Hugo Blumenthal © 2005

How To Possess A Ghost?
Desire, Freedom and Possession in Jude the Obscure
by Hugo Blumenthal

‘He has never really possessed her as freely as he desired.’ Thomas Hardy, A defence of Jude the obscure.

How could deconstruction ‘help to illuminate’ a literary text? Forgetting for a moment that more likely it would start deconstructing the figure of ‘illumination’, let’s take a fragment from Thomas Hardy’s Jude the Obscure, from a conversation between Arabella and her friend Anny: ‘‘That’s you, Arabella. Always wanting another man than your own.’ ‘Well, and what woman don’t I should like to know? As for that body with him –she [Sue] don’t know what love is –at least what I call love. I can see in her face she don’t.’ ‘And perhaps, Abby dear, you don’t know what she calls love.’ ‘I’m sure I don’t wish to!…’’ 1

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Thomas Hardy, Jude the Obscure (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), p. 283. All page references are from this edition, unless indicated.

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In this fragment not very often quoted by critics, we have, among other things: Arabella remarkably equalled to her desire in relation to men; an implicit definition of ‘woman’ (a woman always wants another man than her own), that makes of Arabella a representative and exclude Sue; Sue then is reduced to a ‘body’, presumably meaning ‘sexless’; there is also a question of reading and interpretation (Arabella ‘reading’ Sue’s face), and a question of knowledge and love (to know what love is), with the possibility that the truth of love could have at least two versions (one for Arabella, another one for Sue). At this point, deconstructive criticism would be specifically concerned with the identification of opposed metaphysical values organized in an apparently natural hierarchy –or what Jacques Derrida would call ‘logocentrism’: the ‘natural’ privileging of Reason (Logos) and Presence. In other words, ‘[…] a tradition that defines Western thought in its entirety: the conception of all negativity (not-being) as absence and hence the possibility of an appropriation or reappropriation of being (in the form of truth, of authenticity, of nature, etc.) as presence.’2 In the apparent opposition between Arabella and Sue, and the two apparently opposed versions of what’s love, what metaphysical values could be at play? Arabella is defined in terms of possession: all she wants is to possess a man, and being possessed by him. For Sue, however, all we know is that she seems to be the opposite. But if we focus into this famous opposition between Sue and Arabella throughout the entire Jude the Obscure, we could visualize more clearly some of other opposed values, as Spirit/Body, Natural/ Artificial, Pure/Impure, Civilized/Rustic, Innocence/Sexual Knowledge, Idealism/

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Paul De Man, ‘The Rhetoric of Blindness: Jacques Derrida’s Reading of Rousseau’, Blindness and Insight, Essays in the Rhetoric of Contemporary Criticism, 2nd ed (Cornwall: Routledge, 1996), p. 114.

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Pragmatism, Freedom/ Possession…3 With the first term of each opposition –term apparently represented by Sue– being the privileged one. Privileged at least for Jude, for whom Sue always going to remain a ‘kindly star, an elevating power’ (84), whilst Arabella right from the beginning would be considered ‘a complete and substantial female animal – no more, no less’ (33). Once the values at play are located, deconstruction usually operates affirming ‘the importance of the marginalized term, showing the ways in which the privileged term relies on it for its definition.’4 In our case, what we are going to do is to try to show how Sue contains necessarily the opposite values that seem to represent. Our intention, however, is not to define her as contradictory but to show how the system of values she seems to represent depends of those values she tries to negate.

Most of the time Sue tries to liberate herself from what she considers the unnatural and enslaving traditions and conventions of society. That’s evident right from the beginning, in her rebellion against the predominant religion by buying a couple of pagan statues (87), and especially in her concerns against marriage and sex. Sue’s resistance to sex is probably her most obvious fight for freedom (and at the same time of her strongest subjection to forms), though curiously enough where she has been worst misunderstood. To start with, let’s remember that the mere expression ‘to possess a woman’ (in the sense of ‘penetrate her’) is the (male) euphemism for sex per excellence. Sex, then, is
3 4

See Appendix. Martin McQuillan, Paul de Man (London: Routledge, 2001), p. 6.

