Critical Inquiry Critical Inquiry

Winter 1986

Volume 12 Issue 2
    • 301Fredric Jameson
    • The concept of “magic realism” raises many problems, both theoretical and historical. I first encountered it in the context of American painting in the mid-1950s; at about the same time, Angle Flores published an influential article (in English) in which the term was applied to the work of Borges;1 but Alejo Carpentier’s conception of the real maravilloso at once seemed to offer a related or alternative conception, while his own work and that of Miguel Angel Asturias seemed to demand an enlargement of its application.2 Finally, with the novels of Gabriel García Márquez in the 1960s, a whole new realm of magic realism opened up whose exact relations to preceding theory and novelistic practice remained undetermined. These conceptual problems emerge most clearly when one juxtaposes the notion of magic realism with competing or overlapping terms. In the beginning, for instance, it was not clear how it was to be distinguished from that vaster category generally simply called fantastic literature; at this point, what is presumably at issue is a certain type of narrative or representation to be distinguished from realism. Carpentier, however, explicitly staged his version as a more authentic Latin American realization of what in the more reified European context took the form of surrealism: his emphasis would seem to have been on a certain poetic transfiguration of the object world itself—not so much a fantastic narrative, then, as a metamorphosis in perception and in things perceived (my own discussion, below, will retain some affiliations with this acceptation). In García Márquez, finally, these two tendencies seemed to achieve a new kind of synthesis—a transfigured object world in which fantastic events are also narrated. But at this point, the focus of the conception of magic realism would appear to have shifted to what must be called an anthropological perspective: magic realism now comes to be understood as a kind of narrative raw material derived essentially from peasant society, drawing in sophisticated ways on the world of village or even tribal myth. (At this point, the stronger affiliations of the mode would be with texts like those of Tutuola in Nigeria or the Magunaíma [1928] of the Brazilian writer Mário de Andrade.) Recent debates, meanwhile, have complicated all this with yet a different kind of issue: namely, the problem of the political or mystificatory value, respectively, of such texts, many of which we owe to overtly left-wing revolutionary writers (Asturias, Carpentier, Márques).3 In spite of these terminological complexities—which might be grounds for abandoning the concept altogether—it retains a strange seductiveness which I will try to explore further, adding to the confusion with reference points drawn from the work of Jacques Lacan and from Freud’s notion of the “uncanny,” and compounding it by an argument that magic realism (now transferred to the realm of film) is to be grasped as a possible alternative to the narrative logic of contemporary postmodernism.4


      1. See Angel Flores, “Magical Realism in Spanish American Fiction,” Hispania 38 (May 1955): 187-92.

      2. See Alejo Carpentier, “Prólogo” to his novel El Reino de este mundo (Santiago, 1971); the most useful survey of the debate remains Roberto Gonzalez Echeverria, “Carpentier y el realism magico,” in Otros Mundos, otros fuegos, ed. Donald Yates, Congreso International de Literature Iberoamericana 16 (East Lansing, Mich., 1975), pp. 221-31.

      3. See Angel Rama, La Novel en America Latina (Botoa, 1982), and especially Carlos Blanco Aguinaga, De Mitólogos y novelistas (Madrid, 1975), in particular the discussions of Gabriel García Márques and Alejo Carpentier.

      4. My own general frame of reference for “postmodernism” is outlined in my “Postmodernism; or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism,” New Left Review 146 (July-Aug. 1984): 53-92.

      See also: Fredric R. Jameson, Ideology and Symbolic Action

      Fredric Jameson, William A. Lane Professor of Comparative Literature at Duke University, is the author of The Prison-House of Language and The Political Unconscious: Narrative as a Socially Symbolic Act. He is also a member of the editorial collective of Social Text. His previous contributions to Critical Inquiry are “The Symbolic Inference; or, Kenneth Burke and Ideological Analysis” (Spring 1978) and “Ideology and Symbolic Action” (Winter 1978).

