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Frank Lentricchia' s Critical Confession, or, the Traumas of Teaching Theory.

Ours is a confessional age, as the popularity of Oprah Winfrey's and other television talk-shows testifies to. Recently, the confessional mode has made its way into what--for at least the first half of this century--aspired to be a relatively impartial, objective, and impersonal enterprise: literary studies. It is not only that the 1990s brought a surge of autobiographies in which well-known literary academics reveal all kinds of pungent details about their professional and private lives (see Alice Kaplan's French Lessons, Frank Lentricchia's Edge of Night, or Marianna Torgovnick's Crossing Ocean Parkway). More importantly, critical essays on literary texts and/or issues are spiced with references to the critics' private lives. [1] Indeed, David R. Shumway may be right when he claims that, "Personal matters, once regarded as extraneous to disciplinary discourse, have become central to it" (96).

What has prompted this entry of confession into literary studies? Some would say that it is our preoccupation with self-location, incited by the turn in theory that asks critics to specify their positionality as regards gender, class, race, and sexual preference. Others might speculate on the significance of the feminist claim that "the personal is political" in encouraging the confessional mode. Yet others may point to the postmodern trend to cross all kinds of boundaries and to mix genres and discourses. A few may even claim that academics resort to the personal narrative to liven up their otherwise dull and drab professional discourse. Be this as it may, what I find particularly fascinating a bout critical confessions is their role in forming the public image of the persona of an academic teacher.

A peak of sorts--or perhaps a nadir--in the confessional trend in literary criticism seems to have been reached recently with the publication of Lentricchia's article "Last Will and Testament of an Ex-Literary Critic," in the September/October 1996 issue of Lingua Franca. The article caused quite a commotion among American literary scholars. I was at Columbia University when Lentricchia's "Last Will" was published. Within a few days, everybody (or so it seemed to me) was talking about the article: each casual encounter between academics, each dinner party with more than one academic at the table, each graduate seminar provided an occasion to discuss Lentricchia's essay.

So what was it that Lentricchia wrote that caused such tremors in the academic world? In the article, this "Dirty Harry of contemporary critical theory," as a reviewer once called Lentricchia, [2] admits to having suffered for years from a kind of split-personality disorder. His secret "me-the-reader" kept experiencing "erotic transport" when reading books, while his public self, that of "an historian and polemicist of literary theory," was speaking about literature as a political instrument. His two selves, as he writes, were "unhappy with one another" (60).

Since this part of Lentricchia's article could be seen as an echo of the "two selves" confession made some ten years earlier by another academic at Duke University, Jane Tompkins, it offers nothing new. [3] Rather, it is what follows that made me and other literary critics and teachers raise our eyebrows. Lentricchia continues by announcing his conversion from a political critic and graduate mentor into a literary enthusiast. To explain his decision, he cites a number of classroom incidents in which graduate students have passed judgments on books from the position of self-righteousness and moral and political superiority. One of the climactic moments leading to Lentricchia's conversion was, he writes, a student's statement that "the first thing we have to understand is that Faulkner is a racist" (64). This comment, says Lentricchia, ignited his desire to communicate "how unspeakably stupid" he found such views. The views themselves, claims Lentricchia, are due to the corruption of students' minds by contemp orary literary theory. According to him, criticism has become a form of "Xeroxing," a process of prereading rather than reading texts: "Tell me your theory and I'll tell you in advance what you'll say about any work of literature, especially those you haven't read.". Having denounced theory, Lentricchia has resumed the life of an enthusiast who in his classroom encounters with undergraduate students mostly recites from literary texts. He becomes a "medium for the writer's voice. [[ldots]] The writer flows into me and out of me: my mouth his exit into our world" (66). Reluctantly, Lentricchia admits that he does share with his students his knowledge of literary history, literary forms, styles, and types, but only because he is "an imperfect rhapsode"; this sharing, he promptly adds, "doesn't substitute for an honest [sic] act of reading" (66).

Why, I keep asking myself, do I feel annoyed at Lentricchia's confession? After all Lentricchia has captured the excesses of critical enterprise very well indeed: I certainly share his frustration at seeing a literary text reduced to issues of this or that political interest. Like him, I am exasperated by sweeping comments about Western literary tradition being the central engine of racism, poverty, sexism, homophobia, and imperialism. But if I share Lentricchia's discontent at the state of affairs in literary criticism, why the sense of unease when I read and reread his essay'? Why do I keep wondering if his confession is a sign of our age or is a symptom of a particular stage in the confessor's career? Why, I ask myself, does he want to be gathered into the artifice of literature only after having eagerly erected monuments of theoretical intellect? Why the Prufrockian sense of futility, although he has never been a Prufrock, and has measured out his life not with coffee spoons but with important books in l iterary theory?

