Ferocious Alphabets

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 14)

The world of literary theory has been filled of late with strange words such as “deconstruction,” “signifier/signified,” “logocentrism,” “difference,” “semiotics,” and “structuralism.” What these terms, and the attitudes toward literature that go with them, represent is an effort to apply to literature the work of Martin Heidegger and Friedrich Nietzsche in philisophy and Ferdinand Saussure in linguistics. The result, for many readers, is an approach to literature that makes something new and strange out of even the most familiar literary texts. Indeed, a recent conference on this approach to literature was entitled, “After Strange Texts.”

A number of the basic tenets of this approach to literature strike the uninitiated as unusual and foreign to conventional ways of thinking about and reading literary works. One of these is the emphasis on a fundamental difference between spoken and written language. The spoken word is grounded in the speaker, but the written word exists independent of its author or even an imagined speaker. Structuralism argues that any given piece of writing is more dependent on the structures inherent in a language than it is on the choices of the individual user of that language. Deconstructionists take this principle one step further and argue that meaning itself is independent of an author, and in fact is grounded in the reader, who is free to play with the text in any way he sees fit. Deconstructionists call attention to such phenomena of the printed text as the spaces between words, the margins of the page, and the many other words that any given word may remind one of through visual and aural similarities. This interest in the play of language through puns, homonyms, and allusions leads practitioners of this approach to literature to readings that seem far removed from the ostensible “intention” of the author.

Indeed, this approach has led some users of it to proclaim that categories of thought such as “author,” “self,” and even “humanity” itself are language-based and thus are not privileged as special categories independent of language, but share the same kinds of limitations and opportunities for play as all other words. It is this aspect of modern literary theory that concerns Denis Donoghue in Ferocious Alphabets. His work is in part an attack on such views, but it is more than that. While one may or may not agree with his case, one must be grateful to him for the clarity with which he describes the often obscure and specialized language and approach of even those critics whose method he rejects.

Donoghue’s central concern, and the unifying thread throughout his book, is “the way we use language.” This enables him to unite what otherwise would appear as four disparate sections of his study. The first section of the work consists of the scripts of a series of six short talks he gave on BBC radio in an ongoing series called “Words.” The very open-ended title of the series invites those who take part in it to shape their presentations to suit their own special predilections; the brevity of the time allowed demands extreme compression of thought. What Donoghue chose to do with his series of talks was to reflect on aspects of language-in-use as manifested in a variety of occasions, including writers as diverse as Robert Frost and James Joyce and speakers as socially distinct as Dame Helen Gardner and the lower-class winners of a fortune in the football pools. He also provides expanded commentary and reflection on his talks.

Donoghue’s concern throughout this section is with the relationship between style of language-use and the speaker of that language. Different styles suggest something about the poverty or richness of the speaker’s imagination, as well as about his or her social class and its claims. Such a concern leads Donoghue to articulate the major thesis of Ferocious Alphabets,...

(The entire section is 1607 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 14)

The Atlantic Monthly. CCXLVIII, July, 1981, p. 83.

Best Sellers. XLI, September, 1981, p. 228.

Booklist. LXXVII, June 15, 1981, p. 1330.

Choice. XIX, November, 1981, p. 370.

Library Journal. CVI, July, 1981, p. 1422.

New Leader. LXIV, July 27, 1981, p. 19.

The New Republic. CLXXXV, July 25, 1981, p. 34.

The New York Times Book Review. LXXXVI, October 11, 1981, p. 11.