This paper was originally an invited Andiron Lecture given at the University of Evansville in January of 1994.

Fair Play vs. Fair Game in Contemporary Criticism

Steven C. Scheer

Let us begin by talking about reading, not from a deconstructive but from a commonsensical point of view. Given the difference between speaking and writing, reading corresponds to listening. It should go without saying that the reader/listener must register what is being said, otherwise there is no real reading/listening, just going through the motions of seeing/hearing words, which (when not attended to) automatically become meaningless marks or sounds. The point is that for reading/hearing to take place the reader/hearer must be attentive. Inattention undermines reading/hearing perhaps even totally. Inattention, then, may well be the fatal error in reading/hearing. But inattention does not have to be intentional. The reader/hearer may, for example, inadvertently drift into a daydream of his/her own during the act of reading/listening and so may stop registering what is being said. It's really not difficult to tune out the writer or the speaker (some of you may even do it to me before I am through - of course, in a sense if you do tune me out I am through, but that's just the other side of the same coin).

I hope I am not belaboring this elementary point in vain. In any case, I need to be very clear about all this if what I intend to say later is to make adequate sense. Implicit in what I have been saying so far, of course, is the other. That is, the act of reading/hearing always already attends to the other. Once the attention to the other ceases, the act itself becomes instantly bankrupt or defunct. In other words, when I read or listen to someone else, the other, that other has (ideally) my undivided attention. To be more precise, his/her words enter into my consciousness so that in a very real sense my reading or listening to another person somehow involves a case of the consciousness of the other taking up residence, as it were, within me. The act of reading/hearing is an act of sharing. It is, in some sense, a kind of intercourse. The sexual metaphor is apt. Since the writer penetrates, the writer is always already masculine. Since the reader is penetrated, the reader is always already feminine. As writers, in other words, we are all males, as readers we are all females. (Once, in a moment of inspiration, I actually told a class of mine that the reason why I am such a good reader is because as a reader I am, of course, a woman and as a woman I am, of course, a shameless whore.) Having said this, I may give you the impression that I have now departed from the realm of common sense, but I don't really think so, though it is perhaps not ordinarily commonsensical to belabor these elementary points at such length. This labor, however, no matter how painstaking it may seem at the moment, is bound to give us splendid offspring.

To continue then: the coupling, therefore, of one person's consciousness (mind and heart, if you will) with that of another is at the core of every act of reading or listening. Georges Poulet in an important and seminal essay ("Criticism and the Experience of Interiority," in The Languages of Criticism and the Sciences of Man) says many wonderful things about it rather movingly and poetically. I shall now cite from this essay a whole series of short passages. Please pay particular attention to the reverence with which Poulet describes the act of reading:

"I am aware of a rational being, of a consciousness; the consciousness of another, no different from the one I automatically assume in every human being I encounter, except that in this case the consciousness is open to me, welcomes me, lets me look deep inside itself, and even allows me, with unheard-of license, to think what it thinks and feel what it feels."(56)

"I am someone who happens to have as objects of his own thought, thoughts which are part of a book I am reading, and which are therefore the cogitations of another. They are the thoughts of another, and yet it is I who am their subject. The situation is even more astonishing than the one noted above. I am thinking the thoughts of another. Of course, there would be no cause for astonishment if I were thinking it as the thought of another. But I think it as my very own."(59)

"I am a self who is granted the experience of thinking thoughts foreign to him. I am the subject of thoughts other than my own. My consciousness behaves as though it were the consciousness of another." (ibid.)

"I feel sure that as soon as I think something, that something becomes in some indefinable way my own. Whatever I think is a part of my mental world. And yet here I am thinking a thought which manifestly belongs to another mental world, which is being thought in me . . ."

"It all happens, then, as though reading were the act by which a thought managed to bestow itself within me with a subject not myself. Whenever I read, I mentally pronounce an I, and yet the I which I pronounce is not myself."

"Reading is just that: a way of giving way not only to a host of alien words, images, ideas, but also to the very alien principle which utters them . . . "

". . . how could I explain, without such takeover of my innermost subjective being, the astonishing facility with which I not only understand but even feel what I read. When I read as I ought - that is without mental reservation, without any desire to preserve my independence of judgment, and with the total commitment required of any reader - my comprehension becomes intuitive and any feeling proposed to me is immediately assumed by me."

