by Jeffrey J. Williams |ns 71-72
An Interview with J. Hillis Miller
by Jeffrey J. Williams | ns 71-72
Hillis Miller has been a bellwether of academic literary criticism for the past fifty years. Trained at Harvard when it was a bastion of the old historicism, he staked out the newer criticism, drawing especially on Kenneth Burke. In his first job at Johns Hopkins University, he came to embrace the phenomenological criticism inspired by Georges Poulet, writing several books that try to capture the consciousness of a writer and his or her work. Already conversant in Continental thought, he shifted allegiances to deconstructive criticism by the early 1970s, inspired by colleagues Paul de Man and Jacques Derrida. Over the past two decades, he has widened his concerns to ethics, the fate of humanistic education, and the new, digital technologies, especially drawing on the later Derrida.
Born in 1928, Miller was raised in upstate New York. His father, a Baptist minister, was president of Keuka College (in the Finger Lakes region) from 1935-41, then was Associate Commissioner of Higher and Professional Education for New York State, presiding over the creation of the SUNY system, and later became president of the University of Florida. After a BA at Oberlin College in 1948, and despite an onset of polio while he was first in graduate school, which disabled his right arm, Miller moved quickly through graduate school at Harvard, earning his MA in 1949 and PhD in 1952. He first taught at Williams College, then settled in at Johns Hopkins in 1953, where he ascended the academic ranks and received an advanced education with the comparativists there, such as Earl Wasserman and Leo Spitzer. It was also during his time there that he met Paul de Man and Jacques Derrida, the latter when he delivered his rebuttal to structuralism at the now-legendary 1966 conference "The Languages of Criticism and the Sciences of Man." Miller left Hopkins in 1972 to go to Yale, where he joined de Man, Geoffrey Hartman, Harold Bloom, and Derrida, and they became known as the Yale School of criticism. In 1986, Miller migrated to the University of California at Irvine, where he is Distinguished Research Professor. He has also held many visiting professorships and received many honors, including MLA president in 1986.
Miller's books might be sorted into three phases. The first, drawing on Poulet, accounts for the consciousness of the author; they include Charles Dickens: The World of His Novels (Harvard, 1958), which began as his dissertation but which he revised substantially after encountering Poulet; The Disappearance of God: Five Nineteenth-Century Writers (Harvard, 1963) and Poets of Reality: Six Twentieth-Century Writers (Harvard, 1965), both of which were also published in trade paper editions and gained Miller high reputation; The Form of Victorian Fiction: Thackeray, Dickens, Trollope, George Eliot, Meredith, and Hardy (Notre Dame, 1968); andThomas Hardy: Distance and Desire (Harvard, 1970). The next cluster announces his embrace of deconstruction, showing the influence of de Man and Derrida; it includes Fiction and Repetition: Seven English Novels (Harvard, 1982); The Linguistic Moment: From Wordsworth to Stevens (Princeton, 1985); The Ethics of Reading: Kant, de Man, Eliot, Trollope, James, and Benjamin (Columbia, 1987); Versions of Pygmalion(Harvard, 1990); and Hawthorne and History (Blackwell, 1990). The trilogy, Theory Now and Then; Tropes, Parables, Performatives: Essays on Twentieth-Century Literature; and Victorian Subjects (all published by Harvester Wheatsheaf in England in 1990 and Duke in the US in 1991), collect his many essays, notably "The Critic as Host," his riposte to M. H. Abrams arguing for the inherent deconstruction of categories like work and critic. Ariadne's Thread: Story Lines (Yale, 1992) ties together work on narrative. The current phase, perhaps less programmatic and adopting the speculative tenor of later Derrida, includes Illustration (Harvard, 1992);Topographies (Stanford, 1995); Reading Narrative(Oklahoma, 1998); Black Holes (Stanford, 1999); Others(Princeton, 2001); Speech Acts in Literature (Stanford, 2001); On Literature (Routledge, 2002); and Literature as Conduct: Speech Acts in Henry James (2005). The J. Hillis Miller Reader, edited by Julian Wolfreys, collects assessments of Miller's work as well as some of his key essays (Stanford, 2005).
This interview took place on 21 July 2008 at Hillis Miller's home on Deer Isle, Maine. It was conducted by Jeffrey J. Williams, editor of the minnesota review, and transcribed by David Cerniglia, editorial assistant to the journal while a doctoral student at Carnegie Mellon University.
Williams: You went to graduate school at Harvard in the late 1940s, finishing in 1952. Universities were growing, hiring faculty; it was the postwar moment, when there was a massive effort to educate the American populace, and literature was part of that. Maybe you could talk about what it was like when you first came onto the scene in the 1950s.
Miller: My experience was with Johns Hopkins. I went there as an assistant professor in 1953, after a year at Williams College. Hopkins was a wonderful place at that point—which was, as you say, the moment after the Second World War, the period of the GI Bill, the period of the expansion of American universities. It was also the beginning of the period of the Cold War, and what came with it was the American idea that we should be better than the Russians, in putting somebody on the moon first but also in everything else, including literary studies.
Williams: So, ironically, it had good effects for literary studies.
