Sunday, August 5, 2018

Michiko Kakutani, The Death of Truth, and Richard Brodhead, Andrew Delbanco, and Elizabeth Schultz.

Michiko Kakutani, The Death of Truth, and Richard Brodhead, Andrew Delbanco, and Elizabeth Schultz.

        The TLS for 27 July 2018 devoted a full page to “Deconstruction  industry: Issues with truth in modern America,” an excerpt from Michiko Kakutani’s  book THE DEATH OF TRUTH,”--available from Amazon Prime  for $14.12--available astonishingly fast, I have found.

          Kakutani points to the way the 2016 Trump campaign echoed the “postmodernist arguments” of the academic elite in the preceding decades:

          It’s safe to say that Trump has never ploughed through the works of Derrida, Baudrillard, or Lyotard, and postmodernists are hardly to blame for all the free-floating nihilism abroad in the land. But some dumbed-down corollaries of their thinking have seeped into popular culture and been hijacked by the President’s defenders, who want to use its relativistic arguments to excuse his lies, and by right-wingers who want to question evolution or deny the reality of climate change or promote alternative facts.

          Kakutani goes on to discuss Jacques Derrida and his academic followers: Derrida, she says, “used the word ‘deconstruction’ to posit that all texts are unstable and irreducibly complex and that ever variable meanings are imputed by readers and observers. In focusing on the possible contradictions and ambiguities of a text (and articulating such arguments in deliberately tangled and pretentious prose), it promulgated an extreme relativism that was ultimately nihilistic in its implications; anything could mean anything; an author’s intent did not matter, could not in fact be discerned; there was no such thing as an obvious or common-sense reading, because everything had an infinitude of meanings. In short, there was no such thing as truth.

          The death of truth came home to me in December 1990 in the Melville Society meeting in Chicago. The room was packed with fresh New Historicists, second-generation New Leftists (who had fervor but less purpose than the first), and a large group of second- and third-generation New Critics who had never done archival research and had certainly not been taught to do responsible research. I misread the atmosphere in the room as one of free-floating political correctness, not sharply focused, but the mood of the audience was hostile from the start. When Wai-chee Dimock resurrected Lewis Mumford’s long-refuted claim that Hawthorne had based Ethan Brand on Melville (before he met him or  read anything but Typee), Hayford mildly reproved her, saying that if she thought it was acceptable to bring forth the Ethan Brand claim as a serious possibility, she was using a different standard for evidence than he used. At that, there was a subterranean muttering of anger in the audience like the incipient rebellion in Billy Budd, the mood hardening into fury that anyone’s idea could be considered invalid on grounds of biographical evidence. In the new post-scholarly climate to point out errors was to violate the playground rules: one should always enhance one’s playmate’s self-esteem. The audience was further incited when an interloper, a satanic red-bearded stranger (more mildly described by Robert K. Wallace in Melville and Turner (611) as “the petulant stranger in the doorway”) kept crying out, with regard to Melville and biography, ‘THE FACTS DON’T MATTER.’” Accepting the new reality, I never attended another Melville Society meeting in the United States. In 2016 Wai-chee Dimock became Editor of the Publications of the Modern Language Association.
          Here I look back to the year after 9/11, when the repudiation of truth h reached a new level. In 2002 the President and the Vice President informed us that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction and the Secretary of State assured us that certain aluminum tubes could only be used for nuclear weapons. (In 2002 business and entrepreneurship, Donald Trump said “Yeah, I guess so” when Howard Stern asked him if he supported our invading Iraq.)  In 2002 in Deconstruction: Theory and Practice Christopher Norris traced Jacques Derrida’s contempt for “the familiar metaphysical hankering after truth and origins.” Interpretation, Norris assured us, “is no longer turned back in a deluded quest for origins and truth.” Rather, he said, “it assumes the vertiginous freedom of writing itself: a writing launched by the encounter with a text which itself acknowledges no limit to the free play of meaning.”
        In 2002, three critics, Richard Brodhead, Andrew Delbanco, and Elizabeth Schultz, reviewed the second volume of my biography. These critics, who had never done archival research on Herman Melville, all expressed their high-minded doubts as to the existence of The Isle of the Cross  (1853) and a volume Melville called Poems in 1860. I had merely surmised that Melville completed a book in 1853, said Brodhead (then the Dean of Yale College), in the June 23, 2002 New York Times. Brodhead was ignoring the fact that  Davis and Gilman in their 1960 edition of Melville’s letters had shown that Melville had offered a book to Harpers in 1853, although they did not know the title. I discovered  the title in 1987 (and described it publicly in 1990 in American Literature). Brodhead went on: Parker is also convinced that Melville prepared a volume of poems in 1860 that failed to be published. If this is so, a stretch that had seemed empty of literary strivings was instead a time of new effort and new failure--a black hole Parker alone has the instruments to detect.” I in my black hole? Then I shared the black hole with every Melville scholar since 1922, when Meade Minnigerode published his discoveries from the Duyckinck Papers including Melville’s 1860 12-point memorandum on the publication of his POEMS! Andrew Delbanco, the Levi Professor in the Humanities at Columbia University, already announced as a “biographer-in-waiting,” in the New Republic (September 2002), declared that I was “amazingly certain” (34) of my own conclusions, such as Melville’s completion of a book in 1853 (merely a surmise, he said) and “amazingly certain” about the existence of Poems in 1860 (it “was never published--and it is a surmise that Melville ever wrote it”). Delbanco warned that my certainty of my conclusions meant that the whole second volume, like the first, “must be used with caution.” Elizabeth Schultz in The Common Review (Winter 2002) gave a further punitive twist to the accusations: “Parker also reads betrayal and despair into the disappearance of two manuscripts, which he contends Melville completed--a novel, putatively titled The Isle of the Cross, and his first collection of poems.” As Paula R. Backscheider says, “For an academic to be accused of ‘making up things’ . . . is the most serious charge that can be levelled against him or her and may discredit that person forever.” Brodhead went on from lying about me in the New York Times to become the President of Duke University who joined the hounding of the falsely-accused lacrosse players and in due time became the perfecter of the non-apologetic apology. That is a story best told in Stuart Taylor, Jr., and KC Johnson's Until Proven Innocent (2008).

          In dismissing me as the sole adventurer to bring back a report from that “black hole,” Brodhead was dismissing three quarters of a century of scholarship. To be blunt, Brodhead was acting as if the scholars from Minnigerode on had never labored in the archives, never published their discoveries, never rejoiced when later workers added their supplementary findings. I alone “had the instruments to detect” Poems, so I had fantasized it. I was an unreliable biographer, and the scholars I had revered and built upon had never existed. Such was the wreckage the early New Critic Charles Feidelson had made of scholarship at Yale. In Flawed Texts and Verbal Icons (1984) I had pointed out that in his literary criticism Brodhead was blind to human agony, specifically Melville’s agony. Brodhead, Delbanco, and Schultz also displayed something even worse in 2002, blindness to human existence, blindness to the working lives of remarkable scholars. They ignored great scholars like Willard Thorp and Jay Leyda and William Gilman and Merrell Davis and Harrison Hayford as if they had never existed.

          Now we should pay attention to Kakutani. She is absolutely right in identifying ways in which academics from the best universities as well as politicians have for decades helped to promulgate identifiable truth as a mere myth. THE FACTS DON’T MATTER, the satanic red-bearded heckler yelled over and over again in 1990. Now I take a little time from retirement to recommend a good little book. Michiko Kakutani’s THE DEATH OF TRUTH: NOTES ON FALSEHOOD IN THE AGE OF TRUMP.


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