Friday, October 09, 2009

Concept of the unified text

As I observed in replying to Guy Pursey’s polite skepticism toward the parodic goof by which I pretended to make meaning out of the page breaks in Lolita, literary critics treat the text as if it were the unified product of a single mind, even when it is a composite assembly. The concept of a unified text is the unspoken presupposition behind all literary criticism.

This concept links post-1970 literary theory to the New Criticism, which it otherwise sought to take down a peg or two. Even someone like Stanley Fish, “who preach[es] the instability of the text and the unavailability of determinate meanings,” falls back on the concept. Fish holds that “the meaning of an utterance would be severely constrained, not after it was heard but in the ways in which it could, in the first place, be heard.”[1] The plurality of a text’s meaning, in other words, is a consequence of the different ways in which it could possibly be read. Plural meanings do not result from a multiplicity of sources of meaning within the text itself. The unitary text yields multiple interpretations because of its different reception in different “interpretive communities.” The text, though, remains unitary.

The problem is that literary critics accept on faith the published text that sits on the desk by their left elbow as they type up their conclusions. Uncurious about how it came to assume its current form, they treat the fact of publication as authoritative. The real author, whoever he or she is, quietly disappears from view.

Their lack of curiosity about the author’s text has repeatedly tripped critics up. Perhaps the most famous instance was when F. O. Matthiessen, discussing Melville’s working methods in American Renaissance, praises an arresting image in White-Jacket:

[H]ardly anyone but Melville could have created the shudder that results from calling this frightening vagueness some “soiled fish of the sea.” The discordia concors, the unexpected linking of the medium of cleanliness with filth, could only have sprung from an imagination that had apprehended the terrors of the deep, of the immaterial deep as well as the physical.[2]The trouble was that Melville had not created the shudder. The “unexpected linking of . . . cleanliness with filth” was a compositor’s error. Melville had written “coiled fish of the sea.”

What is the moral of the story? According to Steven Mailloux, it is not quite right to say that “responsible editing is a necessary preliminary to sound criticism”; the more accurate conclusion would be that “editing is criticism”—that is, “editing is an extension of the same rhetorical activity that results in published arguments establishing a text’s literary and historical meaning. . . .”[3] But Mailloux also confuses the published text for the authoritative text. At best, the textual editor restores an text’s original unity—and to the end, of course, of establishing a new authoritative text upon its publication. The concept of a unified text remains unchanged and in charge.

There is a fundamental distinction between a textual scholar who corrects typos and a go-to-town editor like Gordon Lish, who carves an altogether new text out of the author’s pumpkin. Whether or not you agree with Mailloux’s assumption that critics and not authors establish a text’s “literary and historical meaning,” an editor like Lish establishes the published text out of which the critics, unconcerned about problems of authorship and authority, whip up interpretations.

I have been using Raymond Carver’s early story “Will You Please Be Quiet, Please?” as my prooftext. Consider the last sentence of Carver’s original version when set alongside Lish’s edited version.

December, West Springs, Ill. (December 1966)
Will You Please Be Quiet, Please? (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1976)
He continued to stare, marvelling at the changes he dimly felt taking place inside him.
He turned and turned in what might have been a stupendous sleep, and he was still turning, marveling at the impossible changes he felt moving over him.

In disputing Lish’s editorial revisions with Kevin Neilson, who maintains that he is not troubled by them, I have repeatedly asked for an interpretation of the phrase impossible changes. He would not satisfy my request, but since then I have found one.

My own argument is that the phrase is meaningless, and for two reasons: (1.) it reflects Gordon Lish’s intention rather than Raymond Carver’s, and (2.) what the philosopher John Searle calls the “intention in action” that gives meaning to a literary utterance at the moment of composition is beyond human knowing, because there is no means of recovering the intention behind Lish’s one-word insertion. There is simply not enough evidence.