"Reading, then, is an act in which the subjective principle which I call I, is modified in such a way that I no longer have the right, strictly speaking, to consider it as my I. I am on loan to another, and this other thinks, feels, suffers, and acts within me." (59-60, italics Poulet's)

What Georges Poulet is describing here is what I myself seem to experience every time I read. Of course (and I don't intend this the way it will sound), he is describing the ideal reader or (better) the ideal act of reading. But the story doesn't end there. Later in the essay Poulet comes around to isolate, so to speak, the critic in the reader. The critic is that part of us which remains aloof of this willing abdication of our ordinary selves. That is, a part of us willingly gives itself to the text and therefore to the writer we happen to be reading, but another part of us, as it were, stands back and watches this (to use one of Poulet's own words) "usurpation." Poulet's description is not unlike Coleridge's famous "willing suspension of disbelief," or Ralph Waldo Emerson's assertion that "[i]t is remarkable, the character of the pleasure we derive from the best books. They impress us with the conviction, that one nature wrote and the same reads. . . . One must be an inventor to read well. . . . There is then creative reading as well as creative writing. When the mind is braced by labor and invention, the page of whatever book we read becomes luminous with manifold allusion" ("The American Scholar").

The point I am trying to make here (and this is the first of a series of assertions of my own that I will simply commit myself to) is that the good critic cannot ever read with indifference, without a prior and (if you will) uncritical act of surrender or - let's face it - love. I would also like to maintain that, provided we are dealing with a worthy text, we gain something by allowing this temporary loss of our selves. Henry David Thoreau formulates this with a wonderful bit of sarcasm and with his customary willingness even to risk offending his readers. He tells us that the "works of great poets have never yet been read by mankind, for only great poets can read them. . . . Most men have learned to read to serve a paltry convenience, as they have learned to cipher in order to keep accounts and not be cheated in trade; but of reading as a noble intellectual exercise they know little or nothing; yet this only is reading, in a high sense, not that which lulls us as a luxury and suffers the nobler faculties to sleep the while, but what we have to stand on tip-toe to read and devote our most alert and wakeful hours to" (Walden, 72).

All this (and more) applies to ideal readers and/or reading. Furthermore, most of what I have been saying so far, in fact, is meant to apply to reading poetry or fiction. And the best reason for reading literature in general is, of course, love. But we do not live in an ideal world where all readers are willing to abandon their egos to the pleasures of encountering the other in and by means of the text. In fact, some readers (or some acts of reading) never even get in touch with the other, seemingly a metaphysical impossibility. It is, I take it, precisely this failure to read the other that Roland Barthes has in mind when he says that "those who fail to reread are obliged to read the same story everywhere" (16), or (as I spontaneously misquoted this same passage in class once - and the misquote stuck and is now part of my repertoire) the person who never reads the same book twice is destined to read the same book over and over again. Although still in some sense commonsensical, this remark may need a bit of explanation. The quote comes from S/Z where, among other things, Barthes makes his famous distinction between "writerly" and "readerly" texts. Barthes values the "writerly" which makes a "reader no longer a consumer, but a producer of the text" (4). Those who fail to reread and are thus obliged to read the same text over and over again, are consumers as opposed to producers of texts. They do not rewrite, as it were, what they read; they are therefore not really reading the other, they are merely reading themselves. The parody of such a reader as consumer of his or her own self would be the person who thinks that every book is a dirty book. It never occurs to such a person that the dirt he or she finds everywhere is simply part and parcel of his or her own being. To read in a real sense one must encounter the other and risk changing one's mind. Unless one reads with that risk, one is not really reading at all, for even if one keeps on reading, one will merely be reading the same text over and over again.

This finally takes me to a consideration of critical reading (that is, the critic as reader not just of literature but of criticism). Well, almost. There is one more thing I would like to assert and commit myself to: there is such a thing as intentionality. I know this is a controversial subject, and I assure you that I, too, am familiar with W.K. Wimsatt's old "Intentional Fallacy" and the later intellectual civil war, as it were, between E.D. Hirsch and his opponents - that is, between the right and the left, if you will, or the traditionalists and the radicals. As a deconstructor I am, by definition (I suppose), a radical, but I would still maintain that there is such a thing as intentionality. I will be very commonsensical about my assertion here: we are not unconscious when we write. Which does not mean that the act of writing does not produce surprises even for the writer. I agree, in fact, entirely with Robert Frost's famous dictum: "no surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader" ("The Figure a Poem Makes"). Nevertheless, every act of writing is intended and intends something. I have an idea for a book I may write some day (to be called Redemptive Illusions, Damnable Lies) in which I will claim that stories or novels or plays or movies are really arguments. They are (sometimes very obviously) for or against certain ideas, types of people, points of view. Every old-fashioned struggle between good and evil is clearly an example of such argumentative fictions.

