Words, after speech, reach
Into the silence…
Crack and sometimes break, under the burden,
Under the tension, slip, slide, perish,
Decay with imprecision, will not stay in place,
Will not stay still. Shrieking voices
Scolding, mocking, or merely chattering
Always assail them.
Thus wrote T. S. Eliot in Burnt Norton V from The Four Quartets. Eliot describes the breakdown of meaning that occurs as words and their meaning die under the limitation of time. In these lines, especially if one reads them out loud and in the context of the entire poem, the breakdown of meaning hits us in a way that is startling, disconcerting, and palpable.
Eliot’s Four Quartets, published in 1944, were masterful because they vividly depict so many of the struggles, challenges and agonies characteristic of the late modern (or early postmodern) period in which he wrote. Precisely because of this, the hope of redemption held out by Eliot at the end of The Four Quartets is all the more powerful.
The agonizing words of Eliot’s poem are a good lead-in to what I want to discuss in this article, which is the Postmodern approach to language in general and literary texts in particular. (If you do not already know what Postmodernism is, then you may want to read my brief overview of Postmodernism or buy Gene Veith’s book Postmodern Times.)
Since the advent of mass printing, and possibly even before, texts have been second only to speech as the primary means by which human beings communicate with one another.
The very existence of texts presupposes that communication is possible. Words have meaning, and while the meaning of words can often be misunderstood or change with time, the possibility of genuine, objective communication remains a reality.
At least, that was the prevailing assumption until the 20th century. Though all generalizations have exceptions, by and large people just took it for granted that it was possible to read and understand texts, even as they knew it was also possible to misread and misunderstand texts.
All this began to change in the mid-1900s, when literally thousands of intellectuals began deconstructing the legitimacy of the text as a vehicle of communication. This deconstruction did not happen overnight, but was the result of at least three important factors. We will explore each of these three factors in turn, before looking at the implication this had for literary criticism.