Like Lentricchia in 1996, since the beginning of the 1990s there has been another, this time "reluctant," critic who has repeatedly expressed a pronounced distaste for reducing the literary to the political. But I do not recall feeling irritated when I read Ihab Hassan's confessions. [4] On the contrary: his confessions stimulated my thinking and left me elated. Just three years prior to Lentricchia's "Testament," in "Confessions of a Reluctant Critic," Hassan wrote: "For some decades now, theory has often [ldots] dazzled, putting literature in the shadows. Students turn to theory like moths, their appetite for flames far greater than their appetite for poetry" (8). So what is the difference between Lentricchia's and Hassan's confessions? Two points press themselves onto the page as I am writing: intellectual honesty and pedagogic responsibility. I find both honesty and responsibility in the confessions of the reluctant critics but not in the last will of the ex-literary critic.

I will not discuss the matter of intellectual honesty here; it would be all too easy to dismiss Lentricchia's article as promoting a pose aimed at attracting publicity and reviving an interest in his persona, as an attempt to be--once again--in the avant-garde of the new intellectual fashion, now, when the luster and dazzle of literary theory has evaporated somewhat from departments of literature (at least in the United States). Instead, I want to address the question of pedagogic responsibility. Frankly, I find Lentricchia's stance vis-a-vis his students quite irresponsible. At a certain point in his article I encounter the following: "My objection is not that literary study has been politicized, but that it proceeds in happy indifference to, often in unconscionable innocence of, the protocols of literary competence" (60). Lentricchia never makes it clear what he means by the "protocols of literary competence"--he obviously assumes a consensus on this point among the readers of his article. My question here is: does his new pedagogic practice help students acquire whatever protocols of literary competence he may have in mind? Or is he rather sustaining their innocence (or, perhaps, ignorance) of the protocols of reading by speaking the text "as the writer would speak it," by "infusing" his listener-students with "the writer's original voice embodied" in himself (66)? His new dazzling teaching seems to me to overpower rather than empower his students.

Literary competence is nothing anybody--not even Lentricchia--is born with. We acquire it. Besides, neither our own nor our students' ability to formulate interpretations of texts springs from spontaneous encounters with literary texts themselves; the acquisition of critical vocabulary is the result of a predominantly conscious intellectual effort. Of course, the "cultural capital" (to use Pierre Bourdieu's term in Distinction), that Lentricchia has acquired is so high that it may pass for something natural, for a talent he was born with. Our students are at the beginning of the process of accumulating this type of capital--that is why they are at university, since schools are among the most important institutions in which this acquisition of symbolic capital is supposed to take place.

As long as we expect students to speak the language of criticism, as long as we either reward or penalize them for succeeding or failing to translate their encounters with literature into the critical idiom of our academic community, it is our duty to help them acquire the vocabulary, the mode of thinking, the protocols of reading accepted and cherished by our community. (But perhaps Lentricchia has decided to assign grades to his students on the basis of their ability to recite from the texts.) Literary theory--when well-taught--is meant to help students in these processes. I firmly share Biddy Martin's view that "without an education in literary theory, students have little chance of thinking clearly and with complexity about the assumptions that guide what we take to be interpretations of texts or about the stakes in different dimensions of reading" (11).

But that is what Lentricchia certainly knows. So why this turn away from theory by a critic whose academic career and international fame were built on his contributions to theoretical thought? I do not see Lentricchia's article as informed by the kind of arguments ventilated in the debates "against theory" in the late 1980s. [5] Rather, I see him writing against the excesses of literary theory. Excesses, let me add, that spring from bad pedagogy, that is, pedagogy that encourages reading without nuance, that rewards students for crowding their interpretations (if interpretations they are) with modish words and politically correct statements. But literature can be approached in many different ways: "Most books can be read in a variety of ways, political and unpolitical; they can be read politically with crudeness or subtlety, insistence or tact; and there may be days when both pedagogy and the fullest civility of mind require us to read a book without reference to politics" (Hassan, "Confessions" 9-10).

Literary theory should not be reduced to consuming concepts and terms, or turned into a reservoir of information, although, sadly enough, this often is the case. Nor should it amount basically to an old (or should I say new?) critical approach to literature brushed up with the help of a few fashionable terms: ideology, discourse, positionality, and the like. "Cocktail party acquaintance" with theory (to use Lentricchia's apt expression) all too often results in a joyful and careless buzz of phrases detached from all sense and meaning. Crude versions of theoretical ideas we cherish should make all of us--not only Lentricchia--cringe in horror.

