An Incy-Wincy bit too clever

February 23, 1996

Arachne: Interdisciplinary Journal of Language and Literature Edited by David Darby Laurentian University, Canada, Twice a year, $25.00 ISSN 1192 3474

No explanation is given as to why this new Canada-based review should have been given a name that evokes spiders, but there are several reasons why its first three issues held me as terrified as a fly captured in its intellectual web.

The first is the extreme difficulty of understanding what the language and references of some of the articles mean. Arachne, in this respect, is for those who take Jacques Derrida, Julia Kristeva and Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak in their stride, for whom the language of Paragraph holds no terrors, and can appreciate why it is possible that postmodernism is already perhaps "becoming aware of its own latent obsolescence". Arachne is for readers who can treat the kind of sentence that occurs in Richard Heinemann's review of two books about Walter Benjamin as a slow half-volley inviting an easy six: "Pensky thus redeems Benjamin from Witte's claim that Benjamin's tacit complicity with the baroque allegorists masks a close affinity with the reactionary decisionism of Carl Schmitt."

As well as finding out that I am even more behind than I thought in my understanding of contemporary critical discourse, I also made some other discoveries. One, which increased my fly-like trembling as to when I was going to be discovered and devoured myself, was that Rene Girard's widely admired Deceit, Desire and the Novel is written from an exclusively and regrettably male point of view. I also learnt that another of my heroes, Stanley Fish, is fond of "wheeling out" what is presented as a false distinction between "the classroom, the college or university and their disciplines of literature, philosophy and criticism, and the harsh world of practice and activity, the protestant realm of act and purpose". I do this too, so Arachne has also taught me that I am socially and politically guilty as well as mentally retarded.

Arachne is interested in postcolonialism, and the first issue inaugurates a welcome custom of an introductory paper on a major theme followed by two or three quite lengthy comments. I found the debate sparked off by David Hart's paper a bit disappointing. It talked too much about western theory and not enough about the writers who expressed the experience of having moved from genuine oppression to apparent liberation. I even preferred, in this respect, the whiff of progressively minded witchhunting in the question "Why is Show Boat being shown in Toronto despite the protests of many within the local African-Canadian community?", and again learnt from my reply - "because people are ready to pay money to see it" - that I am as steeped in bourgeois sin as ever.

I preferred the equally lively debate in the second issue between Peter Goodrich and others on the theme "Of law and forgetting", from which I learnt of how the recommendation that the "literary and poetic satires of the blindness of lawyers and of the addictive and deathbound quality of legal study" may point to the possible ability of literature to "open the law to traditions, experiences, cultures and languages which an insular and embattled profession ignores at its peril".

Arachne is agreeably eclectic in its acceptance of articles on a wide range of topics, especially theology and linguistics. I enjoyed Anne Simon's "Medieval pilgrimage literature", which also taught me that "the actual business of pilgrimage was thoroughly organised, much like a modern package holiday". These first three issues also offer equally interesting facts about the development of punctuation in the West, the attitude of Talmudic culture towards sexuality - not necessarily misogynistic, and all for a lively relationship between man and wife - and about the ability of French, as opposed to Russian, to communicate implicitly with the reader rather than through formal statement.

Arachne is looking for contributions in English or French, and the next two numbers are already planned: "Anthropological approaches to medieval literature" and "The influence of the Baroque on the theatre of Sor Juana de la Cruz".

Philip Thody is emeritus professor of French, University of Leeds.

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