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Against Interpretation 

A novel written by an apostate of literary theory dares readers to deconstruct it

In the Dec. 1999 issue of Esquire magazine, an article entitled "The Life List: 175 Things Every Man Should Do Before He Dies" featured comic writer David Sedaris, offering his choice at No. 52: "Read Moby-Dick."

It is a book, Sedaris wrote, that his brother Paul would call "all symbolical and shit," meaning that "no one ever approached the author to say, 'I could tell you probably had a lot of fun writing it.'" Herman Melville's masterwork includes an etymology (a brief history of the evolution of the word "whale"), a cetology (a discussion of the zoology of whales), and a chapter devoted exclusively to the discussion of chowder. In order to force himself through a reading of it, Sedaris vows not to remove his clothing or bathe until he is finished.

At the end of his reading five days later, Sedaris facetiously concludes that Moby-Dick is "the greatest book ever written." It leaves the reader with a few good lines (Sedaris cites "Art Thou a silk worm?" and "Talk not that lingo to me") along with "the arrogant self-righteousness that comes only with great suffering." Sedaris "endured" the chapter titled "Measurement of the Whale's Skeleton," and he thinks everyone else should, too: "Strength through mutual agony--that's the dictum of the great literary canon." Left unsaid is Sedaris' assumption that Moby-Dick is a novel meant to be interpreted, and not merely experienced as literature.

The central character of Duke University professor Frank Lentricchia's new novel, Lucchesi and the Whale, is a Melville scholar so obsessed with Moby-Dick that he, like Sedaris, develops a comically self-righteous and abnegating relationship to Melville's work. Lentricchia's protagonist and alter ego, Thomas Lucchesi Jr., seems to be modeling his writing career after Melville, who, following the commercial success of his early adventure novels, developed an increasingly torturous and inaccessible style. Melville's later works, from Moby-Dick on, were commercial failures; and from the period of his writing of Moby-Dick until his death, Melville's family regarded with suspicion his mental stability.

Professor Lucchesi himself is a largely unpublished author of "stories full of violence in a poetic style," who tells his students that he teaches only because his fiction is "commercially untouchable." He has become an "Ahab of reading," who may be descending into madness in his search for the secret meaning of Melville's gargantuan book. He imagines scenarios in which he substitutes for Pavarotti on stage in Milan; meets a gangster with the same last name (whose bodyguard is Frank the Whale); and has sex with a stewardess on a transatlantic flight. He becomes increasingly belligerent in his classes, screaming at one point, in reference to Melville: "I AM AFRAID OF THIS COCKSUCKER!" Eventually, he is fired.

As first an English, and now literature professor, Frank Lentricchia has been one of the most controversial figures in the history of Duke University academics, and this history has some bearing on his book. Brought back to his alma mater in 1984 and entrusted with raising the national profile of Duke's English department, Lentricchia was responsible for recruiting Stanley Fish as department head in 1985. Fish in turn brought to Duke a series of firebrand theorists in the fields of queer theory, Marxism and reader-response theory. Lentricchia himself is the author of definitive works of criticism, including After the New Criticism and Critical Terms for Literary Study, which continue to be used in college English courses across the nation. A profile in the Village Voice even labeled him "The Dirty Harry of literary theory."

Yet Lentricchia eventually left his department and, in 1996, in the pages of Lingua Franca, this giant of academic criticism denounced his field, calling for a return to the pure pleasures of reading. In the article, "Last Will and Testament of an Ex-literary Critic," the professor said he had been functioning within the academy as a divided soul, performing for his graduate students as "an historian and polemicist of literary theory, who could speak with passion, and without noticeable impediment, about literature as a political instrument." But the "secret me," wrote Lentricchia, was "me-the-reader"--who felt so filled up by the experience of reading that talking about it felt inauthentic. His personal encounters with literature were so pleasurable, he said, that they were like "erotic transport."

And so Lentricchia joined the conga line of critics who have "renounced" a certain kind of criticism, the kind that wants to translate a text into something other than what it is. Susan Sontag may have signaled the trend with her 1964 essay "Against Interpretation," in which she made the now-famous statements that "interpretation is the revenge of the intellect upon art," and, "In place of a hermeneutics we need an erotics of art." Roland Barthes, a giant in the field of semiotics, followed suit with his book S/Z, an obsessive reading of Balzac's Sarrasine. Barthes suggested that this most classical of narratives is, at the same time, filled with unexpected and idiosyncratic elements that resist the ministrations of literary theory. Readers find meaning not in theory, he claims, but somewhere in the uncertain ground between theory and text. With "Against Interpretation," Sontag said something similar, suggesting that texts are threatening to the extent that they require both an intellectual and a sensual response--the implication being that the modern audience can only handle one or the other at any given time.

Lentricchia is the latest critic to turn his back on the over-intellectualization of texts. The point that Sontag, Barthes and Lentricchia have made, each in his or her own way, is that however valuable theory might be, there is some emotional core to art that survives deconstruction, something ineffable about it that defies theorization.

Lucchesi and the Whale is a paradoxical text--an experimental hybrid of literary comment and fiction--that ridicules academic criticism at the same time that it is so dense with allusion, so elliptical, and so full of intertextuality, that it fairly begs to be deconstructed. (It is, after its own fashion, what David Sedaris' brother would call "all symbolical and shit.") Moby-Dick itself is full of little-noted instances of humor directed at academics. The etymology that opens Melville's novel is "Supplied by a Late Consumptive Usher to a Grammar School." Melville notes that the pale Usher was "ever dusting his old lexicons and grammars ... He loved to dust his old grammars; it somehow mildly reminded him of his mortality." And the very next section of the novel, the "Extracts," is "Supplied by a Sub-sub-librarian." Lentricchia takes Melville's lead, noting, in the acknowledgments to Lucchesi and the Whale, his use of Charles Feidelson's annotated edition of Moby-Dick. He even opens the book with T.S. Eliot's famous lines: "And I pray that I may forget/These matters that with myself I too much discuss/Too much explain." It is Eliot who once wrote, "I must admit that I am, on one conspicuous occasion, not guiltless of having led critics into temptation." It must further amuse Lentricchia to note that Melville's first name, Herman, appears almost to be a cognate of "hermeneutics"--the science of interpretation. These are the sorts of games at which amateur literary sleuths excel.

Lentricchia is taunting and testing the reader with the density of allusion and reference: Can we read his novel with unconditional love--the love of words, of literature--without resorting to disassembling his text to see how it works? It's a test that makes its point by being too difficult to pass. If this novel is "about" anything--and this is where the critic fails the test--it is about unconditional love. Through his self-involved, isolated and loveless protagonist, the author cleverly conflates unconditional love as it applies to people with unconditional love as it applies to literature. If we cannot love literature without tearing it apart and putting it back together in a way that suits us, how can we love people without doing the same to them? (For clearly it is much more difficult to love people than it is to love literature.) A merely theoretical approach to the study of literature, this book suggests, affects the reader not only as a lover of books--but as a lover, period. EndBlock

  • Duke University professor Frank Lentricchia's experimental novel taunts aficionados of literary theory.

More by Mark W. Hornburg

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