Now my point about intentionality is not simply to claim that every story or novel or play or movie merely carries to its logical conclusion some predetermined lesson or "message". The creative act is not reducible to such mechanical preaching. That, I take it, may in fact be what enables us to distinguish a good novel or movie from a bad one. Bad novels or movies tend to be either didactic or inadvertent examples of kitsch. In a good novel or movie there is always already an element of surprise for both writer and reader. I would also like to claim that although we do not write unconsciously, we are frequently not really conscious of the full meaning/significance of what we write. I offer you François Truffaut's testimony in this regard: "I am aware that everything one writes or films acquires a meaning. Nevertheless, I can truthfully say that in my creative process, the emotion is father to the theme. . . . Curiously enough, I may discover, after the fact, through what others write about my work, the inner motivations that guided my choice of a given subject. Because I work instinctively rather than intellectually, it is often some two years after a film has been released that I fully understand its meaning" ("Foreword, The Story of Adele H., 8-9).

Perhaps the way to get out of the dilemma of the intentional fallacy would be to claim, as I sometimes in fact do so in my classes, that in some sense it is the text itself that intends the best possible interpretation the critic can possibly find in it. For I also firmly believe, as old-fashioned and undeconstructive as this may sound, that an interpretation is not something superimposed on the text by the critic, but something generated by the text in the critic. In other words, an interpretation is part of the work rather something apart from it. I will merely cite one simple example for this point, Wallace Stevens's "Anecdote of the Jar." As you will recall, the speaker of the poem (what the hell, Wallace Stevens himself) claims that by placing a jar in the wilderness in Tennessee, the wilderness in Tennessee ceases to be wild. The jar is, of course, a human artifact. The poem is, therefore, a seemingly absurd but really something like an abstract poem about culture vs. nature. It argues, if you will, that wherever human artifacts appear, nature ceases to be, well, natural (according to deconstruction, of course, "nature is itself . . . a cultural construct" Harland, Superstructuralism, 9). The poem certainly argues some such thing. Furthermore, I usually have no difficulty convincing my students that (whether Wallace Stevens consciously intended this or not makes no difference) the "jar" in the poem is the perfect human artifact and no other would have done (not a coke bottle [which was, of course, perfect for The Gods Must Be Crazy], nor a mug, nor a beer can). The reason why jar is the perfect human artifact in this case is that it is part and parcel of the point the poem makes, namely that any human artifact is going to jar nature. I rest my case.

Novels and movies, of course, provide us with much more complex arguments. And the best ones tend toward wisdom. And wisdom is superior to mere knowledge which is, of course, superior to mere information (thanks, T.S. Eliot). And the purpose of criticism at its most fundamental is (as I said in the very beginning of my first book many years ago) "to render explicit what is implicit in the text." If this is so, then why are there so many intellectual and emotional wars going on in contemporary criticism? I'll come to that in a moment. But first, I would like to commit myself to yet another assertion: criticism is just like literature. No, I don't mean this in the deconstructive sense in which Geoffrey H. Hartman argues the point in "Literary Commentary as Literature" in his Criticism in the Wilderness. What I mean is something much more fundamental: just as new metaphors keep a language alive and keep our perceptions from becoming stock responses, so works of literature keep retelling the same old stories in ever more novel ways to keep our hearts and minds alive to the possibilities of wisdom and of truth and justice, and so new critical schools keep restating the same old issues in different ways to keep us on our toes, to keep us interested in ourselves and in our world. What I am referring to here, I guess, is a universal human need for ongoing renewal, which applies to criticism as well as to language and literature in general. What I mean is something close to what the Russian formalists meant by "making it strange." Here's how Victor Shklovsky makes this point in his seminal essay "Art as Technique." He begins by quoting an entry from Tolstoy's Diary, dated March 1, 1897:

I was cleaning a room and, meandering about, approached a divan and couldn't remember whether or not I had dusted it. Since these movements are habitual and unconscious, I could not remember and felt that it was impossible to remember - so that if I had dusted it and forgot - that is, had acted unconsciously, then it was the same as if I had not. If some curious person had been watching, then the fact would be established. If, however, no one was looking, or looking on unconsciously, if the whole complex lives of many people go on unconsciously, then such lives are as if they had never been.

