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Deconstruction As a Hallmark Moment

In usenet newsgroups there are often threads that consist of light hearted banter and little else. Sometimes, however, some idiot (usually me) will take the bit in their teeth and launch into extended nonsense. Once upon a time the following thread of comments occurred in rec.arts.books:

James Tyson: What has changed since 1972?
Siobhan Grier: The price of eggs, for starters.
Ian Drake: The price of steak for a main course.
Ted Samsel: And a lot of you weren’t born yet.
Brian Pickrell: You can’t really consider this a change. A lot of us STILL aren’t born.
Tim Matthews: A lot of us are still born.
Richard Harter: Life is terrible. Always there are disappointments, wars, taxes, hard work, friends who betray you, dog poop in the streets, and mosquitos. Nothing ever quite works out the way you wanted it to. Better never to have been born. But who is so lucky? Not one in ten thousand.
Ted Samsell: Richard, You should write inspirational essays for Guideposts. I always feel better after reading one of your missives.
Bob Gore: Richard would clearly be wasted on anything less than Hallmark Moments.
Richard Harter: An artist friend of mine who works at Hallmark was told, when he first started, “Here at Hallmark we do not put fangs on our rabbits.”
Bob Gore: Well, go figure; the task of subverting everything sticky and icky in American life would require considerably more subtlety than vampire bunnies. It would require true artistry with words, and I don’t think anyone would gainsay my opinion that you, Richard, are easily the equal of this task. Now that would be a hallmark.
This last comment I took as a challenge, no doubt to the regret of my readers, if any, and I produced a spiel in my lit-babble mode. There had been, by the way, an extended discussion of the precise meaning of a Sisyphean task, (These people are crazy) which accounts for the reference.

Richard Harter:

Now this is difficult. We have here a Sisyphean task (and has anyone noticed that rock and roll is a description of Sisyphean task) of a sort. Said friend had already subverted the icky and sticky in the most innocent of ways: he put fangs on his bunnies as a matter of course in utter indifference to the ickiphor (an ickiphor is, I believe, an icky metaphor).

There is a cycle here. To truly subvert the ickiphor one must move to a perceptual land in which it simply doesn’t exist as such. [Note to the budding deconstructionist: “as such” is one those useful phrases that should be added as a garnish – think of it as the parsley of philosophy.] The innocent, however, have no defenses against the ickiphor other than native good taste (a notoriously unreliable defense). In due course the dreaded cute raises its big-eyed, snub-nosed head. It cannot be helped; it cannot be avoided; it’s genetic; it’s in our jeans. It is seductive at the basest of levels, like granulated sugar or ethanol.

If that were all, if kitsch simply made its presence felt, there would be no problem. Alas, it both corrupts and cloys, in a repetition that destroys the liver of the soul. (Why is it that one never speaks of the liver of the soul? Surely, if alcohol doth destroy the liver of the body, then so must sin destroy the liver of the soul.) And so it is that a surfeit of cute brings in its train (Lionel of course) the despair of the artistic sense.

Thus comes the rebellion, the twelve step program to cleanse the mind and soul (which leads one to ask – do minds have livers too?). The ickiphor is to be derided and ridiculed, to be subverted by satire. A long struggle ensues for the cute is not without resource. The parody of kitsch becomes, in its turn, kitsch.

Alas, this does not turn out well. It is a forked road with two paths. One leads to stasis, in which kitsch, anti-kitsch, and high art dwell together in fetid ambiguity; the consequences can be found in the pages of the NYRB. The other leads to a true purging in which the kitsch is erased, expunged, and otherwise removed from the consciousness of the masses [Note to budding literary critic: always mention the masses. Query by confused acolyte: what does Catholic ritual have to do with it?] so that one has entered into a true state of innocence in which bunnies have fangs as a matter of course.

Thus, the cycle begins anew. Kitsch, having been banished from the garden of Earthly delights (an appropriate ickiphor, don’t you think? This essay is, after all, quintessential Bosch.), is now no longer defended against. It is the very condition of innocence that creates the possibility of corruption. The Sticky Satan always returns.

It does occur to me that the culture has borrowed from the wisdom of the body. The body, when invaded by disease, creates anti-bodies which not only fight the alien invader but remain present afterwards as good soldiers on guard against further incursions. Thus doth the body preserve its purity by immunization. The culture, when invaded by kitsch, creates aunty-bodies, complete with Humbolt figurines. These aunty-bodies encyst the infection, thereby allowing the culture to be immunized.

The Zen master, on the other hand, would say that one should not be attached to cute, either by love or disdain, but should let it sweep by and be like an old log in the sea.

There you have it, sirrah, a subversion in that true artistry of words for which I am so noted – a hallmark moment in the Disney haunted mansion.

Bob Gore is a man of perverse talents and a low sense of humor. It is his pleasure to encourage me to continue in this vein. Here was his encouragement.

