Dusty Gothic windows shed a pastel glow around the podium where J. Hillis Miller, one of the world-renowned "Yale critics," is about to lecture. The students, rumpled and still mufflered from the snowy New England weather, await the great professor. Notebooks are out, pens poised.
Not many know the lecture marks the beginning of the end for Miller's 14-year career as a professor of English and comparative literature at Yale University.
Only a few days earlier, the UC Board of Regents announced it had wooed Miller away from the old, cold and patrician university to the bright, new, plebeian campus at UC Irvine with one of its highest-ever salaries ($91,000) and a low-interest housing loan.
Acquisition of a Specialty
At stake is not only the possession of Miller himself--an undisputedly brilliant professor recently appointed president of the prestigious Modern Language Society--but also of the worldwide center for Miller's specialty, "deconstruction."
Deconstruction is a radical fringe of literary criticism in which, its advocates explain, words refer only to other words and not necessarily to any external reality. It is praised by some as "the cutting edge" of theory but denounced by others as a meaningless buzzword. In the United States, the movement has been centered at Yale for the past decade.
As one Irvine professor (who requested anonymity) sees it, the appointment means that Irvine can now boast of a recognized "world-class program" in critical theory while the Yale English department will be banished to the "dustbin of history." In retort, a Yale professor sniffed (likewise not for attribution): "When we're done with (a movement) here, it is exported to the provinces."
Miller says he is surprised that his appointment has made "so much splash."
Meanwhile back at Yale, he carries on--lecturing on this recent morning to a survey class of graduate students and undergraduates. He will speak on deconstructors and their highly abstract approach to analyzing writing--in which words and phrases are methodically scrutinized for multiple meanings, most of them contradictory and unpredictable.
Miller, 58, shuffles to the podium. Tall, slow-spoken and grinning, the professor ("Hillis" to friends and students) could be the Jimmy Stewart of literary theory as he begins to talk about metaphors. But then he moves on to metaphors about metaphors. Next he explains why a word that might seem "conceptual" is really "figurative" and why paraphrase is impossible.
By the time he reaches the thought that multiple meanings are beyond speakers' or writers' control, several pairs of undergraduate eyes have become glazed. Most students have stopped taking notes.
When he stops speaking, they applaud generously.
"I don't understand (deconstruction)," said Eric Posner, 20, a sophomore in philosophy, after the lecture. "I don't think anybody understands it." But at least, he said, he "got an impression of what's going on. It's the most I can hope for."
"I don't follow (deconstruction) to its illogical extreme," said Jim Done, 23, a first-year graduate student in comparative literature. "A lot of students (of deconstruction) mistakenly draw the nihilistic conclusion that it's pointless to read. That's nonsense, but an incredibly popular misconception."
Stacey Gottlieb, 19, a sophomore literature major, had another reaction to the intricacies of deconstruction: "Like, whoosh!" she said, ducking as her hand flew over her head.
After the lecture, Miller walks uninterrupted from the Whitney Humanities Center on Wall Street along the flagstones, past lacy and leafless trees, toward one of his offices located inside a residential college. He uses one hand to lift the other in and out of his pocket. It has been limp for 37 years, ever since Miller was stricken with polio, one of the last cases in Maine, where he was living at the time, he said.
Miller had intended to become a physicist at Oberlin College until poetry appeared "more challenging than astrophysics" and more attractive. He went on to graduate school in English literature at Harvard University and then taught English at Johns Hopkins University for 19 years until he came to Yale as an English professor in 1972. A specialist in Victorian literature, he has written books on Charles Dickens, Thomas Hardy and Victorian fiction as well as 20th-Century poets. His most recent is on the ethics of reading.
Along the way, he became a close friend of Jacques Derrida, a French philosopher who is known as the father of deconstruction.
Introduction to Concept
Miller recalled his introduction to deconstruction in 1966 at a Johns Hopkins University international symposium where Derrida was speaking. "I thought it was terrific. He was reading texts by Rousseau, Plato and Mallarme and seeing things nobody ever saw. . . ." For example, Derrida noticed that Plato repeatedly used a Greek word, pharmakos, which means both remedy and poison. Derrida's conclusion was that the meaning of Plato's work was "undecidable."
That did not mean, Miller cautioned, that literature could mean "whatever you want it to mean," but that meaning is "heterogeneous."
For the initiate, he tries again: "I speak a language," he patiently explained, "that is speaking through me."
Miller's skills as a careful speaker, reader and writer make him the "most formidable of the Yale (literary) critics," according to a recent New York Times Magazine article called "The Tyranny of the Yale Critics."
