Denis Donoghue: The Arts Without Mystery; Little, Brown; Boston.


Jacques Derrida, maître of the critical school of deconstruction, writes of his Of Grammatology, “writing, the letter, the sensible inscription, has always been considered by Western tradition as the body and matter external to the spirit, to breath, to speech, and to the logos.” As Derrida notes, Plato, in Phaedrus, speaks of the inferiority of writing, and Derrida shows that since then the oral form has been considered to be superior, more authentic. Speech is unmediated: from the mouth of the speaker to the ears of the listener. Writing is a step removed, given that the spoken word must be inscripted then read, perhaps by someone far distant in space and time. Temporal or physical distance permits all manner of dissembling, so writing, for many persons is suspect. But Derrida aims to deconstruct the tradition and to show that “language is first … writing.”



Denis Donoghue, an Irishman, holds no truck with Derrida’s French curves — at least he seems not to. In his Ferocious Alphabets, for example, he divides readers into two groups, epireaders and graphireaders. The former, when confronted with a text, “wants to restore the words to a source, a human situation involving speech, character, personality, and  destiny  construed  as having a personal form.” The latter “deals with writing as such and does not think of it as transcribing an event properly construed as vocal and audible.” Derrida is, of course, the arch graphireader. A tension exists between Donoghue and Derrida throughout Ferocious Alphabets and it continues through his most recent volume, The Arts Without Mystery. However, in The Arts Without Mystery Donoghue’s brogue takes on a decidedly continental air.


Of all forms of modem media, radio is the most logocentric. Printed materials (books, magazines, etc.) are obviously graphic; movies can have subtitles; television is being close-captioned; liner notes accompany musical recordings. But besides the brand name and the characters on the dial, radio provides only sounds. Perhaps Donoghue’s ap­ parent dislike of graphireading, of sticking to the word, and pleasure in epireading, or restoring the breath, explains why he spends so much time away from his desk at New York University, where he is the Henry James Professor of Letters, and in a broadcast booth. The first chapter of Ferocious Alphabets consists, primarily, of the texts of six talks he gave as a part of the B.B.C.’s ”Words” radio program. Chapter two is entitled “Commentary on the Foregoing.” Chapter three opens with the sentence “So much for the six talks,” and the book becomes more graphicentric (though it attacks graphireading). The Arts Without Mystery includes Donoghue’s  1982 Reith Lectures: six in number and broadcast over B.B.C. radio. In preparing the lectures for print, Donoghue added occasional notes that appear in the margins — theatrical asides, in effect — and appended further explanations of the points raised in the weekly radio addresses. Print does have its advantages over speech, any enmity toward Derrida notwithstanding.


In contemporary academic parlance, a critic is merely a person who writes about a primary text-a poem, novel, or film. Donoghue was once a critic, as in his The Ordinary Universe, wherein he discusses works by James, Yeats, Eliot, and others. Criticism, however, is passé; the thing to be is a metacritic: a critic of criticism. Some of those in this category maintain that criticism is itself an art form, given the fact that the interpretation makes the original work of art something other than it was before the critic sharpened his pencil. Although Donoghue correctly states that there should be limits born of discrimination applied to such matters, he himself is pushing back the boundaries in The Arts Without Mystery, a tertiary work (i.e., comments on his own metacriticism), which makes him a meta-metacritic — or maybe merely more French. His effort, after all, smacks of deconstruction’s “supplement” and “intertextuality,” its endless additions and influences and reductions to, through, and from a center that no longer exists. Soon, Donoghue’s piling up of defenses for his defenses becomes an exercise in building a cairn for the principle of reductio ad absurdum.


Donoghue’s fundamental problem is that he wants to be both a regular guy and a learned connoisseur — a man who identifies with Yeats’s peasants and aristocrats. But in his indeterminate flux he becomes neither. He repeatedly stresses that he uses “the word ‘bourgeois’ as a neutral term and often a term of praise,” though it’s obvious that he doesn’t much care for those who can be so designated. After all, they are the ones who, he maintains, are trying to take the “mystery” out of art, or to “domesticate it.” But wait, he shifts again: “I am a member of the middle class; in some respects I coincide with its official interest, in other respects I am alien within it.” The final clause is an escape clause: he is a non-bourgeois bourgeois, just as he is an antigraphireader with a tendency for graphireading. These shifts resemble Derridian “freeplay.” For being a forthright reader, Donoghue certainly is shifty.


