In Edgar Allan Poe’s story “The Purloined Letter,” the trick is that the incriminating letter is not hidden but has been sitting in plain sight all along. The moral is that what is most obvious is sometimes easiest to overlook, as the vain and frantic efforts of the Prefect of the Parisian Police to recover the missing document attest. Anyone who has had the misfortune to peek into the library of deconstructivist literature knows that Poe’s story is a favorite object of lucubration. The two Jacques, Derrida and Lacan, both devoted many impenetrable pages to the story, as have many of their epigoni.

We thought of Poe’s classic story recently when alerted by a friend to The New York Times’s account of a conference about literary theory sponsored by Critical Inquiry, a hermetic quarterly that has long been home to deconstructionists, post-structuralists, Lacanian-psychoanalysts, and other acolytes of academic tergiversation. It was, apparently, a somber convocation. The title of the Times’s story—“The Latest Theory Is That Theory Doesn’t Matter”—captured the tone. More than five hundred academic aspirants crowded into a lecture hall at the University of Chicago on April 11 to witness an exchange among a quire of such faded luminaries as Stanley Fish, Fredric Jameson, and Homi Bhabha. The war in Iraq apparently received much anguished attention. But theory—the ostensible subject of the conference—garnered only afterthoughts. Professor Bhabha, a “post-colonialist” and one of the most preposterous figures on the current academic scene, wearily objected that theory still mattered, that there are “poems that actually draw together people in acts of resistance.” But according to the Times, the dominant note was sounded by Sander L. Gilman, a professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago:

I think one must be careful in assuming that intellectuals have some kind of insight. In fact, if the track record of intellectuals is any indication, not only have intellectuals been wrong almost all of the time, but they have been wrong in corrosive and destructive ways.
What’s next? The discovery that the earth is round? That water is wet? We won’t say “We told you so,” but, well, we did. The friend who told us about the Times’s story said “It is practically a concession speech to The New Criterion.” We won’t go that far. Doubtless Professor Gilman and his colleagues would be horrified at the thought. But there is something to the idea: for more than twenty years now, The New Criterion has been dilating on the nullity of literary so-called theory and the destructive commitment to adolescent leftism that it involves. Naturally, we have been routinely abominated for our pains. It is pleasant, therefore, to find, if not a concession, then at least a tacit acknowledgment that the humanities have taken a wrong turn. So many trendy academics have weighed in on “The Purloined Letter” that it is a pity that they didn’t take the story’s epigraph more to heart: Nil sapientiae odiosius acumine nimio: “Nothing is more hateful to wisdom than excessive cleverness.”

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 21 Number 9, on page 1
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