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thought to be a way (through language) ‘to possess’ a woman. And it certainly doesn’t work the other way round: it doesn’t make sense for a woman to say to have ‘possessed’ a man by having had sex with him. Also, according to the Victorian laws (that other ‘letter’ that regulates, restrings the subject’s freedom), sex was only possible within marriage, where a woman could be seen as placed as a possession of the husband (‘[..] as a she-ass or a she-goat, or any other domestic animal’, would write Sue (163)). Sex outside marriage was sanctioned and punished, sometimes by the so-called ‘agents of the law’ or police (as for the charge of prostitution) but mainly through moral rejection, as we can see in the people punishment to Sue and Jude by making almost impossible for Jude to get job, all because they were ‘living together’ but were not married (287-294). Without getting too deep into the reasons of such social behaviour, let’s just mention that it was certainly not gratuitous: sex conditioned to marriage was seen as one of the pillars of family and, hence, of society: it used to stand as the foundation of fatherhood, something that otherwise was difficult to prove. Marriage then, could be said to have been a form of controlling women’s sexuality, for the security of (a ‘phallocentric’) society. And through marriage, sex was also regulated for an specific function (sex for sex was considered then immoral): women were expected to give birth, what could be seen as another form of the enslavement of woman, since socially she was made the main responsible for the care of children. With all this in mind, Sue’s virginity and her resistance to sex could be understood less as a perversity of her character than as a rebellion against being ‘possessed’.

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And almost the same goes for marriage, described through Jude the Obscure as an absurd contract where ‘[…] two swore that at every other time of their lives till death took them, they would assuredly believe, feel, and desire precisely as they had believed, felt, and desired during the few preceding weeks. What was as remarkable as the undertaking itself was the fact that nobody seemed at all surprised at what they swore.’ (52) Marriage is certainly for Sue another form of enslavement, but apparently it’s even worse because it seems to render more evidently the untruthful and unnatural essence of those enslaving forms. It’s not just the materiality of the place where such contract is performed, a place that gives Sue ‘horrors’ as –she would tell Jude– ‘[…] it seems so unnatural as the climax of our love!’ (274). For Sue what is natural (as she thinks of her love for Jude) should not be required to be reinforced by the ‘letter’ (by the contract of marriage). To do so would imply, among other things, that what is natural would become unnatural through obligation. In other words, marriage could only falsify and kill the natural feelings, since their ‘loving’ each other would then seem to be as if it happens because they are married, because they are under such contract that obliges them to carry on doing so; whilst if they are not obliged to love each other by agreement, their love would not seem to have another justification than itself, keeping then its natural status. It’s as if the laws of marriage, then, by their effect of writing (and what’s marriage but an effect of writing?), include necessarily the death of the thing they try to produce and preserve. As Jacques Derrida would put it, ‘writing in the common sense is the dead letter, it is the

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carrier of death. It exhausts life… All graphemes are of a testamentary essence. And the original absence of the subject of writing is also the absence of the thing or the referent.’5 For Terry Eagleton, however, ‘[…] her rejection of marriage springs from the same source as her rejection of physical sexuality; in denying the false social embodiment of love, she denies the body itself. Her freedom, as a result, is in part negative and destructive –a self-possessive individualism which sees all permanent commitment as imprisoning, a fear of being possessed which involves a fear of giving.’ 6

But Sue doesn’t seem to have anything against giving. What she dreads is the obligation that would kill for the essence of her giving, as it’s evident when she asks Jude ‘Don’t you dread the attitude that insensibly arises out of legal obligation? Don’t you think it is destructive to a passion whose essence is its gratuitousness?’ (262), looking in him for some confirmation of her intuition. Only outside obligation could she give herself. Only in freedom could she possess herself and give herself to others. And the truth is that, despite the accusations of not giving enough, Sue gives herself so much to Jude, to the point of renouncing to her freedom and almost losing herself completely in him. In one of the last gestures of love, Sue changes her name to ‘Mrs. Fawley’, one of those enslavement to

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As quoted by Elisabeth Bronfen, ‘Pay as You Go: Exchanges of Bodies and Signs’, The Sense of Sex: Feminist Perspectives on Hardy, ed. by Margaret R. Higonnet (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1993), p. 67. See also Roger Ebaston, Hardy: The Margin of the Unexpressed (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1993), p. 49, for whom Jude the Obscure represents Hardy’s attempt to think the problem of alienation surged from a movement in the community from speech to writing. Terry Eagleton, ‘Introduction’, in Thomas Hardy, Jude the Obscure (London: Macmillan, 1975), p. 18.