But this has not stopped critics from offering interpretations. In my first post on the problem, I cited a reading by Charles E. May that is invalidated by the critic’s ignorance of the text’s composite nature. Here is the reading that I found earlier today; it is even more strained than May’s. In American Literature, Kirk Nesset quotes the sentence as edited by Lish, and remarks: “With the repetition of the gerund, Carver suggests on the level of syntax the kinds of possibility residing in the ‘impossible,’ emphasizing that the road to recovery is part of the journey, too.”[4]

One gerund belongs to one man, the other to another—but Nesset assumes they belong to the same unified text, even though there is no authority whatever for such an assumption. Having made that assumption, though, Nesset can proceed to an interpretation of Lish’s one-word insertion impossible. The meaning arises from his own presupposition, arrived at in ignorance of the story’s textual history. The phrase impossible changes has meaning if and only if a unified text is assumed, but that assumption is, as I have shown, unwarranted and unsustainable.

Fish is right, then, that the ways in which “Will You Please Be Quiet, Please?” can be read are always constrained, but in post-1970 literary theory, as Foucault has said, the “system of constraint . . . will no longer be the author. . . .”[5] Questions of authorship are laughed off, but only because literary critics have invested authority in a published text whose history they are not interested in.
____________________

[1] Stanley Fish, Is There a Text in This Class? The Authority of Interpretive Communities (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1980), pp. 305–07.

[2] F. O. Matthiessen, American Renaissance: Art and Expression in the Age of Emerson and Whitman (New York: Oxford University Press, 1941), p. 392.

[3] Steven Mailloux, “Reading Typos, Reading Archives,” College English (May 1999): 586.

[4] Kirk Nesset, “ ‘This Word Love’: Sexual Politics and Silence in Early Raymond Carver,” American Literature 63 (June 1991): 310.

[5] Michel Foucault, “What Is an Author?” in Textual Strategies: Perspectives in Post-Structuralist Criticism, ed. Josué V. Harari (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1979), p. 160.

7 comments:

Kevin said...

"In disputing Lish’s editorial revisions with Kevin Neilson, who maintains that he is not troubled by them, I have repeatedly asked for an interpretation of the phrase impossible changes. He would not satisfy my request, but since then I have found one."

Dear Professor Myers, you've mischaracterized my view.

I think Lish's edits are heavyhanded in the extreme; I see very little or no justification for them.

I'm not troubled by the relationship between Carver's authorial intent (i.e., his speaker meaning) and the semantic meaning of the words, sentences, and stories that go under his name (i.e., the Lishified material that made Carver famous).

You're troubled by it; I'm not.

That's all.

Regards,
Kevin

P.S. Would you like to go Between the Lines? I think you'd bring a very unique perspective to literary experience. Let me know, and I'll send you questions offline.

D. G. Myers said...

A distinction without a difference, if you’ll pardon the expression, Kevin.

First, you have not established that the sentences originally written by Carver and then revised by Lish have a semantic meaning.

And you misunderstand Searle in citing him in defense of your position. According to him, what matters in complex utterances such as literary texts are what he calls “intentions in action.”

Secondly, then, you and I are not talking about the same thing when we talk about authorial intention. It is not a prior plan that the writer carefully follows. That is what Wimsatt and Beardsley called intention in order to declare its existence a fallacy. About that much they were right. And that is what you seem to mean by the term authorial intention.

It is not what I mean, however. Authorial intention on my understanding is the intellectual procedure by which meaning is built into a literary text, sentence by sentence as it is written.

To lose the thread of that intention, whether by misreading typos as the author’s words or mistaking an editor’s revisions for the author’s words, is to create nonsense.

That some nonsensical short fiction is celebrated under the name of Raymond Carver is deeply troubling to me.

Lish damaged or destroyed Carver’s early stories, and instead of trying to retrieve them from destruction, critics seem interested only in repeating again and again the chant of Carver’s greatness (his prose, says one critic sagely, is “unforgiving”) without any interest whatever in its source.

Cara Powers said...

Fascinating and highly educational. I'm glad I've added you to my feedreader.

scott g.f.bailey said...

The post regarding page breaks in "Lolita" was hi-sterical; thanks for that. The question of authorial intention is certainly an interesting one. Few writers get into print without an editor (or copyeditor) putting his own stamp onto the work. I have read statements from fiction editors at large publishers discussing their "vision" of what a work should be, and how authors are failing to grasp that vision. At what point does the author's original work become nonsense?

I don't argue against the claim that Lish's edits moved Chandler's stories away from Chandler's authorship in some way, but I have doubts, possibly, about the underlying idea that edited works lack some sort of "true meaning" found in the original. Unless I am mistaking your meaning.

