Deconstruction, and Magical Realism
For quite a while now, Jacques Derrida, French Philosopher of high renown, is the theorist most associated with Deconstruction as method, as discourse, and as process. In a world where beginnings and endings are often highly regarded as stepping stones in life, it took the likes of Jacques Derrida to help us see that most of life takes place in the middle place, in the process. For example, one enters school and then graduates from school; but what does one remember? Neither the initial day nor the departure day, rather, the experiences occurring in-between the two points, the space of the in-between, the process. Jacques Derrida’s great insight to theory, to life, to literature is this particularity of process. Derrida was a prolific theorist; at the beginning of his career, he wrote about writing itself, that written prose was not as esteemed as the spoken word, what is known as orality. By the end of his esteemed career, Derrida concerned himself with topics such as ethics, morality, death, and forgiveness. Many people favor Derrida because he often discussed in his writings and his lectures that everything could be broken down and analyzed into its different parts, a well-known application of deconstruction, so that innovative thinking could occur. Others, though, did not buy Derrida’s ideas on God as the center of everything. Derrida believed that when people began to question the validity of any given word, referring to meaning and significance, they began to doubt the existence of God. When one hears of people discounting deconstruction or postmodernity (the time period we live in now), one will also hear of the godless philosophers, like Nietzsche and Derrida, who question the purpose of existence and agency in a world where good and evil seem to exist side by side in harmony. So, Derrida is known for his work on the rupture of the center, the idea that there really is not a fixed center that permeates everything, everyone, every meaning. It is an open center, according to Derrida, that “is at the center of the totality, and yet, since the center does not belong to the totality (is not part of the totality), the totality has its center elsewhere” (915). The instability of the center is due to the presence of humanity and of desire. The idea about this instability of the center revolves around transient nature of humanity and desire. Do our desires continue to change or do they stay the same? Related to the idea of changing desire is the force of contradictions surrounding the desire, what can also be called the center. Derrida liked to say that two polarized aspects are really about one thing instead. And these two things are interdependent on one another and at the same time really pushing the same thing because one opposition actually needs the other side for its meaning and to hold its place in the scheme of the center. So, to make all of this clear, I might speak about the patriarchy, the idea of the rule of the father over mankind. For at least a thousand years and probably most likely two, the male held more esteem than the female. While one could not be given rank without the other, whether high or low stature, and both sides of humanity needed the other to give credence to the other half, what is male and what is female was considered a polarized distinction. The play of these two opposites, what is a man and what is a woman, was always changing, dynamic, and not fixed, but really open with respect to interpretation. What happened and is still happening in some parts of the world is that when one gender is valued over the other, a rupture of meaning occurs, and then gender roles are re-evaluated, re-explored, and often re-assigned. All of this, of course, takes place on both real and symbolic levels. In America, women did not just obtain voting rights because they wanted the vote, they had to organize, protest, publish, and sway public opinion. Many ruptures or re-evaluations of meaning had to occur for real change to occur. Now, some might say the same thing happened with respect to African American culture in this country. The rupture, the civil-war, had lasting consequences over America’s history. Before the civil war took place, there were many de-centering processes, or ruptures, occurring with respect to how Blacks were treated and respected in America. The North versus the South was merely one of them, and one that led to the war itself. Did this war end the decentering process? Our nation had to experience the civil rights movement, the work of Martin Luther King, the inauguration of Barack Obama as our first Black president, and so on. Today, we look back at Ferguson a few years ago and it continues forward in the Black Lives Movement and also in the current political election where the decentering process concerning who people of color and their relationship to the other? who need them for their own meaning continues the decentering and re-centering process. Why am I discussing this aspect of deconstruction of cultural history in our literary study? Because in literature, ruptures involving character, plot, sequencing, and so forth, happen all of the time. What we see in life is often seen literature. It is so exciting to me to analyze literature from the perspective or discourse of Deconstruction and it is fairly simple. One might begin to ask questions about the discursive realities of the time of the literature, one way to begin to deconstruct a text. (Why we looked at the meaning of the word Discourse – different types of knowledge that function as power in a society—and why consider Michel Foucault as well). Another way is to look at qualities that are valued or devalued in the story line. One might look at gender the same way. So many aspects in literature, in stories, and especially in film, move forward as ruptures, typically in the disruption of the center through the apparent oppostions, projecting the story forward in its process. The end of the story might center on its beginning or have a real ending. Many of us hate open-endings and we will work on that idea another day. We tend to want closure in our art. I’m hoping it’s possible that you screen the documentary Jacques Derrida (2002), a documentary on the Jacques Derrida that was produced and directed by some of his former students. You may find the link on Module/Week Seven (7). Derrida was immensely popular in America. Everywhere he went he brought out controversy and many, like me, considered him a rock star in the world of theory. For today, I’d like you to read over Leitch’s selections on Jacques Derrida and to tell us on the discussion board forum what stands out to you about Derrida. If you get confused as you read, keep reading. When you are finished, just write what you think. Derrida would be so pleased because whatever you think of while you are reading, this process of reading itself, will be worthy of your time, your thoughts, what you will write down.
