Skip to main content

The New Candide Or What I Learned In the Theory Wars


ISSUE:  Summer 1993

The sign outside the lecture hall read “The Language of Criticism and the Sciences of Man.” It was 1966, and, like my fellow Johns Hopkins graduate students, I was out of it. (Later I would hear one of them cry, “Would somebody please tell me what structuralism is so I’ll know if I’m a structuralist or not?”) But I was drawn to the symposium by several considerations/Like Voltaire’s Candide, my “taste for metaphysics was insatiable,” even though, like that provincial youth, my understanding of metaphysics was limited and certainly had never been tested against worldly experience.

The talk I had decided to attend was to be given by the Marxist Lucien Goldmann, about whom I knew nothing. But I liked his name; it sounded like the name of a James Bond villain. A few days earlier I had read an article on innocence and experience in the works of my favorite novelist, Henry James, by a scholar named Lotus Snow, whose name sounded like that of a Bond heroine. If I went to hear Lucien Goldmann, perhaps Lotus Snow would be there as well. Maybe Lucien would introduce me to Lotus. Better yet, maybe Lucien would try to practice his Marxist wiles on Lotus (there was a Cold War on, remember), and I would save her. “Oh, David,” she would sigh. . . .

A revolution was going on, and I was dreaming of Lotus Snow. The Johns Hopkins symposium was the historical event that, in the course of a few days, changed permanently the reading, teaching, and writing of literature in this country. In that instance, the Hopkins campus became the Plymouth Rock for that amalgam of Saussurean strategies most economically called “theory,” and most of the founding fathers were there: Goldmann (of whose talk I remember nothing), Roland Barthes, Jacques Lacan, Tzvetan Todorov.

And towering above them all, or so it seems in retrospect, was Jacques Derrida, the high priest of deconstruction, who gave a talk entitled “Structure, Sign, and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences.” It was here that many American academics learned for the first time that a literary text was no longer simply a well-made novel or poem or play but an impersonal skein of arbitrary linguistic codes. That meant a new way of reading: if the text has no authorimposed structure, even though it claims to—or especially because it claims to—then the critic’s task is a pitiless subversion of that false claim.

At the time, the indeterminacy of texts was big news to virtually everyone, including me. I had just arrived in Baltimore a few months before from Baton Rouge; at Louisiana State University, where I had taken my undergraduate degree, the spirit of the New Criticism was still strong. Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren had long since departed for Yale, but the idea of a poem as an autonomous formal construct with a single derivable meaning hadn’t really changed. No wonder, then, that to many old-line scholars, the Baltimore conference must have seemed, not a beginning, not a Plymouth landing at all, but an unmitigated and catastrophic end, the intellectual equivalent to the 1755 Lisbon earthquake which killed 50, 000 people and which served as the gloomy backdrop for Voltaire’s narrative.

But I was young then and flexible about the theorists’ insistence on the indeterminacy of meaning; indeed, already I had abandoned much of my home-grown New Criticism for headier Continental approaches. My most dazzling Hopkins professor was J. Hillis Miller, then a respected phenomenologist rapidly becoming celebrity deconstructionist. After I left Miller’s lectures in Gilman Hall, I had to walk through a little patch of woods to get to my room in Wolman Hall, and in good weather I used to sit on a fallen tree there and reread my notes, happy that minds like Miller’s existed and confident that I could have one just as classy if only I applied myself.

There was a bar on Greenmount Street that served twentycent highballs on Wednesday nights; penny-wise grad students would moisten their clay there, shoulder to shoulder with the more routine customers. Once I explained to a morose regular that life was worth living, that even though his wife had left him and his children had turned out to be disappointments and he’d just been laid off from his job at the McCormick spice factory, none of that mattered because the human mind was so, uh, mental.

