Guest Post by Charles Lewis – Rorty as Thersites: A Bibliographical Note

Abstract: In this note Charles Lewis draws attention to an item missing from bibliographies of Richard Rorty, namely a satirical article published under the pseudonym “Thersites Minor” in the journal MLN. The article illustrates Rorty’s amused interest in the antics of contemporary literary theorists.

There is an item that seems to be absent from current bibliographies of the work of Richard Rorty — namely a short article published in the MLN Comparative Literature issue for 1979. The reason, no doubt, is that it was published under a pseudonym — and indeed an appropriate one given Rorty’s satirical intent. It might be regarded as a scurrilous annex to the essay on Derrida that he had published the year before, one that parodies the tortured style of some of the latest literary theorists.

I have found only two references to the article, both of them apparently oblivious as to its true author. One is in a review of Charles Segal’s book Dionysiac Poetics and Euripides’ Bacchae, where Carl A. Rubino notes that Segal “chooses a notable series of short texts to head each of his chapters: […] evocative passages culled from Plato, Hölderlin [etc.],” while adding in a footnote:

For a satiric view of ‘liminal quotations’ and other excesses of contemporary criticism, see Thersites Minor, ‘How to be a New [sic] Critic: Metonymic Mumblings or a Generative Grammar [sic] of Apposite Apothegms’ […]. It is a pleasure to report that Segal generally avoids the excesses targeted there.

The article is also included in UC Irvine’s Critical Theory Offprint Collection, MS.C.007 (1939–1994), Box 15, catalogued (amusingly enough) as “Minor, Thersites, undated; Physical Description: 1 item”; on the other hand, three items for “Rorty, Richard” are listed under Box 18.

How do I know that the article is by Rorty?

I was a junior colleague of his at Princeton in 1979–1982, having been recruited by the Philosophy Department to teach what was known as “Continental Philosophy” — in effect, philosophy by authors whom the rest of the faculty were mostly unwilling to read, let alone teach. The chief exception of course was Rorty himself, whose interests were increasingly leading him in that direction. At some point he mentioned to me that someone had published in MLN a spoof guide to the latest literary theory. Shortly afterwards, he came clean by presenting me with a photocopy bearing the following inscription:

Bouvard et Pecuchet [sic] en Amérique — a minor footnote to a few of your remarks last spring.
Χαῖρε
Dick (a.k.a. T.M).

I have no recollection of the “remarks” alluded to, which he perhaps misremembered. But the important point is that the “a.k.a.” settles the question of authorship.

The article is an interesting document of its times, as well as exemplifying Dick’s wit and erudition. I should add that the copy given to me includes a typed footnote which is absent from the published version. Thus, in the concluding section entitled “Laws without Order or the Methods of Our Madness (Tractatus Heautontimoroumenos),” entry no. 30 reads:

THE LOUIS NAPOLEON PRINCIPLE: All great events in critical history occur twice — first as outrage and second as textbooks. (Hegel somewhere failed to describe this as the inevitable vector from secession to parody.)

to which a footnote 4 now added:

History, as an occasional distraction to the Newer Critic’s work, perhaps deserves another axiom (with thanks to John Pocock for a variant): “L’Histoire c’est les Autres; le Texte c’est Moi.”

But my personal favourite is from the immediately preceding section entitled “Franchising or the Critical Crock of Gold”:

A foreign firm, Schizo Industries, has failed so far to establish a firm foothold in the American market for its health-food line composed entirely of organic rhizomes, served by an Anti-Imperialist staff outfitted in leather.

I had no idea that Dick had read Deleuze and Guattari. But then, he had read — or was prepared to read — everything.


Charles Lewis is author of The Law of Poetry: Studies in Hölderlin’s Poetics (Cambridge 2019) http://www.mhra.org.uk/publications/Law-Poetry.


Notes

Rorty’s essay is published as Thersites Minor, “How to be a Newer Critic: Metonymic Mumblings or A Generative Lexicon of Apposite Apothegms,” MLN, Vol. 94, No. 5 (Dec. 1979), pp. 1189–1198. See the bibliographies at https://web.stanford.edu/~mvr2j/rr/biblio_2007.html [accessed 29 March 2022] and in The Philosophy of Richard Rorty, ed. by Randall E. Auxier and Lewis Edwin Hahn; The Library of Living Philosophers, Vol. 32 (Chicago and La Salle, IL 2010), pp. 677–725. The essay itself is at https://www.jstor.org/stable/2906573 [accessed 29 March 2022].

“published under a pseudonym”: Thersites, a character in the Iliad, later became the archetype of the scurrilous critic. See Troilus and Cressida, 1.3.193: “A slave whose gall coins slanders like a mint” (The Norton Shakespeare, New York and London 1997, p. 1849).

“the essay on Derrida”: “Philosophy as a Kind of Writing: An Essay on Derrida,” New Literary History, Vol. 10, No. 1 (Autumn 1978), pp. 141–160. See the distinction drawn there between two philosophical traditions: “The first likes to present itself as a straightforward, down-to-earth, scientific attempt to get things right. The second needs to present itself obliquely, with the help of as many foreign words and as much allusiveness and name-dropping as possible” (p. 143).

“a review of Charles Segal’s book”: in Phoenix, Vol. 38, No. 3 (Autumn 1984), pp. 279–282 (p. 279).

“in UC Irvine’s Critical Theory Offprint Collection”: at https://oac.cdlib.org/findaid/ark:/13030/tf5q2nb391/?query=critical [accessed 29 March 2022].

“whose interests were increasingly leading him in that direction”: see Rorty, “Intellectual Autobiography,” in The Philosophy of Richard Rorty (note 1 above), at pp. 13–14.

“Dick had read Deleuze and Guattari”: perhaps he had not yet (at least to any great extent) in 1979, as I am informed by Fred Dolan that “Dana [Villa] and I got Rorty to do that in the spring semester of 1981, when we had a directed reading course with him.” Fred also reports Rorty’s verdict on Anti-Oedipus: “It’s Whitehead all over again.”

1 Comment Guest Post by Charles Lewis – Rorty as Thersites: A Bibliographical Note

  1. Paul D. VanPelt

    Have read a portion of Rorty’s work. Upon reflection, I should have recognized the spirit, if not the letter(s) of satire therein. Thanks for the insight and information on a side of the philosopher I had overlooked.

    Reply

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