If you are fortunate to screen the film, please let us know what you think. Many of my students do not understand Derrida until they see the film and then they tell me, “Ah, I get it.”
I thought I might include a brief mention of Paul de Man (1919-1983), who is famously known for his techniques of interpretation that suggest truth is revealed indirectly in literature, life, and art symbolically. Everything can be interpreted or read by the references at play. One way to look at this is that Outside forms can have internal resonance in what is happening in a story or in life. De Man calls this the “reconciliation of form and meaning” (Leitch). Authority can often be disguised but not always. Going to a film and knowing the point of the film in ten minutes is an example of the outside influencing the inside. Knowing how discourse operates in society also streamlines how we interpret culture. Most of you know what “left” and “right” mean in political discourse and where you see yourself in relation to these two terms. For de Man, language is a coded affair that creates constant reference to what is going on outside of the language itself. This might be negative for some, but for others it might be positive. Deconstructionists like de Man insist that an effective reading or act of interpretation of any film, poem, story, or even a person, depends on questions that explore the outside in relation to the inside—the inconsistencies one explores actually create the most interesting findings or results. Following de Man’s line of thinking here, I might suggest that Freud actually does this outside/inside projection in his reading of Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex to shed light on his theory of repression in childhood shaping adult identity. One might recall that Oedipus represses his father’s (King Laius) attempt to kill him because it this memory is simply too painful. After many circumstances occur where King Oedipus encounters other people in the community such as his wife Jocasta, the seer Tieresius, his brother-in-law Creon, and priests from an apollonian oracle, Oedipus finally understands that he killed his father on the road when he was a very young man. The shared interactions with these “others,” members of his community, allow Oedipus to remember that that he killed several men in a small incident at a crossroads and one of them was his father, Lauis. Freud, who spent many years listening to stories of his troubled clients, reads the external aspects of the story (Oedipus Rex is indicative of the repression of memories) into its internal dynamics, the tragedy itself. Freud also uses the external dynamics of Sophocles Oedipus Rex to further enlighten his own theories (internal dynamics) of how repression works for his troubled clients. If you are feeling confused, then you understand why many people do not understand how deconstruction works. Deconstruction always works through questioning the why and how of literature or life or art and then through applying dynamics that are at one familiar and strange. This is how Freud came up with the Uncanny, a word that evokes considerable influence in interpretation today, all of which are justified.
For many reasons, one of my favorite genres to read, to teach, and to research is the genre (type of fiction) known as magical realism. It is has been popular for some time now, though most people know the genre by its hybrid forms, meaning that several aspects of magical realism have infused other fictional forms or genres such as romance, coming of age, drama, detective, crime, science fiction. If one has never read magical realism, one is in for a treat in the reading of the assigned two short stories, “A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings” (294-299) and “The Shawl” (290-294).