A more articulate explanation would not only have given the background for the theory wars but explained how it is that English departments today more often resemble bloody battlefields than either the Westphalian country seat of Baron Thunder-ten-tronckh, where Candide grew up in prelapsarian bliss, or the perfectly-governed if boring kingdom of Eldorado (“the country where all goes well”) that he discovers during his wanderings. The various reading strategies now called theory had their beginning in 1911 with the publication of Ferdinand de Saussure’s Course in General Linguistics. Saussure argued that words are arbitrary, that “horse” has no innate connection with the animal to which it refers. Saussureans make this point by listing the radically different nouns used in various languages to describe the same creature: English “horse,” for example, but German “Pferd” and French “cheval.” Here are three words which don’t even come close to resembling each other, yet a three-year-old would know instantly what you meant if you used one, providing you and the child were speaking the same language. To a German child, then, “horse” and “cheval” would mean nothing. And that’s the point: words mean nothing.

In the absence of meaning, what particular groups of humans share is an agreement to recognize a common code of signifiers (“horse”) which apply to the signified (an equine quadruped). This allows us to have conversations and read the newspaper, but all conversations and texts are coded. Thus there is no right or wrong language, no language better or worse for describing reality. Instead, all language is code and thus separate from reality. Therefore one might say that language is the only reality or at least the only one that counts. If there is no objective external reality (how can there be if there are all those different languages?), then there is only half-conscious linguistic interplay between perceiver and perceived. We humans, our world: everything is made of language and language only. Everything is a text.

From Saussure’s arcane linguistic assumptions comes one universal idea that can be applied to virtually any discipline, namely, that there is no self, that we and our institutions are inhabited by hidden, impersonal structures. The anthropologist Claude LeVi-Strauss was the first to apply Saussure’s ideas outside of the field of linguistics. Structuralism, as Levi-Strauss called his analytical method, assumed that tribal groups were governed by systems of relations of which they were unaware, unconscious but consistent laws that determined the tribe’s actions.

And if that is true for the South American Indians whom LeVi-Strauss studied, then why not for other communities? From structuralism, then, to semiotics or the science of signs. Roland Barthes expanded Saussure’s ideas to cover every aspect of the contemporary scene, thus paving the way for the present proliferation of theoretical strategies. Semioticians study, not just tribes and texts, but everything: Robert Scholes’ Semiotics and Interpretation discusses not only poems, stories, and a scene from a play but also movies, bumper stickers, and, as he says delicately in his preface, “a portion of the human anatomy.” This latter turns out to be the clitoris, which, as signifiers go, is uncommonly tricky. For one thing, its pronunciation is unsettled, with some dictionaries accenting the second syllable and others the first. The OED defines it as “a homologue of the male penis,” thus defining the clitoris in terms of something other than itself. And so on.

All this is a rather far cry from reading Keats over brandy and cigars and musing about beauty. And what has been described so far is but the beginning. In addition to the structuralists (Levi-Strauss) and the semioticians (Barthes), there are the philosophically-, psychoanalytically-, and economically-grounded thinkers: Heideggerians (Derrida), Nietzscheans (Michel Foucault), Freudians (Lacan), and Marxists (Goldmann). As different as these thinkers are, each is telling us that there is no us: that cultural structures or the media or corrupt Western thought or the will to power or the unconscious mind or bogus economic systems make us what we are. Or what we seem to be, since, in fact, we are not.

Both for sheer variety as well as for their ability to delight their partisans and exasperate their foes, theorists today rival the panoply of sages and thinkers in Voltaire’s classic. Foremost in Candide, of course, is the great Dr. Pangloss, the hero’s tutor and a specialist in “metaphysico-theologocosmolo-nigology.” While Pangloss’s unrelenting optimism is a source of bemusement for Candide, especially as the suffering and brutality in the story increase, the same quality guarantees him a sympathetic reception from both Candide and the reader as well. In other words, Pangloss is simply too good-natured to dislike, however convoluted his analyses, and it is clear that he means to give offense to no one.

