Deconstruction, What's Your Function?
by David Francis
Are you familiar with the term Deconstruction? Don't feel bad if you are not. As I understand it, after having enjoyed a brief window of respectability in the 70's, 80's, and 90's it has begun a steady decline in popularity in the academic world. That is a good thing for the world, but it does little for me since I was beginning an English major early 90's, and had to deal with a number of professors who were desperate to keep this Deconstruction thing going.
I think the best way to introduce you to Deconstruction is to give you an example of my first exposure to it. It was in one of my Sophomore literature courses in college. We had just finished reading Edgar Alan Poe's The Purloined Letter, which, if you haven't read it, chronicles a detective's search for an indiscrete letter that is being used to blackmail prestigious married woman. It's a good story and is most known as one of the earliest forms of the detective genre in literature. We followed this by reading an essay by a Marie Bonaparte, a student of Carl Jung (a student of Freud), who has an entirely different take on the story. Bonaparte presents the story not so much as a story about a detective looking for a missing missive, but rather as a journal of Poe's unconscious search for his mother's missing maternal penis. That's right: missing maternal penis. You see, as Bonaparte explains in her essay, Poe never met his father, and he had a difficult relationship with his step-father, and so he needed to graft the feeling of male authority onto the only authority he respected: his mother. And so while on the surface you have a plain old detective story, with the right analysis you can see that Poe is really looking for that perfect gift to surprise his mother with. Now you won't find any mention of mothers or penises in the story itself. That's why you need Bonaparte to guide you through the story so that you see mantleplaces described by Poe as the clitorises they are and stuff like that. Still, as I noted to the professor during class discussion, for all the invaluable guidance Bonaparte provides, she doesn't cover the far more difficult issue of: What do you do with it if you actually find your mother's missing maternal penis? Do you wait for a special occasion to give your mom her missing maternal penis? Do you get the family together and make it a family moment? How long will it stay? Does it need to be refrigerated? I find deconstructionists always leave these tough questions unanswered.
As you can see, the heart and soul of any deconstructionist idea is psychoanalysis. You are probably familiar with this term, first introduced by Sigmund Freud, who, as my sister Gail says: "believed the collective psyche of humanity could be determined by studying white, middle-aged males living in a city in Germany." Psychoanalysis is where you get ideas like "penis-envy", "returning to the womb", and all that kind of stuff. Disciples of deconstruction use these invaluable concepts to analyze the hidden secrets of literature, art, and whatever else takes their fancy. You will find everything has a sexual slant to it. Sometimes you just have to be willing to miss the obvious and rational interpretations in order to find it. In a way, Deconstruction is the academic equivalent of that game you can play with fortune cookies where you add the words "in bed" after reading the fortune. In Deconstruction, Hamlet says: "Alas! Poor Yorick, I knew him well. In bed!"
I don't know, maybe there is some practical application for this deconstructionist view of literature. All I can say is I have yet to see it. And I saw plenty of attempts in four years of higher education. The worst of these experiences was with a Professor M in an honors seminar my Junior year. For every book or poem we read, Professor M had volumes of psychoanalytical interpretations prepared for us, and I never found one that presented a convincing argument. Professor M was quite sure that it was the taboo topics of human sexuality that really upset me, but what I really hated was the anything but analytical approach she used to psychoanalyze. As I understand it, analysis is about taking something whole and dividing it up so you can understand what makes it whole. For Professor M, psychoanalysis was about finding one way of thinking about one part of a story and dwelling entirely on that concept until you actually manage to obscure the whole. Let me give you some real excerpts from some typical days in my junior seminar class to illustrate my point.
One of the first books we tackled was the Iliad. Professor M always seemed to be picking on poor Diomedes, my favorite character in the epic. She would say something like: "I want you all to take particular notice of how Diomedes goes into an almost orgasmic state every time he thrusts his phallic spear into an enemy. Clearly, for Diomedes, this war is an opportunity for him to unleash his sexual, and possibly homosexual frustrations against other men." I did not improve my relationship with Professor M when I suggested that Diomedes may have just forgotten to bring his vagina-shaped spear with him.