As I say, it's an interesting problem.

Kevin said...

You write, “A distinction without a difference, if you’ll pardon the expression, Kevin.”

You’re pardoned.

You continue, “First, you have not established that the sentences originally written by Carver and then revised by Lish have a semantic meaning.”

Sentence meaning, to be more precise.

Consider this sentence:

“On a certain day in June, 19—, a young man was making his way on foot northward from the great City to a town or place called Edgewood.”

What’s the authorial intention of this sentence?

I have no clue.

Do you?

If so, how do you know?

Do you deny that it’s a meaningful sentence, a comprehensible sentence, one that gives readers a foothold on the story were they to continue reading it?

If you find the sentence utterly meaningless, I can only offer my sympathies.

You write, “And you misunderstand Searle in citing him in defense of your position. According to him, what matters in complex utterances such as literary texts are what he calls ‘intentions in action.’”

In Searle’s analysis of intentional causation, which is a more general phenomenon under which speech acts are subsumed, he is very careful to distinguish between speaker meaning and sentence meaning. This distinction is the spine that runs through his analysis of intentionality (i.e.,. how the mind relates to the world) and language (i.e., how the mind imposes meaning on acoustic blasts and written symbols).

You write, “Authorial intention on my understanding is the intellectual procedure by which meaning is built into a literary text, sentence by sentence as it is written.”

But once written, Quixote, for instance, is a complex linguistic artifact that stand on its own.

It has an existence independent of its creator.

We can read the words, sentences, and story; we can study its grammar, methods, and techniques, as well as its unfolding pattern of meaning WITHOUT reference to the private contents of Cervantes’ mind or to the unique intellectual procedure by which he built a glorious fictional world.

Now you can confabulate about the inner workings of his mind when he composed Quixote if you want.

I choose not to — it’s an extra-textual activity that’s not necessary for inhabiting the splendors of Quixote and being transformed by it, etc.

Lastly, you write, “That some nonsensical short fiction is celebrated under the name of Raymond Carver is deeply troubling to me.”

Especially if its quality is superior to the Carver-Lish Franken-beast.

Regards,
Kevin

P.S. As a side note, I got my copy of Home by Robinson and will be reading it this weekend — and avoiding the Internet.

R. T. said...

I enjoy your discussion of the wobbly texts of Nabokov, Melville, and Carver. May I add another author to the discussion of unstable, variable texts: Consider Emily Dickinson. The author's intent (especially with respect to punctuation and capitalization)--whatever that might be worth as being necessary to criticism--had plenty of variations imposed by a hundred years of editors. Should a reader (and critic) rely upon the handwritten originals or the printed variations? Also consider the "new" Hemingway recently published. Then consider this: Might it all be much ado about nothing? After all, no text is perfectly stable because it constantly changes (becomes different for different readers) within its constantly changing cultural and historical contexts. The concern about the instability says more about the reader and critic than it does about the text.

Guy Pursey said...

I'd been reading the posts on Carver and Lish and authorial intention with some interest and now feel I can say, with slightly less self-consciousness (or fear of retribution at least), that I've never read any Carver precisely because Lish's reputation precedes him so. At most, I've flicked through a Carver story because it happened to be in a collection. I've never been sure how I should approach his work and so I never really have.

The same sort of logic (or anxiety) is at work behind my not reading much literature in translation. Though I also, for now, feel there's enough in the way of English-language fiction for me to read and re-read (or just the latter if Nabokov is to be believed).

However, I will be interested to see David Foster Wallace's The Pale King when it's released next year. You've only mentioned David Foster Wallace a few times on this blog and only ever in passing. Does the upcoming book interest you and do you think it adds anything of interest to the argument you present here? The New York Times claims that there isn't a finished manuscript of The Pale King but that Wallace arranged what he had done in such a way as to suggest a wish that it be published posthumously. According to an interview on Wisconsin Public Radio his long-time editor Michael Pietsch is going through the material now and I read somewhere (unfortunately, I can't remember where) that it will be published with notes, outlines and fragments of drafts where sections seem less complete.

Though I imagine Nabokov's The Original of Laura will present more of a challenge for critics who are interested in the source and history and making of a text. How does authorial intention apply to a text that the author wished destroyed?