. I began my official foray into this genre in 1991 when I picked up a copy of One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Marcia Marquez, a Latin American author who passed away recently and who happens to have authored the first of two short story selections for today. Many things commend this lengthy novel and one can “google” the genre for a complete list of its cherished aspects, but for me its most attractive feature is the embedded spirituality, what is unseen, often a spiritual component, is as important to the fabric of the story as what one can see. Often, the spiritual component is comedic or humorous in a gentle, non-assuming way and lightens the mood of the plot line, which can be quite based on every day aspects of life, political or religious messaging, or on sad, horrific events. Magical Realism is not a particularly happy genre although it can be quite entertaining. The genre and age of Realism, as I’ve pointed out earlier in this class, and in many others I’ve taught at FSU, revolves around a critique of society. Often, we are given a glimpse into characters who struggle or not because of the conditions of the institutions that infuse their particular lifestyles. Better known English Realists include Dickens and Elliot, while some better known American authors might be Mark Twain and Kate Chopin, though the list is lengthy on both sides of the Atlantic. Magical Realism takes on the challenge of critiquing society and its institutions as well as entertaining its readers with symbolic aspects of the lives of its members. In Latin America, the family, the church, and the state are the most prominent institutions so most magical realism will often shows them in both serious and humorous ways. In Marquez’s “A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings,” the institution of the Catholic Church and the fabric of the community is the dual focus. It might be easy to say that the story is about a person who falls into a chicken coop. Immediately the news spreads to the entire village and of course the parish priest becomes involved. What does the angel represent? What is his only “supernatural virtue” (297)? What is the allegorical significance of the event? If one thinks about this story in terms of the questions it evokes, one will uncover meaning. In Magical Realism, the internal dynamics of the story typically lead to external realities of the type of people experiencing the various phenomena, in this case, the “fallen angel.” The Fallen Angel is not really what one might expect. In the Catholic tradition (I’m going into “external realities” here), fallen angel motif refers to the devil, Satan, or evil that inspires people to commit sin or bad actions. The seven deadly sins, one might say, refer to evil, while the corresponding virtues define what is good or moral. This outside of the story does not mesh with the inside of the story. If one recalls my recent lectures on deconstruction, one might remember that when we use this method, we go outside of the text to bring in aspects of its inside, what is directly stated. The play of both aspects, the inside and outside, help us to understand the point of the story and to give a reading or interpretation of what we think the story is about or what it means. The slovenly, aged man is discussed around the village because he has wings. His presence stuns the village precisely because they know that angels are holy, but they also have been told that angels are supposed to be strong and beautiful in appearance, that is to say, their beauty is both spiritual and physical. However, the villagers also know that Christ was poor and that the bible and their Catholic Church teaches that they should see the face of God in everyone. That physical appearance does not always correspond to beauty and in this case, cleanliness. What intrigues me most about this story is this dichotomy of goodness, beauty, spirituality that this Angel represents to the people but taking care of this “angel” is not really what any of them want to do because their realities are not actually informed by their religion or their sense of spirituality, rather by the day to day goings on of their families, communities, and social lives. In the end, they don’t really care whether or not God or the Angel has graced their presence, they just want him to leave so things can return to normal. Yes, the story is humorous precisely because it is unexpected and the reader shares in this sense of joviality yet seriousness in much the same way as the participants of the community do. Latin American Magical Realism typically functions in this way. It is a bit sad, but not so sad. The other story is quite sad, I’m sad to say. “The Shawl” by Cynthia Ozick is a melancholic rendering of a mother and two children caught in the horrendous conditions of a German concentration camp. The elements of magical realism permeate the story in the title itself, The Shawl, which has magical powers for the woman’s baby. The very life of Magda depends on the ability of the shawl to give the child nourishment, and therein lies the stories sadness, the tragedy of the approaching death of the undernourished Magda. How Magda’s life and death happens revolves around the unexpected events that flow from the symbolic and spiritual significance of the Shawl. Miracles can only last so long, but the eventual horror of the concentration camp catches up in an unexpected way. To bring something like the horrors of the holocaust into the everyday lives of Stella, Rosa, and Magda, and alongside it, the source of hope, the blanket, brings more power to the message. Again, the inside of the story, the three family members, their lack of sustenance, their struggle, their enemies, is brought into the outside, external knowledge of the holocaust, the killing of Jewish people, Catholic nuns and priests, and others who tried to help the persecuted.
What story did you like most?
What elements of the storyline appealed to you?
What story did you find most troubling?
Why do we dislike reading about hard things people experience?
Do you believe magical realism is a valid way to criticize society’s institutions or limitations or do you believe magical realism is merely entertainment that overplays its cards?