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forms she had feared so much. Her freedom lost, ‘her dull, cowed and listless manner for days seemed to substantiate all this.’ (287)

In a letter to the critic Edmund Gosse, Thomas Hardy wrote: ‘He [Jude] has never really possessed her [Sue] as freely as he desired.’7 Which is less a criticism to Sue for being incapable of satisfy Jude’s desire than a clue about the paradox of desire in Jude: it doesn’t matter how much Sue could give herself to Jude, he is always going to desire something more (‘freely’) from her. That something extra comes to represent, in the last term, freedom itself. Such paradox is the essence (and tragedy) of desire. Since desire means desire to possess, is by definition for something absent. The subject can only desire (to possess) what’s free from his/her possession. And to possess freedom as freedom, without killing its essence, is obviously impossible. But a necessary impossible, all the same, in order to sustain desire. Curiously enough, Sue’s desire is practically neglected, silenced. Contrary to what happens with Jude and Phillotson, the reader is not allowed to get into her mind. If one wants to know, one should infer her desire from her words and actions, that are offered just from the point of view of others, as from the ‘outside’. Thanks to such distance, ‘[…] she is thereby constituted as an enigma,’ would write Judith Mitchell, ‘not only for the male characters but also for the narrator himself and for the implied reader, reinforcing the theme of woman as mysterious Other that informs the novel as a whole.’8 Or, even better,

7 8

Thomas Hardy, A defence of Jude the obscure (Edinburgh: Dunedin Press, 1928), p. 10. Judith Mitchell, ‘Jude the Obscure’, in The Stone and the Scorpion: The Female Subject of Desire in the Novels of Charlotte Bronte, George Eliot and Thomas Hardy (Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood, 1994), P. 204.

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reinforcing the question of the (male) desire that runs through the novel. Or ‘[…] the natural man’s desire to possess the woman’ (341), that Sue recognises in Jude. A desire to possess the woman, not a woman; not just her, Sue, but the essence of woman in her. As all enigmas, and especially as the so-called ‘enigma of the woman’, Sue seems to require an answer: to decipher her, to unveil her… Just another form of possession. (As we pretend to do here) According to the lacanian philosopher Slavoj Zizek, ‘[…] the allusion to some unfathomable mysterious ingredient behind the mask is constitutive of the feminine seductive masquerade: the way woman seduces and transfixes the male gaze is precisely by adopting the role of Enigma embodied, as if her whole appearance is a lure, a veil concealing some unspeakable secret. […] inherent in the phallic economy is the reference to some mysterious X which remains for ever out of its reach.’9

That is in order to understand that the problem here combines not only a phallic economy where the male assumes the desire for an impossible, but where a woman can hardly avoid the role expected from her: to be that impossible. Because despite Jude’s constant attempts to cover ‘little Sue’ with the veil of innocence, she plays her part of enslaving form for Jude in the game of seduction, knowing that:

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Slavoj Zizek, ‘Death and the Maiden’, in The Zizek Reader, ed. by Elizabeth and Edmond Wright (Oxford: Blackwell, 2003), p. 214.