    • 326Stephen Greenblatt
    • Several years ago, in a brilliant contribution to the Collection Archives Series, Michel de Certeau wove together a large number of seventeenth-century documents pertaining to the famous episode of demonic possession among the Ursuline nuns of Loudun.1 One of the principal ways in which de Certeau organized his disparate complex materials into a compelling narrative was by viewing the extraordinary events as a kind of theater. There are good grounds for doing so. After all, as clerical authorities came to acknowledge the incidents of possession and treat them accordingly, they ceased to be isolated, private events occurring inside the convent walls and were transformed instead into public spectacles performed for a populace deeply divided between Catholics and Huguenots. Once or twice a day the nuns were taken from their needlework or tranquil meditations and led in small groups through the streets of the town to a church or chapel, where spectators had already gathered. At first these spectators were local townspeople, many of whom must have been acquainted with or even related to the nuns, but, as word of the possession spread, crowds of the curious arrived not only from the region but from all over France and from as far away as England and Scotland. The inns of the town were filled with these visitors who traveled to Loudun expecting to witness events there that were at once beyond nature and yet performed on schedule: repeatable, predictable, and—in their bizarre way—decorous.

      At the appointed times, beneath the expectant gaze of the crowd, the possessed women would ascend a scaffold, be loosely tied to low chairs, and begin to manifest their symptoms. From within each of the tormented bodies, a particular devil would arise and be constrained by the exorcist to identify himself. If a nun were possessed by more than one demon, the exorcist could dismiss one supernatural voice and demand that another come forth and occupy the tongue of the writhing woman. If the demon refused to cooperate in the interrogation, the presiding priest would solemnly remove the Holy Sacrament from the pyx and hold it up to the mouth of the possessed while the priests and spectators would assist by chanting the Salve Regina. This would provoke screams and violent contortions. Submitting to irresistible spiritual pressure, the devil would then be compelled to speak, confirming the Christian mysteries and the power of the Catholic church. “On stage,” writes de Certeau, “there are no longer human beings; in this sense, there is no longer anyone—only roles” (PL, p. 133). And these “roles” in turn are revealed to be the hidden truths that underlie the masks of ordinary life; more accurately, the ceremony has the power to convert ordinary life into mere masks, precisely so that these masks may be stripped away to reveal the inward drama of spiritual warfare. The demons appear at first to dominate that drama, forcing their wretched and unwilling hosts to manifest the power of darkness, but a spectacular ecclesiastical counterforce transforms the tragedy into a comedy in which the devil confesses that he has been vanquished by Jesus Christ.


      1. See Michel de Certeau, La Possession de Loudun, Collection Archives Series, no. 37 (Paris, 1980); all further references to this work, abbreviated PL, will be included in the text (translations are my own). On the relationship between exorcism and theater in this period, see also Henri Weber, “L’Exorcisme à la fin du seizième siècle, instrument de la Contre Réforme et spectacle baroque, » Nouvelle revue du seizième siècle 1 (1983) : 79-101.

      See also: Stephen Greenblatt, What Is the History of Literature?

      Stephen Greenblatt, the Class of 1932 Professor of English at the University of California, Berkeley, is a founder and editor of Representations. His most recent book, Renaissance Self-Fashioning: From More to Shakespeare, received the British Council Prize in the Humanities. He is presently completing a study of Shakespeare and the poetics of culture. “Marlow, Marx, and Anti-Semitism,” his previous contribution to Critical Inquiry, appeared in the Winter 1978 issue.

