove any of these Democrat allegations.” Partisans claim that one side or the other is merely lying, which may be true in some cases, but that judgment flattens these rich characters. Instead, step back and try “reading” the impeachment documents as a single novel about America’s juxtaposed delusions and secrets about itself. If only Lauren Groff hadn't already used the title “Fates and Furies.”
From a stylistic point of view, it’s fascinating that this conflict extends to competing diction. For instance, in their impeachment report, Democrats on the House Intelligence Committee use the illicit-sounding word “scheme” almost four times as frequently as their Republican colleagues. Meanwhile, the GOP is twice as likely to use the word “whistleblower.” Here’s a curious list of words that each report uses at a more frequent rate than the other:
Nowadays, though, we know that the “true” meaning of the transcript will be determined by who has the power — that is, the votes. That might sound like a cynical capitulation to pure partisanship, but once again, the literary critics got here before us. In the 1970s, subversive new ideas from France began leaching into American English departments. Academics were excited — and sometimes alarmed — by the radical approach of Jacques Derrida, who seemed set on unmooring the stability of language. Suddenly, it felt as though every document was just a web of ambiguities and inconsistencies. Conservatives complained that this so-called deconstruction would render meaning itself arbitrary.
Irony alert: Their dire prediction came true around the time Trump forced Sean Spicer to make up a fairy tale about the size of his inauguration crowd. Shortly afterward, the official court deconstructionist Kellyanne Conway affirmed the ascension of “alternative facts.” A year later when President Trump told us, “What you’re seeing and what you’re reading is not what’s happening,” it became clear that we’re all post-structuralists living in a Derridean nightmare. No wonder “Read the transcript” changes nothing.
Don’t you wish you’d paid more attention in English class?