W. J. T. Mitchell
J. Hillis Miller, a massively influential literary critic and theorist, passed away at his home in Maine on 9 February 2021. Miller was the author of dozens of important scholarly books on American and English literature, including The Disappearance of God, Poets of Reality, The Linguistic Moment, and The Ethics of Reading. Miller was generally associated with the renowned Yale School of Deconstruction, along with Paul de Man, Geoffrey Hartman, and Jacques Derrida. His work was central to a “golden age of theory” in the 1970s and ’80s that transformed teaching and research, not just in literary study, but across the humanities and social sciences. During his long and storied career, Miller taught at Johns Hopkins University, then at Yale, and finally at the University of California, Irvine. He was a cherished mentor and friend to numerous students, notable for his vast learning, serene patience with apprentice scholars, and irrepressible humor.
Hillis was the second reader of my dissertation on William Blake, which I defended in 1968. After the passing of my director, the formidable Earl Wasserman, Hillis moved readily into the position of mentor and friend to me for the next half century. I have met a lot of smart, even brilliant people in my long career in academia, but Hillis stands out above them all as the wisest man I have ever known. His generosity was legion. He could be a formidable debater, and his mastery of nineteenth- and twentieth-century literature in both English and French was remarkable. But he was always happy to return to the text alongside apprentice scholars and lead them into that marvelous labyrinth known as reading where he guided our searches for both the monsters and the hidden treasures.
I want to recall just one episode from that dark night of the soul known as graduate school. I had arrived as a student in the Johns Hopkins English PhD program in 1964, exactly when Hillis was moving from his own long apprenticeship as a “phenomenological” reader toward the linguistic orientation of deconstruction—in short from a reader of minds to a reader of texts. We were all learning the mantra of Georges Poulet, who taught a generation of critics to identify the cogito of the author: “For Thomas Hardy the world is….[fill in the blank].” In order to find this cogito it was of course necessary to read “every word that the author ever wrote,” a feat that I only accomplished once in my life, but Hillis must have done many times. In his seminar on modern poetry we were discussing T. S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” and one of my fellow students filled an awkward silence with the observation that Prufrock’s name, with its first name replace by a single letter, was an obvious sign of pomposity and class snobbery. There was a long silence around the seminar table as we took in the implications of saying this in front of a distinguished professor with the name of “J. Hillis Miller.” The student began to blush furiously and the rest of us buried ourselves in our books and notes, afraid to look up. Suddenly a deep booming laugh broke the silence, and we looked up to see Hillis convulsed in laughter. “You know,” he said, “I wonder why that never occurred to me before.”
This episode may help to explain why, many years later, a symposium at Irvine in Miller’s honor was organized around the permutations of the letter J. Much of the symposium consisted of elaborate jokes and speculations about Hillis’s enigmatic initial, and what might have become of him if he had gone through life as plain “Joe Miller.” My job as an iconologist was obvious. I had to write about the shape of the letter J. And so I wrote a paper for the symposium entitled “The Serpent in the Wilderness” building upon Hillis’s observation about narrative design:
Retrospective narration is then the retracing of a spatial design already there. That spatial design has been left as remnant after the events are over. The meaning of such remnants is created magically, after the fact, when the results of an action that marked the world are seen.–-J. Hillis Miller
What then, is the “shape of J”? I argued that it was the trace of Miller’s own itinerary through texts, an incomplete U-turn that, when grafted to a second J would result in the familiar S-curve that is an invariable feature of British landscape painting and architecture, famously reinterpreted by Hogarth as the line of beauty, curiosity, and the shape of the devil’s pathway in Milton’s Paradise Lost. Hillis greeted this over-reading of his initial with characteristic generosity, noting that it could have been worse. The juncture of a double J could have led to an image of circular race track where narrative progression would have been impossible.
Hillis was a long-time supporter of Critical Inquiry, both as a member of our editorial board and as an author. His most famous essay, “The Critic as Host” appeared in CI’s pages in 1977 as the opening salvo in what was to become a central debate in the coming decades. The debate was launched at a famous session at the Modern Language Association pitting him against M. H. Abrams, whose magnum opus on British Romanticism, Natural Supernaturalism, had recently been published. Many versions of the stakes in this debate have been proposed: was it about the possibility of truth and certainty in literary interpretation? The relation between critical frameworks and interpretive results? The status of “obvious” and “univocal” meanings? The relation of speech, writing, and consciousness? The ethical relation of authors and readers? Of readers and those who write about reading (critics, scholars, and interpreters)? About language as a tool for communication, or as the environment in which human life is located?
M. H. Abrams critique of Miller was entitled “The Deconstructive Angel,” a title that drew upon an allegorical dialogue in William Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, where Devil and Angel argue over their respective visions of the world. Each accuses the other of imposing their metaphysics on the other. The Angel’s vision of the Devil’s lot is of an “infinite abyss” with a burning city, “vast spiders,” and a fierce Leviathan “advancing toward us with all the fury of a spiritual existence.” When the Angel withdraws from the argument, however, the Devil finds himself “sitting on a pleasant bank beside a river by moon light hearing a harper who sung to the harp. & his theme was, The Man who never alters his opinion is like standing water & breeds reptiles of the mind.”
As a Blake scholar, I always thought that Abrams had made a fatal mistake by labeling Miller the deconstructive Angel. Everyone knew that Miller (along with every competent reader of Blake) was on the side of the Devil. In fact, Blake ends the dialogue with a conversion experience: “Note. This Angel, who is now become a Devil, is my particular friend: we often read the Bible together in its infernal or diabolical sense.” Abrams and Miller remained particular friends for the rest of their days
I don’t know what contemporary readers will make of the Miller/Abrams debate from 1976, or Hillis’s tour de force of transforming the role of criticism from that of a parasite on literature into an expression of boundless hospitality to innovative readings, and new paradigms. What I know for certain is that “The Critic as Host,” was published in Critical Inquiry in only its second year of existence, and helped to launch this journal as the critical host for numerous memorable debates and explosive new critical movements over the next half century. Hillis continued to guide and inspire us well into the twenty-first century. His life as a scholar, mentor, and friend will endure long beyond his passing.
W. J. T. Mitchell is senior editor of Critical Inquiry.
Later published in the proceedings of the conference as “The Serpent in the Wilderness,” in Acts of Narrative, ed. Carol Jacobs and Henry Sussman (Stanford, Calif., 2003), pp. 146-56.