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‘[…] that inborn craving which undermines some women’s morals almost more than unbridled passion –the craving to attract and captivate, regardless of the injury it may do the man– was on me; and when I found I had caught you, I was frightened. And then –I don’t know how it was– I couldn’t bear to let you go –possibly to Arabella again– and so I got to love you, Jude.’ (341)

Love, then, seems to be a justification for the possession of the other: to possess the lover and being possessed by him or her. To love, to desire, to possess… In the end, not too different from Arabella’s idea of love. Jude, though, seems to be an easy catch: because of his innocence towards women, and because all he wants is to be possessed, anyway. Let’s remember that for him ‘it was better to love a woman than to be a graduate, or a parson; ay, or a pope’ (43); and that ‘with Sue as companion he could have renounced his ambitions with a smile’ (110) (as he effectively does). Arabella, also, seems to be quite apprehensible to Jude because, once married, Arabella seems to pull up her veil and stop playing the game of seduction (as when she takes off her ‘false’ hair). Part of Jude’s deception comes from the ‘artificial’ Arabella revealing her tricks: what’s behind the veil. Sue, on the contrary, with her resistance to being possessed, maintains always something extra that supports Jude’s desire. Her problem is that she finally succumbs to her inner contradictions: unable to maintain distance from the enslaving forms, since what she

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thought to be natural and freedom reveals as unnatural and enslaving. However, Sue doesn’t lose her freedom so completely as when she finally decides to come back to Phillotson, but at the same time her decision to escape from Jude could be seen as her more radical act of freedom: Sue takes the death of her children as a punishment, fulfilling the logic of her sin or guilt: of her love for Jude despite everything else; of her mistake about the enslaving forms. She sacrifices herself in order to assume her real state of living-dead, with ‘[…] her ‘enslavement to forms’ of self-renunciation replacing her earlier enslavement to forms of self-assertion.’10

But, finally, could the woman be possessed? The woman is like a ghost: though it doesn’t exists (according to Lacan, as she doesn’t exists in the universal, as not contained in the phallic function) 11, reportedly it has been seen almost everywhere. Is the possible to possess such a ghost? As we have explained with the paradox of desire, maybe it is necessary for a man to maintain the illusion of the (im)possibility of possessing the woman, in order to desire her.

Conclusion (or back to the beginning?)

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Ian Gregor, ‘A Series of Seemings’, in Hardy, The Tragic Novels, ed. by R. P. Draper (London: Macmillan, 1982), p. 245. Marcelle Marini, Jacques Lacan, The French Context, trans. by Anne Tomiche (New Brunswick [USA]: Rutgers University Press, 1992), p. 62.

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To illuminate a text, what does that mean? As if a text were an opaque or dark object that would require some light in order to be seen, perceived and appropriated through the eyes. As if a text would contain a hidden meaning that a reader could find with the help of a lamp. In that sense, this question of the text seems to replicate the question of the woman. To possess the woman, to possess the text: Jude the Obscure promotes the analogy. For Judy Mitchell, for example, ‘[…] Sue herself functions as a text that Jude constantly interprets, with limited degrees of success.’12 For Norman Page the text seems constituted by ‘[…] a series of episodes in which Jude is shown as seeing without understanding, or as misinterpreting, the scene before him.’13 In the same way, definition presupposes knowledge and possession, things that deconstruction questions. For that reason, to define deconstruction becomes impossible under its own. All I can do here is to speak of my strategy and practice of deconstruction, or of what I have been trying to do in my reading of Jude the Obscure and the words that have preceded these ones. In such preceding words I tried, to some extent, to follow a general strategy that could be recognized in some of the key writings of Jacques Derrida and Paul de Man. Such words were as well as an attempt to put into practice what could be called ‘deconstructive criticism’ (the ‘application’ of deconstruction to literary studies) as has been described by

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Judith Mitchell, ‘Jude the Obscure’, in The Stone and the Scorpion: The Female Subject of Desire in the Novels of Charlotte Bronte, George Eliot and Thomas Hardy (Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood, 1994), p. 204. Norman Page, Thomas Hardy (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1977), p. 58.

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Jonathan Culler, Barbara Johnson and J. Hillis Miller.14 However, I’m conscious of the character of imitation and inevitable distortion that runs through such attempt of mine. But as Jonathan Culler puts it, ‘[..] to set up Derrida’s or de Man’s writings as the original word and treat other deconstructive writing as a fallen imitation is precisely to forget what deconstruction has taught one about the relation between meaning and iteration and the internal role of misfires and infelicities. Deconstruction is created by repetitions, deviations, disfigurations.’15 Following Barbara Johnson,16 we could say that rather than applying deconstruction as a set of instructions or a methodology (that deconstruction negates, anyway), I tried to identify and dismantle a difference (the famous opposition between Arabella and Sue, as included in the Appendix, as proposed by Hardy himself and reinstated by so many critics since then, including D. H. Lawrence and Norman Page), pursuing relations and differences that cannot be fully dismantled (as freedom and possession in the question of desire). I took as a starting point a fragment that seemed to contain a binary difference between Arabella and Sue, there representing two (opposed) conceptions of love. From there on, and focusing especially in Sue, I tried to show that such difference was more the work of an illusion created as a repression of a more complex set of