    • 347Michael AndrĂ© Bernstein
    • 1. To list Pound’s triumphs of recognition in the realm of art, music, or literature is by itself no more enlightening than to catalog his oversights. Thus, for example, his instant and almost uncanny responsiveness to the work of Henri Gaudier-Brzeska is not more informative than his bizarre ranking of Francis Picabia’s paintings above those of Picasso or Matisse. Clearly it is essential to know, with as much specificity as possible, exactly what Pound said about a particular work of art or literature and, equally important, given the frequent shifts of emphasis and interest throughout his long career, just when these opinions were first formulated. Like every reader of the The Cantos, I am conscious of the enormous service rendered by Pound scholars whose research is giving us a more complete inventory of the poet’s various statements and positions, and it would be foolish to take my point here as a derogation of such efforts. But a list, no matter how complete, is not an argument, and an inventory, no matter how scrupulously assembled, is not an explanation; a recurrent problem in Pound studies is that too often the compoilation of discrete items of information is seen as a sufficient answer to problems of interpretation and understanding. In other words, I think it essential that discussions of pound and the Visual Arts (or, for that matter, of Pound and History, Pound and Economics, and so forth) move beyond the quagmire resulting from still another frain-storm of “factual atoms” chronicling his various passions and dislikes.

      2. Far from implying, however, that we must therefore simply accept Pound’s brilliant discoveries and pass over his “howling blunders,” my position would emphasize the need to take his ideas seriously enough to confront them, to test them against the material to which they are a response and for which they often seek to provide an explanatory account. There are times, as I have argued in an analogous context, when it is less demeaning to give a man credit for his worst errors than to remove from him the capacity to err.

      3. What we require, I believe, is less a catalog of all of Pound’s specific statements about various artists, with each utterance assigned a positive or negative prefix depending upon our own personal and currently sanctioned hierarchy of values, than a careful study of the place of those statements in the logic and texture of Pound’s own work. The attempt to focus attention on The Cantos’ network of artistic references—its invocation of masterpieces and privileged moments of cultural achievement—will yield only trivial results unless the inner dynamic linking Pound’s various exampla and the actual role these play in the poem’s argument become clearer in the process.

      See also: Michael André Bernstein, “These Children That Come at You with Knives": "Ressentiment", Mass Culture, and the Saturnalia

      Michael André Bernstein, associate professor of English and comparative literature at the University of California, Berkeley, is the author of The Tale of the Tribe: Ezra Pound and the Modern Verse Epic (1980) and Prima della Rivoluzione (1984), a volume of verse. He is currently completing a study of the Abject Hero and literary genealogy. His previous contribution to

    • 365William Veeder
    • My study of Mary Shelley and father includes her husband because Percy Shelley’s obsessions with patriarchy, with “ ‘GOD, AND KIND, AND LAW,’ ” influenced profoundly Mary’s* art and life. Percy’s idealizations of father in The Revolt of Islam and Prince Athanase indicated ways or resolving familial antagonisms which Mary adopted and developed her later fiction. Percy’s relationship with Frankenstein is still more intricate. Recognizing that her husband’s obsessions with father and self-creation were contributing to the deterioration of their marriage, Mary represents these obsessions (among many others, including her own) in Victor Frankenstein—partly to vent in art the anger which would have further damaged the marriage, and party to show Percy before it was too late the errors of his ways. It was too late. Percy responded to Frankenstein in Prometheus Unbound and The Cenci with a reaffirmation of sonship which has been largely unrecognized by scholars.

      Father looms so large for both Mary and Percy Shelley that no one critical approach can account for him fully. At their most idealistic—and thus most traditional—the Shelleys encourage a critical methodology which integrates the traditional disciplines of biographical and close textual analyses. By taking this approach to Mary’s later fiction and to Percy’s The Revolt of Islam, I can not only confirm the prominence of father for the Shelleys but also establish the ideal against which their most subversive and important art was created. Reading this indirect, overdetermined art in light of the negative Oedipus will help answer important questions about Frankenstein, Prometheus Unbound, and The Cenci and will, I hop, add to our understanding of the vexed role of father in the Romantic period and in subsequent generations whose children we are.

      See also: Joyce Carol Oates, Frankenstein's Fallen Angel

      William Veeder, professor of English at the University of Chicago, has published books on Yeats, Henry James, and Victorian feminism. His Mary Shelley and “Frankenstein”: The Fate of Androgyny will appear in December 1985. The Art of Criticism: Henry James on the Theory and the Practice of Fiction, coedited with Susan M. Griffin, and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde: The Centenary, a collection of new essays on Stevenson’s novel, are also forthcoming (1986). He is currently at work on The Serpent’s Tale: Anglo-American Gothic Fiction, 1885-1914.

