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Literature Against Philosophy, Plato to Derrida: A Defense of Poetry (review)

From: Philosophy and Literature
Volume 20, Number 2, October 1996
pp. 538-540 | 10.1353/phl.1996.0047

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Philosophy and Literature 20.2 (1996) 538-540

Book Review

Literature Against Philosophy, Plato to Derrida: A Defense of Poetry

Literature Against Philosophy, Plato to Derrida: A Defense of Poetry, by Mark Edmundson; 239 pp. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1995, $59.95 cloth, $17.95 paper.

In this age of suspicion, it is refreshing to meet a believer like Mark Edmundson, someone merging "versions of freedom and fate" (p. 235). To many, such an accommodation is automatically suspect; to many, a voice as sweet and civil as his is enough to make the molars ache. Not that Edmundson always makes believing look easy, but he dances rather gracefully with the "descendental" (p. 236) as he sings a late-millennial tribute to "the poems we love" (p. 237). His analysis of sophisticated doubters is impressive for its respectful tone. Edmundson models how a traditional literary intellectual uses, rather than bests, not only what important philosophers promise, but also what literature delivers.

Edmundson's discussion begins with Plato's dismissal of literature as "a harmful diversion" (p. 7). This establishes the classical sources of philosophy's antipathy to literature's "pleasure and vitality" (p. 237) and sets the tone for an analysis of "descendentalism," the various modern and postmodern searches for "ultimate truths" in "the bedrock" of experience (p. 22).

To Edmundson's mind, Freud's general hypothesis that there are analyzable forces in the unconscious legitimizes various contemporary attempts to subordinate literature to philosophy. For example, de Man's metaphor of blindness and insight follows Freud as "a figure for [the] dramatic irony . . . that arises when speakers say more than they know, and . . . where the surplus of meaning is taken in by some third party" (p. 42).

Power issues are in the foreground as the critic becomes an analyst/interpreter of meanings that would otherwise be latent or repressed (p. 43). As Edmundson shows, de Man can transform symbol and allegory into instances of repression, tropes "that record . . . how they will be misunderstood . . ." (p. 49). Such pre-Derridean insights still allow de Man to offer an approximate defense of highly allegorical texts that "proffer images for their own correct deconstruction" (p. 49). Only these, finally, are "worthy of being called literature" (p. 49).

In short, "de Man succeeded in transferring the Freudian model of repression from the sphere of analytic therapy to that of rhetorical analysis" (p. 53) thus initiating "a self-perpetuating order" (p. 55). Does Edmundson decry such orders? Generally, yes, but gently. One of the strengths of this book is Edmundson's desire not to compete with his subjects; predominantly, he avoids for himself the authoritarian positions he suspects, choosing instead to stir up the "trouble between poets and philosophers . . . that keeps them in productive dialogue and competition" (p. 63).

Derrida's chief role in this competition, his polemic against presence, and "his proffered alternative" (p. 79), différance, remind Edmundson of de Man's analysis of repression. "Derrida seems to think," Edmundson writes, that "the texts of Western metaphysics surrender their secret holdings when one simply listens . . ." (p. 80). Like Freud and de Man, then, Derrida is out to unlock what is repressed: "we might think of différance as . . . a name for those powers that Derrida's deconstruction strives to release" (p. 81).

For Edmundson, however, Derrida's chief insight -- that "philosophy is a tissue of words, manifold [not unified] in their associations"--contradicts philosophy's self-described superiority to and dominance over literature (p. 84). For if both literature and philosophy are merely made of words, "how," Edmundson asks, "can philosophy conceivably function as a stable template to discipline and delimit literary range, to disenfranchise poetry" (p. 84)? Walking this tightrope, Derrida dramatizes "the struggle between poetry and philosophy . . . [on] a level of extraordinary and unprecedented refinement" (p. 84). Edmundson's purpose -- as it was with de Man -- is not to debunk Derrida, but to redescribe him: no longer metaphysics' "fearsome terminator," he is a philosopher "within" this tradition (p. 96). Because Derrida continues Freud's idea of authority, his analyses are "disturbingly mistake-proof," risking little themselves but asking of literature great sacrifices of "vital force" (p. 112).

Edmundson then takes on historicism...

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