(This is what Shklovsky says about this passage:) Habitualization devours works, clothes, furniture, one's wife, and the fear of war. . . . And art exists that one may recover the sense of life; it exists to make one feel things . . . The purpose of art is to impart the sensation of things as they are perceived and not as they are known. The technique of art is to make objects 'unfamiliar,' to make forms difficult, to increase the difficulty and length of perception. (Russian Formalist Criticism: Four Essays, 12)

Once again I raise the question, then, if all this is more or less so, why are we in the midst of an emotionally draining intellectual state of war? The sense of an ongoing conflict between the right and the left or the traditionals and the radicals is, by the way, not confined to critical discourse. It seems to be a world-wide phenomenon of ever more frightening proportions. I am, of course, not sure I have any of the answers, but I think I can clearly see part of the problem. The problem in the larger sense is that abuse is going on on both sides. We seem to have lost the capacity for trusting the other. We no longer sympathize or empathize with those who are different from us, we simply want to annihilate them. I am almost willing to bet that in some future age the age we are living in right now will be called the age of intolerance. But let me get back (and finally around to) contemporary critical discourse.

First, a quick review of a few examples. Conservative attacks on deconstruction can be just about as absurd as the following: if all reading is misreading then all readings are equally valid. Nothing could be further from the truth. Actually, this infamous deconstructive tenet would prove rather commonsensical (albeit also playfully mischievous) if we just let ourselves receive it with self-possession. Since no reading seems to be able to exhaust a text and since each reading is slightly (or not so slightly, as the case may be) different from all other readings, all readings may in some sense be said to be misreadings. Which is very different from vicious misreadings of deconstruction of which there is no shortage nowadays in certain circles. By now even such a well-tempered critic as J. Hillis Miller, for example, has succumbed to the temptation of speaking out against them: "One facet of the misuse of the term nihilism as a bad label for deconstruction is the assertion that deconstruction removes all grounds of certainty or authority in literary interpretation. Deconstruction, such (mis)readers of it claim, asserts that the reader, teacher, or critic is free to make the text mean anything he [or she] wants it to mean. The implicit or explicit reproach is that this is immoral because it annihilates the traditional use of the great texts of our culture . . . as the foundation and embodiment, the means of preserving and transmitting, the basic humanistic values of our culture" (The Ethics of Reading, 9). Jacques Derrida has himself been known to lose his equanimity in the face of perverse misunderstanding. In "The Principle of Reason," for example, he states that "[w]e can easily see on which side obscurantism and nihilism are lurking when on occasion great professors or representatives of prestigious institutions lose all sense of proportion and control; on such occasions they forget the principles that they claim to defend in their work and suddenly begin to heap insults, to say whatever comes into their heads on the subject of texts that they obviously have never opened or that they have encountered through a mediocre journalism that in other circumstances they would pretend to scorn." In a footnote to this remark Derrida mentions several instances, among them "Willis [sic] J. Bennett, [the former] Chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities," who "carries ignorance and irrationality so far as to write the following: 'A popular movement in literary criticism called "Deconstruction" denies that there are any texts at all. If there are no texts, there are no great texts, and no argument for reading'" (in Diacritics, Fall, 1983, p.15).

Deconstruction is, of course, nothing if it is not an argument for reading, reading so rigorous that it requires a great deal of conscientious effort to carry it out. Part of the reason for this is the complex deconstructive tenet according to which everything is text, everything is writing, there has never been anything but writing and there will never be anything but writing. Such assertions, of course, should never be taken literally (actually, according to deconstruction nothing is literal, everything is metaphorical, including the idea that everything is textual). In any case, in spite of such refutations by deconstructors (which their detractors have probably never read), things have been getting worse of late. In 1991, for example, a certain David H. Hirsch has published a book called The Deconstruction of Literature: Criticism after Auschwitz in which, as his subtitle indicates, he conflates deconstruction with Nazism. Much in this book is simply unbelievable (the author seems to think, for example, that deconstructors are not even capable of love or generosity or other human feelings), though (ironically) as a deconstructor I can give a sympathetic hearing to one of the book's basic tenets: namely, that in the aftermath of World War II, "confronted with a private and collective past too painful to face, the intellectuals of western Europe began an arduous task of inventing elaborate strategies of denial." This statement has not, of course, been inspired by Freud (Freud had too much of an influence on deconstruction to sit well with Hirsch, I take it), but by the unfortunate Paul de Man affair. Because Paul de Man, one of the major theorists of the 70's and early 80's had never revealed the existence of certain youthful newspaper articles published in his native Belgium in the early 40's (some of which included commonplace anti-semitic sentiments characteristic of that time and place), Hirsch gives himself permission to state categorically that "[n]ot surprisingly, [Paul de Man] came to believe that language could function in no other way except as a vehicle for subterfuge or untruth" (113). Paul de Man, of course, believed no such thing, but as a deconstructor he was naturally obsessed (as are we all) with the possibility that certain ideologies (including that of the Nazis) systematically distort the world in and by means of the language of subterfuge and untruth.