    • 391Maria Torok
    • The aim of the following lines is to reinstate some unpublished fragments into two letters written by Freud to Fliess on 12 and 22 December 1897, respectively. These dates refer to a period in Freud’s elaborations traditionally considered subsequent to his renunciation of the seduction theory. As is well known, the interpretation of an earlier letter to Fliess, written by Freud on 21 September 1897, makes his revocation into the first stage of what has since become Freudian psychoanalysis. This “turning point” has allowed many an interpreter to grasp Freudian psychoanalysis as a theory of instinctive fantasies. Yet, the conventional dots, frequently used in The Origins of Psycho-analysis to indicate editorial omissions, raise the issue: Do hitherto unknown quantities prevent us from understanding what the precise nature of this “turning point” might be?

      In the English and subsequent German editions of the Freud-Fliess correspondence there are indeed some clues of uncertainty as regards Freud’s definitive repeal of his seduction theory. Consider, for example, the statement from a letter dated 31 August 1898: “The secret of this restlessness is hysteria.”2 Freud cannot rest on his new hypothesis about the nature of neurosis since the etiology of hysteria continues to be a secret. A particularly dense passage of the same letter seems to elaborate on the causes of Freud’s agitation.

      True, I have a good record of successes, but perhaps they have been only indirect, as if I had applied the lever in the right direction for the line of cleavage of the substance; but the line of cleavage itself remains unknown to me. [O, p. 262]

      See also: Nicholas Rand and Maria Torok, The Secret of Psychoanalysis: History Reads Theory

      Maria Torok is the author (with Nicolas Abraham) of The Wolf-Man’s Magic Word (Le Verbier de L’Homme aux loups), forthcoming in translation, 1986. “Unpublished by Freud to Fliess” is part of a book-length study she is completing on the genesis of Freudian concepts. Nicholas Rand, assistant professor of French at the University of Wisconsin—Madison, is the translator of The Wolf-Man’s Magic Word.

    • 399Leo Bersani
    • What is the redemptive power of art? More fundamentally, what are the assumptions which make it seem natural to think of art as having such powers? In attempting to answer these questions, I will first be turning to Proust, who embodies perhaps more clearly—in a sense, even more crudely—than any other major artist a certain tendency to think of cultural symbolizations in general as essentially reparative. This tendency, which had already been sanctified as a more or less explicit dogma of modern high culture by Proust’s time, persists, I believe, in our own time as the enabling morality of a humanistic criticism. I will argue that the notion of art as salvaging somehow damaged experience has, furthermore, been served by psychoanalysis—more specifically, by a certain view of sublimation first proposed rather disconnectedly by Sigmund Freud and later developed more coherently and forcefully by Melanie Klein. The psychoanalytic theory I refer to makes normative—both for an individual and for a culture—the mortuary aesthetic of A la recherché du temps perdu.

      As everyone knows, involuntary memories play a crucial role in the Proustian narrator’s discovery of his vocation as a writer. Let’s begin with a somewhat untypical example of the genre, the passage in Sodome et Gomorrhe describing the “resurrection” of Marcel’s grandmother on the first evening of his second visit to Balbec. This passage reformulates the importance of memory for art in terms of another relation about which the theoretical passages that conclude Le Temps retrouvé will be at once prolific and evasive: the dependence of art on death.

      See also: Richard Moran, Kant, Proust, and the Appeal of Beauty

      Leo Bersani is professor of French at the University of California, Berkeley. The Forms of Violence/Narrative in Ancient Assyria and Modern Culture, written in collaboration with Ulysse Dutoit, is his most recent publication. Professor’s The Freudian Body/Psychoanalysis and Art will be published this winter.