Other figures in the story are considerably more blunt than Pangloss in their subversion of conventional thinking. The iconoclastic Count Pococurante, for example, observes that only “”fools admire everything in an established classic.”” This assertion astonishes Candide as much as a contemporary theorist’s location of, say, a misogynistic subtext in a Shakespeare play dismays the college student who accepted uncritically his teacher’s reverence for Shakespeare in high school (“Candide was astonished at what he heard, for he had been brought up never to exercise his own judgment”). This hypothetical student may even conclude that his hypothetical teacher, as another character says of Pococurante, takes “”a pleasure in not being pleased. “”

Indeed, one of the genuine problems of introducing theory into the classroom today is the difficulty of presenting dauntingly abstruse concepts to ordinary students, i. e. , not specialists but the non-majors who reluctantly take literature classes to fill a liberal studies requirement. Heavily freighted with neologisms and other arcana, the theorist must take care to demonstrate at least as much affection for his subjects as for his subject. Otherwise he runs the risk of being viewed as uncharitably as Don Fernando d’lbaara y Figueroa y Mascarenes y Lampourdos y Souza, who “spoke to people with lordly contempt and with his nose in the air, and he harangued so loudly and unsparingly, assuming so imposing an attitude, and affecting such an arrogant bearing that everyone who saluted him wanted to hit him.”

To this point I have looked only at the relation between theorist and student, especially the student that I was at Johns Hopkins in 1966, since part of my astonished delight in working with such provocative thinkers as J. Hillis Miller was that I, like most undergraduates schooled in the docile early sixties, “had been brought up never to exercise [my] own judgment.” And while I encountered my share of Count Pococurantes and Don Fernandos, these cranks and soreheads did nothing to discourage my progress, not, like Candide, from Westphalia to Portugal and Spain to South America and then back to Europe, but from the bachelor level through the graduate degrees and on to assistant, associate, and full professor. From which lofty peak one is surely entitled to issue Panglossian pronouncements, or, at least, like the mature Candide at the end of the story, to exercise one’s own judgment.

But on the road to professional maturity I acquired another kind of knowledge, one that has nothing to do with the decoding of texts. In my Candide days, I assumed not only a unanimity of purpose but also an abundance of camaraderie among the Panglosses, Pococurantes, and Don Fernandos who were my teachers. That is, I imagined that, as members of the same fraternity or sorority, as it were, they shared an affection for each other born of their common affection for books—that, or they “got along,” at least. It wasn’t long after I left the ranks of the students and joined those of the professors that I learned, as Candide did over and over, that there is always trouble in every new Paradise. Newly-minted Ph. D. diploma in hand, I entered the professors’ precincts like Voltaire’s hero entering Eldorado, “the country where all goes well,” only to find that strife springs as eternally as any Panglossian sentiment.

English professors have always argued among themselves, of course, as does any group that shares governance, a budget, office space, and a parking lot. But the antagonisms between the theorists and the departmental old guard seem unusually bitter, in part because theory represents not just a new way of reading, but a world view, and one with invidious intellectual and political implications for the antediluvian too dull or too hidebound (or both) to recognize the new order.

Here I distort the true character of theory, but let that stand for a moment; after all, Candide is not an attack on the teachings of Leibniz but on the perversions of Leibniz current in Voltaire’s time, especially the doctrine of accepting cheerfully the inevitable, no matter how terrible, on the assumption that misfortune is necessary to the general design. So, too, is the nature of theory largely perverted in the minds of those who see the Johns Hopkins conference as the equivalent of the Lisbon earthquake.

To the old guard in the academy, the “sufficient reason” of those whom they regard as the new Panglosses must appear phallic-aggressive in nature; humorously yet fittingly, Voltaire applies that phrase to both Pangloss’s erect member and the bayonets of the Bulgars who overrun Westphalia, stabbing thousands to death. Following the sexual indiscretions and the war that destroy their earthly paradise, Candide and Pangloss analyze the “sufficient reason” that has brought them to what anyone else would consider a sorry state; among other things, the philosopher has lost an eye and an ear to the pox that he acquired during his dalliance with Paquette, the Westphalian serving-woman. In other words, Pangloss suffers from a disease that is, like theory, virulent (“”it has made remarkable progress among us”“) and an import—not, like theory, from Europe, but from the New World.