Miller: It had good effects because we had the NDEA [National Defense Education Act] fellowships, which a lot of my graduate students at Hopkins had. For example, Henry Sussman came to Hopkins with an NDEA. That was a wonderful time for higher education. My father, about that time, was the president of the University of Florida, and the University of Florida was moving from 3,000 students to 15 to 20,000, so he had a wonderful time—buildings to build, programs to establish, deans to appoint, faculty to hire, and lots of money. It's hard to imagine now. If you wanted to be a college administrator, that was a great moment. That's one side of it.
The other side of it, special to Hopkins, was that we in the humanities knew what we were doing, and it was explicit. Johns Hopkins was founded on the model of German research universities. What did that mean? It meant that it was a university—we all were told this—in which you spent fifty percent of your time teaching and fifty percent of your time doing research. That's one reason why I flourished there.
Williams: That became the model for state universities and many other universities through the sixties.
Miller: Exactly; that model was applied across the board. It was as true for people in English or German, that fifty percent thing, as it was for physicists or biologists. I don't think that would be necessarily the case anymore. Also, we knew what research was. The motto of Johns Hopkins is "veritas vos liberabit"—"the truth will set you free." The motto of Yale, the university where I then went to teach, is "lux et veritas," "light and truth," and the motto of my graduate institution, Harvard, is just "veritas." Now, what did that mean? It meant that the search for truth was applied equally across all of the disciplines, so that if you'd asked me what I was doing in my research, my answer would have been to say, "I'm doing the same thing my colleagues in psychology, or biology, or physics are doing: I'm seeking truth, new truth, in my discipline." You had an answer, respected by the scientists, that essentially we were engaged in the same kind of research. That meant that Hopkins, from the beginning, had Germanic philology, classics, and so on, modeled on the nineteenth-century German idea, which goes back to the University of Berlin. It gave you the feeling that you were aiding the mission of your university.
Now, there was a second mission for the humanities, which was equally in place—the teaching part. Many of the undergraduates were premeds, but most of those premeds were brilliant students in the humanities. If you asked me what I was doing, and what we were doing collectively in the humanities, I would have had an answer to that: we were teaching students the literature they need to establish the ethos necessary to be a good citizen of the United States. And what is that? What is it that you need to know? It took me thirty years before I realized how weird this is as an answer: British literature. Not American literature, but British literature—that is to say, the literature of the country that we had defeated in a war of revolutionary independence, almost two hundred years before. From that point of view the United States was acting like a colony without any self-consciousness about it. That was accepted and institutionalized at Hopkins, and even more at Harvard when I got there as a graduate student. At Harvard, as at Hopkins, it was assumed that you must learn Old English and read Beowulf to get this ethos.
We hadn't reflected on how that was really weird. There are people like Gauri Viswanathan at Columbia who have studied the history of the institutionalization of English literature in India, and you could add the United States to that list, as a form of colonialism. In England you would do classics at Oxford or Cambridge. In India they thought it was a good idea that you learned to read Shakespeare orBeowulf.
So English literature was still very big. We had lots of graduate students who wanted to come study with us. And American literature was devalued explicitly in the department. My colleague Wasserman would say quite openly that there's no such thing as American literature. Hawthorne, Melville, Whitman—this is already a great heritage, but it was not considered necessary to know anything about it. At Harvard I got a PhD in English language and literature without being examined on one iota of American literature. In fact, the examination stopped essentially at 1870.
Williams: I'm especially interested in the history of criticism, and what criticism was like when you started out. When you went to Harvard, Douglas Bush was your advisor, and he was an old-school literary historian.
Miller: At Harvard I was reading theory on my own, against the institution. I am boasting, but it's been my instinct from the beginning to be counter to whatever is around me. So I found I. A. Richards, William Empson, Kenneth Burke, F. R. Leavis.
Williams: Wasn't Richards at Harvard then?
Miller: He was there, but he was in the School of Education. He had no force whatsoever in the English department. In fact, they would have looked down on him: he was somebody who did statistical studies, practical criticism, and so on. It was not so much anti-theory as ignored theory. Theory just didn't exist at all as you and I would see it, including New Criticism, which was institutionalized already at Yale but not at Harvard.
Williams: There were mostly literary historians at Harvard?
Miller: Some of them did editing. That's not a bad thing. We need editions and people who can do this kind of work. It was institutionalized big time at Yale when I got there—the Boswell papers, the Thomas More papers, and so on. But it shouldn't be the whole story. You shouldn't have a department that's devoted entirely to that.
The courses in literature at Harvard when I was there, I would have to say, were very thin. None of these people, including Douglas Bush, really had any idea about how to talk about a poem, in my opinion.
Williams: Did they just give facts about the circumstances?
Miller: It's a little hard to remember what did go on. Walter Jackson Bate gave some brilliant seminars on Coleridge's critical theory in a course that mostly was drawn from his From Classic to Romantic. I thought I was going to be a Renaissance scholar, so I took a course in Renaissance intellectual history with a famous scholar, whose name shall be unmentioned, and he spent the first three weeks of this graduate seminar dictating bibliography.
Williams: B.G., the era before Google.
Miller: Long before Google. People used to make scholarly careers out of doing concordances. The first computerized concordance—it would make Matthew Arnold turn over in his grave—was Arnold's poems. There were people like Lane Cooper at Cornell, a distinguished scholar and editor of Aristotle's Poetics, but he also was a concordance maker, which meant that he sat there writing down entries on 3 x 5 cards. And people got big recognition for doing that.
So the Burke that got into my dissertation was against the institution.
Williams: How did you come upon Burke?
