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ELT: Volume 33:2, 1990 Words about Formalism, Poststructuralism, and Illusion Murray Krieger. Words about Words about Words: Theory, Criticism, and the Literary Text. Baltimore: The John Hopkins University Press, 1988. xii + 292 pp. $28.50 THE ABANDONMENT of an intellectual tradition may be just the moment for the tradition's defense. The adherents of tradition can revise and newly justify their position in the light of challenges, even by incorporating some of the latter; and they can thereby give what is old a fresh look. In literary theory formalism has been undergoing abandonment for some time, and one wonders if in the present it can find any renewed standing for itself. But judging from Murray Krieger's latest collection of essays, this is still just the moment for formalism's defense. Words about Words about Words promises to rejuvenate what is old, and most of all to revitalize the formalist doctrine that there is a distinctive character to fiction which differentiates literature from mere writing. The promise puts the promiser in an appealing light. In rethinking what is old (in this case, not only the formalist doctrine just mentioned, but the traditional aestheticcum -moral idea that some artworks are more valuable than others), the thinker enacts a dialogue between old and new that puts him in the role of a liberator. He can free us, one assumes, from a merely slavish, unthinking adherence to tradition and from a merely slavish, unthinking alliance with innovation. The role is an enormously demanding one, clearly. Krieger manages the role, but I cannot say that he performs it consummately. Krieger proposes that criticism and literary theory adopt a stance equidistant from New Criticism and poststructuralism. For example, New Critical formalism insisted on the literary work's closure as a self-unifying closing-in of the work upon itself. Krieger maintains the centrality of poetic closure in his own formalist poetics. But he distances himself from the New Critical insistence by seeing closure as the sign of what has been displaced, "the absence of which reinscribes itself into the represented presence." "In reading ... we seek a form that produces total closure, except that as we find each form closing, we find it also—through its apparent consciousness of its own fictionality—opening itself totally toward that which its closure would exclude." This sounds like distance from New Criticism, but not from poststructuralism. Yet Krieger tries to keep the latter at arm's length too, by insisting on the difference between écriture and the forms we identify and canonize as literature: "I am more inter266 Book Reviews ested in how we come to see and project poems . . . than I am in deconstructing that projection." His interest, though, is not in reader's responses—how we come to see and project poems—but in how poems see and project themselves. And they do so, Krieger thinks, by a play of illusion and of a conscious breaking of illusion that for him is unique to poetic or fictive discourse. The key to Krieger's renewal of formalism, with its emphasis on fiction as a discourse set apart from others, is his interest in the literary work's "apparent consciousness of its own fictionality." The fruit of this consciousness in fiction is for Krieger a fine duplicity. Krieger sees a text's apparent consciousness of its own fictionality at work in the text's illusive closure, which is really a mediation of closure and openness in a way that makes each a tricky double of the other. The value of literary texts—even, apparently, the moral value —inheres in this unique dynamic of duplicity in them. This emphasis on illusion, and on its duplicitous assertion and undoing, is Krieger's contribution to the traditional formalist attempt to isolate and define "literariness." "Illusion, after all, " Krieger says, "is what my poetics is all about." But I think it is just here, in Krieger's dependence on the phenomenon of illusion, that he does not fulfill his role as liberator. While illusion is often invoked in Words about Words about Words, it is less often discriminated and expounded . As a result one comes to suspect that Krieger's reliance on...


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pp. 266-270
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