Typically, when Candide cries that this new disease is the work of the devil, Pangloss asserts not only its inevitability but its virtue. “”It is indispensable in this best of worlds, “” he maintains. “”It is a necessary ingredient. For if Columbus, when visiting the West Indies, had not caught this disease, which poisons the source of generation, and is clearly opposed to the great end of Nature, we should have neither chocolate nor cochineal. “” Thus does theory argue the “true” and “secret” nature of what common sense tells us is quite otherwise. And thus, to old-line thinkers, does it poison us all.

II

Thus far I have concentrated largely on the first part of Candide, in which the common sense of the youth and the tortured rationales of his tutor are set in witty, revealing, and often frustrating contrast to one another. Eventually, of course, a balance point is achieved in Candide, and the opposing viewpoints find their equilibrium, not in the ascendancy of one over the other or even in compromise, but in mutual tolerance and recognition of a greater good. For the novel to reach this point, Voltaire introduces a new character to mediate between the hopeful naiveté of Candide and the sincere self-delusion of Pangloss—himself.

Midway through, a philosopher named Martin joins the company, a character often described by scholars as having opinions more like Voltaire’s than any of the other characters. To counter Pangloss’s cruel optimism, Martin offers a worldly thinker’s resignation: neither despair nor false cheer but an acceptance of what cannot be changed. Equally importantly, Martin offers the one practical alternative to the extremes the other characters embody. Candide’s final words— “”we must go and work in the garden”“—are often quoted as advice worth following. But the truth is that all of us work in the garden in one way or another, and therefore the question is not whether to work but how. One element common to many Saussurean readings is the discovery that the end of a story is not always found in the final paragraph, and so it is with Candide: the real end is found three paragraphs earlier, where Voltaire/Martin says, “”We must work without arguing . . . that is the only way to make life bearable. “”

And how do we work without arguing? To answer that question, let us look for a moment at deconstruction, the best-known (or most infamous) of the Saussurean strategies, a reading technique so popularized that the word “deconstruction” appears routinely in magazines like Time and Newsweek and even in big-city newspaper advertisements. My purpose here will be to define deconstruction briefly, to determine what is most objectionable about it to old-fashioned readers, and to consider its usefulness as a tool to readers of all kinds—in other words, to establish how deconstruction may enrich, not pervert, a variety of readings and let a variety of readers “work without arguing.”

Thanks to the extensive coverage given such books as David Lehman’s book Signs of the Times: Deconstruction and the Fall of Paul de Man, most readers now know what deconstruction is. That is, they know that a literary text is no longer simply a well-made novel or poem or play but an impersonal skein of arbitrary linguistic codes. Or they know at least that much—to anyone other than an initiate, deconstruction is a murky science, much of it locked in jargon and foreign languages.

To the general reader, though, there is no better introduction to deconstruction than David Lodge’s novel Nice Work. Lodge’s novel tells the story of an unlikely affair between two very different characters, the businessman Vie Wilcox and a very au courant academic, Robyn Penrose. Indeed, Robyn is so up-to-date that she believes the whole idea of character to be “a bourgeois myth, an illusion created to reinforce the ideology of capitalism.” It is no accident that the idea of the literary character developed simultaneously with the rise of capitalism, since “both are expressions of a secularised Protestant ethic, both dependent on the idea of an autonomous individual self who is responsible for and in control of his/her own destiny, seeking happiness and fortune in competition with other autonomous selves.” But Robyn knows that “there is no such thing as the ‘self on which capitalism and the classic novel are founded—that is to say, a finite, unique soul or essence that constitutes a person’s identity; there is only a subject position in an infinite web of discourses—the discourses of power, sex, family, science, religion, poetry, etc.”

These Derridean principles work well for Robyn Penrose in the academy, but they are put to the test when she meets Vie Wilcox and they begin their affair. Vic is intelligent if uninitiated; his problem is that he is an essentialist, one who believes each of us is an essence which exists independent of language, whereas Robyn believes in language alone. The lovers never do fully understand each other—or at least Vie never fully understands Robyn—but author Lodge dramatizes some important ideas in a manner that is comical yet sympathetic to both old-fashioned thinking and newer approaches such as deconstruction.