Miller: One of the things I would have to stress is that it was accidental—but not quite. You open a book, for example Empson's Seven Types of Ambiguity. It was accidental that I opened the book because it was not on any of the syllabuses of any courses I had. There was nothing to encourage me to think there would be any value whatsoever in reading Empson or Richards or Burke or any of those people. But, when I read it, I thought it was amazing. I'd never read anything like it. Here was somebody who looked at the actual texts of poems and tried to explain what was going on in them, which none of my teachers were doing.
So it was partly fortuitous that I came upon these books. It was not exactly chance that it happened to ring such a bell with me. The one thing I was sure of was that these people were doing something that nobody had ever taught me, except one teacher I had, Andrew Bongiorno, who taught a course on Aristotle at Oberlin. It was the only course on what you might say is theory. I graduated a semester early because of the Korean War, and I was afraid I would be drafted. He thought it was so important for me to do Aristotle's Rhetoric that I had a tutorial once a week. I would read some of Aristotle's Rhetoric (Lane Cooper's translation), and go to his house to talk about it. His wife would give me chocolate cake. That was my initial training in taking seriously formulations about what literature is as a means of reading actual works of literature. It was not theory as a separate discipline, but theory as necessary and useful for reading actual works of literature.
Williams: Your dissertation was on Dickens, but it makes use of Burke, especially on symbolic action.
Miller: Burke was very important for me because of the notion that the work of literature is a way for the author (I wouldn't use this anymore) to attempt to work through a difficult or insoluble impasse or problem. So it's a symbolic action in the sense that it symbolically attempts to resolve some kind of aporia. This idea motivated my reading of Dickens. If someone said, "I don't want to read Derrida," I still would say, "Read Kenneth Burke."
Burke, for that epoch, was the best psychoanalytic critic in the United States, and also the best Marxist critic. The theory of symbolic action presupposes that the aporia that you're stuck with most likely has to do both with a family or a sexual situation, and with a social class impasse. It still seems to me that works for Dickens. It gives you a set of questions to ask.
I think the real reason I liked Burke was perverse, a little like my liking for Empson, who was also, in England, the best combination of Marxist and psychoanalytic criticism of that time. But the thing I really liked about those people is that they're kind of wacky. Their way of writing is a little strange.
Williams: It strikes me that you have been a bellwether of the way criticism has gone. Of course there are many kinds of criticism, but after you turned from literary history to Burke, you next embraced Continental criticism, especially the phenomenological criticism of Georges Poulet, while you were at Hopkins. And then you moved on to deconstruction.
Miller: My encounter with all of these movements was accidental, fortuitous. In the case of Poulet, I arrived at Hopkins and was given Don Cameron Allen's office the first summer I was there, before he came back. There was one of these circulating bookcases right beside the desk, and there was a copy of the Hopkins Review on it. I pulled it down and in it was the first translation into English of Poulet's preface to Studies in Human Time, which existed up until then only in French. So I read it because I didn't have anything much to do during that hour, and I thought it was amazing. It was a conversion experience.
I knew French, but I really learned French in order to read three authors that had not been fully translated: Poulet, Paul Valéry (I was really interested in Valéry's prose, not his poetry), and Sartre, because the Genet book had not been translated. All three of them write a very simple French. Valéry writes a kind of pure, lucid French with lots of English cognates. The same thing is true with Sartre—more than you might think, since he was writing an academic kind of French. The Genet book is difficult, there's no doubt, but I really wanted to read that book and it didn't exist in English.
But with Poulet it was fortuitous. I found his criticism fascinating to read in the same way I find literature fascinating to read. There was no obvious way in which reading Sartre or Genet was going to be any use in teaching the Victorian novel, but I thought, suppose Poulet is right about how to talk about literary works, for example in his essay on Racine. Those essays are about specific people and they have a certain technique for talking about them, which I thought was amazing. He gets Victor Hugo, all twenty-four volumes, into a twenty-five-page essay. How does he do this? So my question was, if Poulet is right, what difference would this make for reading the things I do have responsibility for teaching, namely Victorian literature? Is it any help to me in talking about Dickens or Hardy or Tennyson? And I thought it was. The same thing could be said for my subsequent reading of Derrida.
Williams: Your first four or five books, the one on Dickens, The Disappearance of God, Poets of Reality, and the one on the Victorian novel, try to give a sense of the consciousness of the author, following Poulet. You talk about how there are concentric circles, the first being a particular work, then the works of an author, then the general context of the time, and you focus on the middle circle. So there is the shift to thinking about consciousness. And also, especially at Hopkins, there is the Continental influence, with European critics like Poulet and Leo Spitzer.
Miller: At that point, when I was first reading Poulet, knowledge of phenomenological criticism was much less widespread, so I was discovering things for myself. I taught one summer school at Harvard, and I came, again fortuitously—it was on the shelf of new books that the Widener Library had just bought—upon Geoffrey Hartman's first book, The Unmediated Vision . It was his dissertation at Yale, directed by [Erich] Auerbach. I had never encountered anything like this, written by somebody in America but which was inspired by Continental, roughly phenomenological, presuppositions. Hartman's book was really novel; nobody had done that, so far as I knew. Later on he did different things, but that first book was a real breakthrough because it was different from Poulet, who was writing about French authors. Hartman showed that you could do something like this with somebody like Wordsworth or Gerard Manley Hopkins, and that was helpful to me, to be shown that this was a possibility.
