Friday, January 11, 2008

Deconstruction debate

I enjoyed this rare literary debate on a prime time television show, “The Graduate," a Northern Exposure episode from 1995, the sixth and final season.

Set the scene: Chris Stevens, ex-con, radio host, transcendentalist, and spiritual leader of Cicely, Alaska, is taking his oral exams to get his master’s degree in comparative literature, via correspondence courses, from the University of Alaska Anchorage. Two literature professors join Chris for dinner at astronaut Maurice Minnifield’s house. Dr. Martin, a modernist, and Dr. Schuster, a traditionalist, argue about deconstructionist theory.

CHRIS: I was doing some re-reading on the deconstruction thing. You know, Jacque Derrida, Roland Barthes. The more I read, the more contradictions just whacked me in the head. Whatever happened to “Truth is beauty, beauty truth?”

DR. MARTIN: It’s the very multiplicity of interpretations that is the heart of deconstructionism.

MAURICE: Deconstruction?

DR. MARTIN: It is only when you remove the author as the final arbiter that all the suppressed meanings are allowed to proliferate.

DR. SCHUSTER: Ergo, misinterpretation is no longer a literary crime, nor is plagiarism for that matter.

DR. MARTIN: Think of the interpretive freedom that that allows. Take Chris’s thesis for example. Mighty Casey is not just a .400 slugger.

MAURICE: He’s not?

DR. MARTIN: No. He’s Nietzche’s uber-mensch.

CHRIS: Yeah, yeah. I had the notion that the world’s come to depend on Uncle Sam to solve all its problems just like the fans of Mudville expect Casey to knock it out of the park every time he steps up.

DR. MARTIN: Hermeneutic license at it’s best.

DR. SCHUSTER: In one fell swoop, you and your carjacking protégé there have put 2,000 years of accumulated knowledge into a rhetorical Osterizer and grinded it all into oblivion.

DR. MARTIN: Ah, the last gasp of the dead, white, European male, or as I like to call it, the pale penis people.

DR. SCHUSTER: Listen to that. Anything that smacks of reverence for tradition or the support of objective standards falls prostrate to the almighty god of political correctness.

DR. MARTIN: Now the real agenda comes out, huh? You’re determined to hang on this department chair until the bitter end, aren’t you, Dick?

DR. SCHUSTER: It’ll be a few more years, buddy. You better get used to those faculty apartments. [He laughs]. You guys! Throw out Jane Austen. All she did is validate imperialism. Who needs Shakespeare? An elitist punster at best. And all the while we’re shamelessly pandering to the loudest of the disenfranchised. It’s college through a boom box!

DR. MARTIN: Well done, Dick. Bigotry with panache.

DR. SCHUSTER: You son of a bitch!

DR. MARTIN: Come on!

[Maurice stands up and goes between the men]

MAURICE: Stop this right now! It’s only literature for goodness’ sake.

Chris, earlier, when he first met Dr. Martin, proposed this toast: “To academia. In a world of ever more compromise and pettiness, the last refuge of ideals and idealism for its own sake.”

1 comment:

greg said...

I got an e-mail from the office of university advancement at the University of Alaska Anchorage politely asking me to remove the hyphen I inserted between Alaska and Anchorage in my original post. I replied and blamed the mistake on the University of Wisconsin system.

The Alaskan also left me with a good Henry Miller quote: “It takes more energy to find a missing comma than it does to epitomize Nietzsche’s philosophy.”