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Around 2001, I declared that I had written everything I ever needed to write. I was hanging up the proverbial hat and moving on—to what, I have no idea. Literary critics around the world heaved a collective sigh of relief. But to people like me, coming up with great ideas and cranking out books is like making a cup of gourmet instant coffee by NESCAFÉ® Taster's Choice®; in other words, effortless!
When I picked up the pen again I felt like Rage Against the Machine reuniting for one last concert. Of course one more book wasn't enough. And you need to know I am a Renaissance man, so I don't just write about literature. I write about law, film, annoying people, education, ethics, bad TV, linguistics, cheesy novels—you name it.
Not that I'm a careerist, mind you, but I did make a name for myself with my early book on Milton—Surprised by Sin: The Reader in Paradise Lost (1967). It may be hard to get a visual on this, but at the time, Milton studies were pretty rough and tumble. Two schools of thought were battling it out like hyenas over a carcass.
One side argued that disobeying God was the root of evil. Follow God's rule, and everything will be just fine. The other side chastised Milton for being buddies with the Devil—without even knowing it!!! (Yes, exclamation points. Just trying to underscore how dramatic these theories are to academics themselves, if not to anyone else.) These people said that disobeying God is good, and actually leads to self-knowledge.
In one corner: God and his son. In the other corner: Satan and all of his wily rhetorical ways—like a slick politician.
And then I came along and cleverly asserted that "Paradise Lost is a poem about how its readers came to be the way they are […] [I]ts method […] is to provoke in its readers wayward, fallen responses which are then corrected by one of several authoritative voices (the narrator, God, Raphael, Michael, the son)." I managed to take some of the you know what and vinegar out of the debate by offering a third way. How about them apples?
I love readers. (Yeah, you.) They're all so diverse and have so many wild ideas to bring to a text. What a melting pot of thought! Especially compared to those old meanie New Critics who made readers work much too hard to root out the mysteries of the text, I'm a reader's BFF. What a racket, those New Critics. We all carry our own life experiences like luggage and unpack them every time we read a book. I'm sorry, but my reading of The Sun Also Rises is not the same as your reading of The Sun Also Rises.
Readers great and small come together from different but equally important communities. And you know what? We can love and respect each other all the same. (Cue "Kumbaya.") Now don't go accusing me respecting a reader's radical subjectivity—like I would even go so far as to accept a reader's conclusion that Moby-Dick is an enactment of Freud's Oedipus Complex, which hadn't even been proposed yet. My ideas aren't about "anything goes," but I firmly believe that readers can be joined in certain contexts.
This is where I get real. Real bugged, that is. It took a long time to lose the whole "Greatest Living Milton Scholar" tag, but when I went full bore into politics in the academy, I managed to get people worked up about something entirely new.
Memo to literary critics who are trying to revolutionize political thought through the study of sonnets: "If you want to send a message that will be heard beyond the academy, get out of it." Boom. So you think that people in Washington, DC are concerned with your interpretation of Uncle Tom's Cabin? Nope. You want to introduce a new bill to Congress, so you decide to quote from Frankenstein? Good luck.
If you want to live in a place and time where literary acts had instant and urgent political consequences, hop into the wayback machine to Renaissance England.
Crazy diversion from my usual interests? Maybe. But I just love this 1960s television drama. I set out to write a book about The Fugitive that "celebrated and anatomised the ethic of mid-20th-century liberalism," but maybe I just didn't grasp my audience. I couldn't get enough of Dr. Richard Kimble and his multi-season elusion of the law for a crime he didn't commit. That man with one arm was so devious! It may have been a criticism of TV, but I still really labored to bring all of the philosophical and ethical meanings to bear.
I've never been on Team Derrida, but I do have a few things to say about this kooky French deconstructionist. And props to him for going long with his ideas. I do agree with Jacques on a few items: people aren't just standing out there in a isolated, autonomous world just waiting to understood. Sure, God used be at the ready to bridge the chasm between me and that big crazy world, but faith no more.
What do we do now? People have concocted all sorts of scientific methods for getting up close and personal with the world, of understanding it—telescopes, microscopes, atom smashers, computers—anything that served man's effort to reconcile his new nonreligious, logical views. It was a real bummer for some when people like Derrida announced that they could never get as much control as they wanted. After all, Jacques was practically shouting from the rooftops that people don't create the world, the world creates them.