The discovery of Derrida was somewhat the same. It had these three features: it happened by chance, I found it interesting in itself—I thought, I've never read anything like this—and thirdly, I asked myself: could I use it in any way in my own work in English literature?
Williams: You pitched consciousness criticism against the New Critics—they only talk about one work at a time, which seems narrow, whereas you talk about the overall work of a writer. But you don't really deal with other kinds of criticism going on at the time, like the New York Intellectuals—Trilling or Howe or Dupee or Kazin.
Miller: They were often talking about American literature and culture, which was not my field. So I read them, I read the Partisan Review and I read a lot of Trilling, who's not quite the same as Dupee or Kazin. The second answer would be that I didn't find them often writing about specific literary works, except some of Trilling's essays. That was my real interest. How could I go into a classroom and say we're now going to readWuthering Heights, and say something about the actual text? I didn't find them all that useful. The third reason is uncomplimentary to me, and that's that the political side of their work didn't really interest me all that much. In spite of the fact that it's a feature of Burke that I understood, my political awakening—asking myself in a serious way how my own work was related to political situations at the moment—was much delayed. I'm not proud of that. I was against the Vietnam War, violently against it, but I didn't have the same investment that I have now in the political and in its relation to the institution of literary study.
Over the last eight years under Bush, I'm really scared for my country in a way that I wasn't during the Vietnam War. That means that I compulsively, whenever I write about anything, put in a paragraph about Abu Ghraib, and I feel I should come out and talk about this because I think our country is in real danger now. It's really scary because it's sort of like the Weimar Republic and the period just before the Nazis took over—a time in which the Germans stood by and watched their civil liberties taken away one by one, and they didn't do anything. They allowed it to happen.
With the internet, the surveillance authorities can read anything you or I write on email if they care enough to bother, so I am a little careful about what I say. I learned this during the Vietnam period at Hopkins in the sixties. I had graduate students who would come in and say to me, "You know, they're tapping the phones of professors here at Hopkins." And I said, "Nonsense." They were! There was an FBI basement somewhere in Baltimore and they were tapping phones. There was a general monitoring of the universities in those days. What I find a little sinister now is the attack on the humanities, and perhaps the social sciences side of the university, which is not happening in a public way the way it did during the sixties, when they said, "They're all a bunch of communists" and so on.
Williams: I think there is an attack, but the attack is more effective now insofar as it's directly material. The statistic from MLA is that 32.4 percent of faculty have tenure-line jobs; in other words, two-thirds don't have stable jobs, and have effectively been disenfranchised. They have cut the legs out from under us.
Miller: The figure I saw recently is that about seventy-five percent of undergraduate teaching in the United States is now done by non-tenure-track people. Moreover, the attackers assume that the universities are not much of a political force or threat anymore, as long as they can control the talk shows.
I was saying that I feel guilty that I was so slow to get politicized. I think the political side, insofar as there was one, rested on my perhaps false assumption that literature still matters, and that if you actually look at these works of literature that are taken as the basis of the American ethos, they are very different from the standard view, and that if you read them, this in itself is a very powerful political act. It shows you that those canonical works are not unified. These works are very peculiar. This includes conservative writers like Jane Austen. If you actually read Jane Austen, it's very subversive. So, if I were trying to justify myself, I would say that you could use the classroom and the university presses, and you could publish and you could help your graduate students to get published. For example, I'm very proud of the fact that I got Cynthia Chase's piece onDaniel Deronda, called "The Decomposition of the Elephants," into PMLA. I was on the editorial board ofPMLA and I succeeded. That struck me as a way of changing PMLA. Of course it's a great essay, but it was not usual PMLA fare in those days. It was originally written as a graduate seminar paper for me.
Williams: To go back to the different kinds of criticism when you were starting out, besides the New York Intellectuals there was myth criticism—Northrop Frye—and psychological criticism. How did you see them?
Miller: I learned a lot from myth criticism, especially the way little details in a Shakespeare play can link up to indicate an "underthought" of reference to some myth or other. It was something I had learned in a different way from Burke. Burke came to Harvard when I was a graduate student and gave a lecture about indexing. What he was talking about was how you read. I had never heard anybody talk about this. He said what you do is notice things that recur in the text, though perhaps in some unostentatious way. If something appears four or five times in the same text, you think it's probably important. That leads you on a kind of hermeneutical circle: you ask questions, you come back to the text and get some answers, and you go around, and pretty soon you may have a reading.
An example of that would be the color red in Tess of the d'Urbervilles. You say, "There sure are a lot of red things in the novel." You see the red inside Tess's mouth at some point, and the red sign that she sees painted on a barn. It says, "Thou shalt not commit [adultery]," as she has done, or, strictly speaking, fornication. Then you say, "Hmm, what do you do with all these red things?" That leads you back to the text. I learned that from Burke, but also from myth criticism. I got a lot from Frye's critical work, too. Frye, like Burke, pays attention to details of the text that recur, basing his insight on some kind of assumption of the four types.
