Skip to main content

The Swannanoa Review

ISSUE:  Spring 1999

As soon as Jesse opened the envelope he knew it was trouble. The title of the enclosed manuscript brought a smile to his face, but it also brought a keen sense that there would be a heavy price to pay for whatever amusement was there. “On First Looking into Derrida’s de Man,” indeed.

And then he realized that he had had a premonition about it even before opening it. He was familiar with the phrase “over the transom” in its metaphorical sense, of course, meaning an unsolicited submission for publication, but this whatever-it-was had come literally over the transom into Jesse’s temporary office in the one large, gracious, old Georgian building on the Bascom-Lamar campus.

Jesse had decided to spend his sabbatical teaching at this little college where he could enjoy ten laidback months away from the ratrace, with a generously light teaching load, a rent-free apartment on campus, and the seasonal glories of the Southern mountains. Maybe there’d even be a gentle romantic interlude or two—but surely not the “last love affair” sought by an aging Grace Paley character, “full of terrific longing, ineluctable attraction, and so forth.” “Not for me, Grace,” he’d told his favorite writer before leaving.

But part of the deal was that he be guest editor of the Swannanoa Review for three issues. Piece of cake, he thought, until now when, first week on the job, over the transom came the envelope, addressed personally to him as editor. Had he said the secret word or something, to have a duck descend with this prize?

Jesse counted the three pages of the piece, noted that it was set up in book review format (it ended with author, title, and publication data of the book being discussed), and then registered the fact that it was unsigned. Oy, he was thinking, and anonymous to boot, when the phone interrupted his ruminations, even as his eyes had begun to scan down the first page of the piece.

“What’s it gonna be then, eh?”

“Well, Gene, I was hoping you’d call—just so I could remind you that I don’t want to plunge into the regular social whirlpool of Lunceford, North Carolina.”

“Come on, Jesse, Toni might forgive you if you don’t come to dinner, but she won’t forgive me.”

“You promised, remember?”

“Yeah, but I didn’t know my sex life would be flashing before my eyes.”

“Sounds serious enough for me to negotiate terms.”

“Such as?”

“No matchmaking. I don’t trust Toni. She probably has someone in mind for me already. So I insist on there being an odd number of guests. Wait. That won’t work. I remember Toni thought ten was an odd number, when I taught her the meaning of minyan. Either that or she has two women in mind and would enjoy watching the angles,” Gene was laughing, but probably as much at Jesse’s seriousness as at what he was saying. “I’ve got it. I’ll come to dinner, provided the other guests are all couples.”


“Well done?”

“Well, you know Toni’s cooking.”

Now Jesse could laugh, remembering the burnt food during graduate school days, when Toni would get so engrossed in the conversation that she’d forget about the kitchen. And then the more painful memories of uncooked food during the days of their first teaching jobs, when Toni would drink too much and forget to turn the oven on at all.

As it turned out, Toni confirmed later the same day that she had invited just two other couples anyway, the Walters and the Pastores. And Jesse, with the astute economy of hindsight, realized that of course Benno Walter and Gianni Pastore were just the readers he had in mind for “On First Looking into Derrida’s de Man.”

By the time she called he had already read the thing and had begun assessing it, not for its intrinsic merit, but for the meaning of its submission to him at this particular time. So he gladly accepted Toni’s plans for the evening and her added assurances that there would be only the seven of them. There were, in fact, to be eight after all, but Jesse could never believe that it had happened according to plan. It was all so serendipitous, so enjoyable, so spontaneous, so engaging, so exhilarating that even Jesse’s finely tuned paranoia could discover neither pattern nor plan.

He xeroxed two copies of the piece and decided to carry them to dinner and ask Benno and Gianni to take it home. It seemed the best as well as the easiest thing to do. If he were being tested in some way, he’d be following appropriate procedures but doing it in a relaxed, easygoing, almost informal way. If he were being put on, he’d be taking the wise course advised by his father, crediting Jack Benny: always be able to say, “I can go along with a gag.” And if it were a no-strings, if unorthodox, submission after all, then he’d be covered. He wanted never to be seen as a fool or a poor sport, though he knew perfectly well that he was capable of being both.