Or he would have, had such a creature as “author Lodge” ever existed. In the earlier discussion of capitalism and its relation to the delusional concept of character (which doesn’t exist), Lodge’s narrator observes that, “by the same token, there is no such thing as an author” and that, instead, “every text is a product of intertextuality, a tissue of allusions to and citations of other texts; and, in the famous words of Jacques Derrida (famous to people like Robyn, anyway), “il n’y a pas de hors-texte,” there is nothing outside the text.” Which brings us to deconstruction’s most troublesome doctrine, at least in present-day English departments.

After all, how announce to an ambitious poet or fiction writer or dramatist “The Death of the Author,” to use the title of the Roland Barthes essay that serves as a lightning rod for so much anti-deconstructionist sentiment? How tell a writer, especially one who has already received recognition of some kind and is beginning to think of making a career of authorship, “You don’t exist”? To answer that question requires a look at the Barthes essay as well as one by Michel Foucault that is less well-known yet more to the point.

Barthes begins with a sentence from Balzac’s “Sarrasine” in which a narrator comments on the thoughts of a castrate disguised as a woman. Barthes then wonders who is speaking: the hero? The Balzac who is thinking of his own experience with women? The authorial Balzac who is compelled to say something literary? A universal voice? The voice of romantic psychology? “We shall never know,” says Barthes, “for the good reason that writing is the destruction of every voice, of every point of origin.”

From this promising and pointedly analytical beginning Barthes descends into a murky and impressionistic dismissiveness. Soon he is referring to a creature called “the scriptor” who succeeds the author and who has neither “passions, humors, feelings, impressions,” but rather an “immense dictionary from which he draws a writing that can know no halt; life never does more than imitate the book, and the book itself is only a tissue of signs. . . .” In other words, il n’y a pas de hors-texte. It would be nice, of course, to think that, if there is indeed nothing outside the text, then at least we are free to write the text ourselves. But, as Robert Scholes says, an author is not “a fully unified individuality [sic] freely making esthetic choices.” So if you are under the illusion that finally you have finished a poem or story you can be proud of, then the more fool you, you silly scriptor.

Happily, Foucault dispenses quickly with the worst of Barthes’ argument and extends the best of it in an essay entitled “What Is an Author?” It will not do to “repeat the empty affirmation that the author has disappeared,” says Foucault; “instead, we must locate the space left empty by the author’s disappearance, follow the distribution of gaps and breaches, and watch for the openings that this disappearance uncovers.” If this sounds too Saussurean for words, be patient: before long, Foucault offers an inelegant yet extremely useful substitute for Barthes’ “scriptor.”

Everyone knows that, in a novel narrated in the first person, neither the first person pronoun, nor the present indicative refer exactly either to the writer or to the moment in which he writes, but rather to an alter ego whose distance from the author varies, often changing in the course of the work. It would be just as wrong to equate the author with the real writer as to equate him with the fictitious speaker; the author-function is carried out and operates in the scission itself, in this division and distance.

Somewhere between author Herman Melville and his narrator Ishmael, then, is the author-function that wrote MobyDick. Thus the book was written neither by the gloomy, hemorrhoidal, older Melville nor the younger, happier Melville who once roamed the seas. Instead, Moby-Dick is the construct of a nonexistent creature who has the wisdom of the older Melville (with none of the despair) and the cheerful curiosity of the younger (with none of the naivete).

Or, as I tell writing students, let your poem or story be written not by the everyday you but by your most interesting and most fully engaged self, even (or perhaps especially) if that self is “an alter ego whose distance from the author varies.” Okay, so there’s no hors-texte— so what? The writing is still challenging, still fun; the texte gets a little better every time you go back to it. And at least your friends won’t call you a scriptor any more.

