There is an even greater danger than intellectual error in reading literary texts in the comforting favorable light of current theory. The danger is that the text will be treated, not as belonging to someone else, but as mine. It will be read as confirming my own intellectual persuasions and loyalties of feeling. Any differences will be elided or smoothed over. The text will become the next room of my own moral development; it will be arranged on my shelves alongside the other secondary sources that illuminate and augment the primary source of my mind. Its value will reside in its significance to me, not its meaning in itself. The text will be safely solipsized.
An especially comical version of this habit popped up on the literary blogscape the other day when Andrew Seal read Death Comes for the Archbishop,Willa Cather’s historical novel about Jean Baptiste Lamy of Santa Fe (left) and his vicar Joseph Machebeuf (right), as an “achingly beautiful love story about two men.” (I append the photos of the two men to indicate the prima facie unlikelihood of any such interpretation. You gonna believe Seal, or your lying eyes?) After admitting that the interpretation is achingly common (“I know that Cather is often assumed to have been queer herself”), Seal introduces the distinction that really grabs his attention:
He means “significantly more significant.” Meaning is stable; it is assigned forever when an author chooses a distinct and finite set of signs to represent it. Change the signs and the meaning is changed; otherwise it is changeless. Significance, as E. D. Hirsch Jr. says, “names a relationship” between a text and its author, readers, historical era, body of opinion, criteria of value, “or indeed anything imaginable.” Significance varies from reader to reader, era to era. Indeed, there is no gainsaying significance, because there is no probative mechanism for challenging a text’s special relationship to you. All you must do is testify to it.
And that’s how Seal wants his “reading experience” received—as testimony, not as an empirical hypothesis that can be tested and thus falsified. In the terminology of Levinas, he wants his account of her novel to be heard, not as speech for-the-other—not as a statement on Cather’s behalf—but as speech by-the-other, which gives me the responsibility of attending to it as I would to a cry from someone in pain. “It is only in this way,” Levinas says, “that the for-the-other, the passivity more passive still than any passivity, the emphasis of sense, is kept from being for-oneself.”
What Seal fails to notice is that he expects from his own readers what he is unwilling to grant Cather—the charity of respecting his intended meaning. He worries about the “communicative value” of what he is doing to Death Comes for the Archbishop. He is anxious lest sharing his experience of the novel come across as “shallow.” These are the stirrings of conscience.
“Am I,” Seal asks plaintively, “talking to you about the texts, or about myself?” The latter, sir. Rather than seeking evidence that confirms the solipsism of your interpretation you might rummage about for the impervious facts that falsify it. That Cather clearly sympathizes with Bishop Latour’s celibacy over Padre Martínez’s debauchery—that the doctrine of celibacy is crucial to the novel—might give you pause, for example. And in this way you might return from the roadside weeds of autobiography to the garden of knowledge.
 E. D. Hirsch Jr., Validity in Interpretation (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1967), p. 8.
 Emmanuel Levinas, Otherwise than Being, or Beyond Essence (1974), trans. Alphonso Lingis (The Hague: Nijhoff, 1981), p. 50.