Having already written three columns on the vogue theory of literary criticism known as deconstruction, perhaps I ought to drop it; but I feel obliged to make a final accounting of the responses, pro and con.
I have received 114 letters, 91 applauding my skepticism and 23 upbraiding me for my ignorance.
Of course, the letters against me were more fun; many were from professors of English or actual deconstructionists, and most were vitriolic and abusive, which suggests an insecurity in the movement. On the other hand, the numbers may suggest that a large majority of people are as ignorant as I am.
I have room to quote only a few, and I will not name my critics, since I have already been accused of distorting their messages by quoting mischievously out of context. (One deconstructionist accused me of making his colleagues look like fools by my selective quotations.) I am neither that despicable nor that clever; fools will out.
First, since I do not understand deconstruction, I have been unable to define it. Writing in the Wilson Quarterly (Winter 1990), Frank D. McConnell, professor of English at UC Santa Barbara, observes: "First, deconstructionist criticism is almost invariably written in a convoluted style and with a specialized vocabulary that excludes all but the initiated from penetrating its arguments." (That may explain my ignorance.)
Here are just a few highlights (quoted out of context, and anonymously) from the hostile letters:
"Sadly, what I found was yet another vitriolic attack on deconstruction by a man who glories in his own purposeful ignorance. . . ."
"Your simplistic definition of deconstruction as reducing text to ambiguity or meaninglessness is irresponsible, not to mention absurd. . . ."
"I am appalled. I wonder how someone as ostensibly intelligent and interested in language as you usually seem to be can be so smug about your own ignorance. . . ."
"Your second article concerning deconstruction was even meaner and more mindlessly destructive than the first. . . . I am truly bewildered by the persistence of your anger and hostility, which you thinly veil under the posture of defensive jocularity. . . ."--from a professor who was beside himself with anger.
From a professor who admits he has spent 15 years trying to read Jacques Derrida, the high priest of deconstruction: "Mr. Smith seems to recognize that (his) article resembles nothing so much as prejudicial rant against some foreign group. . . ."
And so on. Oddly, most of them accuse \o7 me \f7 of being angry.
I was only trying to have some fun with what to me is an impenetrably esoteric fad that seems to have captured our campuses.
Some of the pro letters were fun, too:
"In addition, as you well know, the argument that you don't have the background to understand their work (and) therefore are unqualified to judge (it) is merely the 'trust me' argument dolled up in academic finery."--David Simmons, Ridgecrest.
"Being an ex-fourth-grade teacher, I might have hazarded a guess that 'deconstruction' is what elementary school children do to school equipment."--Gerd Abegglen, Downey.
"I want you to know that some of us out here in the academic trenches have nothing but praise and encouragement for your evaluation of deconstruction. The intemperate responses of the defenders of deconstruction come across as little more than a defense of obscurantism, perhaps with a bit of psychological defensiveness thrown in; for the real question these days is how 'intellectually irresponsible' and 'ideologically dangerous' deconstruction itself is"--Kelley L. Ross, Ph.D, Los Angeles Valley College.
"How could a clever, sensible guy like you let himself be hoodwinked by the deconstructionist swindle? Don't you know it's all an elaborate practical joke, the English department's version of the Piltdown Man?"--Dennis Anthony.
"Never mind the querulous complaints of the so-called deconstructionists, who deliberately choose to ignore the fact that the essence of literary art is communication. . . . They remind me of Boston, 'where the Lowells talk only to Cabots and the Cabots talk only to God."--Maury Green.
But perhaps the most profound comments can be plucked from a sheaf of essays written on the question by the seventh-grade pupils of Rita V. Flint's Jurupa Middle School, who have been learning to read the newspaper.
This one by Tiffany Schnabel is typical:
"I don't think that calling you childish, intellectually irresponsible and ideologically dangerous is very grown-up."
Good thought. Let's all grow up.