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Among them, with Miller writing extensively on Hardy. Unfortunately for our purposes here, his deconstructive attempts have been mainly focused on Hardy’s poems. His writings on Jude the Obscure and other Hardy’s novels belong to a pre-deconstructive position in his career, where he was still more influenced by Georges Poulet theories on literature and criticism. Jonathan Culler, On Deconstruction, Theory and Criticism after Structuralism (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1988), p. 228. Barbara Johnson, The Critical Difference: Essays in the Contemporary Rhetoric of Reading (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1980), Pp. x-xi.

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differences:

natural/artificial,

spirit/body,

freedom/possession,

innocence/sexual

knowledge, etc. A repression within Sue’s character that is then deconstructed by showing how Sue differs from herself: for example, her natural and free love for Jude is shown to depend (almost inevitably) on seduction and possession. All this trying to avoid, at the same time, simplifications. I did not pretend to reduce Sue to be a contradictory character, but to understand how such inner contradictions could hardly been avoided. In the same way, I refuse to say that Arabella and Sue are the same, or that out there is nothing more than ‘enslaving forms’, but how possession, as a repressed value in Sue, is necessary for freedom and the constitution of desire.

Could deconstruction then help to illuminate a text? Here I hope to have answered such question, despite the obvious objections that deconstruction could have with the question itself.

Hugo Blumenthal London, 2005

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Appendix

Arabella Sue (terms apparently neglected) (terms apparently praised) Body or Flesh: ‘Arabella’s amplitude’ (180),Bodiless or Spirit: ‘phantasmal, bodiless ‘her breast’s superb abundance’ (303) creature’ (250) Sexual: ‘The unvoiced call of woman to man,Sexless: ‘I have not felt about them [men] as which was utterly very distinctly bymost women are taught to feel’ (141); ‘I have Arabella’s personality’ (35) never yielded myself to any lover […] I have remained as I began’ (143) Rustic: ‘a complete and substantial femaleCivilized: ‘a long way removed from the animal –no more, no less’ (33) rusticity that was his’ [Jude’s] (84); with ‘so little animal passion’ in her (250) Artificial: ‘an instinct towards artificialitySincere: ‘the highest form of affection is […] adding to her hair’ (53) based in full sincerity on both sides’ (250); her horror against the unnaturalness of marriage according to ‘the climax’ of their love (274) Pragmatical: recognizes the artifice ofIdealistic: ‘she is made a figure of Shelleyan conventions and manipulates them for heridealism’; married just once (to Phillotson) advantage; married many times ‘Low’: Jude ‘should have suddenlyHigh: a ‘kindly star, an elevating power, a descended so low as to keep company withcompanion in Anglican worship, a tender Arabella’ (41); ‘not worth a great deal as afriend’ (84) specimen of woman-kind’ (51) Metonymically related to pigs, pubs (she’s a‘an artist or designer of some sort in what barmaid), alcohol, ‘lower’ classes was called an ecclesiastical warehouse’, 82; a teacher assistant Simple? Complex: between Venus and Apollo (87), contradictory (210, 234) Represents the oppressive society: usesA free spirit: clipped and pruned under society conventions to oblige Jude to marrydiscipline (126) her

