Deconstruction, avant la lettre

 


BY MY SIDE there is a photograph of a river-wharf in Lancashire.  It was taken in the early years of this century.  A few sailing-ships and barges are moored to iron bollards.  From their sides hang heavy, worn, rope fenders.  There are no people.  It is winter, and the sky has a rainy look and the flagstones are wet.  In the distance is a mill-town: a smudge of buildings and a multitude of chimneys, rising high, like matches on the far horizon.  Attached to the summit of every chimney is a horizontal band of smoke, swept to the left from the moment of its emergence, driven by a keen wind otherwise unseen.  You become aware of the scene’s transience.  First, the irregularities and notches in the bands of smoke, duplicated in the stream from each chimney.  A squall of wind has passed over the distant town a few seconds before the exposure, and has left its mark in the smoky trails, and, in turn, on the photographic emulsion.  The chimneys are as the pens of some giant encephalograph; the lines of smoke the record which they have traced.  A lost particular of the mind of time has been set down.  The sense of transience grows deeper.  Most of those chimneys no longer stand: of those which remain, none pour out sooty coal-smoke.  You might take a magnifying-glass to the photograph.  The chimneys which seemed so needle-sharp against a sky as white as this page are now nebulous condensations in the grainy silver of the photograph’s emulsion.  We have reached the edge of resolution.  All that lies beyond is conjecture.

How many of our words have, at their root, the Latin iacere, to throw.  How easily the edge is reached, no more than two steps, even on a clear winter’s day.

The past and all its referential weight hangs close.  How cloudy are my beliefs.  I do not like to hear myself speak of them.  Yet sometimes I hear someone who is certain of what he says: certainty is written all about him.  He knows what he is talking about—he holds out his hands as though the abstraction of his talking had weight and dimension and might be held—and he looks to fix with his gaze: he is one with his listener: by consent they choose and turn the phrase: speaker and hearer one in a keen rapport.  The speaker is confident, possesses the qualities of assertion and self-awareness which seem such prized attributes of character.  And yet, one step away from this, a hollowness lies underfoot.  The rapport is all.  This is the business of fragility itself.  Something that does not have this rapport is always listening in the cellarage, waiting its chance to knock on the floor, ready to correct something in the past that it alone remembers.

A mask upon reality is thrown – that word again – outward from oneself in a direct assertion.  By a sleight of mind it is distantly observed and claimed by being beyond oneself: and can thus be brought back to oneself as a new discovery.  Much knowledge is like this.  Most, perhaps.

We talk to assure ourselves that we are here.

How much that is great in the arts is deconstruction avant la lettre. Shakespeare’s sonnets stand out for a multitude of reasons; one being the fact that the sequence is an unstated commentary upon the English sonnet.  In this strange sequence the two poles which hold high the ridge: the sonnets to the man and the sonnets of the woman.  Both man and woman are loved with an intense passion: intense enough, almost, to part the poet. Ultimately— well below the level of the poet’s enlanguaged mind —and below the shallow fissile essence of person— they are one.  O see the poles are kissing as they cross.

Deconstruction avant la lettre.  Is it possible to write without setting down a biography, encoded within the conscious matter? What is Charles Dickens saying of his own background in Great Expectations? Once I thought I knew: now, after many readings, I have to say that I feel much less sure.  One might consider a poor and casual upbringing, thinking of the debtors’ prison at Marshalsea, and the blacking factory, the constant worry over money even in wealth, the angry suspicion that his publishers were fleecing him: 'must publishers drink their wine out of their authors' skulls?' —a theatrical comment, which, beneath the purple of the bruise, is true even of the most benevolent publisher.  An impoverished childhood which led not only to a blazing resentment at social injustice, but also to a craving for possessions and a reputation in society.   He was an author who was taxed by his own work to the point of exhaustion.  A vastness lies beneath the surface plan of his books; an unconscious and impenetrable vastness which seems physically connected to the conditions of its time, where books were hand-sewn and bound by sweated labour in Shoreditch: men and women worked in many-storeyed mill-like buildings by gas and oil-light.  Sunlight might just as well not have existed in winter.  Tuberculosis was rife.  It seems certain that the mass-production of hand-made books was in some part responsible for the quick spread of the disease throughout society.  Sewing signatures and binding book-blocks is close work; in the dim light the pages of the book would be no more than eighteen inches from the worker’s mouth.  The organism survives drying.  It is inhaled as dust.  But Great Expectations: I have read and re-read the book.  It is good. And, like society itself, it is not credibly connected.  Most of the connections are fictions.  But, at the end of this winter's day, I know no more about what it is about than that photograph of a long-lost Lancashire scene, where, now, the disturbed smoke seems real, and the remains of contemporary cotton, Lancashire-woven, cover the mill-board casings of Dickens’ novels on the shelves behind me.

