Derrida, Barthes, and Eugenides: Some Thoughts on “The Marriage Plot”

Posted: May 12, 2012 in On Beauty
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I love the writing of Jeffrey Eugenides. His second novel “Middlesex” is among my favorite books. He won a Pulitzer for that and I was overjoyed when he did so. I just finished reading his third novel “The Marriage Plot” and, frankly, had he not won the prize for “Middlesex”, I’ll bet “The Marriage Plot” would have been a top contender for this year’s (un-awarded) Pulitzer in fiction. It’s a wonderful book.

Because I am biased by how much I like “Middlesex” I expected to love “The Marriage Plot”. Then I started reading it and, very quickly, I began to feel that I was on the road to the opposite reaction. This is because, much of the first section of the novel is rooted in Derrida’s book “Of Grammatology”. First of all, I really dislike Derrida – and “Of Grammatology” in particular. Second, it seems odd to assume that your average fiction reader would know enough about Semiotics and Semiology to even understand a tiny subset of the references. In fact, I’ve read more than one review of “The Marriage Plot” where there reviewer stated that he or she did not even know there was a discipline called Semiology until they started reading this book. (I find that rather sad but that’s another story). So, I could not imagine what Eugenides was trying to accomplish. By the end of part 1 I was back on track to loving the book. This is because I realized that Eugenides has essentially depicted exactly what I dislike about Derrida’s book and the exact impact that I think it had on the late 1970’s early 1980’s society in which I grew up. (The main characters all graduate from Brown the same year I graduated from college). So, in reading the book I went from love to hate to love in quick succession.

Just for the record “Grammatology” is a word that Ignace Gelb coined in 1952 for the study of writing systems. Derrida used his book to make a case for a new science of Grammatology by deconstructing writing in a way that separates the act of writing from the act of speaking to such an extent that he questions the very foundations of meaning in a text. “Of Grammatology” was all the rage among students of the 70s and 80’s. The reason I don’t like it is that I see it as one of the cornerstones of the movement of art, music, and writing away from rational construction and toward postmodern irrationality. For example, one of the questions you are left with, after reading the book, is something like: “Why does a book even have to be about anything? Can’t a book just stand on its own without being about something?” In my opinion, permitting art that is devoid of meaning to be considered viable led directly to much of the late 20th century art that I find so cold and lacking in beauty. That’s just me. But that is how I feel.

Grammatology is closely associated with a discipline called Semiology. Semiology (or semiotics – and, no, I don’t understand the difference in those terms well) is the study of signs and symbols. It is a foundation of modern linguistics. “Of Grammatology” and Roland Barthes “Elements of Semiology” are among the foundational texts.

Which brings me to Barthes. The second important reference in “The Marriage Plot” is Barthes book “A Lover’s Discourse”. I happen to like this book but that is because I love the way Barthes writes, not because I love what Barthes believes. The book attempts to deconstruct the concept of love by presenting textual fragments on every aspect of the subject. The book is not about love. It is about deconstructing love. In “The Marriage Plot”, Barthes’ book lays a second strong foundation for everything that comes after one of the main characters, Madeleine, discovers it. I don’t want to give away any of the plot. But, I will say this: Barthes says that the words “I Love You” really only have true meaning the first time they are used. After that, their power of meaning is gone. You might conclude that “I Love You” is, thus, an empty phrase. The more you say it, the less it means. But, two-thirds of “The Marriage Plot” plays out the way it does when one of the characters realizes something critical. While Leonard is hospitalized with mental issues, he and Madeleine are discussing Barthes’concept. Leonard quotes Barthes and says: “Once the first avowal has been made… ‘I Love You’ has no meaning whatever”. Maddy responds and then Leonard says: “…think about it. That means the first avowal does have meaning“. Their relationship, which had ended earlier, begins anew.

It’s really difficult for me to discuss the book in detail without giving away the plot. That’s one of the reasons I’m not a book reviewer, I suppose. But I do want to leave you with a summary of my scattered thoughts. One, “The Marriage Plot” is a wonderful book. Two, it might be a bit arrogant to use Derrida and Barthes as the foundations of a popular novel but, in the end, it works! Three, by using Derrida and Barthes to represent the intellectual climate surrounding a group of people coming of age in the late 70’s and early 80’s, “The Marriage Plot” does a quite accurate job of character development. It illustrates, in the way few other novels do, how the postmodern deconstructionist intellectual activity of the time really did have a substantial effect on attitudes and global culture.

Add in a bit of Paris, a little Italy, a romp around India, a heavy dose of manic depression, and an oddly dysfunctional love triangle and what you get is a hell of a novel! Give it a read.

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  1. […] posted here: Derrida, Barthes, and Eugenides: Some Thoughts on “The Marriage … ← True Confessions of a Prodigal Daughter: National Offend a […]

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