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Bibliography

On Thomas Hardy and Jude the Obscure Allen, Richard, ‘A Reading Guide to Jude the Obscure (1896)’, AA810 The Postgraduate Foundation Module in Literature (London: Open University, 2003), pp. 81-89 Boumelha, Penny, ‘Jude the Obscure (1895)’, in Thomas Hardy and Women: Sexual Ideology and Narrative Form (Brighton: Harvester, 1982), pp. 135-156 Brooke-Rose, Christine, ‘Ill Wit and Sick Tragedy: Jude the Obscure’, in Alternative Hardy, ed. by Lance St. John Butler (London: Macmillan, 1989), pp. 26-48 Eagleton, Terry, ‘Introduction’, in Thomas Hardy, Jude the Obscure (London: Macmillan, 1975), pp. 13-23 Ebbatson, Roger, Hardy: The Margin of the Unexpressed (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1993) Hardy, Thomas, A defence of Jude the obscure (Edinburgh: Dunedin Press, 1928) Hardy, Thomas, Jude the Obscure, ed. by Patricia Ingham (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002) Hardy, A Collection of Critical Essays, ed. by Albert J. Guerard (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1963) Hardy, The Tragic Novels, ed. by R. P. Draper (London: Macmillan, 1982) Lawrence, D. H. ‘Study of Thomas Hardy’, in Study of Thomas Hardy and Other Essays, ed. by Bruce Steele (London: Grafton, 1986), pp. 97-118 Miller, J. Hillis, ‘Introduction’, in Thomas Hardy, Jude the Obscure (London: Everyman, 1992), pp. vii-xxi
Miller,

J.

Hillis,

Thomas Hardy: Distance and Desire (London: Oxford University Press,

1970) Mitchell, Judith, ‘Jude the Obscure’, in The Stone and the Scorpion: The Female Subject of Desire in the Novels of Charlotte Bronte, George Eliot and Thomas Hardy (Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood, 1994), pp. 198-208

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Morgan, Rosemarie, ‘Passion Denied: Jude the Obscure’, in Women and Sexuality in the Novels of Thomas Hardy (New York: Routledge, 1988), pp. 110-154 Oxford Reader’s Companion to Hardy, ed. by. Norman Page (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000)
Page, Norman, Thomas Hardy (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1977)

Plietzsch, Birgit, The novels of Thomas Hardy as a product of nineteenth-century social, economic, and cultural change (Berlin: Tenea, 2004) Saldivar, Ramon, ‘Jude the Obscure: Reading and the Spirit of the Law’, ELH, 50, 1983, 607-625, 19 The Sense of Sex: Feminist Perspectives on Hardy, ed. by Margaret R. Higonnet (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1993)

On Deconstruction Cain, William E., ‘Deconstruction in America: The Recent Literary Criticisms of J. Hillis Miller’, College English, 41 (1979), 367-382 Culler, Jonathan, On Deconstruction, Theory and Criticism after Structuralism (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1988) De Man, Paul, Blindness & Insight, Essays in the Rhetoric of Contemporary Criticism, 2nd ed (Cornwall: Routledge, 1996) Derrida, Jacques, Of Grammatology, trans. by Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak (London: John Hopkins University Press, 1997) Derrida, Jacques, Spurs: Nietzsche’s Styles, trans. by Barbara Harlow (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1979) J. Hillis Miller: A Bibliography, comp. by Eddie Yeghiayan, http://sun3.lib.uci.edu/ ~scctr/ Wellek/miller/ (29.06.05) Johnson, Barbara, The Critical Difference: Essays in the Contemporary Rhetoric of Reading (London: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1980) McQuillan, Martin, Paul de Man (London: Routledge, 2001)

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Miller, J. Hillis, Tropes, parables, performatives: essays on twentieth-century literature (London: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1990) Norris, Christopher, Deconstruction, Theory and Practice (London: Routlegde, 1993) Reed, Walter L., ‘Review-Essay: Deconstruction and Tradition’, Studies in the Novel, 14 (1982), 377-383

Other sources A Handbook to Literary Research, ed. by Simon Eliot & W. R. Owens (London: Routledge, 1998) Marini, Marcelle, Jacques Lacan, The French Context, trans. by Anne Tomiche (New Brunswick [USA]: Rutgers University Press, 1992) Modern Literary Theory, ed. by Philip Rice and Patricia Waugh, 4th ed (London: Arnold, 2001) The Zizek Reader, ed. by Elizabeth Wright and Edmond Wright (Oxford: Blackwell, 2003)

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