Bob Gore:

Er. No, actually (you are perfectly well aware of this, I’m sure, and have left it as an exercise for the more advanced students). We have seen the master’s hand at work or, to adopt a more precise image, we have heard the master’s voiceover as he describes what the hand is up to (no good, probably), but we see no masterpiece of subversion. That (I must assume) is still to come.

This doesn’t mean we aren’t privileged- the master has allowed us a rare glimpse behind the curtain while he pulls his levers, wearing steel-toed boot in case of the onset of small dogs. Furthermore, we have been vouchsafed the unique honor of witnessing the birth of a new art form- for what else does the masterly exposition above represent but an instance- perhaps the first one- of deconstruction in advance. No masterpiece, as I have already stated, exists (except, we presume, in the protean mind of the master), yet it has already been deconstructed! A stroke seemingly so obvious (in hindsight, mind you), yet so subtle that only a genius could have conceived of the possibility.

Only think for a moment of the dramatic impact this will have on literary criticism- as opposed to the usual process of assaulting the text until it has been reduced to an incomprehensible pile of rubble, the rubble has been produced at the outset, liberating the text to assume any shape it pleases. One might even postulate that the text need not actually exist at all, since the vital task of deconstruction has already been completed! Nor is that all- once deconstruction itself has been entirely sundered from its dependancy on the text it, too, will free to assume any guise its practitioners might desire.

Once again, Richard, you have pulled off a masterstroke – I salute you!

Who could resist such encouragement? Certainly not I.

Richard Harter:

I have seen that salute before on the road of life; it is usually accompanied by a loud honking of horns.

The right honourable Robert Gore, in his acute analysis above, has praised me and credited me with being the originator of a new wave in literary criticism. I am not unloath to receiving unearned praise and credit (these being the only sort I get) but a few tattered shreds of honesty (and the lively fear of readers with too good a memory) forces me to point out that it is no such thing. If I may quote from a work that I have presented in this venue previously (Image of the Book):

“From The Role of the Text in the Critical Review, Elfrieda Eppingham Von Basingstoke, J. of Unreadable Literary Criticism, Vol XVII.

We have seen that in the critical review that, when a text is properly deconstructed, the review is situated in the trace so that the original text vanishes entirely. We may then reasonably ask “What role does the original text have in the review?” The answer is “It has no apparent role.” In the critical review the original work is the trace of the review and, as such, is not visible in the text of the review. Within the text of the review the review is originary. The text that plays the role of being deconstructed within the review is not and should not be the original text; rather it is a rewriting of the trace which serves as a mirror reflecting the trace. As such it need not have any structural relationship to the original text; indeed it is usually preferable to invent the text to be deconstructed to suit the needs of the review.”

Note: The metaphor of the “new wave” is aptly chosen. If one goes to the beach and observes one sees wave after wave arrive, each one new. (One also sees shapely young creatures in a state of marked undress, which much improves the exercise.) Each wave is different from her fellow. The end effect of all of this reiterated and minisucule difference is a stultifying sameness. Nietzsche is represented as saying “Thou goest to woman – bring thy whip.” So it is with literary criticism: “Thou goest to literary criticism – bring your beach towel.”

The Left Dishonourable Robert Gore has acutely and perceptively pointed out that my commentaries were in no way a subversion of the ickiphor; rather they were a dancing around.

Note: We have seen the ickiphor. May we also introduce the tritiphor (a portmanteau of trite and metaphor)? “tritiphor” inevitably suggests “tritium”, Hydrogen 3, which is radioactive and unstable with a half life of 12.5 years. This raises a delicate question. (People who find themselves in delicate conditions are fated to rear delicate questions.) Is not the defining character of the tritiphor its distressing long life. But no. The life time of the individual tritiphor is variable – some are the affair of the moment (e.g. deja vu all over again) and others endure. This variability is the mark of the radioactive element and the half life in question is of an appropriate length. In this context “tritiphor” would seem to be appropriate, being as it were, an ickiphor in its own right. (That “ickiphor” is an ickiphor goes without saying.)

If I may return to our main thread which seems to have served only as an excuse for innumerable side exercursions, “dancing around” may, I think, count as a tritiphor. (The perceptive reader will have noted that we have not yet returned to the main thread; we have, however, performed a nearing.)

As the Straight Unhonoured Robert Gore has so surreptitiously observed, the masterpiece which is yet to come (much in the manner of the messiah) is not yet present, as such, and yet ineluctably is *already* there. [He didn’t actually make any such observation but he can be read as having done so and that suffices.] Perhaps the nascent ichiphor cannot be deconstructed or, more precisely, it can be deconstructed but the deconstruction thereof is not a subversion.

Instead we observe that we have performed the usual offices of the deconstructionist, reversing all heirarchies, and have made of deconstruction a Hallmark moment.

This page was last updated December 3, 1997.