My problem with Frye, who I knew was a great critic, was the big synthetic system. That's what many people found interesting about Frye. I remember when I was reading lots of papers for ELH [English Literary History, based at Hopkins] as an editor, I got very tired of getting manuscripts which would begin by saying, "You'll notice I'm using the seasonal organization of Frye, and I claim this work belongs to the spring" or whatever. And I would say, "Who cares? How does this help?" But Frye was a very distinguished reader of texts. For example, there's a great essay by Frye on Wallace Stevens. It's a really interesting, original reading of Stevens' poetry. Frye was very good at doing readings, but he had this irresistible temptation to see large, sweeping patterns. What Frye is saying about Western literature forming a whole is based on T. S. Eliot, but Frye gives his own version of it: a good reader should have the entire history of literature as a simultaneous, non-temporal, spatial pattern in his mind. So there wasn't much I could do with Frye, with the exception of several essays that I thought were exemplary pieces of literary criticism.
Williams: It seems as if your time at Hopkins influenced you more than grad school. We usually think that grad school is when we get formed, which of course has some truth, but one of my hobbyhorses is that first jobs are underestimated and imprint you with what you think the profession is.
Miller: My real education was Hopkins, much more than graduate school. I learned to admire real philological learning—people in my own department like Don Cameron Allen or W. F. Albright in the "Oriental Seminary," a Germanic name for a department. And there was Wasserman, a major Romantic critic. Lovejoy was around, George Boas, Poulet, Leo Spitzer, still teaching. They all seemed to me fifty years older than me and very learned.
I was one of the few assistant professors they had in the humanities. Assistant professors were not invited to department meetings, so these five people—Kemp Malone, the medievalist; Charles Anderson, another famous scholar-critic, the only Americanist; an eccentric man named Stefan Anderson, who did Old English; Don Allen; and Wasserman—would be meeting in Malone's office, and I knew they were in there. This was my first year at Hopkins, and I used to walk by and say to myself, "I know what they're talking about, and they're saying, how soon can we get rid of this person? He's turned out to be a total catastrophe." That was my paranoia.
I used to have lunch all the time with the other people in the English department, with the exception of Malone. Allen, Wasserman, and I used to have lunch together all the time, or Wasserman, Poulet, and I. That was my education in the profession. We ate at the Hopkins faculty club and it was all very friendly, but what they were doing, unostentatiously, was teaching me things about the profession—including some things now that I would think are problematic, like the sexist assumptions they took for granted. There were no women in the department.
Williams: And the profession was generally anti-semitic.
Miller: Wasserman's teacher was Raymond Dexter Havens, a very learned but dull Wordsworth scholar who did a big annotated edition with notes of The Prelude. Wasserman was his assistant as a graduate student and told me about it. He was a Jewish kid from Baltimore, who got in because of his extreme brilliance. According to Wasserman, Havens would tell him things like, "You are Jewish so you have to work four times as hard as anybody else." Wasserman certainly did. Except for Spitzer he must have been the only Jewish professor in the humanities.
Williams: It's a common story from that time, which I've heard from M. H. Abrams and read about Trilling.
Miller: [Charles] Feidelson at Yale was brought in from Chicago, and I heard him talk very eloquently and bitterly about his situation in the Department of English at Yale, which consisted primarily of American Anglo-Catholics like Brooks and Warren, who were not just Protestants but a particular kind of Southern Anglican Protestant. Trilling and Abrams are good examples of people who made it in spite of that, but clearly they were very gifted. Like Harold Bloom. The Yale English department met for two days to persuade themselves to give Bloom tenure. It was finally Fred Pottle, a Romanticist, very conservative, who said, I'm told—I was not there when this occurred—"I don't see how we can not give this person tenure." That's what turned the day. Pottle was a good WASP and very much a Mainer in attitude.
It took them a while to bring back Hartman from Iowa, and that was because he was Jewish. It was because of Hartman that I got the job at Yale. Hartman, bless his heart, invited me to dinner at his house—I was at Wesleyan with my wife—and he said, "There'll be a few people there, and maybe after dinner you'll have a few remarks to make about something." Geoffrey had the idea that he wanted to run a salon like they did in the eighteenth century. So Dorothy and I came to dinner, and there was Dwight Culler, the chairman of the department, and his wife, W. K. Wimsatt, Bloom, plus their wives, and a few other people. Afterwards, we went into this rather small living room. I was shrewd enough to have taken this seriously, so I had actually prepared a talk, which was about the dream of the Arab in Book Five of The Prelude. I gave my little talk—it was a somewhat awkward situation—and after I was through there was a discussion. Bloom said, "Mr. Miller, I've always wondered about this passage in Wordsworth in which the Arab riding on the horse through the desert is carrying a stone and a spear and a book. How did he carry all three of those things?" And I said, "I haven't the slightest idea." That turned out to be the right answer, because I was eventually offered the job. It was a test. The other came when I was back at Hopkins after my leave at Wesleyan, and de Man came down...
Williams: When was this?
Miller: 72, I guess. Paul de Man had come to give a lecture and he stayed at our house. This was when de Man was already at Yale. He'd gone from Hopkins to Yale. As he went up the stairs, he turned around and said, "You're in if you want to be." The next day I got the call from the chair. It was typical de Man. I remember another thing de Man said at some point, "You always get what you want, and then when you get it you discover you didn't really want it." It was sort of like that.
Williams: So, while you were at Hopkins, a lot of things happened—learning from the senior people there, like Wasserman, and picking up the method of consciousness criticism from Poulet, which led to your first few books. Why did you gravitate to Poulet?
