In year ten, my English teacher told me about deconstruction. Or at least he tried to; I didn’t get it. He said I should study at Murdoch – they taught lit theory. It was the mid-nineties. I followed his advice a few years later, and found myself plunged into the epistemological crisis of postmodernism. ‘Was there a meaning in this text?’ My lecturers said there were many; it depended on the reader. (There’s some truth in that, as far as it goes.) I spent a year or two quixotically fighting for the idea of a literary canon, and siding with the one brave resistor, Professor Frodsham. After that, I learned to love postmodernism; I liked confounding the other Christians on campus by insisting it was the way forward.
It feels, looking back, that there truly was an impoverishment in my English major. The impoverishment was the divorce of literature from history, from the social and cultural and biographical backdrop from which works emerge.
It would seem today that the tide has turned on lit theory as the primary approach to literature. The new interest in reception history has reconnected the text to history, but now with a new interest in the readers of texts which postmodernism helped us find.
The new biography of the literary theorist, Paul De Man, is attracting much attention. A hero of my undergrad lecturers is now denounced as a fraud:
Barish, like others before her, proposes a link between his negation of history and his career of deception, between his denial of the continuity of the self and his suppression of his own past… between his insistence that the written or spoken word never tells anything about the intention of its originator and his assumption of a new identity. This is certainly plausible, but I would also like to suggest a different kind of continuity between de Man’s mode of operation as a literary theorist and his mode of operation as a con man. It has to do with his style. In his writing, abstruseness, bristling abstraction, and a disorienting use of terms make his essays often difficult to penetrate. This was part of the key to his success: to his American admirers, with their cultural inferiority complex, it seemed that if things were difficult to grasp, something profound was being said.
This final comment rings true for a number of the theorists I read. Being older now, I’m no longer bound to an absolute position on anything, even postmodernism. It has its important insights; but, of course, it wasn’t the final word. And sometimes it was the emperor’s new clothes. It excites me, now, to reconnect literature to history, to believe in the possibility of recovering the past, however imperfectly. And this is why my next book is to be a biography of a writer.