Monday, October 19, 2009

Existence of the text

“As an object a book can sit around for years, resting comfortably on a library shelf, but as a text,” I wrote a decade ago, summarizing the conventional wisdom, “it does not exist at all unless it is read, interpreted, understood.” I went on to contest the conventional wisdom, arguing that literary texts place ethical demands upon their readers which are logically prior to interpretation.

The demands are also epistemological. While it is a commonplace to assert that literary texts exist only in the experience of some reader, there are, as J. V. Cunningham says, difficulties with this assertion. The most obvious one is that the experiences of different readers are different, and different too for the same reader at different readings. But what is more, the reader could not possibly mean his immediate experience of reading the text, because then he could never think or speak of the text as a whole:

We could only deal with this moment in my experience of the [text], and we would have to treat our aesthetic experiences as Rochester treated his erotic, regarding each moment as absolute: “All my past life is mine no more. . . . The present moment’s all my lot.”[1]Cunningham substitutes this theorem: the text is the experience of having experienced the text. It can only be recollected. It is, to expand the observation, “a method for discriminating between the relevant and the irrelevant in those experiences” of reading the text—different persons’, the same person’s at different times.

Much the same could be said of personal experience. I recollect the various parts of my life, and arrange them in some kind of order. In this way I construct my personality.

The difference is that the parts of my life are not the parts of your life, while the parts of a literary text are the same for both of us. Or, rather, they have to be the same if the text is to serve as a method for discriminating the relevant from irrelevant in critical response. My reading experience differs from my personal experience in this way: as Cunningham says, it is “subject to verification and correction, and hence it has an element of externality in it.” I am not trapped in my own skull.

The errors in a text, the secondhand editorial revisions of it, are not irrelevant to it. If I am responding to Hamlet I want to respond to Hamlet, and not to an actor’s flubbing of a line or the director’s cuts. The more often I read Hamlet (or attend performances of it) the more likely I am to spot flubs and cuts. The “cumulative reexperience,” Cunningham says, brings me “nearer and nearer to the norm of that experience which is ideally implicit in the work.”

But the norm consists of the principles by which a text is constructed. It is these which permit a critic to protest that a production runs roughshod over an artist’s original vision. If we are to know the principles by which a text is constructed, though, we need to know whether these include revisions by a second hand—like Gordon Lish’s mucking with some of Raymond Carver’s stories. Not to distinguish which hand is the editor’s and which is the author’s is to remain ignorant of at least some of the principles by which a text is constructed. It is to remain ignorant of the text.

[1] J. V. Cunningham, “Poetry, Structure, and Tradition,” in The Collected Essays (Chicago: Swallow, 1976), p. 143.


scott g.f.bailey said...

This is an interesting line of thought you've been pursuing lately. But I wonder if, in some cases, the idea of a text which is the text is meaningful. We do not, for example, have a Shakespeare-approved text of "Hamlet." Yet theater-goers, who invariably experience an edited version of the play, have been presented with a text of some kind.

Is not one of Lish's versions of Chandler a text of its own, even if it's not Chandler's text? Readers have been experiencing something all these years when they read Chandler and when they watch Shakespeare. Have they been reading/watching non-texts?

Perhaps this question is more easily answered in the case of Chandler, where comparisons can be made between what he wrote and what Lish changed. But in cases like Shakespeare, where an authentic text is impossible to locate, do we throw up our hands and declare that it's impossible to get anything from "Hamlet" because we have no idea what the Bard actually wrote for us?

Or am I missing your point?

D. G. Myers said...

The text?

You are right, Scott, that it may be chimerical. As I wrote below, “[I]t becomes less pressing to settle upon an authoritative text, reflecting the author’s ultimate intention,” if we shift our demands from the author’s technique to his message.

You are also right that the Lish-mucked-up texts of Carver’s stories are texts in their own right. I have argued that these texts contain nonsense or accidental meanings—textual features no more significant than page breaks, because they are not the operations of the author’s intention—which damage or destroy the stories. But even if you prefer the Lish-mucked-up versions, you need to know where and how they were mucked up, or you just cannot know the texts at all.

What is wanted, in my opinion, are texts in which errors and confusion are identified—corrected where possible, emended only when clearly labeled as emendations—and secondhand interference is eliminated altogether. Although we can never achieve that ideal with Shakespeare, that is the ideal that orients every effort to edit Shakespeare.