Can all works of art which do not seek to prove a point – not least a deconstructive point – be read as deconstructive?

Once, while reading some of Sigmund Freud’s dream interpretations, I laid the book down and looked out towards the explosive sunset. I thought: he is trying to prove a point: he craves to make others believe what he is saying: and to apply unseen coercion to others he has had first to coerce himself: at a deep level the interpretation precedes the dream.

That which is thrown out from oneself to stake a claim on the unknown outside oneself is later retrieved, and, accessed by new rhythms of language and casts of words.  Renewed, it is hailed as a new discovery.

Years later I read Jaques Derrida’s commentary on Freud’s essay The Mystic Writing Pad.  It is well worth reading. Freud’s The Mystic Writing Pad is an attempt to draw an analogy between memory and The Pad itself, a contrivance of layered films which adhere visibly and darkly where a stylus has passed, but which may later be pulled apart to erase whatever has been written: but the marks of the stylus remain impressed upon the deepest layer.  (I am describing it from memory.) In his commentary Derrida skirts the subject with care.  One thing which stands out with the utmost clarity (above any point which he might be making) is that Derrida is well aware that, should he give way to the temptation to make a point, even to himself, then he will have compromised his effort.

It might be thought that deconstruction is another word signifying analysis.  How do the two terms differ? Deconstruction is a neologism; analysis was once a neologism but is so no longer. The thread that might lead to the purpose for which the word was invented has long been lost.  The word analysis has become loose, devolved from its apparent etymology, and has a wide range of implications, each one taken for granted and superficially understood within its context – a taking apart, an examination, a breaking down; one may attempt (with varying degrees of success) to analyse substances, data, plans, minds, intentions.  Deconstruction, on the other hand, is an intentional neologism.  It was invented to imply a certain kind of analysis; that is, the working on the mode of construction in reverse: descending, if you will, the staircase which the constructor has made rather than remaining at the top and admiring the world-view which the constructor has (perhaps) presented.  Yet, new though it is, the word deconstruction is no longer pristine: mention it, and a related vocabulary comes at once to mind: differance, logocentrism, sous rature, supplement, desemanation and a host of fleeting neologisms.  All these have weight which has to be carried.  A consciously purposed neologism loses its innocence before it is even delivered.  And, too, we have to take for granted—as read—the chronology of the steps by which the constructor would have us climb his staircase.  From the summit we may never know how the edifice was built.  Being weightless, the upper stories may well have been put in place before the lower.  Consider this in respect of George Berkeley's Principles of Human Knowledge.  In this remarkable book a revelation—a sudden and intense insight—is carefully presented as though it were a work of construction: perhaps this is the only way in which it could have been presented within the mores of its time.  And the more transcendental the insight, the more likely it is that we doing our viewing from a stance which needs no support.  The apparent authorial support is an illusion placed in order to assure.  Once the support is seen as an illusion, its work is done: assurance has been gained. Discarding support and gaining assurance are two parts of the same leap.   One order from this is free flight.  This is transcendence indeed.

Perhaps art which is worth calling art makes—or makes possible—another registration of the world.  It does so because it silently touches our belief in the world we believe we have.  Its touch takes nothing for granted.   Perhaps, in the end, it is felt because it is unvoiced and because it has no nameable location.


David Wheldon, Bedford, 1995

 

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