- The Theater of the Self
In the now-famous dust jacket photograph of his Criticism and Social Change, a polo-shirted Frank Lentricchia stands, arms folded, staring just past the camera, the very picture of macho confrontationality. 1 This self-mocking performance, a daring one for a literary critic in 1983, has been noted in forums as varied as the New York Times Magazine and boundary 2. Now Random House has packaged Lentricchia’s The Edge of Night, which on the dust jacket is subtitled “A Confession,” to take advantage of and to add to his notoriety. In addition to the soap opera title, the front flap quotes the Times (which was quoting the Village Voice) as naming him “the dirty Harry of contemporary literary theory”—an appellation that has been as much savored and disdained as the photograph. The adulatory quotations on the back cover begin with “A street-smart literary strip-tease: St. Augustine meets Raging Bull via T. S. Eliot.” The biographical note in the text lists some of his “controversial and acclaimed” books. And in the photograph for this book, he is wearing what appears to be a black T-shirt.
The book itself is hard to place generically; it falls somewhere between autobiography and the currently hot genre of personal literary criticism. The present strain of the latter in the United States grows primarily out of poststructuralist insistence that knowledge production is situated and out of feminist interest in revealing the personal as political. Discussing this move away from abstraction and the pull of the general, David Simpson wisecracks that literary critics “are busier writing about themselves than they have ever been before, to the point that the award of tenure now seems [End Page 423] to bring with it a contract for one’s autobiography.” 2 Simpson sees autobiographical narrative as part of what he calls an epidemic of storytelling now infecting the academy; he argues that the tales told by philosophers and historians and literary critics “smuggle back, behind the rhetoric of modesty or of radical alternative, precisely the most uncritical and traditional formations of self and subject, along with the unacknowledged grand narratives that surreptitiously maintain them.” 3
In The Edge of Night, Lentricchia plays with—performs, enacts—precisely those dilemmas of subjectivity that Simpson is worried about; indeed, one might say that the subject of the book, in addition to Frank Lentricchia, is subjectivity itself. And he links this troubled subject to the issue of presence and representation in writing. Who is the speaker of this book? “L’écriture, c’est moi,” he writes (14), and the self-mocking tone acts neither to suggest a naïve identification of author and speaker nor to condemn a reader’s or writer’s desire for such identification. And herein lies the merit of the book: knowing what he knows (which is formidable), Lentricchia acts out a character in search of a self he can live with. While he acts out this role he reflects on it, and reflects on his reflecting on it, and theorizes the entire process. He dramatizes the fact that his self—and he defiantly uses that word “self” over and over again—does not exist apart from the reflecting or theorizing. Discussing his reply to a letter that apparently precipitated his writing the book, he says, “I don’t tell him that I’d like to mix up the personal and the intellectual to the point where it would be impossible to separate them, not as an exercise in high-wire theory (this I know how to do), but as an act of homage to the real state of my affairs” (86). Here Lentricchia is problematizing the conflict between those who insist on the relevance of the personal in criticism and theory, and those who prefer their intellection in the form of abstraction. 4
He is also working out of the tradition of autobiography, and I find myself comparing his book not to previous writings of literary critics or even of Augustine, Rousseau, or Wordsworth, but rather to the so...