In contrast with David Hirsch's book let me mention another, Susan A. Handelman's The Slayers of Moses: The Emergence of Rabbinic Interpretation in Modern Literary Theory published in 1982. (I emphasize the date of publication to indicate that this is one of the books David Hirsch could certainly have read while researching his own.) In an effort to save time, allow me to quote a few sentences from the blurb of this book: this "is the first comprehensive treatment of the undeniable, and undeniably significant, influence of Jewish religious thought on contemporary literary criticism. Dr. Handelman shows how [the Rabbinic interpretive tradition] provide[s] a crucial link among several of the most influential modern theories of textual interpretation, from Freud to the Deconstructionist School of Lacan and Derrida, as well as current literary theorists who revive Rabbinic hermeneutics, such as Harold Bloom and Geoffrey Hartman." At one point in her book, for example, Handelman reveals a shocking and surprising similarity between a typical page of the Talmud and that of Derrida's Glas. So, my question is, which do you think was responsible, among other things, for the development of deconstruction, Nazism or Judaism? I rest my case.

For my final example, I would like to zero in on a less extreme case where a distinction between fair play vs. fair game will be much more apparent and crucial. My example comes from Frederick Crews's The Critics Bear It Away: American Fiction and the Academy, published 1992. This book is an interesting case in point in that it is avowedly not simply an attack on theoretical excesses of the deconstructive kind but an attack on the "illusions" (Crews's own word) fostered by both extremes of the critical spectrum. (Let me add here parenthetically that about this I agree with Crews entirely. Clearly both sides are capable of what I call fair-game as opposed to fair-play tactics). Two chapters in the middle of the book in question deal with Mark Twain. The first of these, "The Parting of the Twains," chronicles the excesses of (loosely) political correctness, on the one hand, and the shortcomings of (loosely again) old-fashioned criticism, on the other. As far as I can tell, Crews's criticisms of the first of these, Susan Gilman's Dark Twins: Imposture and Identity in Mark Twain's America, remain in the arena of fair play. I find it interesting, though, that the inscription at the head of the chapter is a quotation from The Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court, "How empty is theory in presence of fact." The statement is Hank Morgan's, and in the context of the story it is a true statement, but Frederick Crews's use of it smacks of fair game rather than fair play. What I am really interested in right now, though, is the next chapter, "A Yankee in the Court of Criticism." This chapter chronicles four different approaches to Twain's novel only one of which (the one he calls "empiricism") meets with Crews's whole-hearted approval. This happens to be the third approach. The fourth is, of course, deconstruction, which Crews immediately defines as that "most agnostic of critical schools, which holds a degree of self-unraveling to be the normal fate of all attempts at verbal communication" (77). Fair enough.

At this point though something very curious happens. Crews turns to deconstruction first by quoting what he calls a characteristic description of it. One of the sentences of this characteristic description of deconstruction reads, in part, as follows: "texts do not have a particular meaning that can be investigated but are limitless in their meaning because of the free play of signs." Two things occurred to me while reading this characteristic description: first, the statements in it (such as the one I have just quoted) are distortions rather than true statements about deconstruction (to the best of my knowledge) and, second, the quote is therefore either taken from someone who doesn't really understand deconstruction or who dislikes it. I thus immediately turned to the back of the book to see just who Crews has quoted. I wasn't surprised to find that this so-called characteristic description comes from John M. Ellis's Against Deconstruction (1989). This is clearly (at least in my book) another example of unfair play or fair game in Crews's book (by fair game, of course, I mean something like the American colloquialism according to which when something is fair game, you are permitted to go after it, attack or even destroy it).