The text, or test, that was the subject of his preoccupation filled less than three double-spaced typewritten pages, and read as follows:

By this title I am not offering a rhetorical invocation to Keats. Were it possible for a title to mean anything at all, mere words and phrases outside the context of a sentence, one could relish the polysemia of the English phrasing in which “looking into” can suggest anything from a casual glance to a careful study, including the connotative “discovering” implicit in the parodic subtextual evocation of Keats. Yet what I propose, in this modest journey that I would undertake for a few pages with you, is to invoke by magical incantation Shelley’s allegory of Keats in “Adonais.”

Those ghostly disjunctions called allegory and irony materialize here, conjoin in a sort of sacred singularity, a form of profane figurality, a manner of mimetic mimicry. For as soon as parody exists, it is more than allegorico-metonymic, since it is a parody of parody, in which the persona’s parodic prosopopoeia relapses onto or unto the figure it deconstructs.

That Memoires for Paul de Man is an elegy modeled on the Shelleyan (mottled as well by the figures and phantasms of “Adonais”) is apparent both in the act of reading and in the unreadability of the act. Where Shelley places Keats in the company of Homer, Dante, and Milton, then Chatterton, Sidney, and Lucan, and includes Byron and Moore among the mourners, Derrida, in his allegory of weeping for his departed friend, summons Rousseau, Holderlin, Nietszche, Heidegger, Schlegel, Hegel, and Pascal to don the masks of Winged Persuasions and veiled Destinies, Splendours, and Glooms, and glimmering Incantations in the presence of his donnish Adonis. All this is a donnee of the figural format.

Shelley presents the allegorical figures of both Memory and Narcissus in the lamentation that precedes the elegiac consolation which is, after all, the purpose of the allegory of elegy. Derrida echoes the rejection of simple, sentimental solutions: “This being . . .”in us” of the other, in bereaved memory, can be neither the so-called resurrection of the other himself. . ., nor the simple inclusion of a narcissistic fantasy in a subjectivity that is closed upon itself or even identical to itself.”

When Derrida’s opening line—”I have never known how to tell a story”—becomes a refrain, the self-deprecation assumes the identity of Shelley’s “one frail form.” The elegist, allegorized, becomes the vehicle of his own consolation, and thereby that of the literate and prophetic world as well. And the words and works of the mourned are set side by side with and incrementally advanced by the words and works of the mourner. The rhetorical figure at work, in Romantic workclothes, is the Classical occupatio, fissioned forth into a grotesquely mutated synecdochical allegory of occupatio.

But most of all, the parodic persona appears as condemner of the enemies, the carrion kites, the literary prostitutes, the unprincipled calumniators, those wretched men who know not what they do. The elegy becomes a platform for protest, a catapult of contumely, to attack the attackers of both the mourner and the mournee. The Quarterly Review is fragmentarily allegorized in synecdochic pieces of The Times Literary Supplement, The New York Review of Books, The New Yorker, Harvard Magazine, The Wall Street Journal, and Newsweek. And in the mnemonic-metonymic roles of John Murray, Francis Jeffrey, John Wilson, and John Wilson Croker come such graspers at straws as Rene Wellek, William J. Bennett, John Searle, Arthur Danto, and Walter Jackson Bate (who is also called Bates—perhaps modeling a mottled motel allusion). To the elegist, critics of the elegized are those incapable of the act of reading—allegorized or not.

O, Winds of Word Wars, if de Manic Winters come, can depressive Derridan springs be far behind?

[Jacques Derrida, Memoires for Paul de Man, Columbia University Press, New York, 1986]

Was it a review? a parody of a review? a review that parodied its subject? a serious piece of criticism? To some degree, it worked in all four of those ways. But Jesse found it both trying and amusing, with at least part of the amusement derived from its qualify as irritant, an academic-Rickles quality. The real question, however, that irritated him, the one he carried unanswered in his head as he carried the copies in two envelopes to Gene and Toni’s house, was whether it was real or a joke, ingenuous or disingenuous, and if the latter, teasing or malicious.

The evening proved to be one of the most memorable in Jesse’s experience, and yet there were huge gaps in his memory of it. It had some of the fleeting quality of light dreaming, a vague sense of pleasure, a fuzziness, rich earth-tones photographed through a gauze filter. He had crossed both Benno’s and Gianni’s paths at earlier turnings, but he found them to conform rather to later reports of them than to what he remembered first-hand. Benno was clearly just passing through Bascom-Lamar, while Gianni had come to settle.

