Write What You Know (That You Know)

I don’t often say “shoemaker, stick to thy last.” A lot of what’s made my life exciting has come from fiddling around with things I didn’t understand, or understood only within a narrow path-dependent spectrum. But sometimes I’m forced to suggest that folks just write their movie reviews and live a nice life within those bounds.

Exhibit: Richard Brody, writing about Heidegger and what he calls “deconstructionism.” (In my experience, those who call it so, with or without the capital D, are rarely going to give it a fair hearing. Making it an “ism,” rather than a technique or a style, promotes it to the status of Public Enemy.) He takes exception to something his New Yorker colleague Louis Menand had said last week about deconstruction and other modes of literary theory as being like nuclear physics, too recondite and abstruse for the ordinary person to understand. Brody’s objection:

The crucial difference is that, when a physicist splits atoms, they’re not the atoms of the chair that he’s sitting on or of the equipment that he’s splitting them with. Deconstruction pulls the chair out from under the reader, compels the reader to undermine his own habits of reading. By dissolving the overt categories of reading—plot, story, style, character, moral—deconstruction wrenched literature away from the amateurs and delivered it to the sole care of academics, who alone had the tools with which to approach it.

Brody is correct about atomic physics, but only on the narrow view that makes atom-splitting a technical operation, like splitting this or that piece of wood. However, that’s not what physicists do. You don’t roll up to the physics building and say, “Hello, is there a post-doc in there who can help me split these atoms?” They split atoms with reckless disregard for whose or what’s atoms they are, since the point of performing the technical feat is to prove something general about all atoms anywhere. (Well, actually they tend to choose the kinds of atoms that are easiest to split or give the most reliable results under the conditions of this or that apparatus. The New Yorker was onto a related topic a few days ago.)

And when you ask what happens generally within the atom, not just the ones that happen to have endured splitting, you get writing like this, which does, indeed, attack the chair that the physicist is sitting on and the paper on which the experiment is reported too:

My… table is mostly emptiness. Sparsely scattered in that emptiness are numerous electric charges rushing about with great speed; but their combined bulk amounts to less than a billionth of the bulk of the table itself…. There is nothing substantial about [it]. … The whole trend of modern scientific views is to break down the separate categories of “things,” “influences,” “forms,” etc., and to substitute a common background of all experience.

A matter of consistency, you see. If you’re enunciating a general law, you’d better be aware that the observer is contained under it, as is the observed. This fearsome piece of ontological nihilism comes to us from Arthur Stanley Eddington, The Nature of the Physical World (1929), quoted by that arch-deconstructor, that purveyor of post-Husserlian gloom, that crypto-European, John Crowe Ransom (from God Without Thunder, 1930, pp. 225-226).

Appealing to bluff common sense as the primary reality, or the only reality suitable for literature, will get you only so far. Even as an “amateur”!

PS. I often like Brody’s movie reviews and am willing to offer as tit-for-tat a clumsy, silly, uneducated cinematic response of my own.