Never Dunne with Miller

Author: Graham Price (University College Dublin)

Eamonn Dunne. Reading Theory Now: An ABC of Good Reading with J. Hillis Miller. New York: Bloomsbury, 2013, xxxiii + 139 pp.

Eamonn Dunne’s Reading Theory Now: An ABC of Good Reading with J. Hillis Miller provides a thought provoking consideration of the work of J. Hillis Miller, one of the most significant critics to have emerged from the twentieth century. Through his analysis of Miller’s critical oeuvre, Dunne shows Miller to be an invaluable critical thinker whose concept of an ethics of reading privileges multiplicity and diversity of interpretation over any notion of a fixed or knowable meaning for a work of literature. To read Miller’s criticism is to embark on an exciting journey of discovery during which literary texts that we thought we knew well take on new possibilities of interpretation. These new horizons of possibilities are what Dunne sees in Miller and what his book on Miller reveals to us so clearly.

Miller himself endorses Dunne’s reading of his work in the preface to Reading Theory Now. Miller writes: “Eamonn Dunne has understood my writings extremely well, almost too well for comfort. This wonderfully witty, subtle, and perceptive little book is the best introduction I know to my work” (ix). Dunne’s consideration of Miller’s engagement with such literary and linguistic strategies as “irony,” “aporia,” “paradox,” and “catachresis” can indeed be regarded as an act of “good reading” on his part because of the care and openness he exhibits throughout this text.

The scope of the ideas and texts ranging across literature and philosophy that Dunne deals with in An ABC of Good Reading is one of its primary strengths. Attention is paid to authors such as Dickens, Hardy, Eliot, Yeats, Emily Bronte, and Proust, while showing a strong grasp of theories propounded by such thinkers as Immanuel Kant, Friedrich Nietzsche, Sigmund Freud, Edmund Husserl, Martin Heidegger, Jacques Derrida, Jean-Luc Nancy, Maurice Blanchot, Geoffrey Bennington, J. L. Austin, and Derek Attridge. The value of reading literature through philosophy, psychoanalysis, and other theoretical disciplines never seems forced or opportunistic in this work. For both Miller and Dunne, such an interdisciplinary approach to literature is completely natural and organic, and this book certainly makes that case very convincingly.

Drawing upon the critical tradition of deconstruction pioneered by thinkers such as Jacques Derrida and Paul de Man, Dunne provides not only valuable insights into Miller’s texts, but also into key literary works that have been interpreted by Miller over the course of his career. By so doing, Dunne demonstrates his own abilities as a careful critic of literature in the style of Miller. In his study of Miller’s reading of Wuthering Heights, Dunne examines closely key passages in the novel that highlight the ghostly presence of otherness that permeates the text and renders any distinction between the self and the other impossible: “The event of Catherine’s realization of her love for Heathcliff, her self-realization is news of the always already, a time out of joint with itself. Catherine is haunted by Heathcliff—always has been and always will be” (48). Dunne’s reading of Catherine’s assertion that she is Heathcliff can also be applied to the co-existence of the text of Wuthering Heights and the meanings embedded within it. To read Wuthering Heights is to find absent presences of interpretation since the text is concerned with Miller’s concept of a linguistic moment: when language deconstructs itself and becomes problematic. What Dunne illuminates in his Millerian reading of Wuthering Heights is how the language of the text is as much haunted by the other of itself as are the characters depicted in the work.

One limitation of this otherwise excellent study is that Dunne does not fully historicize the texts that he analyzes. In his engagement with Oscar Wilde’s preface to The Picture of Dorian Gray, Dunne acknowledges Wilde as a proto-deconstructionist (in as much as there can ever be such a noun) because Wilde considers the problem of criticism as always a reworking of a text in ways that the author could not have possibly envisaged. A fuller consideration of Wilde’s relevance to Miller could have been attempted if Dunne had considered Wilde’s essay “The Critic as Artist,” the title of which is paraphrased in Miller’s article “The Critic as Host.” In “The Critic as Artist,” Wilde argues that the function of criticism is to make of an object in and of itself, what it is not. While Wilde seems more certain that a knowable outcome and a stable meaning can be derived from critical interpretation than Miller is, a comparison of both writers’ articles would demonstrate that theories such as deconstruction do not emerge at one moment in time but are in fact latent in the works of various writers across several centuries. This broad consideration of the history of ideas would avoid the violence of representation that Derrida saw as being inherent in viewing theoretical movements as merely a sign of the times during which they came to prominence.

The book’s subtitle, An ABC of Good Reading, is playfully ironic. As the text shows, there can be no one prescribed, linear formula for “good reading” since each act of reading is private, singular and rife with the possibilities for creative “mis-readings.” This notion of engaging with the written word as being an exciting and potentially perilous act is at the core of Miller’s critical oeuvre. As Dunne asserts:

Miller is constantly praying for the invention of the other, doing everything he can to prepare for its coming, inventing languages for it, bending language to it, trying not to render the other the same. Because "to read creatively in an attempt to respond fully and responsibly to the alterity and singularity of the text is to work against the mind’s tendency to assimilate the other to the same, attending to that which can barely be heard, registering what is unique about the shaping of language, thought, and feeling in this particular work." (48-49)

Here, Dunne affirms that for Miller, criticism is an attempt to do justice to the uniqueness of a particular text by providing readings that are equally unique without ever claiming to be the last word. Such readings can thus be regarded as responsible by virtue of their openness and provisionality.

In Reading Theory Now, Eamonn Dunne has proven himself to be equally as capable as Miller at making deconstruction intelligible to readers who might be somewhat intimidated by the writings of someone like Jacques Derrida. At the same time, critics who are already familiar with deconstruction will find much to savor in this valuable addition to the ever-growing number of texts on literary theory. As Julian Wolfreys observes in his Afterword to Reading Theory Now: “[W]hat Dunne teaches us about reading, in reading Miller, reading Miller reading, is that we will never be dunne with Miller” (99-100).