Literary theory actually enriches your reading experience by mattsteinglass
February 25, 2010, 9:17 pm
Filed under: Literature

Adam Kirsch has a really nice review of a new book by Elif Batuman, “The Possessed”, about her experiences in Russian literature grad school and studying abroad in Uzbekistan. The narrative aspects of the book sound like they pull off the difficult task of drawing life from the classic absurdist tropes of Eastern European literature without descending into patronizing  “in Soviet Russia, television watch you!” kitsch (a pitfall I think “Everything Is Illuminated” tumbled into, head over heels). But the most arresting part of Kirsch’s review touches on Batuman’s willingness to admit to something that’s practically taboo in mainstream American letters these days: a frank enthusiasm for Derrida.

What’s really unusual, and challenging, is Batuman’s praise of the most abstract kinds of literary theory.

It is conventional to talk about theorists—especially the dreaded French theorists—as if they were foes of the common reader, draining the reading experience of simple joy. But Batuman shows that, in her own life, the opposite has been true. When she first read Anna Karenina as a teenager, one of the things that struck her—as, after reading her, it must strike us—is the way Tolstoy readily recycles the names of characters: “Anna’s lover and her husband had the same first name (Alexei). Anna’s maid and daughter were both called Anna, and Anna’s son and half brother were both Sergei.” Batuman writes that this kind of casual repetition seemed “remarkable, surprising, and true to life.” Once she gets to graduate school, she finds that the work of Jacques Derrida helps her to understand why: “As Derrida once wrote, the singularity of the proper name is inextricable from its generality: it always has to be possible for one thing to be named after any other named thing. … The basic tension of the name is that it simultaneously does and does not designate the unique individual.”

This is a really strong turn for both Batuman and Kirsch to make. We’ve had a good 20 years now of an attitude towards academia and criticism in mainstream culture that basically amounts to rank anti-intellectualism. I think I first noticed how sick I was getting of that attitude a couple of months ago while reading a blog post by Scott Eric Kaufmann on “Mad Men” and realizing that he was getting some stuff out of the character of Don Draper that was extraordinarily deep. It was about three layers of reference more interesting than anything you’d read in the pages of Slate, and I suddenly remembered it had been about six years since I’d read criticism that benefited from that kind of competence in critical theory.

I don’t have that sort of competence; I opted not to go to grad school in Russian literature, and I’m happy I did. But Elif Batuman isn’t ridiculous to evaluate her emotional responses to the handsomest boy in her program through the filter of “Rene Girard’s theory of mimetic desire”; living your life as though intellectual interpretation counts is a way of taking life passionately and seriously. I don’t know what Rene Girard’s theory of mimetic desire is, but I wish I did.


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I always admire people who study the why of words, not just the words, the same way I prefer pols who understand Macchiavelli or Friedman before braying about “speculators.” In fact, I hope to read Derrida and Levias just as soon as I master the alphabet.

Comment by citifieddoug

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