Do I need to say that literary theory can never be a substitute for the act of reading a literary text? (I am surprised at Lentricchia's tone of a great discovery of this fact in his "Last Will.") Literary theory may, however, help readers see more in a text, enjoy the text in new, perhaps unexpected, ways, and induce readers to reflect on the pleasures and traumas of their encounters with literature. Theory is, after all, a way of interacting with literature. And since literature is indeed unruly, as Lentricchia says (or destructive, as Hassan puts it), no theory, no set of theories, can account for all the riches of a reading experience. But then who, I wonder, in the last twenty or so years has believed that literary theory--any theory--can provide us with a lucid method and a set of clear rules for engaging with a literary text?

The students I nowadays meet in the classroom were conceived in the climactic years of deconstruction, in their primal scream they breathed in postmodern air, and their unconscious was shaped by Benetton's "postcolonial" advertisements. What has caused tremors and landslides in my intellectual life has left them untouched. In the era of rapidly shrinking financial resources and an even more rapidly growing body of knowledge called theory, what should I teach? As Jonathan Culler observes, "The most intimidating feature of theory in the Eighties and Nineties is that it is endless: an unbounded corpus of writings which is always being augmented as the young and the restless, in critiques of the guiding conceptions of their elders, promote and exploit the possible contributions to theory of new thinkers and rediscover the work of older, neglected ones" (14). In this situation, how can I give my students a sense of the development of critical thought, do justice to the intricacies of the ideas, and help them acti vely use the vocabulary? Most important, how can I make literary theory help students move gracefully and with sensitivity through the treasure-house of literature? So perhaps the problem is not so much that students find it difficult to learn critical theory, but that I--am I alone?--find it increasingly difficult to teach it. But the fact that it is difficult to teach theory should not lead to the conclusion that teaching it is impossible.

This brings me to the second point I want to make about Lentricchia's article. His new conduct while in the classroom with undergraduate students signals to me an attitude that I see gaining ground in higher education, an attitude that results in an infantalization of university studies and in a transformation of teachers into psychotherapists. I read with apprehension the following pedagogic confession: "Working with fears and other problematic feelings turns the sublect matters of our classroom in the direction of the persons involved. In moving away from text-centered toward person-centered work, anecdotes, tales, stories, jokes, parodies, and other narrative forms are far more helpful than arguments, essays, explications, glosses, and refutations" (Downing and Sosnoski 278). Helpful for what, I want to ask? To make students feel better about themselves? Shouldn't we rather help them overcome those fears, empower the students to help them defeat us at our game? Students' narratives, write Downing and Sosn oski, "often express novel, unexpected, and undogmatic points of view if they are not dismissed as naive or uninformed" (280). But how to recognize the novel, the unexpected, and the undogmatic? Isn't it the informed teacher who recognizes it? And "often" does not mean "always"--so what do we do with views which are in fact dogmatic?

Our respect for and responsibility to students--and ourselves--entail sharing with our students our knowledge and our expertise. In sharing our knowledge we share ourselves, our passions, preferences, prejudices, loves, distastes, admirations. For me, the choice is not between teaching theory and not doing so, but between teaching theory well or badly. But, you may ask, what do I mean by "teaching theory well"? The question merits an article (if not a book) of its own, so here I can say the following only: for me teaching literary theory well means teaching it in a spirit of pluralism (pace Stanely Fish!), not monism of any sort; as a lapsed Catholic, I dread single gods, be they called Marxism, feminism, cultural materialism, or poststructuralism. Teaching theory well means questioning the near-hegemonic position of any fashionable discourse and paying respectful--which does not mean all-accepting--attention to a whole spectrum of literary theories. For me, teaching literary theory well means teaching it in ways sensitive to whom we teach, where, when, and for what purposes; it means teaching theory in such a way that it does not claim a sovereign place for logic and intellectual knowledge only, but that it helps us recover the passionate, the haunting, the transformational, and the uncanny powers of literature.

"We need a criticism that will unite emotion and cognition in a synergistic totality, rather than a criticism which sees them as antagonistic," writes Neal Oxenhandler (119). But such criticism--or should I say critics who have combined intellect and emotion in their teaching?--has always existed. It is from such pedagogues that I have learned the most, because they were demanding, rigorous in their thinking, and impressively knowledgeable. At the same time they were passionate: what they said about literature mattered to them. They shared their feelings as much as they shared their thoughts; they were "infected," as Hassan once told me, by that particular form of life we call literature, and they passed on this "infection" to their students through an exercise of intellectually rigorous passion.