    • 422John Limon
    • The smallest ambition of this essay is to demonstrate that Rider, the central character in William Faulkner’s short story “Pantaloon in Black,” cannot be understood. This may be of some interest to Faulkner specialists. But the fact that he cannot be understood has ramifications, because “Pantaloon in Black,” seems to be the anomaly of the book Go Down, Moses, which is either a collection of stories or a novel, depending on the success one has in integrating “Pantaloon in Black” into it. If Rider cannot be understood, then Go Down, Moses has an enigma at the center of its mysteries, around which it cannot be made to cohere.

      More important to nonspecialists is the question of why Rider cannot be understood, and, consequently, why Go Down, Moses disintegrates. To answer this I want to perform the logical operation modus tollens on Stanley Fish’s idea that interpretations are produced (not by individuals directed by texts, but) by interpretive communities: if interpretations fail, then it must be because interpretive communities fail. Of course, Fish everywhere argues that interpretations must always, on the contrary, succeed; the lesson of Is There a Text in This Class? is that interpretive communities produce texts inexorably and inevitably in their own image. But Fish’s idea of an interpretive community is something like the Modern Language Association, or the set of all English professors, or the Yale school—bigger or smaller machines perfectly programmed (so he believes) for producing texts out of theoretical presuppositions. What is, however, even English professors are members of communities that fit the definition of an interpretive community, by virtue of the fact that they speak through our readings, but which are not chiefly engaged in the manufacture of masterful criticism? Worse: what if these communities speak a different language from those to which we professionally belong? Worse yet: what is they are disintegrating even as the MLA, or the Yale school, endures, or prevails?

      The point is not that Fish is wrong; it is that he has oversimplified his sense of a text by reducing it to the instrument of communication used by professor speaking to other professors. But in “Pantaloon in Black,” Faulkner has formed a text in the image of a Southern Negro and invited us to join an interpretive community on the model of Yoknapatawpha County. Insofar as we take up that invitation, we fail to understand his story; insofar as we reject it, we also fail to understand his story. The paradox is the result of our being forced to join a community which does not cohere; to the degree that that community fails to cohere, so does our reading. What Faulkner says to Fish is that the American belief in the power of interpretive communities is akin to an idealist’s dream of an integrated South.

      See also: John Limon, “The Shame of Abu Ghraib”

      John Limon is assistant professor of English at Williams College. He is currently working on a book, Half-Sight of Science, on the history of the American novel in relation to the history of science and science philosophy.

    • 439Richard Shiff
    • In his essay “Painting Memories” (Critical Inquiry 10 [March 1984]: 510-42), Michael Fried identifies memory as the privileged thematic that structures Charles Baudelaire’s Salon of 1846. But he then limits his investigation of this topic by focusing on the representation of “past” art, to the exclusion of the recollection of “past” experience. Fried thus isolates the theme of memory from the dialectic of life and art that characterizes its performance for Baudelaire. Such selective analysis not only reverses Baudelaire’s priorities but deflects his pointed comments on modernity and naiveté, which in turn inform the example of Edouard Manet, Fried’s exemplary modernist painter. One wonders whether too much of Baudelaire and Manet is lost to this view. Perhaps the predilections of contemporary criticism have sanctioned Fried’s approach. For today we hesitate to ground art in experience, preferring to conceive of representations as signs fully engendered by and engendering other signs. Baudelaire was of a different mind; he lived through the dawning of our own age, but also in the fading light of another. He was heir to a tradition that regarded the forms of art as powerfully motivated by the experience of internalized ideas and sensations; for him, a master artist’s “signs” would appear more symbolic than allegorical, more immediate than mediated or distanced. (This distinction often, and rightfully, slips away; it will become evident that Baudelaire’s writing encompasses both positions, ours and his.)