Donoghue’s thesis is that “A work of art is in some sense mysterious.” This would seem to state that art is, in itself, mysterious. Certainly, there is truth in this concept; something about art is ineffable. Leonard B. Meyer, for example, in Music, the Arts, and Ideas, writes of the “aura of primitive magic” that a work of art has, or emanates, and notes that “Once a work is known to be a forgery, that magic is gone.” While this is more obviously seen in the case of a van Meegeren discovered passing as a Vermeer, it would be similarly true in the case of a “faked” play by Shakespeare. Donoghue says, “The difference be­ tween a great painting and the material from which it is made is finally mysterious,” and that in the case of sculpture, ”What remains hidden is the presence of the work, the force of its presence as distinct from the particular bits of bronze or marble or whatever it’s made of.” The medium of the “difference,” the “presence,” or the “mystery” of the artwork, the artist, would seem to be of fundamental importance. Donoghue disagrees, saying that critics who use the artist as a grounds for discussing the work are evading the real issue, that “Critics who want to escape from the mysteriousness of the work try to replace it by the intention they ascribe to the artist.” The focus, it might then be assumed, should be on — and only on — the work of art. Donoghue begins to sound like a nouvelle New Critic, but he dismisses the New Critics, like other critics, as being too reductive: “any established terminology is bound to reduce its object; that is its purpose, to make sense of an obscurity by bringing to bear upon it the sense that has already been made in another way.” To risk the wrath of Donoghue, I would interpret that obvious obscurity as meaning that the mystery of art is evident, that everyone who sees it knows it, and that it should be left alone. If this is the case, then Donoghue should be looking for a new line of employment, perhaps as a disc jockey. But another tack is taken in the discourse before thought on that subject progresses: Donoghue announces, “I want to talk about the arts in relation to the mystery that surrounds them. “Surrounds them? What happened to “in” them? Never mind. We’re dealing with obscurities here. One thing is evident, though: the mystery is becoming increasingly diffuse, cloudy, spectral. In Donoghue’s scheme it’s almost as if critics should be replaced by parapsychologists.



In the traditional scheme, a critic should work toward bringing the mystery to the fore and to providing an explanation that provokes clarity. This is incorrect, Donoghue says: ‘The mark of modem critics is that they are zealots of explanation, they want to deny the arts their mystery, and to degrade mystery into a succession of problems.” If this is the case (and I doubt it, for most modem critics are masters of obstruction), then all readers should be happy that there is a tribe of ghostbusters a la Dr. Johnson on guard. Donoghue doesn’t trust them, though. Then there are the pernicious effects of the bourgeois tastemakers. The artist, who is at his “best” by being “in conflict with his society,” is beset by “modern bourgeois society” which, Donoghue claims, “isn’t interested in constraining the artist as much as in domesticating him.” On the one hand, then, there are the critics busy with their probes and calipers, trying to discover, measure, and to make moves toward the heart — or spirit — of art; on the other, there is bourgeois society, which is ready to accept anything that’s designated art, whether it’s an old master or islands surrounded by pink plastic wrap. Donoghue’s stance: art will out. The mystery is sufficient unto itself. Nonsense.


People can make judgments about art only-if they are informed about it, if they have what Edgar Wind called in his1960 Reith Lectures “contingent knowledge”: an understanding and appreciation of what a work is, how it came to be, and so on. As Leonard B. Meyer puts it, “A work of art does not exist in isolated splendor. It is a part of history-the history of culture, the history of the art, and the history of the artist.” These histories, one would suppose, are the interests of an epireader. Art is not hermetic. But Donoghue is no longer particularly interested in definable details that can breathe life into an artwork.


By way of putting the lectures presented in The Arts Without Mystery into “the setting and tone in which they began” (it’s okay to do so for metacriticism, but not art), Donoghue appends an article he published in Sewanee Review, “On the Limits of Language.” The article concludes, “The proper sense of words is not in their particular claim to mean and to control the object of their attention; it is to be apprehended, rather, from the relation between the words and the silence that surrounds them.” Such a sentence, with its emphasis on some nebulous “silence,” would not be wholly out of place in Of Grammatology. If there is a problem in the arts today, and I think there is, then it stems, in large part, from this critical tendency to escape into gaps, margins, silences, black holes, and other voids. A moral grounding, once the basis for art, the thing that creates a mystery as it is something that bespeaks that which seems to be beyond man, has been eliminated; boundaries give way to infinitude. People — metacritics and bourgeois patrons of the arts alike — are afraid to know, to understand, to believe, and to be honest. Critical excess isn’t as damaging as critical prevarication.         cc