What forces and beliefs may have formed the identities of such pedagogues cannot be adequately described even with the help of the most intricate of Bourdieu's models. Confessions, those privileged rituals for the production of truth in Western societies, as Michel Foucault observed, produce modifications in those articulating them (62). Today, I would say, confessions produce modifications in the public image of the confessing personae. And although ours is supposed to be a confessional age, only some confessions are deemed to be of public interest. Strong statements, statements that present a world in black and white and offer no shades of grey are clear, quotable, and consumable. So it is small wonder that Lentricchia's "testament" has caught the attention of the mass media and that in a recent issue of Time, Lentricchia, called "a major figure in the politicization of literary studies," is presented as a harbinger of a return to the study of Great Books (Lacayo). He is, that is, taken to embody the new a cademic teacher. By contrast, because discriminating, complex, and soul-searching reflections do not lend themselves to an easy translation into a sensational journalistic mode; such serious statements as Hassan's confession remain to be known to a smaller circle of academics only.

Danuta Fjellestad ( is associate professor of English at Karlskrona University, Sweden. She has recently published "Eros, Logos, and (Fictional) Masculinity" and is currently working on American intellectual autobiography.


(1.) The entry of the personal into academic discourse is also signaled by the widespread use of the pronoun "I" in research. Several reasons behind the current use of the personal pronoun "I" in academic writing has been discussed in the October 1996 issue of PMLA.

(2.) It was Maureen Corrigan who in the Village Voice Literary Supplement put the label of "Dirty Harry" on Lentricchia in a review of his Criticism and Social Change (1983). The comment was prompted by the famous photograph on the back cover of the book, in which Lentricchia presents himself posed against a wall streaked with graffiti, wearing a striped, open-collared shirt and blue jeans, with his arms folded, in a clear imitation of the image of James Dean on the poster for Rebel without a Cause.

(3.) In her "Me and My Shadow" (1987), Tompkins wrote about feeling split between "two voices," one of an academic who wants to discuss epistemological issues, the other of a person "who wants to write about her feelings" (169).

(4.) The theme of aversion toward the ideological trend in criticism runs through all of Hassan's articles written in the 1990s, for instance in "Let the Fresh Air In" (1991) and "Negative Capability Reclaimed" (1996).

(5.) The debate was initiated by Steven Knapp and Walter Benn Michaels' in "Against Theory," published in 1982 Critical Inquiry. A number of responses to their article appeared in Critical Inquiry from 1982 to 1985. The articles were collected in a volume in 1985 (Mitchell).

Works Cited

Bourdieu, Pierre. Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgment of Taste. 1979. Trans. Richard Nice. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard UP, 1984.

Culler, Jonathan. "Introduction: What's the Point?" The Point of Theory: Practices of Cultural Analysis. Ed. Mieke Bal and Inge E. Boer. Amsterdam: Amsterdam UP, 1994. 13-17.

Downing, David B., and James J. Sosnoski. "Working with Narrative Zones in a Postdisciplinary Pedagogy." Narrative 3 (1995): 271-86.

Foucault, Michel. The History of Sexuality. Vol. 1: An Introduction. 1976. Trans. Robert Hurley. New York: Vintage, 1980.

Hassan, Ihab. "Confessions of a Reluctant Critic or, The Resistance to Literature." New Literary History 24 (1993): 1-15.

___. "Let the Fresh Air In: Graduate Studies in the Humanities." Cream City Review 15.2 (1991): 1-16. Rpt. in Beauty and the Critic: Aesthetics in an Age of Cultural Studies. Ed. James Soderholm. Tuscaloosa: U of Alabama P, 1997. 190-207.

___. "Negative Capability Reclaimed: Literature and Philosophy contra Politics." Philosophy and Literature 20 (1996): 305-24.

Kaplan, Alice. French Lessons: A Memoir. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1993.

Knapp, Steven, and Walter Benn Michaels. "Against Theory." Critical Inquiry 8 (1981-1982): 723-42.

Lacayo, Richard. "War of Words." Time 4 Aug. 1997: 39.

Lentricchia, Frank. The Edge of Night. New York: Random, 1994.

___. "Last Will and Testament of an Ex-Literary Critic." Lingua Franca Sept./Oct. 1996: 59-67.

Martin, Biddy. "Teaching Literature, Changing Cultures." PMLA 112 (1997): 7-25.

Mitchell, W. J. T., ed. Against Theory: Literary Studies and the New Pragmatism. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1985.

Oxenhandler, Neal. "The Changing Concept of Literary Emotion: A Selective History." New Literary History 20 (1988): 105-21.

Shumway, David R. "The Star System in Literary Studies." PMLA 112 (1997): 85-100.

Tompkins, Jane. "Me and My Shadow." New Literary History 19 (1987): 169-78.

Torgovnick, Marianna De Marco. Crossing Ocean Parkway: Readings by an Italian American Daughter. Chicago: U of Chicago F, 1994.
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Author:Fjellestad, Danuta
Article Type:Critical Essay
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Sep 22, 1999
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