I mean, come on. Sexual frustrations being a precursor to war is a hypothesis I am willing to consider. But basing it on the fact that a spear is pointy? Furthermore, I have to ask myself if Professor M really knew anything about how homosexuality was perceived in that distant age. I can't say I know myself, but my understanding is that in many places in ancient Greece it was considered quite acceptable for an older man to have a younger man as a lover. So her conclusions about Diomedes' possibly homoerotic rages against the Trojan warriors might have no basis since he may have had no frustrations on this score at all. My opinion is that she didn't know anything about the culture of the time and preferred to make sweeping generalizations about male behavior in general. That is bad analysis and to me it is borderline irresponsible. But it is typical of the deconstruction work I saw as an English student.
Next up was All Quiet on the Western Front. This time, one of Professor M's favorite pupils led the debate noting: "Notice how the soldiers in the trenches go on and on about how they hate the rain and how they are forced to stand in water. Water has long been a symbol of fertility and motherhood. Clearly what they resent about the rain is the presence of their mothers in this, the most macho extension of male behavior, WAR!"
Now my last contribution to the discussion about the Iliad had not been all that favorably received by Professor M, but I felt I had to respond to this comment.
"Has anyone here besides me ever spent an entire day soaking wet?" I asked incredulously. "Its not much fun. And I say this despite a healthy love for my mother. I think the author here may be trying to speak to us more directly. I think he might be saying that it is unpleasant to be wet all the time."
The student quickly protested. "Well, why does he dwell on it so much? Don't you think he focuses on it unnaturally?"
"Not really." I responded. "When you are sitting a pool of filth with gangrene eating away your leg--well, that kind of thing weighs on one's mind."
I never made much headway, but I decided to go ahead and remain a pest throughout the semester. Just about every day of class I found myself debating the validity of ideas that Professor M simply expected us to take for granted. I remember we had quite a tussle over some Winfred Owen poetry. What was making his characters more desperate? Was it because they felt sexually impotent, or was it the German army dousing them with mustard gas?
The day I remember most clearly was toward the end of the semester when Professor M had clearly had enough of me. I was disputing a claim she had made, and we argued back and forth for quite a spell. Finally she just held out her hand and said: "Well, David, I have a PhD in this so I am just going to have to pull rank on you about this."
Those were her actual words. I stopped and looked at her fairly stunned. "You are going to pull rank about an idea?" I asked. "I don't think so!" I had always thought the reason you studied something was so you would have the ability to understand and communicate ideas, not so you could avoid the bother of doing so. In all of the math classes I have ever taken, I have never seen a professor refuse to explain a step in a proof and simply say: "I have a PhD, so we are just going to ignore that I have 1 = 2 here. Let's go ahead and press on!"
Strangely enough, one of the things I have always enjoyed about the humanities is that you don't have to rigorously prove an idea. Having said that you might think I would cut the deconstructionists some slack. But my feeling is that the price you pay for that lack of proof should be that you can't pretend you are building up a flawless argument. I guess the residents of Salem were similarly confident in their tests to prove which folks were witches. I mean, if someone sinks when you throw them in the river it may be because the devil is sitting on their back, but most of us today would like the chance to question that interpretation and not just accept the word of the local experts. Her suggestion that I accept her PhD in lieu of real information told me that she was far more concerned about seeming to know something than actually understanding anything.
Deconstruction is great for that. For one thing, you don't have to do any research. You don't have to study historical, social, or philosophical aspects of a work, because the need to graft missing maternal penises and such is, of course, timeless. The discipline also has all that handy psychoanalytical jargon that makes people hesitant to contradict them. So even when you are sure that they are wrong when they state that Milton's oedipally-oriented id is contesting with the non-corporal, misplaced-anti-dimorphisms of his superego, you still have to go figure out what all those words mean before you can challenge them. And since the deconstructionists are just making up most of these words, that is not always easy. The result is we have disciplines like this being pursued for decades instead of the five to ten minutes of attention they actually deserve.