A Post Modern Nightmare

Sunday, February 17, 2008
In my Introduction to Comparative Literature class, which I took my senior year in college, there was a fair amount of worry about the political ramifications of the likes of Derrida -- those who believed that words do not mean a single, specific thing, but rather exist because of our notions of binaries, and meaning exists only within that continuum.

That theory is easily expanded so that words essentially become meaningless. Derrida, probably influenced by Nietzsche's melding of truth, illusion and lies, celebrates the deconstruction of binaries as the new, important way of reading literature. Honestly, it frightens me because it removes a lot of power from the writer. Post structuralism allows an endless spinning of interpretations which means that the author can never really say what he means to say. But then again, it means that the creation of literature is also the creation of reality. On the other hand, with with this and with the consequent death of the author, the author is pretty much in trouble no matter what she does.

But the destruction of binaries, has frightening political realities, one that the Post-Structuralists had to struggle with when some of its leading scholars turned out to be Nazi sympathizers.

This whole thing, all of this literary theory, came to a head in this week's New Yorker. The Article is not yet online, but in brief summary: A post-structuralist admirer is accused of committing a murder after he writes a disturbing book which bears tenuous but striking similarities to an unsolved murder in Poland. He is a man, who created a character that believes that the truth is simply lies that language has made real. The author, like the character, believes that. And the extension of that is that without truth--or write or wrong--who is to say the murder happened? While the Polish police had a body on hand, the character in the novel brags about a murder that the reader never knows whether or not it is real.

When the author goes on trial, it is as if the book goes on trial as well, as if the whole story was created for students of literary theory:

"During all this [his trial] Bala [the defendant] sat in the cage taking notes on the proceeding or looking curiously out at the crowd. At times, the seemed to call into question the premise that truth can be discerned. Under Polish Law, the defendant can ask questions directly to the wittinesses, and Bala eagerly did so, his professorial inquiries often phrased to reveal the Derridian instability of their testimony. When a former girlfriend testitified that Bala once went out on her balcony drunk and acted as if he were on the verge of committing suicide, he asked her if her words might have multiple interpretations. 'Could we just say that this si a matter of semantics--a misuse of the word "suicide"?' he said....
He complained that the prosecution was taking random incidents in his personal life and weaving them into a story that no longer resembled reality. The prosecutors were creating a mytho-creation,--or as Bala's defense attorney put if to me, "the plot of a novel."... Bala had long subscribed to the post modern notion of the death of the author.... Yet, as the prosecution presented to the jury potentially incriminating detailts from [his novel] 'Amok,' Bala complained that his novel was being misinterpreted. He insisted that the murder of Mary was a symbol of the "destruction of philosophy" and he made one last attempt to assert authorial control. As he later put it to me, I'm the fucking author! I know what I meant."

I imagine this is what the nightmares of literary theorists look like: being trapped in a cage as your literary theory becomes the prosecution of your trial, and your stubborn allegiance to the death of the author and the unimportance of authorial intent comes back to haunt you and to put you behind bars for good. To put literature on trial seems a terrible hint to the banning of books, but what happens when an author goes on trial? Can the defense call Foucault to the stand? Derrida? Barthes?

There were real things to link him to the murder, and I don't think the fear of restricting speech should be a reason to keep a book off the stand. In this instance, Bala was found guilty, but is waiting a new trial.

But still, even as someone who generally has little to do with literary theory, when I fell asleep later in the afternoon after reading this, I dreamed of writing frightening books.

I plan on following this story. Sorry for the long, dense post. In the meantime, do buy this issue of The New Yorker and read the whole story. It's well worth it.

2 Responses to 'A Post Modern Nightmare'

  1. K said...
    http://writtenpyramids.blogspot.com/2008/02/post-modern-nightmare.html?showComment=1203339480000#c2596006260936971955'> February 18, 2008 at 7:58 AM



  2. Anonymous said...
    http://writtenpyramids.blogspot.com/2008/02/post-modern-nightmare.html?showComment=1203598620000#c1464696131622170852'> February 21, 2008 at 7:57 AM

    I'm in Robbins' intro to lit theory course (basically the same thing, only we don't read novels at all period) and I've been trying to understand this and appreciate it while distinguishing the "author," the "work," the "discourse," from journalism...otherwise things just don't look so great.
    I'm sure you've synthesized this into a thought much more coherent than mine...do share.


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