Now the next curious move Crews makes is to state that "the skeptical principles of deconstruction look ideally suited to A Connecticut Yankee's retreat from its own apparent message." The next curious move he makes is to say that "oddly" he was unable to "locate a single deconstructive study of the Yankee" (more of this in a moment). Then, and this is the most curious statement of all, Crews tells us why he thinks a deconstructive reading of Twain's novel is not even possible: "In order to go through its predictable paces, deconstruction requires a seeming stability of 'naïve' meaning that can then be subjected to displacement . . . [but] [p]recisely because its inconsistencies are already patent to ordinary readers, Twain's novel preempts the deconstructionist's script" (78).

My first question with respect to this strategy is to ask: if deconstructive readings are not even possible of A Connecticut Yankee, then why include this approach as one of four possible approaches to Twain's novel. Clearly Crews does not mean to be fair with respect to deconstruction. He is also clearly having fun (fair enough) with something like the following idea: where a book is itself deconstructive, as it were, the deconstructors are forced to a hapless silence. Which is, of course, nonsense. J. Hillis Miller has stated as early as 1975 that "great works of literature . . . have anticipated explicitly any deconstruction the critic can achieve" (originally in an essay in Diacritics, Summer, 1975, p 31). Furthermore (and this is why I specifically mentioned the publication date of Crews's book earlier), my own Pious Impostures and Unproven Words belies Crews's assertion in that it contains a rather lengthy deconstructive (self-deconstructive, to be precise) reading of A Connecticut Yankee. Now my own book bears 1990 as its publication date, but the first shipment of 50 copies actually arrived at the Scholar Shop in Saint Meinrad just prior to the Christmas break of 1989. To be fair to Crews, he mentions in his acknowledgements that the chapter in question is based on a lecture given at a conference which probably (I can only guess this) predates the publication of my own book. In any case, I don't know what Crews would have done with my reading of A Connecticut Yankee had he found it, but (I think) it will add a nice irony to the fact that it (that is, my reading) is, in a sense, similar to the one reading Crews approves of in his own book. (Though his claim as to why Twain turns in the end against technology in the Yankee rests, among other things, on biographical grounds, namely, Twain's ill-fated investment in the Paige typesetting machine.)

I will now pull (I suppose) a fast one on you. Instead of giving you a painstaking report of my deconstructive reading in question, I shall simply quote my concluding paragraphs (the last couple of pages) in their entirety. I think these concluding paragraphs will definitely enable you to see the kind of deconstructive reading (Crews's assertions to the contrary notwithstanding) I myself have been able to come up with with respect to A Connecticut Yankee. I will also ask you to see if, in your opinion, what you are about to hear sounds to you like "Derridean linguistic fatalism," or a "bulldozing [of] all obstacles to 'intended meaning'" (88).

[What follows here is the conclusion to the interpretation of A Connecticut Yankee in my Pious Impostures and Unproven Words]

One might be tempted to accept the simple explanation that Hank's ultimate defeat is necessitated by the fact that if he had succeeded in changing the sixth century, there would have been no sixth century for him to go back to change. This is paralleled by Mark Twain's failure to erase the works of Malory by writing over them. But the inner logic of the novel as a whole, its final turn in a series of deconstructive turns, reveals a different story. It is clear from the beginning that in going after Merlin's magic Hank is actually going after monarchy and the "superstition" which supports it, the Catholic Church. For Hank both these institutions, like Merlin's magic, rest on their own "mere unproven word." What Hank is after from the beginning is a kind of Glorious Revolution that would quietly replace monarchy with democracy and superstition (the Church) with science and technology (the Enlightenment, if you will). The question according to the inner logic of the novel as a whole is, why does Mark Twain have Hank fail and Merlin succeed in the end. One of the answers to this question has to be Mark Twain's self-deconstructive recognition that Hank's scientifically based technology may lead to inhuman destruction. It is as if in the process of writing A Connecticut Yankee Mark Twain himself had discovered that "you can't depend on your eyes when your imagination is out of focus" (397-98). It is as if in the end Mark Twain had himself experienced the reality of the magic of the dream and of the fiction that must in the end rest on its own "mere unproven word."

