Reflection by Ellis Hanson
“The well-bred contradict other people. The wise contradict themselves.”
— Oscar Wilde
If you have understood this epigram by Wilde, then you should have little difficulty with Daniel Wright’s new book, Bad Logic: Reasoning about Desire in the Victorian Novel. Wright does not quote the line, but it would neatly serve his purpose: appreciating bad logic in canonical novels — self-contradiction in Charlotte Brontë, tautology in Anthony Trollope, vagueness in George Eliot, and obscure generality in Henry James. Though he gets no chapter of his own, Wilde is deemed Prince Paradox in this book, and many a modern critic would feel honored to inherit the mantle. Paradox does logic one better by exposing the logical shortcomings of common sense. Such is the paradoxical duty of this book, to write good logic about bad logic in the hope of redeeming it and recovering those pangs of desire that we sacrifice to reasonableness. I am reminded of the livelier and more obscene debate between Good Logic and Bad Logic in Aristophanes’ comedy The Clouds. I may be paying a dubious compliment when I say Wright’s book is so well argued that desire must surely be in retreat once again. He has a fine precision in testing the logical rigor of literary statements, but remains oddly unravished by literary pleasures. He is a critic not to be walked in on. Psychoanalysis too sought to be rigorous about the erotic lure of bad logic, and the work of Jacques Lacan, Leo Bersani, Kaja Silverman, and Lee Edelman is touched upon here, lightly touched, as though to make a substantive argument about sexual psychology might pose too rude an interruption.
“I am what I am” is the phrase whose bad logic most seduces Wright. I am not much won over by it, but that judgment consigns me to the phobic axis of Wright’s helpful if somewhat too abundantly syllabic distinction between the tautologophilic and the tautologophobic (there are always two kinds of people). D. A. Miller is also cast as a tautologophobe when he disses the popular gay showtune anthem “I Am What I Am,” sung by the out and proud drag queen Albin, who steals the show in La Cage aux Folles (Miller’s preference for the more closeted pleasures of Gypsy shows, for what it is worth, that he is what he is). Wright acknowledges Miller’s critique, though he neglects to cite the most brilliantly withering line from it: “‘I am what I am, and what I am needs no excuses,’ but this Yahweh-like claim gets retracted in every subsequent line of Albin’s apologia, which does nothing but badger and cajole the others he professes not to need” (Miller, Place for Us, 8). Yes, you are what you are, though the assertion begs every question that could be asked about you and about your civil rights. I have deployed this tautology myself in a certain sort of homophobic context where I might need to brazen it out for a few minutes while I quickly scope around for the nearest exit. Wright cites Gayatri Spivak’s coinage of the phrase “strategic essentialism” and Diana Fuss’s “now classic defense” of it, even though he seems aware that it is merely a contradiction in terms. Essences transcend strategies, after all. But can Wright still brazen it out when the exit is the last sentence of his book? “Whether one hears me or not, whether one acknowledges the self-evidence of my claim — indeed, whether or not I can entirely understand it myself — I am what I am.”
As in musical theater, always start slow, end big!