Death Comes for the Deconstructionist
180 pp., $22.00
David Lyle Jeffrey
Murder at the MLA
It seems to me a risky thing to introduce more than five pages of dreary academic posturing into a novel, yet Pratt's MLA speech is given by Taylor at length. The professor's hackneyed imitations of Saussure and Derrida once might have thrilled much of his audience, but now they're simply bored—they've heard it all before. "Literature," Pratt intones, "is not a testimony to successful communication between lonely creatures. It is the mausoleum of the Logos, the totalitarian word that would organize the universe." Yet if we're ready to dispense with our illusions, ready to "acknowledge that literature offers us neither wisdom, nor love, nor courage, nor home—our nostalgia for them notwithstanding—then we can allow the writer to float freely on the winds of language, taking us everywhere and nowhere." For veterans of the literary discipline in the last four decades, this prattle is only mildly parodic; even Pratt's conclusion that, as a result, "there is no meaningful difference between The Divine Comedy and The Wizard of Oz" will scarcely turn a hair, except perhaps in admiration that discourse so difficult to parody has been captured rather neatly by Taylor. I say "parody" because straightforward imitation would be far too much to induce willing disbelief in 99.9 percent of readers. To give a sample of what now passes for actual academic discourse, here is a passage from a current leading light in the guild, from her book A Manifesto for the Humanities (University of Michigan Press, 2015), for comparison:
Writing this book, I came to see the new scholar subject as a performative of passionate singularity, hybrid materiality and networked relationality. This is one sense in which the humanities scholar that is becoming is possibly posthuman, and a posthumanist scholar. The locus of thinking, for the prosthetically extendable scholar joined along the currents of networked relationality, is an ensemble affair. It involves the scholar, the device, the algorithm, the code. It involves the design architecture of platform and tool, the experiential architecture of networks, and the economy of energy.
Taylor's gentle parody is still a risk, I think, but successful in this novel in part because Pratt and his particular twaddle are not the actual subject, despite the academic glamor, attractive wife, pleasant ex-wife, many mistresses, and mysterious murder he has gotten thereby. Taylor's real subject is one of Pratt's more thoroughly crushed victims, our demon-haunted, procrastinating, scapegrace narrator, the hopelessly un-professional private detective Mote, especially as viewed through his relationship with his Down syndrome sister Judy. It is Judy who emerges as the novel's actual light-bearer, the foil to Mote's own species of darkness, and it is her "presence—maybe with a capital P," as Mote admits, which sustains him against his psychotic inner "voices," demons more frightening in some ways than those of Christopher Marlowe or St. Luke. We begin to suspect self-destruction will quite possibly culminate in another death long before Mote's unlikely quest is over.
That said, Professor Pratt's faintly ridiculous trophy speech is important as a moral litmus. One person in his audience erupts in the midst of it, shouting out in protest. She has to be escorted from the room. Later on Verity Jackson, a middle-aged black teacher of writing, tells Mote that what she objected to was Pratt's destruction of life-sustaining stories
by killing words … by denying the ability of words to capture our experience and explain our lives to ourselves. If words are such weak and self-destructing things, then there is no truth, and if no truth there is only power, and we, of all people, know what it is like to be on the receiving end of power.
Her words are echoed by Pratt's colleague and another former teacher of Mote, the still respected though now out-of-fashion Professor Abramson, a childhood survivor of the Nazis in Hungary. Abramson is a man who knows something about the consequences of the demise of truth; his comment on the state of the profession book-ends nicely with that of Verity Jackson: "I have lived under circumstances that make one believe in the categories of true and false, good and evil. Wiping away such categories serves oppression and death." Later he will add, "We have never been so opposed to talking about the moral dimensions of literature, and yet we have never been more moralistic and judgmental."