Saturday, March 07, 2009

Trying and failing vs. trying to fail

The sentence—as opposed to the fragment ...—the sentence tries and fails. (Joseph Duemer)

When I was in graduate school, I was fully absorbed in literary theory—which is not a surprise, since the program I was in was called "Comparative Literature and Literary Theory." I had a period in which I was quite fascinated by Jacques Derrida—especially by his studies of those writers whose work is especially susceptible to deconstruction because their ambitions for completeness are so especially extreme: Stéphane Mallarmé and Claude Lévi-Strauss, for example, or Edgar Allan Poe (at least as Jacques Lacan read him).

Even then, I was struck by something odd about those postmodernists who held up Derrida as a reason to write fragmentary, incomplete texts. Such writers thought that the lesson of deconstruction was that one should not try to construct anything complete. Even then, that seemed like nonsense to me, even at a simple logical level: works which do not aim at wholeness are not interesting enough to deconstruct. A "fragment" that is intended as a fragment does not "try and fail," as Joseph Duemer puts it; instead, it tries to fail. The fact that attempts at wholeness or completeness will fail in ways that are inevitably invisible to the author but can be spotted by alert analysis is not grounds for fragmentary, incomplete work, be it anthropology, linguistics, fiction, or poetry. (There are, of course, many other putative reasons to be "postmodern," to which this critique does not apply!)

[Cross-posted at The Plumbline School, too.]


Dave King said...

But by their failure they succeed in getting on the bandwagon - or am I being too cynical? A very illuminating critique, nonetheless. Thanks for it.

Mark Granier said...

I like that: the fragmentary text that "tries to fail". Sadly, I have never read Derrida (I find lit. theories heavy going at the best of times). But this self-destructive impulse is exactly the kind thing I have suspected for some time. Of course, all art fails; in a way the process is largely ABOUT failure, since no work can actually embody/distill human experience. But nobody can escape the fact that language is helplessly referential, and this referentiality isn't a mere passing fashion. To crash phrases/sentences into head-on collisions; to propagate narratives that can't be arsed (that give up as soon as they begin); to clobber the reader over the head with THIS IS A MERE TEXT AND DON'T FORGET IT; to try to divest poetry of imagery/music/meaning etc. is to try to bite its nose off (along with its ears, eyes, lips, tongue...) in order to remake its face. I don't believe that poets should be quaint little balladeers, nor that all poems should obviously "mean something". But I do believe that good poetry will always have some allegiance (however tentative) with its primeval roots in song and story. Simple-minded perhaps, but there you are.

Unknown said...

Interesting thought.

Eye opening,in a way.

NO, I am not trying to fail here.

Just thinking.

Andrew Shields said...

Mark: "some allegiance with its roots": that's a good way to put something that often gets forgotten.

It may be very hard to define what jazz is today, but music that has no allegiance to the roots of jazz (New Orleans, Armstrong, etc.) does not deserve to be called jazz.

That's something audible in music, I think, but much harder to define in poetry -- especially for anyone who has not read the roots of poetry in Homer, Sappho, etc.