Study Guide

Flight from Eden

by Steven Cassedy

Flight from Eden Summary

Summary (Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Cassedy’s wide-ranging study is in part an intellectual history that traces the origins of modern critical consciousness to some unexpected sources. More than intellectual history, however,Flight from Eden is a book with a mission: to expose the varieties of mystification that characterize modern American literary criticism and theory in the structuralist and the post structuralist era—the 1960’s and the early 1970’s. Cassedy identifies a number of self-deluding myths that he believes permeate the American critical establishment. Fundamentally, his purpose is to demolish the myth that there are no myths in modern American literary criticism.

A myth he attacks throughout his book is the one that claims the intellectual origins of modern literary criticism are the recent French professional critics and philosophers, principally Jacques Derrida and Roland Barthes. Cassedy argues that, in fact, its origins are to be found in some late nineteenth and early twentieth century novelists and poets in France, Germany, and Russia: Stéphane Mallarmé (1842-1898), Paul Valéry (1871-1945), Rainier Maria Rilke (1875-1926), Andrei Bely (1880-1934), and Velimir Khlebnikov (1885-1922). Although disclaiming any intention of writing an “influence” study, Cassedy shows a pattern of theorists such as Derrida engaged in “borrowings” (largely unacknowledged) from Mallarmé and others sufficient to call into question the “newness” of many supposedly “new” theoretical ideas. In an era in which literary criticism, with its forbiddingly difficult language and its philosophically obscure arguments, has declared its independence from literature, Cassedy seems to recall critics to an awareness of their secondary, derivative state. That literary criticism owes its very existence to literature would seem a fact too obvious to point out. In the 1970’s, however, literary criticism itself became the important text. An example of this way of thinking is the Belgian-American literary theorist Paul de Man’s definition of poetry as “the foreknowledge of criticism.” Cassedy’s attitude toward this development is surprising: Despite the fact that he continues to point out that “the poets were there first,” in the end he seems to settle for an equality between theory and poetry, and the conclusion that “poetry and criticism are not so different,” after all.

The principal focus of Cassedy’s book, however, is a discussion of four major overlapping topics: language, theology, “relationalism,” and ontology. In each of these areas, Cassedy attempts to show how criticism in the name of modernity has rejected an earlier, transcendent, mythic idea or absolute that he calls “Eden.” In each case, he tries to demonstrate how this “flight from Eden” inevitably leads back to it again, to an unacknowledged repositing of Eden. In each case, he asserts that the revised myth and the belief that there is no myth co- exist.

In discussion of the first topic, language, Cassedy contrasts ancient and modern views. Given the woefully inadequate functioning of language today, it is easy to believe that language has somehow fallen from grace, that there was a time when language perfectly communicated in some ideal and mystical way. Cassedy argues that this mythologizing view of language has not been entirely abandoned: It survives in the tendency of some modern critics (including deconstructionists such as Derrida and Paul de Man) to privilege poetic/literary language. The modern version of the myth is that there is some intrinsic, essential quality in poetic/literary language itself that distinguishes it from, and for some makes it superior to, all other kinds of language. Cassedy believes the reality is that there are no innate and transcendent qualities of language. The effort to distinguish the difference in quality of language “between…a poem by Blake and a paragraph from a car repair manual” is doomed because of conceptual error. Language itself is not transcendent; it is something humans “ceaselessly create…for the purpose of meaningfully organizing our experience.” Poetic language differs from prose “more by its function, by the way it is used, than by any intrinsic properties.”

Cassedy’s next topic is theology. Here, the myth is that modern...

(The entire section is 1752 words.)