      As we deny artistic signs motivation in extralinguistic “experience,” we aggravate that perennial problem of origins which Fried himself invokes. It might be reformulated in this manner: all painting depends on a lineage of antecedent painting; yet, to succeed, a new work must transcend its filial bondage, as it compounds the effect of the “original(s)” in its own originality. Vexation follows from this issue of the artistic source. Since memories of past art (representations, conventions, signs) make possible the very creation of art, the creative event cannot assume priority over memory. And the matter of primordial memory, like the matter of an absolutely original art, is aporia. Fried does not pursue this matter (Jacques Derrida, Paul de Man, and others have); but the question necessarily implies that both representations and memories, in constituting the “past,” must always be distanced. Distanced not from the present, which they enter and likewise constitute, but from those “original” experiential moments they purport to (re)present.


      Richard Schiff is associate professor of art at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He is the author of Cézanne and the End of Impressionism: A Study of the Theory, Technique, and Critical Evaluation of Modern Art (1984) and is currently working on a study of modernism in relation to classicism and a related study of photographic realism. His previous contributions to Critical Inquiry are “Seeing Cézanne” (Summer 1978), “Art and Life: A Metaphoric Relationship” (Autumn 1978), and, with Carl Pletsch, “History and Innovation” (Spring 1981).

    • 449Michael Fried
    • The basic disagreement between Richard Shiff and me is one of approach and ultimately of intellectual taste. What I tried to do in “Painting memories” was read Charles Baudelaire’s Salon of 1846 with a view to construing its central argument as rigorously as possible, which for me meant without appealing, except in one crucial, authorized instance, to other writings by Baudelaire or indeed anyone else. (I refer here to the reading conducted in the first half of my essay and in the body of the text; a few footnotes cite passages in other writings on art by Baudelaire, and toward the end of the essay I allude briefly to The Painter of Modern Life.) This seemed to me desirable, first, because on the strength of a long familiarity with the Salon of 1846 I had become convinced that it was not the fragmented, somewhat incoherent, less than fully mature performance that many previous commentators had taken it to be (and that Shiff himself appears to think it is) but rather that it possessed a problematic consistency, even systematicness, which I wanted to explore; and second, because I had come to feel that one of the principal sources of the dreariness and predictability of much exegesis not only of that Salon but of Baudelaire’s art criticism generally was the tendency of many commentators to treat his art writing as a single, barely differentiated mass, to be supplemented when desired by selected passages from the lyric poems. Let me be as clear as I can. I am not claiming that the only fruitful approach to Baudelaire’s art criticism is to consider each of his writings in isolation from the rest. I am saying that the widespread tendency to read a particular Salon or article on the visual arts in the light of others has meant that insufficient attention has been paid to the workings of individual texts, with dismaying consequences both for our understanding of those texts and for our sense of the shape of Baudelaire’s intellectual career.


      Michael Fried, professor of humanities and the history of art and director of the Humanities Center at the Johns Hopkins University, is the author of Morris Louis and Absorption and Theatricality: Painting and Beholder in the Age of Diderot. He is currently at work on books on Gustave Courbet and on Thomas Eakins and Stephen Crane. His most recent contributions to Critical Inquiry are “The Structure of Beholding in Courbet’s Burial at Ornans” (June 1983) and “Paitnig Memories: On the Containment of the Past in Baudelaire and Manet” (March 1984).

    • 453Henry Staten
    • Richard Rorty’s “Deconstruction and Circumvention” (Critical Inquiry 11 [September 1984]: 1-21) is a sobering reminder of how far we have to go before anything like a real dialogue between deconstruction and philosophy can take place in this country. Our literary critics ignore too much of what is specifically philosophical in philosophical texts; and our philosophers equally blind when they read literary language. Perhaps it is laughably undeconstructed to make the distinctions I had just made. But perpahs, too, it is not so easy to get beyond certain oppositions as is beginning to be widely taken for granted. It is surprising to see Rorty encouraging such complacency, for Rorty himself generally thinks hard and to good purpose. He is a figure of unique distinction on our intellectual landscape, a bridge, perhaps, our only one, between deconstruction and the American philosophical establishment. But for that very reason it is sobering to see how this philosopher reads Jacques Derrida: very much as a philosopher reads. The overall result is ambiguous (and we will trace the structure of this ambiguity), but is it not finally to “encapsulate and circumvent” Derrida, leaving the native speech community immune to his critique? Let us see.