Benno was said to be the nephew or grand-nephew of the conductor Bruno Walter, but it was a connection he never spoke of. If asked, he’d just smile silently until the questioner moved on. Brilliant and brittle, with a mind open to all sorts of playfulness, he also had an alarming capacity to clamp down in a fixed death-grip on a subject or a judgment—which made him a stellar scholar and a dangerous colleague. Behind his steel-rim glasses and self-effacing smile there was a burning ambition; he had been on the verge of tenure at one of the Ivies and would be heading for another at senior rank when his next book came out. An 18th-century specialist, he had a reputation as a generalist, as well, with a strong side interest in psychoanalysis. He’d be a perfect reader for Jesse’s problem piece.

Benno was here, in Lunceford, in transit, because of his traveling partner, a blond young art historian for whom he’d left wife, children, and department behind. Clearly he felt no loss, was confident of future gains, and was enjoying his sojourn, whether or not Penelope would move on with him. It would depend on her; she seemed a canny woman, with an agenda of her own, pretty in a sharp-featured way, and by her very diffidence drawing attention to her carefully devised tastes and getups. Jesse didn’t exactly dislike her, had a kind of distant admiration for the performance, but envied Benno not at all.

Gianni was a swarthy butterball, sad and shy, but compensating with a bluff, good-old-boy heartiness. Two rumors about him persisted: that he had lost his undergraduate athletic scholarship for stealing equipment from his team, and that he had lost his first wife for beating her once too often. None of that seemed likely to Jesse, who could find no sign of athlete, or thief, or domestic violator. And Felicity, with her long auburn hair and fair freckled skin, was said to be a clone of Gianni’s first wife, except that she dabbled in poetry instead of painting like the first. But she seemed content, in an earth-motherly way, and Jesse guessed that some of Gianni’s sadness would pass when Felicity began to replace the children he’d lost in the divorce.

Gianni had produced a provocative book on Shelley, an honestly original reading of the major poems as spiritual autobiography, but had no plans to write another. He’d found a home in the mountains, where he’d teach and brood, and would perform as scholar of Romanticism on request, but not by careerist design. Jesse would make a small request for that expertise with the manuscript.

As for Gene and Toni, Jesse had known them so long and well that he took their intelligent goodheartedness for granted. And he remembered them during that evening more as a nourishing presence than as active participants. They had a gift for bestowing comfort without lavishing attention, except when Toni was riding her matchmaking hobbyhorse. So they passed among their early-autumn guests gathered informally around the fireplace, with food, wine, and a couple of joints of mild, smooth homegrown dope, and they listened to the talk that needed no prompting or filler in this company.

Jesse remembered only the quality of the talk, not its specific content. But he was quite sure that its quality improved dramatically when they were joined by Maggie—there was an eighth after all—because it lost its narrower academic flavor. At least, in Maggie’s presence, it took on a self-deprecating attitude, an amused appreciation of how the world outside viewed the college.

At one point, Benno and Gianni developed a mock history of Bascom-Lamar’s membership in leagues for intercollegiate athletics. First, they belonged to the AHC, the Amalgamated Hyphenated Conference, along with Carson-Newman, Lenoir-Rhyne, Bethune-Cookman, Davis-Elkins, Hampden-Sydney, and Harris-Teeter, but when Carnegie-Mellon, Case-Western, and Pratt-Whitney applied for admission, they knew they were out of their league and withdrew. They were then instrumental in organizing the BCWA, the Big Clean Water and Air, that had institutions like the Campbell Folk School, Highlander, and Foxfire in it, but Elon and Tusculum had so dominated this league with their muscular Christianity that once again Bascom-Lamar had retreated, this time to find sanctuary among Southern Seminary, Savannah Bible, and Charleston Yeshiva.

Jesse could never be sure, later, just when he pulled out his xeroxed copies and asked Professors Walter and Pastore to be his readers, but he knew that Maggie was already there. He remembered Gene smiling benignly at the formal, professional request, at the same time that Toni objected to their doing academic business on her time. Felicity, he recalled, shrugged her shoulders at Maggie, who provided a transition back to the bantering fun by asking, “What’s a refereed journal anyway?” And he remembered verbatim the studied seriousness of Benno’s response: “The difference is quite simple. For an unrefereed journal, the editors either use their own judgment or ask their cronies on their own campus to read submissions. For a refereed journal, editors have no judgment, except for choosing their cronies at other campuses to make the decisions they want made anyway.”

