Trying and failing vs. trying to fail

The sentence—as opposed to the fragment ...—the sentence tries and fails. (Joseph Duemer)

When I was in graduate school, I was fully absorbed in literary theory—which is not a surprise, since the program I was in was called "Comparative Literature and Literary Theory." I had a period in which I was quite fascinated by Jacques Derrida—especially by his studies of those writers whose work is especially susceptible to deconstruction because their ambitions for completeness are so especially extreme: Stéphane Mallarmé and Claude Lévi-Strauss, for example, or Edgar Allan Poe (at least as Jacques Lacan read him).

Even then, I was struck by something odd about those postmodernists who held up Derrida as a reason to write fragmentary, incomplete texts. Such writers thought that the lesson of deconstruction was that one should not try to construct anything complete. Even then, that seemed like nonsense to me, even at a simple logical level: works which do not aim at wholeness are not interesting enough to deconstruct. A "fragment" that is intended as a fragment does not "try and fail," as Joseph Duemer puts it; instead, it tries to fail. The fact that attempts at wholeness or completeness will fail in ways that are inevitably invisible to the author but can be spotted by alert analysis is not grounds for fragmentary, incomplete work, be it anthropology, linguistics, fiction, or poetry. (There are, of course, many other putative reasons to be "postmodern," to which this critique does not apply!)

[Cross-posted on my blog, too.]


Joseph Duemer said...

Andrew, you say very clearly what I have often thought. Just because something is impossible doesn't mean one shouldn't attempt it! You identify here a sort of Why Bother? poetics that has always seemed lazy and defeatist to me. I don't take this to be a prohibition against experimental poetry, by the way, but the experiments ought to strive toward the sort of wholeness were talking about, even if "by other means" than the usual ones.

Henry Gould said...

Well put, Andrew! I like the way your post follows Joseph's.

John Irwin's book on Poe & Borges, Mystery to a Solution, has an interesting section on Poe, Lacan & Derrida (& "The Purloined Letter"). A literary one-upmanship game, initially set up by Poe's story, which becomes a sort of infinite recursion. An insider's game, incomplete only in the sense that competing writers keep trumping each other (with the same pack of worn cards).