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More than any movement since the New Criticism, deconstruction has had an enriching effect on literary studies. It reminds us that complex texts resist monolithic interpretations and that we need take account of seeming marginalia. It stresses that each reading contains the seeds of its own undoing. It privileges the reader rather than the author without quite acknowledging that it does so. Put another way, the text is consubstantial with the reader rather than with the author and/or the anterior world on which the text is based. Deconstruction emphasizes that every reader discovers heterogeneous readings in the same text, which leads the reader to an irreconcilable paradox or aporia. Deconstruction believes that all reading is misreading because no reading can take account of all the possibilities of a text. Deconstruction depends upon rejection of the possibility of moving toward an authoritative reading; it rejects the idea that reading can recover the author's intent, values, themes, or understanding of the world his work imitates. By contrast, what I call humanistic formalism believes that we can approach the author's values and vision by attending to the rhetorical effects within the imagined world created by the author. Humanistic formalism believes that reading is a quest toward the goal of an accurate reading, even though, like Zeno's paradox, it is a goal we can only approach but never reach. But we can make very substantial progress toward that goal. Deconstruction views accurate reading as a mirage that continually recedes in proportion to which it is seemingly approached.
According to deconstruction, our critical "stories" of reading necessarily become oversimplified and inaccurate allegories of reading because they can never do justice to the full possibilities of meaning disseminated by a work. Deconstruction believes that the age of interpretation is over and that the critic is a kind of poet who can pursue any connections to which his reading leads him. Because his mind is the nodal point for the meeting of "texts," the critic can—in the name of intertextuality—weave his own web. The enemies of deconstruction are alternately or collectively perceived as reason, humanism (with its emphasis on discovering the values the author embodied in his work), organic unity, the belief that language signifies, the quest for knowledge, liberalism, and the traditions and institutions that support these activities.
Evidence is accruing that those of us who are fascinated by the theoretical questions raised by deconstruction and have become familiar with its basic concepts are demanding that it provide subtle readings of complex texts or important discussions of recurring patterns over a range of texts; witness the recent issue [End Page 341] of the influential and theoretically sophisticated journal Novel, which published an editorial entitled "Why the Novel Matters" and called for papers under the rubric "Still towards a Humanistic Poetics?" It may be time to propose the concept of the Theoretical Fallacy to describe works that propound abstract formulations and speculations that never adumbrate the works they purport to consider. Perhaps those of us who believe that the function of criticism is to move toward the goal of discovering both what a work said to a contemporary reader and what it says to today's reader should begin to question the value of "theoretical texts" that fail to create a dialogue between concepts and works.
In different ways, the three books under review reflect the consensual glow cast by the noonday sun of deconstruction, but only one—that by Margot Norris—will continue intellectually to shine if, as I believe, deconstruction is beginning to move past its high point in the intellectual firmament. Using the lessons of recent theory without abandoning the traditional concerns of humanistic criticism, Norris proposes that the artists she discusses—Nietzsche, Kafka, Ernst, and...