Miller: By the way, it was Poulet's work and that of his colleagues, including distinguished critics like Marcel Raymond and Jean-Pierre Richard, who were collectively called the Geneva Critics. There were a lot of people I heard about through Poulet, like Maurice Blanchot. There was a period at Hopkins when I had to get my monthly fix of Blanchot in the NNRF, La Nouvelle Nouvelle Revue Française. I remember I would wait for the issue, because Blanchot would do a review essay every month. I also heard of Levinas through Poulet, when hardly anyone in the United States knew his work. I read an early book called De l'existence à l'existant, which I read as a kind of anti-Heideggerian Heideggerianism.
But why did I find Poulet so useful? For a whole set of assumptions that I would see as problematic now. One of them was the assumption that a given author has a single, unique consciousness that he's born with and that persists throughout his life. That means that everything this author wrote, including letters, notebooks, fragments, and so on, but also poems and essays, form a kind of unity. Unity is based on the unity of consciousness. I find that a very problematic assumption now. It strikes me as like believing in the occult. Literature is not made out of consciousness, it's made out of words. And Poulet almost completely ignores the possibility of an unconscious, or that I may be one person today and another person tomorrow.
Secondly, Geneva School criticism was heuristically attractive because it was a way to put in question Wasserman's deep New Critical assumption about the integrity and unity of individual works. It struck me—though I wasn't able to explain it very well to myself—that this was a deeply suspicious assumption. Why should all great works of literature be organically unified? What does it mean, anyway, to say a good poem is like a flower or a beautiful woman's body? Aren't there some great works that are not organically unified? And one way to put this in question—Poulet's way—is taking a quotation from here and taking a quotation from there and trying to demonstrate a different form of unity, the unity of a dialectical journey that begins with some kind of "Cogito." Poulet even said this would be the Cogito of the gum-chewer: "I chew gum, therefore I am."
Ideological assumptions are built into the figures of speech that were used by organicists, like "the well-wrought urn" [from the New Critic Cleanth Brooks]. I had a suspicion of these metaphors, and Poulet helped me figure out a way, concretely, to deal with this suspicion. There were certain authors in the Victorian period, which was the field I was supposed to be teaching, who didn't yield very well to the organic unity method, Matthew Arnold being one of them. You don't get far trying to do a New Critical analysis of "The Scholar-Gipsy." You could conclude from it that he's a bad poet—that's what Harold Bloom would probably say—or that he's moderately good because he distantly echoes Keats, but it seemed to me that Arnold was more interesting if you took the letters, the essays, the poems, and looked upon them as a single object of study.
That's where Derrida comes in. What Derrida did for me was free me from assumptions that I would now see as problematic. In the hands of a master critic like Poulet, the criticism of consciousness produced marvelous essays. It did have some resistance to the idea of a single monolithic unity, which was expressed in the dialectical stage-by-stage method of Poulet's essays—those essays make a kind of journey, not simply the description of a spatial organic unity.
Again, my encounter with Derrida was accidental. If I remember correctly, I started reading the parts of Of Grammatology that were published in Critique before it came out as a book.
Williams: Like the essay you came upon by Poulet in the office?
Miller: Yes. Critique was a French journal that I used to read along with the Cahier de Sud, which was a right-wing Catholic one, but it had interesting literary stuff in it. I also used to read Les Temps Modernes, so I was getting both sides. Those were the interesting magazines of the period, along with the NNRF. At some point I subscribed to Critique; that's how I read Derrida. Again, it was a matter of saying, "This is amazing! I've never read anything like this before."
I can still remember when I got the book version of Of Grammatology, though none of it was translated yet so I had to read it in French. I was sitting in rapt amazement reading through it. But then the question was, what use could I make of this in doing literary criticism, reading essentially English literary texts?
Derrida is, among other things, a very great literary critic—essays on Shakespeare, on Blanchot's récits, on Joyce, and many others, even remarks on Proust in a seminar. Derrida is a literary critic of very great distinction. That is one element in his work. My measure of this is that I would attend Derrida's seminars and Paul de Man's seminars and I would try to anticipate what they were going to say. They always said something that I hadn't seen that struck me as plausible or true. That's my measurement of a great literary critic: somebody who tells me something that's right before my eyes but that I haven't seen. For example, one time in a seminar, which was not about Proust, Derrida suddenly started talking about the episode in Remembrance of Things Past about the death of Bergotte. It's apropos Albertine's lies. Marcel is saying that he didn't believe that Bergotte was dead because Albertine had told him that she had just had a conversation with Bergotte the day before, whereas the newspapers said he was already dead. Albertine is probably lying to hide one of her lesbian affairs, though Marcel never finds out about those. Then Derrida talked about the passage describing the death of Bergotte. It's a famous passage: Bergotte is in the Louvre, which has borrowed Vermeer's View of Delft. Proust greatly admired Vermeer, as I do too. So Bergotte is looking at this great painting, and he says, "That little patch of yellow wall, I should do something like that in my writing. I have to make my style more pure."
At this moment he's struck down by what he thinks is indigestion caused by a piece of bad potato, but is, in fact, his death knell, a fatal heart attack. And he dies looking at this picture. What Derrida did that I never would have thought of was to notice that the whole passage is based on words in pris: apprendre, comprendre, prendre. Those words are perfectly translatable, but lose their play onpris—I understood: j'ai compris. Derrida noticed these words and their recurrence in a way that helps you to understand the way the passage is put together and the meaning it has. Derrida was a genius in doing that sort of reading. That's why Derrida for me is even more important for his way of reading than for his invention of big concepts like différance. It's a way of reading that allowed me, for the first time, to deal with the fact that I couldn't make Matthew Arnold cohere. What Derrida shows is that there's no text that makes an organic unity, that there is always a self-subversion of some kind. That's the side of Derrida that interests me more than the idea ofdissémination or iterabilité, productive as those are. His readings are ways of coming to terms with the non-hanging-together of both philosophical texts and literary texts.
