Deconstruction, avant la
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 scenes
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 photographs
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 winters 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 abouthe holds out his hands as though
the abstraction of his talking had weight and dimension and might
be heldand 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. Shakespeares 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 poets
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 workers 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 Freuds 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 Derridas commentary on Freuds
essay The Mystic Writing Pad. It is well worth reading.
Freuds 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 grantedas readthe 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 revelationa sudden and intense insightis
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 makesor makes possibleanother
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
David Wheldon, Bedford,