Jesse had recognized Maggie right away, as soon as she came into the living room to say goodbye to Gene and Toni after giving the three kids their sketching lessons. He had first seen her his second day in town, when he wandered into a little crafts store and watched in admiration as she demonstrated for customers a variety of wares ranging from Jew’s harp to hammer dulcimer, from a mountain peg-board game to a child’s potter’s wheel. There had been a smiling and unselfconscious introduction, and they had chatted for a while, the visiting professor and the native crafts expert, the academic stranger and the folk-cultured resident. She sang, played, danced, wrote, and drew, he found out without having to pry, and she also listened, looked, and read with appreciation. She even knew who he was, making it a habit to keep up with what went on in the college in Lunceford, in nearby Warren Wilson, and in Black Mountain as well.

It came as no surprise, then, to learn that Gene and Toni had engaged Maggie to give lessons in music and art to their three small children, that she had taken her supper with them that night and even put them to bed in their separate wing of the Y-shaped bungalow, and that she could be easily persuaded to join the adults where she was just as comfortable and just as welcome. It all seemed so natural that Jesse never suspected it had been prearranged; even later, when he made himself reexamine the question, he could find no clue to a plot, no way that he could have been manipulated in anyone’s design. The surprise came when the others, especially Felicity, urged Maggie to play some guitar for them, and with neither false modesty nor unseemly eagerness she acquiesced.

Jesse was entranced. Whether it was the warmth of the ambiance, the goodness of the ingredients ingested and inhaled, or the overwhelming sense of well-being among this company, he felt wedded to the moment. He was dazzled at her range, as she moved easily from classical exercise to Scottish ballad, from traditional Appalachian to the aging-hippie material of Utah Phillips. But most of all he was mesmerized by her fingers, dancing, that was the only word for it, dancing on the strings. It was a performance and an impression that stayed with him for a long time, and the only other particular recollection he had of the evening was that at its end he had to struggle to focus his attention on making sure that Benno and Gianni carried home with them their xeroxed copies of the manuscript he had brought.

The readers’ reports came back none too quickly. Even for something so brief, the Southern mountains had a way of retarding action and reaction, especially for those used to the frenetic pace of the Northeast. That was why he was there, Jesse kept reminding himself, and he might as well learn to enjoy it. He already appreciated it.

He began to visit the crafts shop regularly, surprised at how disappointed he’d be if it were closed or if, on rare occasions, someone other than Maggie were handling the trade. Their conversations continued to be open and pleasant, but they soon began to move at a leisurely pace through the superficial toward the genuinely serious. They spoke of attitudes themselves, rather than attitudes toward something, which is always a way of talking about the things and not feelings, processes, and beliefs. He’d spent a lifetime sharing knowledge, and now was compelled to articulate understanding.

Their entire interaction was a dialogue. If they touched each other it was punctuation, if they joined hands it was always as a gesture of intense phrasing, and when once she embraced him in a shockingly sturdy hug it was because of something he’d said and said well. But Jesse had started to think of her in other ways, of dwelling on her beauty and grace when he didn’t see her, not her sense and sensibility.

He’d think of her dark eyes, her long braided hair, her small, intense features, her lithe form with its clean lines. And he began to think of her obsessively, as if she were the subject of study for his sabbatical. But then when they were together he would lose sight of her appearance and focus on what she was saying and how her voice revealed what she was. In her presence, he felt her spirit; in her absence, he conjured up the physical self. She was too young for him, he kept reminding himself, and too different. But she was ageless, he’d then think, and there was much they could share.

By the time Gianni brought in his report on the little essay, Jesse had forgotten about it. The next issue of Swannanoa was going to be late for the printer, and he didn’t care. It would all be done in due course, provided his contributors wouldn’t require enormous changes at the last minute. Maybe he had already become a Southerner after all.

Gianni had taken the assignment seriously, carefully examining both the historical and theoretical elements of Romanticism suggested by the piece. “He’s got it right,” he told Jesse as he handed him the envelope. “The parallels with Shelley and Keats and “Adonais” and that business about the critics—it’s all right on the money. Especially when you think about the way Shelley deliberately developed an aspect of himself into a persona for that poem. Derrida’s doing just that with de Man in this book—which I had just read, by the way.”

Jesse thanked him, and then found that his written report had made the same points. The trouble was that there was no bottom line. Gianni had not said whether the piece should be published, never mind whether it belonged in the review section of the Review.