III

As this brief discussion of the concept of authorship shows, what the theorists have to say is refreshing, challenging, reinvigorating; it is also maddening to those who revere consummate artistry and refuse to think of the great writers as bumbling assembly-line workers. And so the tension continues between the theorists and the old guard, and the academy remains as rife with the potential for violence as any of the bloody scenarios that sprang from Voltaire’s imagination.

Despite a growing understanding of deconstruction and similar strategies, then, to “work without arguing” is as difficult as ever. Yet the very terms of the conflict point toward an eventual equilibrium that could be, like the conclusion of Candide, a state characterized by a tolerance that is mutual, albeit tense, and the recognition of a greater good.

For the truth is that the New Criticism was murdered, not by a SWAT team of Paris theoreticians, but by sheer demographics. The Cold War collapsed, and the baby boomers, emboldened by new music, new drugs, new sexual practices, and, most important of all, new disdain for their elders, found better things to do than reread the same old dusty masterpieces. Up sprang new fields of study: creative writing, women’s studies, minority studies. And of these three, creative writing grew the most rapidly.

Enrollments boomed in writing workshops—why read someone else’s poems when you could write your own? And instead of writing critical papers to read to an unappreciative audience at the Modern Language Association meeting, literature professors began writing novels and traveling around the country to give readings at a thousand dollars a pop. By doing so, the new professor/writers were using their new celebrity simultaneously to occupy the center of the English Department—who, after all, was more noticeable than they?—and to rise above it, since they were so often absent.

Thus the professor/writers jetted in and out, got their pictures in the paper, and were as much admired afar as they were detested at home. The way was clear for the savvy professor/critic, then: emulate the example of the professor/ writer. Stars were needed, and so stars appeared in the east: as the New Criticism died in the late sixties, European Magi arrived in the city of Baltimore in the nick of time. On that day the critic died, and the theorist was born.

As it was, so it shall be. The current tensions between the theorists and the mainstream profs are purely temporary. The force that destroyed the New Criticism is the same force that will guarantee the dissemination of theory, i. e. , demographics. Chic, subversive, and intellectually enticing, theory is just too appealing not to spread. It may get a little watered down in the process, but in the nineties, theory will spread the way creative writing, women’s studies, and minority studies did in the eighties.

Consider for a moment these last two disciplines. At first, books by women and minority authors were shunted into the ghetto of Women’s and Minority Studies, and reactionary faculty exulted in being able to steer querulous students toward the “Women’s Literature” or “Minority Voices” course. Before long, however, mainstream students who had been sensitized by these courses were asking faculty what women and minorities were included on their syllabi for, say, the Nineteenth-Century Novel. Thus it is with theory, even at the moment of this writing. Between pizza parties and football games, thousands of brainy, easy-going students are accomplishing what hundreds of committed theoretical shock-troop faculty alone cannot—and what no amount of diehard old-line faculty can prevent.

For example, it is hard to imagine anyone teaching The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn as the comically cruel morality tale it was once thought to be. Yet to dismiss the novel today as “contradictory” or its author as “conflicted” and then drop it from the syllabus is to miss an extraordinary opportunity. A Derridean dismantling of the book’s language or a Foucaultian analysis of the abuses of power in Twain’s novel can bring to the surface unforeseen if richly disturbing complexities, which is all that our students, or at least our best students, want.

In the meantime, faculty who care about these things must remember that it is their students who count, not how much turf they control. One hears of entire departments being paralyzed by theory wars. What do these people think they were hired to do? Students want to be taught, not watch professors slug it out like blindfolded prizefighters on roller skates.

No, the 1966 Johns Hopkins conference was not the intellectual equivalent of the Lisbon earthquake. And even if it were, the only sensible course of action for the survivors is that prescribed by the philosopher Martin, who said, “”We must work without arguing. . .that is the only way to make life bearable. “” And life is nothing if not bearable. The old woman whom Candide meets who has suffered more than anyone else says that, of all the miserable people she has encountered in her travels, only 12 have killed themselves.

0 Comments

By submitting this form, you accept the Mollom privacy policy.

Recommended Reading