NEW HAVEN — Dustty Gothic windows shed a pastel glow around the podium where J. Hillis Miller, one of the world-renowned "Yale critics," is about to lecture. The students, rumpled and still muffled from the snowy New England weather, await the great professor. Notebooks are out, pens poised.
Not many know that the lecture marks the beginning of the end for Miller's 14-year career as a professor of English and comparative literature at Yale University.
Only a few days earlier, the UC Board of Regents announced it had wooed Miller away from the old, cold and patrician university to the bright, new, plebeian campus at UC Irvine with one of its highest-ever salaries ($91,000) and a low-interest housing loan.
At stake is not only the possession of Miller himself--an indisputably brilliant professor, recently appointed president of the prestigious Modern Language Society--but also of the worldwide center for Miller's specialty, "deconstruction."
Deconstruction is a radical fringe of literary criticism in which, its advocates explain, words refer only to other words and not necessarily to any external reality. It is praised by some as "the cutting edge" of theory but denounced by others as a meaningless buzzword. In the United States, the movement has been centered at Yale for the past decade.
Done With the Movement?
As one Irvine professor (who requested anonymity) sees it, the appointment means that Irvine can now boast of a recognized "world-class program" in critical theory, while the Yale English Department will be banished to the "dustbin of history." In retort, a Yale professor sniffed (likewise off the record): "When we're done with (a movement) here, it is exported to the provinces."
Miller himself says he is surprised his appointment has made "so much splash."
Meanwhile, back at Yale, he carries on--lecturing on this recent morning to a survey class of undergraduate and graduate students. He will speak on deconstructors and their highly abstract approach to analyzing writing--in which words and phrases are methodically scrutinized for multiple meanings, most of them contradictory and unpredictable.
Miller, 58, shuffles to the podium. Tall, slow-spoken and grinning, the professor ("Hillis" to friends and students) could be the Jimmy Stewart of literary theory as he begins to talk about metaphors. But then he moves on to metaphors about metaphors. Next he explains why a word that might seem "conceptual" is really "figurative" and why paraphrase is impossible.
By the time he reaches the thought that multiple meanings are beyond speakers' or writers' control, several pairs of undergraduate eyes have become glazed. Most students have stopped taking notes.
Gets an Impression
When he stops speaking, they applaud generously.
"I don't understand (deconstruction)," said Eric Posner, 20, a sophomore in philosophy, after the lecture. "I don't think anybody understands it." But at least, he said, he "got an impression of what's going on. It's the most I can hope for."
"I don't follow (deconstruction) to its illogical extreme," said Jim Done, 23, a first-year graduate student in comparative literature. "A lot of students (of deconstruction) mistakenly draw the nihilistic conclusion that it's pointless to read. That's nonsense, but an incredibly popular misconception."
Stacey Gottlieb, 19, a sophomore literature major, had another reaction to the intricacies of deconstruction: "Like, whoosh!" she said, ducking as her hand flew over her head.
After the lecture, Miller walks uninterrupted from the Whitney Humanities Center on Wall Street, along the flagstones, past lacy and leafless trees, toward one of his offices located inside a residential college. He uses one hand to lift the other in and out of his pocket. It has been limp for 37 years, ever since Miller was stricken with polio, one of the last cases in Maine, where he was living at the time, he said.
Miller had intended to become a physicist at Oberlin College until poetry appeared "more challenging than astrophysics" and more attractive. He went on to graduate school in English literature at Harvard University and then taught English at Johns Hopkins University for 19 years until he came to Yale as an English professor in 1972. A specialist in Victorian literature, he has written books on Charles Dickens, Thomas Hardy and Victorian fiction, as well as 20th-Century poets. His most recent is on the ethics of reading.
Along the way, he became a close friend of Jacques Derrida, a French philosopher who is known as the father of deconstruction.
Taken by Derrida