Yale's 'Gang of Four'
The critics--once known as the "Gang of Four"--included faculty members Paul de Man, Geoffrey Hartman and Harold Bloom. Derrida also has lectured routinely at Yale, usually in French, but is based in Paris, where he teaches at the Ecole des Hautes Etudes des Sciences Sociales, a research institute.
By giving Derrida's philosophy a name and turning it into a usable tool in the literature classroom, the Yale critics stirred up literature and philosophy departmEnts around the country, according to Murray Krieger, a University Professor )of English and architect of UCI's program in critical theory. Challenging traditional scholars who focus on the history and biography of well-known works and authors, the deconstructionists study rhetorical structure in all writing--history, philosophy, political essays, even literary criticism itself. They question whether English departments ought to exist and even whether "there is such a thing as literature," Krieger said.
There is no step-by-step method of deconstruction; the resulting analysis depends on the deconstructor's bent. There are historical deconstructionists, psychoanalytic deconstructionists and feminist deconstructionists. A feminist deconstructionist, for example, would find that a feminist argument containing the words, "Do you see my point? " undermines the speaker's purpose since the figure of speech has phallic symbolism, Krieger said.
'One Level Higher'
"They treat literature as something to be studied like (scientists study) molecules," said Ray Catalano, assistant vice chancellor who leads UCI's committee to recruit distinguished professors. "For them, the artistic use of literature is something to be studied like the way you would study a human heart. . . . I guess you could say Hillis Miller is to Norman Mailer what a molecular biologist is to a physician. One level higher."
Miller said the idea of deconstruction threatens some people, the same people who, for instance, might be upset by the conclusion that life itself has no single unified meaning. Lawyers and politicians might worry that legal documents are invalid. For example, Miller believes that "We the people" in the Declaration of Independence has no reference in reality, since "the people" did not exist until they were first defined in that document. For deconstructionists, history books are not necessarily accounts of what happened, but are regarded as narratives like novels.
Led by the Yale critics, deconstruction has become a worldwide phenomenon with its own verb, "to deconstruct."
American deconstructionists have given lectures in China, India, Australia and Japan. Last December, Miller said he and Hartman lectured on deconstruction to students, teachers and journalists in Uruguay.
"I don't know how successful it was," Miller recalled. The seminars were interpreted simultaneously into Spanish. During his lectures, Miller observed the interpreters had "startled looks on their faces."
But now--in the midst of its apparent success--the ivory fortress of the Yale critics is crumbling. In 1983, De Man died of cancer. Miller will leave Yale following the spring semester. And most significant to many, Derrida, who followed Miller from Johns Hopkins to Yale, may follow Miller to UCI. And UCI administrators said they are about to begin recruiting the French philosopher for a permanent one-quarter annual appointment. (A rising French theorist, Jean-Francois Lyotard, is also slated for recruitment at UCI in a few years, university sources said.)
For their part, Yale faculty and administrators refuse to recognize Miller's impending departure as a coup for UC Irvine.
"People are always coming and going," said Richard Brodhead, director of undergraduate studies in the Yale English department. "People in the world at large make the mistake of thinking the only people here are the 'Yale critics,' " he said. "It's not as if the loss of one person means the end of intellectual vitality in New Haven. . . . Even a special person is only one of a number of great minds."
'It's a Buzzword'
Poet Vickie Hearne, an assistant professor of English at Yale, claims there is no such thing as deconstruction. "It's a buzzword. A sophisticated, elegant buzzword, of course, but a buzzword.
"I have some really bright students who have been looking for it for years and can't find it. . . . I spend half my days talking to Yale students who come in my office after taking these courses in the literature department and say, 'What's deconstruction? Before I took courses in it, I thought I knew what it was. . . .'
"If Irvine is happy to get a deconstructionist, I'm happy for Irvine," she said. "It will probably be fun and that's fine. There are no tragedies, no triumphs, no coups, no nothing. . . . Someone--Kafka or Mark Twain or the editor of the New York Times--said academic politics get so vicious because there's so little at stake. The real issue is what happens in the classroom."
Like most literary movements, that of the Yale critics was based on a group of friends, said Harold Bloom, a general professor in the humanities at Yale who contributed to what is known as the deconstruction manifesto but never considered himself a deconstructionist. He called Miller a friend. "I'll miss him. One is getting older, and it's harder to make friends.
"I spent a great many hours trying to talk him out of it," Bloom said. Of Miller's decision to leave, Bloom remarked wistfully: "I don't think it's a matter that can be understood cognitively. . . .
"I don't know if any of us knows why he does anything."