I think Derrida's unique position in relation to French philosophical language and to the European tradition generally was that he was an insider/outsider—as a North African Jew, doubly separated, who made it into the école Normale. Within that system he had a perspective that would be equaled these days by postcolonial writers like Salman Rushdie, who are both inside and outside of Western culture.
Williams: You first encountered Derrida at the Hopkins conference in 66 or before that?
Miller: I think I had read him before, but I'm not sure. I was not present at Derrida's lecture because I had a class to teach, and I met Georges Poulet after the lecture in the quadrangle at Hopkins. Poulet said, "I have just heard what I'm sure it the most important lecture of the conference. It's against everything I do." Remember who was there—Lacan, Hyppolite, Starobinski, Vernant, who was a very distinguished French classicist, all sorts of bigshots, along with Derrida's first appearance in America. He presented "Structure, Sign, and Play." I always thought it was very generous and perceptive of Poulet to recognize something important was going on in that lecture.
Williams: And how did you come upon de Man? Did you know him from Harvard, although he went there a little later than you did?
Miller: No. De Man and I met first at another conference, while he was still at Cornell. I heard of de Man from Poulet, because Poulet left Hopkins to go to Zürich as a professor of Romance languages. I kept in close touch with Poulet, and he said, at some point, "We've hired this brilliant countryman of mine"—they were both Belgian—"as our professor of comparative literature." That was Paul de Man.
De Man had stories about the drilling he got when he was invited to be a visiting professor at Zürich. He said a lot of colleagues used to show up in the class, and eventually the higher and higher administrators would come to make sure he was okay, because an ordinarius professorship at Zürich is a big deal. In effect you get your full salary for the rest of your life.
Williams: Is it like a German professorship where you effectively become a lifetime chair?
Miller: Yes. They gave reparation to Spitzer. He had more money after he retired at Hopkins than he ever had before. He could have gone back to Marburg as a professor, but he chose not to do that. Nevertheless, the German government, because he was thrown out during the purge of Jewish professors, gave him not only his full pension, but they paid retroactively all those years he missed. He made what was a good salary at Hopkins, which was less than $10,000 back in those days. And he got a big prize, a million lire or something of the sort, from the Italian government, just after his retirement.
But it's sad, because in those days you retired at 65. I remember having lunch with Spitzer after he had retired. I didn't know Spitzer all that well, but we were having lunch, and he looked at me and said, "I'm nothing." Here was the great Spitzer, who published 900 essays or something of the sort, but what he was talking about was the misery of being retired. What can you say? "Oh, Professor Spitzer. Look at all those essays you've published?"
Williams: That's very sobering.
Miller: The same thing happened with de Man. I used to visit him when he was dying at home. But, as one does with a friend who is in the process of dying, you think it's not going to happen yet. Another six months... I used to go every week, and his wife Pat would produce a glass of sherry, and Paul and I would talk about this and that. The last time I saw him was the week before he died, and he said, "I haven't changed Yale one iota." And I said, "Oh, Paul, look, you were the chair of French, you hired Fred Jameson, promoted Shoshana Felman and Barbara Johnson, and made it the best French department in the country, and then you were chair of comp lit and you made it the best comp lit department in the country." All of that was true. He said, "No, I haven't really changed Yale one bit."
What he said would happen happened: Yale very quickly reverted back to its powerful tradition and became much more conservative. It has changed again now, with appointments like those of Carol Jacobs and Haun Saussy.
Williams: We've covered a good bit of the history of criticism that you've witnessed. I can see how deconstruction gave you a way to do reading. Since then the field has moved more to history and cultural studies, and you've written on wider topics, especially technology. Maybe you could say more about where you've gone since first encountering Derrida and deconstruction.
Miller: My general take is that the shift to so-called cultural studies and to history, and to technology and to media studies is good. It was almost inevitable because we now had, among young professors and graduate students, the first generation of people who have been brought up from the beginning on the computer, on cinema, popular music, and so on, and for whom, whatever you say about their love of literature, literature played a smaller role in their lives. I think one has to face that. It's perfectly natural that such people would want to study these cultural features that are important in their own lives and begin to reflect on them.
Also, I think the political motivations—the interest in postcolonialism, the women's movement, and so on—are all forms of liberation, and they are good developments. There's great literature in Australia, there's English literature in India, in Canada. Now people are reading that. That strikes me as a great thing. What hasn't happened yet is to organize this in a way that makes sense as a curriculum.
My attitude towards this is double. I hope the idea of close attention to whatever it is that you're studying doesn't disappear. I'm made anxious by works in cultural studies that talk about some novel or other and simply tell the plot or describe the characters, in relation to some historical or cultural context. That strikes me as kind of old-fashioned. Now I like the idea that there are techniques for talking about film which are specific to film. In part that's a very conservative aspect of my attitude, an aspect which is scientific or positivist. I hold that you ought to be able to give evidence for whatever you say. I also think that it's a bad thing that there is less language training and less knowledge of foreign languages.
