Monday, October 19, 2009

“Experience of the text”

The condition of literary texts—their mode of existence, to use a phrase from Wellek and Warren’s Theory of Literature—is treated by critics and theorists alike as a non-problem. Daniel Green, for example, dismisses the problem, relying upon his “experience of the text” to see him through.

The philosopher Kendall Walton says something, in passing, that shows why the experience of the text will be an unsteady foundation for judgment, unless the critic inquires into the condition of the text:

When the entirety of a work is to be attributed to a single narrator, what he says or writes is all we have to go on. We cannot run background checks on his character or verify independently what he tells us.[1]What this breezy confidence leaves out of account is the possibility of human error.

Early in Chapter 16 of his Adventures, for example, Huck Finn says that he and Jim “talked about Cairo, and wondered whether we would know it when we got to it.” Worried that they won’t, they hit upon a plan. Huck would “paddle ashore the first time a light showed, and tell them pap was behind, and was a green hand at the business, and wanted to know how far it was to Cairo.” They smoke on it, and wait. The next paragraph begins like this: “There wasn’t nothing to do, now, but to look out sharp for the town, and not pass it without seeing it.”

What became of the plan to paddle ashore? According to Walton, falling back upon the presupposition of the integral text, its precipitate disappearance is attributed to the narrator:If it is fictional that the narrator is honest, intelligent, and knowledgable, that and the fact that fictionally he asserts such and such are likely to imply that fictionally such and such is the case. If fictionally he is confused, ignorant, or a liar, these implications may not go through. (p. 360)So the plan’s disappearance might be chalked up to his unreliability as a narrator (on his own testimony, Huck tells “stretchers”), or perhaps, in the hands of an adept interpreter, it can serve as evidence of his ambivalence over helping a slave to flee—and then the implication is that Huck tricked Jim, saying one thing and doing another.

The truth is less attractive. “This nonsense was created,” Hershel Parker points out, “when Mark Twain agreed to drop, from between the two paragraphs, the raftsman episode, which contained the reason for the decision not to ask anyone else but just to watch out for the town.”[2] Despite what Walton says, in other words, a “background check” can be run—on the condition of the text.

If the “experience of the text” is all that a critic has to go on, how can he be sure that he is not experiencing a screw-up as “literary art”?

Update: He can’t.

[1] Kendall Walton, Mimesis as Make-Believe: On the Foundations of the Representational Arts (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1990), p. 359. Emphasis in original. Further reference in parentheses.

[2] Hershel Parker, Flawed Texts and Verbal Icons: Literary Authority in American Fiction (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1984), p. 4.