This thematic unfolding is clearly deconstructive. As we have seen, it involves a number of parallel hierarchies where one term is in each case an allegory for the unreal, the afactual, the fictitious. In each case Mark Twain seems to want to undo the hierarchy by replacing the false with the true, the magic of the "unproven word" with the magic of science, the language of the "unproven word" with the language of verisimilitude, the dream with the real. Corresponding to the false term in each of these hierarchies is the hierarchical institution which supports it, monarchy and/or the Catholic Church. These, too, Mark Twain seems to want to undo by replacing them with democracy and science. In each case, then, on the one side we have something unreal and fictitious while on the other we have its real and factual counterpart. At first all these hierarchies are successfully reversed. In the end, however, all reversals are reversed again. To get at the fissure within the inner logic of the book (which, paradoxically, succeeds precisely by failing) one would have to say that the hierarchical oppositions in A Connecticut Yankee add up to the following formulation: Mark Twain's intention is to show that whereas the medieval mind valued fiction (which it clearly mistook for reality), the modern mind is cognizant of this mis/take and so it clearly values reality which it does not mistake for fiction but which it knows how to manipulate in such a way as to distinguish the fictive from the real.

It is easy to see that this formulation is problematic. For one thing, Hank clearly manipulates fictions so that they may be mistaken for realities. This places him in a paradoxical bind in that in order to annihilate fiction (medieval magic, monarchy, the Catholic Church) he presents fact as if it were fiction. This is also what Mark Twain does. He writes a piece of conventional fiction for the sake of exposing certain societal fictions (this is a common denominator between Huckleberry Finn and A Connecticut Yankee), such as monarchy or the Catholic Church. In its hierarchical structure, a monarchy is modeled upon the Church. In both instances power and authority come from above, from the king as titular head of the secular order and from the Pope as the titular head of the sacred order. In both instances power and authority are said ultimately to come from God (the divine right of kings, for example, is an issue that Twain specifically mentions in the Preface to the book). As a democrat and a "believer" in science and technology, Mark Twain wants to see the societal fictions of monarchy and the Church exposed. As a democrat and technologist/scientist, Mark Twain believes that power and authority should come from below. Science and technology are, in fact, perfect images of democracy. Here, too, power and authority come from below, from experience (a "key" word in the novel). In other words, what rules is what works. This, as Mark Twain implies, is "reality."

The above is clearly Mark Twain's initial argument which the end of his argument reverses. My own conclusion about to follow may seem tame, but I believe it is an adequate "paraphrase" of the complex attitude expressed by the inner logic of the book. In any case, whether God is the titular head of a people or whether the people are in titular control of a society the fact remains that both the people and the societies in question are open to abuse, to injustice, to cruelty where in each case the abuse, or injustice, or cruelty may be fueled by the distortive power of the ruling ideology. Moreover, as Mark Twain seems to have discovered by writing A Connecticut Yankee, annihilating a belief in magic and dreams may not only be impossible but dangerous. The world devoid of magic and dreams may become so stark, barren, unimaginative, and destructive that in it thousands, indeed millions, may go "down without testifying" (401). In the end, Mark Twain's self-deconstructive point may be that conflicts such as those between monarchy and democracy or religion and science are ultimately false. The real conflict may well lie in the human heart between the magic and dream of fiction and the potentially tyrannical and dehumanizing power of fact which, when followed to its logical conclusion (either religious or scientific) may even outlaw conventional fiction.

At the risk of being anti-climactic, allow me to summarize my position with respect to this entire paper. Readings which ignore the intentions of the other (and no matter how problematic determining such intentions may be, that is precisely what it means to read), almost always run the risk of fair game rather than fair play. Furthermore, it seems to me that when we allow ourselves the rhetorical luxury of distorting the position of the other (be it wittingly or unwittingly), we inevitably weaken our own position and inadvertently undermine our own authority. A major sin (if I may be permitted such an old-fashioned concept) in criticism is precisely the failure to understand the position of the other. I don't mean to imply, of course, that disagreements are prohibited. On the contrary. But what I want to see is disagreements which have earned the right to exist by the only means by which such right may be earned, by understanding, as fairly and as justly as possible, the position of the other. For how can we disagree with something we don't really understand? It is so easy to dismiss this or that school of criticism and so difficult to follow it through its sometimes complicated paces to see where it may actually lead. It seems to me that as students and as teachers and as critics (as human beings, in the final analysis) we owe it to ourselves to play fairly rather than merely to regard the other's position as fair game. Nothing in the end will fare as well, nor will anything else be quite so admirable.

Back to Top

Copyright 2000 - 2001 © by Steven C. Scheer. All rights reserved.