When Jacques Derrida delivered his now famous lecture, "Structure, Sign and Play," at the Johns Hopkins University in 1966, I was an undergraduate about to leave physics and mathematics to study literature. My mind didn't seem agile enough for the abstractions of electromagnetic theory and algebraic topology. To me, poems seemed like tactile, down-to-earth things that I could understand.
Moreover, reading poetry offered a kind of emotional release or escape from the horrors of the Vietnam War and the atom bomb, which I had been worrying about since I was old enough to read. It bothered me not a bit that my father jeered when I left what he called a legitimate field of study for what he called a phony one. And if his parting jibe -- "You just want to spend your life having a good time" -- was accurate, what of it? It was the 1960s.
I spent four years in graduate school at the University of Virginia, acquiring a Ph.D. and a teaching job. I had avoided literary theory as a student -- it reminded me too much of the headache-inducing abstractions I left behind in science -- and while I had heard of deconstruction and of its inventor, Derrida, I only knew that it was a response to structuralism, another kind of critical theory I didn't care to know about.
As I had missed theory in graduate school, so I missed it in the conservative department at the University of Rochester, where I taught Renaissance literature. I left the life of scholarship in 1979 when I was unable to convince my senior colleagues that I would finish my book on John Milton. (So much thought had gone into thinking up the title -- "The Author's Voice and the Listener's Ear: Remorse and Recourse in 'Paradise Lost' " -- that it seemed a shame to spoil it by writing it.) When I left teaching, I was as innocent of deconstruction as the uncorrupted Eve.
But while I wasn't watching, the scholarly world had been changing -- partly because Derrida's Hopkins lecture had planted an idea which began calling into question many of the things I had taken for granted. Derrida spoke at Hopkins again last Thursday, and the changes in academic criticism in that 25 year period have been dramatic indeed. When I occasionally look at the scholarly journals for which I once wrote, what I find there now almost completely mystifies me. The changes wrought by deconstructionism and its successors, chiefly feminism and the New Historicism, confuse me as much as unified field theory in physics once did.
Panel discussions at the annual convention of the Modern Language Association now have titles such as "What Is a (Wo)Man Critic and What Does (S)He Want?" or "Clitoral Imagery and Masturbation Metaphors in Emily Dickinson."
Academics disagree, of course, and the critical wars fought in English departments over deconstructionism, feminism and neo-Marxism (American departments of literature are one of the last places on earth where people haven't yet heard the bad news from Moscow) are vicious in the way battles are when the object is not so much to defeat your enemy as it is to humiliate him.
But if it seemed to me that the study of literature had left the good old days when one could still make sense of a text by reading it sensibly, I was only partially right.
The truth is that the good old days never really existed. The study of literature in ancient languages in universities has a long history, but studying English literature goes back less than 100 years. (It was assumed that anyone educated enough to enter a university's door needed no help in reading books in his own language.)
That all began to change early in this century, but literary criticism itself -- as opposed to textual scholarship, bibliography and philology -- only achieved a secure foothold in the universities because of the New Critics. This group, made up mostly of Southern ministers' sons, most of whom were themselves poets, first landed in literature departments in such cities as Baton Rouge and Nashville. By the time they had fought their way north to such places as Princeton and New Haven, they had transformed their vision of what literature was into a new orthodoxy.
What the New Critics -- men like Robert Penn Warren, Cleanth Brooks and R. P. Blackmur -- believed was something they had inherited from such poets as T. S. Eliot, Ezra Pound and William Butler Yeats and from such critics as Eliot himself and T. E. Hulme. It was exactly what I believed a poem should be when I left physics: tactile and hard, not abstract; expressed in nearly everyday language; and filled with irony, paradox and -- perhaps -- a belief in a transcendent order of existence that offered the reader a valedictory, if hard-won, consolation. Because the New Critics had conquered the college campuses, their ideas had seeped into high school curriculums, and I had learned them along with everyone else.