We thought the postmodernists of
the book’s title were emancipating when they first appeared on
the scene following the historic Johns Hopkins conference in
1967. That arch punster, Derrida (derider-raider) was there,
tilting his lance at the western philosophical schools and
cocking a snook at the entire tradition of language use. His
American converts listened in solemn awe as he went on about ‘difference’
and ‘freeplay’ of signifiers, his French-fried English
accent lending an exotic touch to his pronouncements. Behold,
they said, a new era in literary criticism is upon us! English
departments would never be the same again! The old fogeydom was
on the run, so they believed.
Bloom telling us that a new poet does not absorb but fights his
predecessor? Or Jonathan Culler reading his new gospel, Structuralist
Poetics at Mussorie in 1974? Or Edward Said ruffling the
colonial dovecotes with his Orientalism? Or Frederic
Jameson stepping on to the footlights with Marxism and Form?
Or Gilbert and Gubar tracing the mad woman in every writer’s
musty attic? Or Julia Kristeva smelling abjection in the
Freudian-Lacanian bran tub?
Yes, these new
voices blew the teacosies off our bland complacencies. They told
us, as did the child in the story, that incumbent critical
emperors and empresses wore no clothes. Their rock-‘em- sock-‘em
prose style rustled the pages of journals and echoed from
classrooms. The renegade anti-philosopher Derrida became their
sage and Foucault, Barthes, Lacan and Deleuze-Guattari anointed
themselves as the latest saints of the new theodicy.
entrenched professoriat looked on helplessly, the vandals-turned
repairmen took over the Modern Language Association in America
(here parodied as Modish Languid Association). Driven to the
wall, they cried foul: William Bennett, the Education Secretary
giving the loudest of toots on his worn out cultural blowhorn.
We had entered the age of discourse and unstable meanings!
Alas, like all
revolutions, this one too started devouring its offspring.
Literature got bonded to theory; authors disappeared leaving
only traces and ‘aporias’ behind. Writing was afflicted with
what Raymond Tallis called ‘Theorrea’. New arcana
intelligible only to the initiates were spawned. Criticism
became and has remained since a one-sided game played by
dilettante academics with upstart expertise.
(based on how pretentious exegetes can emasculate an innocent
children’s story, Winnie the Pooh) reveals a
theory-choked critical terrain stricken with terminal jargonitis.
It seems that critics now write only for other critics ignoring
Mahashewata Devi’s rebuke to Spivak not to misrepresent
authors. They neglect Umberto Eco’s advice to authors and
critics to be accessible, conveyed through Father Williams in Name
of the Rose. They go on cranking on their ‘wordy-gurdy’,
to quote Beckett, utterly unmindful of sense and meaning. The
best parody is of Gayatri Spivak and her impenetrable,
ungrammatical prose—now being sedulously cultivated by some
Indian academics as well. It is good to remember that she was
awarded a top American prize for writing abominably.
It is one thing
to approach literature from diverse viewpoints and quite another
to replace it by undigested theory. Alexander Pope foresaw it
all more than 200 years ago: "The bookful blockhead,
ignorantly read/with loads of lumber in his head/with his own
tongue still edifies his ears/and always listening to himself
appears/All he reads, and all he reads, assails/from Dryden’s
fables down to Durfy’s tales."
Frederick Crews assures us that
it is possible to be an important critic and be accessible to
boot. Genuinely sceptical of the new conspiracy replacing the
teaching of literature, he points out the totalitarian
tendencies inherent in the so-called flurry of political
correctness. He is in the safe company of George Steiner and
Jacques Barzun. among others.