      Henry Staten is associate professor of English and adjunct professor of philosophy at the University of Utah. He is the author of Wittgenstein and Derrida (1984) and is currently working on a study of mourning and idealization in Western literature from Homer to D. H. Lawrence.

    • 462Richard Rorty
    • Staten gets my intentions right when he suggests that I may simply have been saying that “the dream of philosophy is a rare but serious malady, now less common than it used to be, but currently threatening a new outbreak in the disguised form of deconstruction” (p. 455). I had thought I was urging that the appropriation of Derrida in the Anglo-Saxon “Now let’s deconstruct literature” mode was a mistake and that there were some things in Derrida (not the most important things) which had encouraged this mistake—notably the Heideggerian suggestion that the “text of philosophy” was at the heart of our culture. State, however, finds me more cunning and ungenerous, harsher toward Derrida, than I had imagined myself to be. He may have a point, but is hard for me to tell. No author is much good at following “the rhetorical contours” of his own writing, since his (quite possibly self-deceptive) beliefs about what he wanted to say keep leveling off the contours of what he actually wrote (p. 455).

      The best I can do by way of reply to the charge that I was (even if perhaps unconsciously) attempting to “ ‘encapsulate and circumvent’ ” Derrida is to take up a central ambiguity which Staten detects (p. 453). He says that I flit back and forth between “two characterizations of the history of philosophy”: (1) “a constantly changing, self-deconstructing enterprise which is therefore not characterizable in terms of any single system of metaphors,” and (2) “a ‘metaphysical tradition’ which has dreamed the dream of a closed, total, and transparent vocabulary which would tell the whole truth and thing but the truth” (p. 456).


      Richard Rorty is Kenan Professor of Humanities at the University of Virginia. He is the author of Consequences of Pragmatism (Essays: 1972-1980), among other works, and is currently writing a book on Martin Heidegger. His previous contributions to Critical Inquiry are “Deconstruction and Circumvention” (September 1984) and “Philosophy without Principles” (March 1985).

    • 564Nelson Goodman and Catherine Z. Elgin
    • Predictions concerning the end of the world have proven less reliable than your broker’s recommendations or your fondest hopes. Whether you await the end fearfully or eagerly, you may rest assured that it will never come—not because the world is everlasting but because it has already ended, if indeed it ever began. But we need not mourn, for the world is indeed well lost, and with it the stultifying stereotypes of absolutism: the absurd notions of science as the effort to discover a unique, prepackaged, but unfortunately undiscoverable reality, and of truth as agreement with that inaccessible reality. All notions of pure givenness and unconditional necessity and of a single correct perspective and system of categories are lost as well.

      If there is no such thing as the world, what are we living in? The answer might be “A world” or, better, “Several worlds.” For to deny that there is any such thing as the world is no more to deny that there are worlds than to deny that there is any such thing as the number between two and seven is to deny that there are numbers between two and seven. The task of describing the world is as futile as the task of describing the number between two and seven.

      The world is lost once we appreciate a curious feature of certain pairs of seemingly contradictory statements: if either is true, both are. Although “The earth is in motion” and “The earth is at rest” apparently contradict each other, both are true. But from a contradiction, every statement follows. So unless we are prepared to acknowledge the truth of every statement, the appearance of contradiction in cases like these must somehow be dispelled.


      Nelson Goodman is professor emeritus of philosophy at Harvard University. He has written Of Mind and Other Matters, Ways of Worldmaking, Problems and Projects, Languages of Art, The Structure of Appearance, and Fact, Fiction, and Forecast. His most recent contribution to Critical Inquiry is “How Buildings Mean” (June 1985). Catherine Z. Elgin is associate professor of philosophy at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. She is the author of With Reference to Reference and is currently writing a book entitled Philosophy without Foundations.