In Miller's office, desks and chairs are crowded with books and papers. The radiator is peeling. A cot is folded up against the wall, for use if he is snowed in. On the door is a map of Penobscot Bay where Miller and Dorothy, his wife of 37 years, have a summer home--a home they will continue to visit after they move to Irvine this summer.
Miller said other colleagues have remarked: " 'Six weeks, and you'll be ready to come back. It's a hideous mistake.' "
Choosing to leave Yale, an "obvious risk," was difficult, Miller said. Partly, he said, he and Dorothy were simply ready for change. Their three children are grown. She is tired of the New England winters. He likes to jog, hike and sail and wants to write. They both like gardening.
But beyond sunshine, Miller indicated he hoped to regain at UCI some of the "intellectual fun" he lost after his close colleague De Man died.
While most universities take a traditional approach, UCI's Department of English and Comparative Literature is based on literary and critical theory. The 21-year-old campus was the nation's first to offer a doctoral program in critical theory.
Miller had first visited UCI in 1979 to teach at UCI's School of Criticism and Theory, a federally funded program that moved to Northwestern in 1981 and will move to Dartmouth this summer. In addition to Krieger, who held the country's first chair in literary criticism at the University of Iowa, Miller said he was impressed by the dozen theorists at UCI, including David Carroll, director of UCI's program in critical theory; John Rowe, a deconstructionist; Mark Poster, a historian, and Wolfgang Iser, Germany's top literary theorist, who spends a quarter every year at UCI.
Leaving his office, Miller walks briskly up College Street toward Wall Street and Naples Pizza Parlor, a dark hangout where generations of carved initials have turned the thick wood tables into relief maps. Once the hangout of the deconstructionists, the pizza parlor establishment has framed a photo of Miller and hung it on the wall. Miller, who jogs 10 kilometers a day, orders not pizza but a hamburger patty, cottage cheese and a Coke.
Negotiations, he said between bites, took a year. Last month, Miller struck a deal with the UC regents that included the $91,000 annual salary, subsidized housing and freedom from administrative chores. Miller said he will teach two graduate courses a year, and will direct dissertations and reading courses for three quarters a year. It will give him time to finish books on the theory of narrative and begin a sequel to the ethics of reading.
University sources say Miller will receive an 8.9% variable rate loan to build a custom Spanish-style, 2,300-square-foot home in University Hills--UCI's subsidized housing village for staff and faculty. Funded through gifts and endowments, the faculty housing program is the second largest in the United States (after Stanford University's) and a crucial factor in attracting top-flight talent to Irvine, according to UCI Associate Executive Vice Chancellor Bill Parker.
Miller said over the last several years, he has turned down offers from several institutions, including Stanford, UC San Diego and UCLA, the latter partly because there was no theoretical program and also because he "couldn't see buying a house."
Back in Irvine, professors are said to be "dancing in the streets" now that Miller is coming.
'More Than Competitive'
"Hillis Miller's recruitment is symbolic of what we are doing to build a great university," Parker said. "It really shows us that Irvine is now competitive with the best universities in the country. More than competitive. We can attract the very best faculty. . . ."
Irvine, a fast-growing campus still struggling to reach the international distinction of the older Berkeley and UCLA, is now hiring 40 faculty members and 100 Ph.D.'s a year, Parker said. "In that 100, we'd like to see a few at the high end to help us recruit graduate students and assistant professors."
Miller is the fourth internationally recognized scholar to be hired under UCI's "distinguished professor" program, which features off-scale salaries for top talent. The others are David Easton and Henry Eckstein in political science and Ricardo Miledi in psychobiology. Other world-class scholars who have joined the university in recent years include Peter Rentzepis in chemistry and Masayasu Nomura in molecular biology. William Bunneyhas also received the "distinguished professor" title for his work in psychiatry and human behavior.
For UCI's program in critical theory, "It's an absolute breakthrough," Krieger said. "This means we will probably have the most exciting program anybody could want anywhere. Not just the United States, but anywhere."
What if the rising star of deconstruction fades?
No matter, according to UCI's Catalano. "As individuals, you hope the faculty will be surpassed by the students. I have every hope the next generation of theorists will say (deconstruction) was quaint and useful, but terribly naive because we know better now. But to know better, they have to go through that step."
Some of Miller's students at Yale were shocked to hear he would be leaving soon. "The famous Yale school is going to be gone," Stacey Gottlieb sighed.
Others say perhaps it's time for a changing of the avant-garde. According to Craig Rubano, 20, a Yale literature major: "When people can read (about deconstruction) over their Sunday coffee, it's not the cutting edge anymore."