Sunday, August 02, 2009

Solipsism in interpretation

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:

I think it’s completely, 100% intellectually valid to read the novel as a very queer love story. But I also know that the novel doesn’t make this reading necessary, and that arguing someone into a queer reading might be a self-defeating proposition: you haven’t given them the experience of reading the novel this way, just the idea that it can be read this way. And I think being able to share the experience of reading a novel is sometimes much more important than being able to convince someone that your idea of a novel is possible or valid.By this means Seal seems to believe that he has insulated himself from the refutation that Cather’s homosexuality (and thus a “very queer” reading of the novel) logically cannot be “assumed” if another explanation of the facts is equally plausible. He shrugs that his “revisionary reading” is not supported by the text “very well,” but he prefers it to “a ‘straight’ reading” (ha ha ha), because it draws him “deeper into the book” and renders it “significantly more meaningful.”

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.”[1] 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.”[2]

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.

[1] E. D. Hirsch Jr., Validity in Interpretation (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1967), p. 8.

[2] Emmanuel Levinas, Otherwise than Being, or Beyond Essence (1974), trans. Alphonso Lingis (The Hague: Nijhoff, 1981), p. 50.


R/T said...

I could have read Cather's novel over a dozen times (which I have actually done over the years) and never--I mean never--gone the direction of Seal's reading. I applaud your reasoned approach to his unreasonable distortion of a beautiful novel of faith (and not a homoerotic excoriation of priests on the western frontier in the 19th century). I particularly like the way you underscore the dangerous distortions that can when when applying fashionable contemporary literary theory to texts. I wonder, though, about how Seal will react to your correction. The exchange promises to be lively.

R/T said...


"dangerous distortions that can when applying" should read "dangerous distortions that can happen when critics are applying"

I regret the sloppy keyboarding error.

litlove said...

I think you are going to have to explain this distinction between meaning and significance to me a little further. I presume both terms come from Hirsch's theory? (It's a theory I'm not familiar with). Only I know my own thoughts about something I've written change over time; so does 'meaning' therefore refer only to the meaning invested by the author at the time of writing, and from then on the author has a relation of significance to his writing, the same as any other reader? Or what if an author realises after years have passed what his text really 'means' - can he only ever be deluded by a change of mind? Or, is 'meaning' something wholly abstract and generally unknowable to all concerned, writer included, but which we may posit exists?

I also wonder how this works in relation to some of the great intentional fallacies - Zola and Naturalism, for instance. Zola insisted his texts were examples of Naturalism, but if we follow Zola's written theory of Naturalism, it's clear that his novels fail to follow its principles. How can Zola be right as to the meaning of both his own fiction and his own theory, if there is a marked incompatibility between them at the point where they are intended to coincide?

I'm just curious.

D. G. Myers said...

How could changing your mind about something already written and published change what it means? If you go back and rewrite it you can change its meaning. Otherwise what changes is its significance to you.

Whether a text relates to an ism is clearly a question of significance, since it is relational. For Zola to describe his novels as examples of Naturalism is an account after-the-fact of their significance. On this question he has a little more (but not much more) authority than any other critic who comes to his novels after the fact of their writing.

litlove said...

You have a faith in the transparency of language that I lack, D. G. How do you account for phrases of semantic uncertainty, for instance the typical notice you see on the London underground: 'Dogs Must Be Carried On The Tube'. It could equally mean a) if you have a dog you must carry it, and b) to get on the tube, you need to be carrying a dog. There is nothing within the sentence to indicate which is correct, and we would have to trust entirely to the sentence to deliver up its 'meaning'.

And how would it work with poetry which courts internal linguistic ambiguity?

I'm uncomfortable with the notion of meaning as an absolute, when language is not a realm of clear and instantly intelligible, unambiguous messages.

D. G. Myers said...

Please help me. Where O where did I say that meaning is absolute?

Literary texts that are ambiguous, in some or all of Empson’s famous seven types, are permanently ambiguous. Like Holden Caulfield, I might wish that I could phone up the author and ask what he meant. Even if he were still around to pick up the phone, however, he could only inform me of the text’s significance.

On the other hand, some ambiguities are merely supposed so. Philological inquiry may disperse the supposition.

Whatever the ambiguity of the notice Dogs Must Be Carried On The Tube, it does not refer to unattractive women, cowards, blackguards, metal supports for logs in a fireplace, or frankfurters—all of which are slang or alternate meanings of the word dog.