The lesson to learn from Ern

Eliot to Derrida - After Derrida
October 13, 1995

Eliot to Derrida is a book which should be read by all students contemplating enrolment for a university course in modern English or European literary studies. Unless, of course, they would prefer not to be forewarned about the scam they may be letting themselves in for.

John Harwood's cautionary tale begins with his own disillusion as a graduate student at Cambridge in the early 1970s, writing a doctoral thesis on the history of Eliot criticism. He was at first disconcerted by his supervisor's reluctance to accept evidence suggesting that the critical reception of Eliot's early poems was by no means as negative as it was often reputed to have been. He was likewise puzzled by observing the law of diminishing returns at work in critical interpretations of Eliot's poetry. The fuller the "treatment", the more unhelpful it became. Gradually it dawned on him that by reading the critics one learns very little about Eliot, but a great deal about the Eliot industry. By 1970 this industry had already produced far more published verbiage than it was humanly possible for any conscientious graduate student to read, let alone evaluate.

The difficulty of distinguishing between Eliot and the Eliot industry is complicated by the industry being started by Eliot himself, aided and abetted by Ezra Pound. The pretentiousness of Eliot's footnotes to The Waste Land has not diminished with the passing of time. What has tended to diminish, rather, is one's surprise at how seriously they have been taken. A poet who can append to the lines "To where Saint Mary Woolnoth kept the hours / With a dead sound on the final stroke of nine" the portentously unexciting footnote: "A phenomenon which I have often noticed," or expand a cryptic reference to Magnus Martyr with the po-faced observation: "The interior of St Magnus Martyr is to my mind one of the finest among Wren's interiors. See The Proposed Demolition of Nineteen City Churches (P.S. King & Son, Ltd.)" is guarding against ridicule by inviting it.

The strategy was one already exploited by the Cubists and perfected by the Dadaists. They had forestalled Eliot in realising that in the 20th century the artist, however good, was not good enough. The smart thing was to turn art into self-promotion by enlisting theory, and the more controversial the theory the better. So many reputations were made in this way that one might have predicted it would only be a matter of time before even smarter promoters would realise that the work of art itself was superfluous and the chat could take over. In the visual arts this stage was reached in the mid-1960s, when "conceptualism" was born. Since there remained nothing much to look at in the conceptual art galleries, talking endlessly about it was all that was left to do. It was at roughly the same time that poems, novels, et cetera became superfluous and theoretical chat took over in the literary field too, as Derrida stepped in to fill the critical power vacuum left on Eliot's death.

Harwood does not mention these parallels between the intellectual history of the visual and the verbal arts, but they would have added depth to his account of the questionable way in which both modernism and postmodernism were set up in business. As its subtitle suggests, the book can be read as an extension of Roger Shattuck's essay on "The poverty of modernism". But it may occur to the reader that perhaps poverty is not the term for the kind of deprivation caused by fraudulence, as distinct from the kind caused by indigence.

How theory accommodates the issue of fraudulence itself is brilliantly illustrated in Harwood's account of the case of Ern Malley, whose "collected poems" were posthumously concocted in 1943 by two young Australian prankster poets, who duped an avant-garde editor into publishing them. The method of composition was based on selecting more or less rhythmical lines from various works of reference, including a United States Army report on mosquito control. The poems, on publication, won many serious admirers, including Eliot himself, it appears. When the hoax was exposed there were red faces all round. But not even a blush from the theorists. Their justification followed logically from their failure to detect the fraud. They maintained the pranksters had produced poetry of high quality in spite of themselves. The fraudulent intentions of the enterprise were therefore irrelevant. As Harwood points out, it is no coincidence there is a resemblance between Ern Malley and The Waste Land, itself "a tissue of thefts and borrowings, some straight, some doctored, to the extent that nothing in it cannot be suspected of being stolen; larded with cryptic hints that it is not what it seems; written in a variety of strong but often irregular metres; charged with unexplained menace, constantly teetering on or over the brink of melodrama."

The episode of Ern Malley is an essential link for those who wish to understand how the mantle of Eliot fell on Derrida's shoulders. Pretentiousness exalted to a level at which questions of authenticity or originality are dismissed in advance is one obvious connection; but it is not enough. Nor are the circumstances of Derrida's appearance at the Johns Hopkins conference of 1966, which Harwood perhaps makes too much of. What we see in the case of Derrida is a theorist who has provided (albeit retrospectively) all the apologias that were ever needed to keep the cycle o*f critical babble going on endlessly in an unflagging process of self-regeneration. It is this which is mistaken for creativity and promoted as subsuming or replacing the creativity of the artist. The role of the latter becomes dispensable, except to provide a point of departure which theory-driven critics soon leave behind.

Nicholas Royle's After Derrida is a dreary product of the Derrida industry. The author is childishly delighted with the cleverness of his own title and spends pages explaining it. This involves pointing out that there are (at least) three meanings of the word "after". It is hard to know who might need this information, other than foreigners without a dictionary or undergraduates at the University of Stirling, where the author lectures. Combine the word "after "with "Derrida" and we have - yes - "After Derrida". "Everything might be seen to collapse into these two words and the ways in which taken separately or together - they resist being read, demand to be reread, read still."

What is undeniable is that Royle's English resists being read, and strenuously so. Maud Ellmann, quoted on the back cover, congratulates him for writing "with great panache" and admires "the rigour of his arguments". It is difficult to spot which pages of this book she could have had in mind, even allowing for the fact that taking Derrida as your model must corrupt all stylistic judgement. For "great panache" the uninitiated should perhaps read "inexhaustible flatulence". As for "rigorous arguments", it sounds at first as if this might be a hostile comment. Argument is well known as an incorrigibly bourgeois form of discourse. But all turns out to be well. There is not an argument in sight in After Derrida, much less a rigorous one.

The first lesson students have to be taught, apparently, is that although they may want to go in search of Derrida, the quest is impossible and the goal unattainable. Derrida the magician has deconstructed himself into thin air. But in the process he has become "a great comic writer". Really? Yes. Even Richard Rorty says so. And he is a pretty impressive literary critic, don't you agree? But how will reading Nicholas Royle help these misguided students in this non-search for the unfindable guru? Well, for a start, it will equip them with some brand new long words, like "hydrapoetics" and "critico-glossolalia". Surely these are worth a pilgrimage to Stirling. And if the students persevere (it may take several rereadings) they may come to see that "the very project, interjection or intrajection of After Derrida as a whole involves a kind of foreign-body inhabiting of Derrida's work." For your next writing assignment, deconstruct that one.

It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that Royle's book was written to provide material for Harwood's. The illustrations are so far over the top one begins to suspect another Ern Malley hoax. Is John Harwood Nicholas Royle? Or are John Harwood and Nicholas Royle pseudonyms masking an anonymous author? But even raising the question suggests we have already forgotten the Ern Malley lesson. For according to the best theorists, it would not matter anyway.

Roy Harris is emeritus professor of general linguisitics, University of Oxford.

Eliot to Derrida: The Poverty of Interpretation

Author - John Harwood
ISBN - 0 333 57938 0 and 64180 9
Publisher - Macmillan
Price - £35.00 and £12.99
Pages - 244

Please login or register to read this article

Register to continue

Get a month's unlimited access to THE content online. Just register and complete your career summary.

Registration is free and only takes a moment. Once registered you can read a total of 3 articles each month, plus:

  • Sign up for the editor's highlights
  • Receive World University Rankings news first
  • Get job alerts, shortlist jobs and save job searches
  • Participate in reader discussions and post comments

Have your say

Log in or register to post comments