To prepare the students for the book, I wrote a a few lines by way of introduction -- some 3700 words in all. My memo to the graduate students has not seen the light of day in seventeen years, but I think it is worth reproducing here. So settle down.
May 11, 1998
From: Bob Wolff
To: Members of the Major Works Seminar
Subject: The Signifying Monkey
[A brief story. During 1961‑63, I taught at the University of Chicago, in the sophomore Social Sciences course. On the same hall as my office were the people teaching the Freshman Humanities course. In one of their exams, they reproduced a poem, and asked the students to state, first, whether it was a nonsense rhyme or a real poem, and secondly to explain why. The poem began, "Margaret, are you grieving/Over golden groves unleaving?" I unerringly identified it as a nonsense rhyme. It is, of course, a famous poem by Gerard Manley Hopkins!]
1. Matthew, 27:46 [i.e., The Gospel According to Saint Matthew, Chapter 27, verse 46]
"And about the ninth hour Jesus cried with a loud voice, saying, Eli, Eli, lama sabacthani? that is to say, My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?"
"My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?"
2. Matthew, 27:48
"And straightway one of them ran, and took a sponge, and filled it with vinegar, and put it on a reed, and gave him to drink."
"They gave me also gall for my meat; and in my thirst they gave me vinegar to drink."
3. Mark, 14:62
"And Jesus said, I am: and ye shall see the Son of man sitting on the right hand of power, and coming in the clouds of heaven."
"I saw in the night visions, and behold, one like the Son of man came with the clouds of heaven..."
4. Mark, 15:24
"And when they had crucified him, they parted his garments, casting lots upon them, what every man should take."
"They part my garments among them, and cast lots upon my vesture."
5. John, 12:8
"For the poor always ye have with you; but me ye have not always."
"For the poor shall never cease out of the land: therefore I command thee, saying, Thou shalt open thine hand wide unto thy brother, to the poor, and to thy needy, in thy land."
Now, authors are constantly commenting on, alluding to, reviving, and revising their predecessors. Texts refer not only to the world, but to other texts [hence, "intertextuality"], as in the examples above from the Bible. What is more, a common claim made by modern literary critics [such as Gates' teacher, Harold Bloom, at Yale] is that subsequent authors write against their predecessors, in the sense of taking up dominant images or literary maneuvers ["tropes"] that their predecessors have used to make an extremely strong statement of some esthetic sort, and then twisting or revising those images or maneuvers, in effect taking the words out of their forebears’ mouths. This is represented frequently by the critics as a kind of killing of the father, a supplanting by the new generation of the old one. [You begin to see the significance of the image in Their Eyes conjured by the line, "Mah tongue is in mah friend's mouf," which substitutes a collective voice for the competitive, exclusionary voice of the revisionary male author.]
One brief example, to show you what I am talking about. Michael Awkward, a young African‑American literary critic at Michigan, has written a book on women African‑American novelists called Inspiriting Influences. He begins by stating that he is going to explore a process of linguistic revision that he calls "denigration." "Denigration" means "blackening," of course, and it is standardly used in English with the sense of defaming someone or casting aspersions on someone's good name. Awkward deliberately takes the term over and reverses the signification of it. By using the term over and over, he forces the reader repeatedly to confront the entrenched negative connotations of "black" and "blackness," connotations, of course, that he claims are attached to everything connected with the history, literature, and lives of Black people.
One more general observation, before turning to Gates' book itself. In recent times, especially in French and American academic literary critical circles, the curious notion has become current that critics are more important than authors, and theories of literary criticism more important than works of literature. Indeed, the wildly comical notion has even been bruited about, rather humorlessly, that there are no authors, only texts with multiple meanings [take another look at the little tidbit from Derrida with which we began the course.] Crazy as this view is, we can, I think, understand its attraction. [The following is my own personal view ‑ it is not supported by any foundation grants, could not get published in a refereed journal, and will never be the subject of a panel at the annual meeting of the Modern Language Association. The reader is warned.]
The received canon of literary classics in the western tradition is very large, but definitely finite. Mediocre students of literature find it all they can do simply to read through it and try to understand the theories about it that scholars and critics have put forward. These good gray souls soldier on, writing forgettable papers about ever more obscure aspects of Daniel Deronda or The Lyrical Ballads. But the truly brilliant young students of literature [of whom there is always a small but steady supply] soon discover that they have crested the wave ‑ they have read the canon, mastered the going theories, and now are confronted by the ego‑deflating fact that they must sit passively, waiting for authors to write more great literature before their finely honed scalpels of interpretation can be wielded.
Bright literary critics are in fundamentally a different position from philosophers in this regard ‑ an inferior position, furthermore. A philosopher who has mastered the secondary literature on Descartes' Meditations can launch out into an original piece of philosophical argument triggered by that text. She needn't even try to claim that this new argument is an interpretation of the text, any more than a young novelist influenced by James Joyce need represent his novel as an interpretation of Ulysses. But literary critics don't, qua literary critics, write novels or poems. What to do? The answer almost leaps off the page: Deny that there are any authors [that takes care of their primacy]; deny that there is any one correct reading of a text [that opens up the field to endless new readings]; privilege theories of criticism over works of literature [that instates the authors of literary criticism, the critics, as superior to the mere readers of even the most multiform of texts ‑ notice, by the way, that even Derrida, in the very act of denying the existence of authorship, manages nonetheless to sign his own books and collect the royalties]. And wait for the money to roll in.