Last night, driving home from an errand, I came to a startling realization. To explain I must reminisce.
I took a class in college which would definitely rank as one of my least favorite classes ever, maybe even top honors in that category. It wasn’t the professor; he was clever, engaging and sneaky in a way I enjoyed. He threw out lures to his students, sometimes valid and sometimes feints. I was too shy and lacking confidence to pounce; however, I loved watching the reactions when one of my classmates was brilliantly correct or impetuously wrong. Most of the time my guesses confirmed what I had suspected—I can get it, I just get it slower than everyone else. I didn’t dislike the class because of fellow classmates either. We were all relative beginners in our discipline; this was a course required early in our degree plans. I respected most of my fellow scholars and easily ignored the rest. It wasn’t even the content. Though I didn’t enjoy everything, I could recognize the quality and purpose in the selection. No, what I truly despised was my professor’s preferred method of study, deconstruction.
Deconstruction is the name which was given by French philosopher Jacques Derrida to an approach (whether in philosophy, literary analysis, or in other fields) which rigorously pursues the meaning of a text to the point of undoing the oppositions on which it is apparently founded, and to the point of showing that those foundations are irreducibly complex, unstable or impossible.
Deconstruction generally attempts to demonstrate that any text is not a discrete whole but contains several irreconcilable and contradictory meanings; that any text therefore has more than one interpretation; that the text itself links these interpretations inextricably; that the incompatibility of these interpretations is irreducible; and thus that an interpretative reading cannot go beyond a certain point. Derrida refers to this point as an aporia in the text, and terms deconstructive reading “aporetic.” J. Hillis Miller has described deconstruction this way: “Deconstruction is not a dismantling of the structure of a text, but a demonstration that it has already dismantled itself. Its apparently-solid ground is no rock, but thin air.”
For me, this meant that the literature we read was to be dissected like a frog in biology. I was so disturbed by the process and so appalled at the exhibit I could no longer interact with the text as before. The story’s validity, its worth, its shared life with the reader, they were all gone. It had become nothing more than a bloody mass of verbal cells sliced and skewered to the page.
Can you tell I get a little distressed just reading about it? So why does it upset me? English majors and others analyze and critique things daily, even hourly. I do it as I try to comprehend my children’s aversion to passing their classes. I do it when I read a new, difficult book or even the Bible. So why does this method bother me?
Derrida states that deconstruction is not an analysis in the traditional sense. This is because the possibility of analysis is predicated on the possibility of breaking up the text being analyzed into elemental component parts. Derrida argues that there are no self-sufficient units of meaning in a text. This is because individual words or sentences in a text can only be properly understood in terms of how they fit into the larger structure of the text and language itself.
So . . . either English majors are spinning their wheels using circular, ineffective methods, or we should all adopt deconstruction and point out the negative, worthlessness of all literary. I can’t do that.
Finally, to my original realization, I understood why this bothered me so deeply (at least in part). I like the mystique of literature. I believe in the power of words. I don’t want to understand everything about it. I want to experience it, join my inner self with it, and create a new understanding. I did not like this class because deconstruction felt more like a personal attack that denied me, my indefinable soul. If we destroyed (that’s what it felt like to me) the work and thus the instinctive connections readers made to the work, aren’t we denying the reader as well.
I admit to preferring happy endings. I also acknowledge the irony in this very post of critically analyzing my responses. I called a friend last night and discussed my revelation. I explained it this way, “I like being a mystery.” I like to surprise people, and I like being amazed. There have been people in my life that I have had an instant, overwhelming response to—I really want to know that person! I wanted to find out about them, become friends with them, and observe them with a smile (similar to how I feel proudly watching my children). I feel the same way about literature, even the works I dislike. I will analyze to help my understanding, but I will still respect its unique merit.