And then before the week was out, Benno appeared in the doorway of Jesse’s office. Slouching casually inside his designer cords, he said, “Thanks for letting me see this. I enjoyed it.” And then, smiling what he intended as his ambiguous smile, he proceeded to chat amiably about other matters, ending with a throwaway line about a forthcoming visit to Ithaca. Jesse was sure that Benno would return with an offer for an endowed chair at Cornell firmly, or casually, in hand.

When he opened the envelope to read Benno’s report, he found a brief acknowledgment of the writer’s wit and “his parodic acumen.” It then went on to say that he, Benno, had once theorized that “since an 18th-century antiquarian named Child was really the first deconstructionist critic, that Wordsworth was right—Child was father of de Man.” Period. No opinion on whether to publish, or if so in what category.

Jesse knew he could go either way on this. He could take both readings as recommendations to publish, since both had praised the piece. Or he could take them as rejections, since neither had said a word about publishing. And so much, he thought wryly, for the issue of refereed v. non-refereed journals. The issue was rather moot than merely academic. He had just about decided to go to the board at the next meeting and offer the piece as approved, with his own endorsement of it as “clever parody with its own critical implications,” when the matter—and the manuscript—were taken out of his hands. The author simply appeared at his office and requested its return, saying that it was being “definitely and indefinitely withdrawn.”

•   •   •   •   •

“Why did you do it?

“You mean write it, or submit it to you, or do it anonymously, or withdraw it, or what?”

“Well, all of the above, the whole thing.”

“I knew something about you, you see, before you got here. And I wanted you to know that you were going to be among real people, people you could talk with and even play with.”

Jesse was talking with Maggie, as they often did through the late autumn afternoons and evenings, lying in bed, at their most relaxed and comfortable and intimate. They talked of many things, of anything really, because the exchange was so generous that nothing would be held back, guarded, held in reserve. And yet, weeks after the fact, this was the first time they had touched on this matter.

She had come to his office, simply said, “111 take my little essay back now,” and he had handed it to her, speechless, but without astonishment. The directness that was her most prominent feature, surprisingly, made it difficult to be surprised by anything she did or said. And it was with the same sweet unsurprise that they became lovers later the same day.

“Maggie, really, why did you do it?” he asked, waking early one January morning, suddenly cold after the fire died in the stove. They were spending most of the school break in her cabin, deeply ensconced in the mountain and in their conversation. There was something eerily clear in the air, and for some reason that may have been prompted by the lost dream he had just left, it suddenly came to him that her first answer weeks before had been only partial.

They had developed, or fallen into, or perhaps just recognized with each other, the kind of intimacy that allows intermittent conversation to proceed as if unbroken no matter how long the pause. And so, without the slightest hesitancy of disorientation, she said, “The other thing was that I had some things to say, and that book gave me a nudge to say them, and you coming to the Swannanoa gave me the idea of a vehicle to truck them in.”

“Things about Derrida, or Shelley?”

“Well, that too, but not so much. I wanted to say, O.K., this deconstructionist stuff is not all that incomprehensible, no matter what I hear from some of the garblings of graduate students and junior faculty. In fact, it’s kind of fun. A playing with criticism against the old ideas of criticism. But I wanted to say, in an amusing kind of way, that the game was destructive, that it was killing literature itself, so that it was suicidal, like the parasite that kills its host.”

“Then why withdraw it? I’d have printed it, even anonymously.”

“Because it didn’t say quite all I wanted. And because by that time I knew I’d have to tell you or that you had already guessed, and that would put another slant on your publishing it.”

And then one fine spring Southern mountain morning, redbuds and dogwoods announcing the only kind of Easter rising Jesse could fully comprehend, Maggie said, “So has this been the romantic interlude of your fantasy?”

And he could smile with her and say, “Not even the old ineluctable longing,” because they both knew it was neither. Not romantic, because the intimacy had been achieved without the pangs; not an interlude, because they knew there would never be a time when they would not be part of one another’s life; and no longing, because they were no longer tied to each other with feelings of need or want. That it was playing and learning and therapy all in one.

She was going to leave before his semester ended, because she was committed to a long summer in Utah where she would lodge in a Shoshone community and study folk medicine, in barter for musical instruction to a dozen Native American children. Jesse had come to share her understanding that there would be no goodbye.

“There’s another answer, Jesse,” she said, and he knew without missing a beat what the question was. “It was a test and a tease and a lure. I thought we might be together for a time, and I wanted to see if it was right, if you could play along.”

With a gag, Jesse said silently, knowing that for Maggie, it went without saying.


This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.

Recommended Reading