Deconstruction

In my previous post, I used a funeral from Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind to make a point about language: sometimes conciseness isn’t the answer.

Today I want to focus your attention on something else – an apparently unimportant detail about that funeral. Ashley Wilkes was able to recite the Episcopal graveside service from memory because it was used at the funerals of deceased slaves. I’m going to use that detail to make a point about deconstruction.

Few Americans – alas – have the patience to work their way through the dense and difficult writings of Jacques Derrida, the French philosopher who coined that term. In the US, deconstruction is often dismissed as a silly verbal pastime.

Admirers of Derrida (I’m one) have a different view. We’re interested in “deconstructing” (taking apart) a written work to uncover its gaps and contradictions. In Derrida’s view, seemingly minor details can lead us to new depths of meaning.

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Gone with the Wind never actually shows us a slave’s funeral – 0r, for that matter, any details about the everyday lives of Tara’s slaves. We never get to see where the slaves live, what they eat, or how they rear their children. The slaves in Gone with the Wind always play supporting roles in the lives of Scarlett O’Hara and her family, friends, and suitors.

So: were slaves given a funeral similar to Gerald’s? Who made the decision to use an Episcopal graveside service – and why? Who planned those funerals and presided over them? How did mourners position themselves at the graveside?

Answering those questions will help us see – vividly and powerfully – how cruelly the institution of slavery robbed African-Americans of even the simplest kind of human dignity: the right to choose how you bury your dead. Even though Mitchell was careful to shield readers from reminders about the realities of slavery, hints found their way into her novel – if we take the time to look for them and think about them.

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Despite its gaps and bias, Gone with the Wind is a fascinating novel. (You can probably tell I’ve been through all 960 pages many times.) No novel – or any other written work, for that matter – can depict life in all its complexity. The surprise is that the truths we try to suppress will always find their way into a written work – if we have the patience to look for them.

Careful attention to details will help us find answers to some essential questions: Is there a constituency that has been denied a voice? (Think of all the writers from the past who treated women, servants, workers, and minorities as if they were invisible.) Have any important incidents or events been omitted? (Gone with the Wind glosses over the first three years of Reconstruction, when the South missed its chance to right some of its past wrongs.)

Up to now I’ve been talking about a more attentive way to read a novel or nonfiction book. Is there a takeaway for us writers? Yes. We need to keep a lookout for our own gaps and omissions. The questions I just raised about constituencies that have been silenced and events that have been omitted can be good starting points, especially for writers interested in memoirs and fiction.

Perhaps the most important question for writers is whether “thoughtful and intelligent” has to mean “heavy-handed and boring.” If (as I believe) the answer is no, then we have to ask another question: what are the best strategies for writers to attain their goals?

More about all of this in my next post.

Jacques Derrida

                        Jacques Derrida

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