Williams: I'm interested in the idea of turning points in criticism. There's this Mondrian exhibit at the Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh. They collected about twenty Mondrian paintings, which they've put in order of date of composition in a single room. At first he looks like a second-rate impressionist, and then there's this turning point when he becomes the Mondrian we would recognize. Then there's another turning point when he turns from brownish, geometric tree-like forms to primary colors. If you look back, what do you see as the turning points?
Miller: There were fortuitous turning points when I just happened to come upon something. A lot of moments that turned out to be, or are said to be, historical turning points didn't seem that way at the time. The little bookDeconstruction and Criticism  you could say was a kind of a turning point, bringing together the collocation of people at Yale, the so-called Yale Mafia, but I didn't realize that I was in the middle of an historical event. So you may be present in something that in retrospect—like the Hopkins symposium—becomes a turning point, but it isn't experienced like that at the time, only later does it seem a big deal.
I remember some comic things about the Hopkins symposium, like how annoyed Lacan was that he'd been upstaged by Derrida. He was really angry. Also we witnessed before our very eyes the counter-transference of Anthony Wilden, who had translated Lacan's strange paper, and was an early American Lacanian. He kept getting up and denouncing Lacan. There was another great comic moment when Angus Fletcher spoke. He made a pretty hostile set of remarks, in not entirely good French, defending Freud, or his understanding of Freud, from Lacan. The great moment was when Lacan answered. Whenever Lacan spoke in English he did it very badly. One of the things he said was, "Let him who agrees with me, rise up the finger." Lacan didn't know this American idiom. Then he said he was going to hold office hours the next day. He said, "If anyone wishes, they may come to my office at 11:00 tomorrow morning and mate with me." The other thing I remember from that conference was the smell of Gauloises. In those days you could smoke in a seminar or lecture, so the room was full of this blue smoke.
Williams: You've written a lot over your lifetime, and, as I can see from all the papers and books piled on your desk, you're clearly still at work now. What have you been working on?
Miller: I'm at work on three books. One is a little book called The Medium Is the Maker: Browning, Freud, Derrida. Like all the books and essays I write, it's occasional in the sense that somebody asked me to write something. I now feel free to do things that are marvelous fun for me. It was for a conference on telepathy, which is Nicholas Royle's big subject; he's published a wonderful book called Telepathy and Literature . Royle was the translator for the Oxford Literary Review of Derrida's essay, "Télépathie." This is a piece intended for the "Envois" in The Post Card that somehow got left out. I went back to read that essay and I got fascinated by it again. Then I started reading what Derrida refers to in the essay, Freud's four essays on telepathy. Then I began to think of a poem by Robert Browning called "Mr. Sludge, the Medium." I began to do a little research on whom that poem is about. He was an American named Daniel Dunglass Home. He was born in Scotland but began his mediumship in the United States. He's the model for Mr. Sludge, and Browning detested him. It's the nastiest of Browning's dramatic monologues. So I asked myself, why did he so dislike Home? He hated him enough to call him in a letter a "dungball," which is a play on "Dunglass." In another letter Browning said, "If I ever meet him in the street, I would kick him, unless I was afraid it would spoil my shoes." So the excremental meaning of "sludge" is more or less explicit not only in those letters, but also in the poem itself.
But why? Well, I have two answers. One is that Browning attended a séance. Home gave séances all over Europe, to the Czar of Russia, to their majesties at the Tuileries in France, to the queen of the Netherlands. He was also famous for levitating. He could rise up and move around the room, or levitate others. But nobody ever exposed him. One explanation was that he was a great hypnotist. At any rate, Browning and his wife attended a séance at the house of friends. Home made a wreath on a nearby table rise up in the air and move across and settle on Elizabeth Barrett's brow. Browning was standing behind. There are various accounts of this, but one of them would say that he was jealous, that the wreath should have come and landed on his head. Another explanation was that he was jealous of Home's influence over his wife. But I think the real explanation is that it was the collision of two different media.
Derrida hypothesizes that a change in medium, for example from print culture to digital culture, changes what can be said. I believe that. There are certain things that you can do digitally, or in film, that you can't do in any other way. I think what really annoyed Browning was that Home was doing telepathy. Home was a medium through whom the voices of the dead would speak—you'd want some message from your dead mother, typically, so you'd get Home to come in and he would speak for the mother. I think what really annoyed Browning was that Home was doing the same thing he, Browning, did, only Home was getting paid more for it. "Mr. Sludge" is a dramatic monologue in which Browning speaks for Mr. Sludge. It's exactly the same: he's the medium through whom all these people speak in the monologues. So it was a kind of professional jealously, but it was also a collision between two different media, just as now we have a medium shift, from books to digital.
I also have a very big book coming out from Fordham called For Derrida. I realized at a certain moment that I had written all these things about Derrida, essays that I'd been invited to give after Derrida's death. They're kind of a medium shift themselves in the sense that they were written on the computer, mostly for oral delivery. They were elaborately revised and augmented on the computer, and then emailed to Helen Tartar at Fordham—all something impossible only a few years ago. The long telepathy essay is not a part of that book. It's a separate little book. Once more I was asked to write about Derrida for a conference, in this case about his telepathy essay.
Thank you for your good questions. They have led me to think again about my past, which I don't normally spend much time doing. I'm more interested in present and future work.