- Breathless — In Memory of J. Hillis Miller
Je me suis si souvent demandé, I have so often asked myself, perhaps for more than thirty-five years, from the depths of my friendship and admiration for him, how one could be J. Hillis Miller. Quel est son “je” à lui? What is his own “je,” his “I”?
And what taste could this je, this “I” have?Jacques Derrida, “‘Justices’” (2003)
It is a great honor to be invited to reminisce on J. Hillis Miller. I have first encountered J. Hillis Miller in the form of an article, some forty years ago. In many ways, this was for me a fateful encounter. The coincidences that tied me to J. Hillis Miller and his work are some of the greatest chances of my life. I will only be able to gesture at what is an enormous opus, that yet remains to be properly assessed, left behind by this giant of letters, one of the greatest American literary critics, philosophers, and thinkers of the past seventy years.
J. Hillis Miller’s opus is immense: in philosophy and literary theory; in Victorian Studies of which he was no doubt one of the greatest readers ever, including his recent revisiting of Middlemarch (1871) in Reading for Our Time (2012), or essays in Communities in Fiction (2014) on topics from Hardy to Conrad; in Holocaust studies in his Conflagration of Literature. Fiction Before and After Auschwitz (2011) about the work of Jean-Luc Nancy, Wallace Stevens, Toni Morrison, and Imre Kertesz; Jacques Derrida praised Miller’s readings of Proust “among the most remarkable I have read, even in my language, and I am thinking in particular of ‘Fractal Proust’ in Black Holes.” Miller shifted the ground on which to think media in his The Medium is the Maker: Browning, Freud, Derrida, and the New Telepathic Ecotechnologies (2009), reflecting on “time created by the performative media, the media as makers, including makers of human time”; or in essays he delivered in China published under the title of An Innocent Abroad (2015) and assessed and admired in the introduction by Fredric Jameson as no less than “setting up an encounter with History.” This is just a very abbreviated list of over fifty or sixty volumes, no doubt some are still to appear, at least ten of them written when J. Hillis Miller was well in his eighties, which will require reading and re-reading for years to come.
In 1983, I visited the United States for the first time. During my stay and visit to Cornell University, I browsed recent journal issues and discovered an essay by J. Hillis Miller, “The Critic as Host,” published in Critical Inquiry in 1977. I was then an undergraduate student of Comparative Literature from Belgrade, Yugoslavia, and no one had ever suggested I read J. Hillis Miller. But even that cursory library reading took my breath away. I realized that I had encountered something extraordinary, with an admiration that has never left me to this day and has indeed increased since. Xeroxing documents was still expensive at the time, and I copied only two texts, the “original” copies of which I still own. They were the first version of Miller’s essay “The Critic as Host,” and Jacques Derrida’s “Living On/Border Lines.” There have been many trips and border crossings since where I was accompanied by one or another text by J. Hillis Miller and Jacques Derrida, but none has left as big an impression on my entire life as these two texts. Miller’s essay (much anthologized and translated, including in Deconstruction and Criticism in 1979), includes one of the most insightful definitions of “deconstruction,” and also one of the truly sublime formulas about any literary criticism worthy of its name, a testimony to what in Miller’s work is an endless well, to quote this essay, of “interpretation as the joyful wisdom”:
Deconstruction attempts to resist the totalizing and totalitarian tendencies of criticism. It attempts to resist its own tendencies to come to rest in some sense of the mastery of the work. It resists these in the name of an uneasy joy of interpretation, beyond...