Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Seventeen ideas about interpretation

1. Literature exceeds criticism. There are no complete interpretations; there are only complete poems, novels, plays.

2. Criticism is about literature. It makes a gesture toward identifying or illuminating some aspect(s) of a work or works.

3. Criticism is not a negation of pleasure. Knowing more about what it is you’re reading can only inform and deepen pleasure, if there’s genuine pleasure to be had. Knowledge (not ignorance) is bliss.

4. One interprets, but one interprets what’s there. In other words, criticism involves a reader and a text.

5. We can value works that concern our own particular preoccupations. But we can’t merely hunt for — or worse, create — our own preoccupations within texts. We can also read for something other than our own preoccupations. Or we might find in a work of literature a new preoccupation. Thomas Merton, a Trappist monk, was a serious student of Buddhism.

6. It’s a truism to say that a work of literature means something different to each reader. But the meanings of a work of literature are contained in language, and words cannot mean anything.

7. What a text can be said to mean and what its author can be said to have meant: these are two ways of talking about the same thing.

8. The meaning of the text isn’t in an author’s mind but in all the relevant intricacies of her or his words.

9. How do you know what an author meant? By reading and reading and reading what she or he wrote and constructing a sense of what the text means. And, perhaps, after doing that for a long time, by reading what other (good) readers have written too.

10. A text’s significance is not of its author’s making. For instance, the ways in which the Iliad has a particular significance to the philosopher Simone Weil thinking about Nazi Germany, or to the poet Alice Notley thinking about the war in Vietnam. For instance, the ways in which William Wordsworth’s “I wandered lonely as a cloud” can serve as a paradigm for thinking about Romantic poetry and nature.

11. A question to always consider: what’s the basis for making a particular interpretive move? What’s the basis for saying that the red wheelbarrow is anything other than a wheelbarrow? The basis for a move might be an appeal to what an author meant, to textual evidence, or to interpretive conventions. It’s not enough just to say that “x” is what you get from the poem. The questions that follow: Did you really get “x” from the poem? (See no. 5.) If so how? And if so, is the how a plausible how? (Is, say, counting the number of letters in a poem a plausible how?)

12. Good readers notice details, and they know what details have pointed them toward particular understandings of what they’ve read.

13. Many student-readers don’t realize that interpretation is typically a matter of adjusting and refining and revising — noticing one detail, noticing another, noticing something else that requires rethinking what you were thinking. The hermeneutic circle — from a sense of the parts we construct a sense of the whole; from a sense of the whole, we construct a sense of the parts — suggests that interpretation is continually under revision. All of which might mean that really reading works of literature often demands more time than is available in a survey course.

14. Many student-readers profess disdain for “the critics” while simultaneously seeing in critical work an enormous interpretive authority.

15. It’s not scandalous that critics can often explicate works with greater facility than the makers of those works can muster. The work of noticing and explaining is different from the work of making literature, just as musicological analysis is different from making music. And many makers, whatever their critical abilities, prefer not to explain, just as composers and visual artists do. An interpretation provided by a maker would in any event be an interpretation. (See no. 1.)

16. To say that an interpretation is plausible need not mean that you agree with it. To say that an interpretation is plausible is to say that it deserves consideration. Allowing for points of view other than your own is typically called critical pluralism.

17. What makes an interpretation plausible? The ways in which it accounts or doesn’t account for a text. What makes an interpretation implausible? The ways in which it accounts or doesn’t account for a text.

[The number in the post title is no Internet ploy: I wrote these observations, with this title, somewhere in the late 1980s or the early 1990s, probably to share with students in a course on “theory.” The printout is from an Apple ImageWriter. What’s underlined there is italicized here.The context for no. 11: a hypothetical off-the-wall interpretation of William Carlos Williams’s “The Red Wheelbarrow.” See also this post.]

From the same file folder
Aglio e olio
The Art Ensemble of Chicago in Boston
Coppola/“Godfather” sauce
Jim Doyle on education
Mary Backstayge marigold seeds
A Meeting with Ludwig Wittgenstein
Tile-pilfering questionnaire

comments: 9

Chris said...

Isn't their a conflict between #7 ("What a text can be said to mean and what its author can be said to have meant: these are two ways of talking about the same thing") and #10 ("A text's significance is not of its author's making...")?

Stefan said...

I guessed that you must have written the list in the late 80s even before I got to the bracketed explanation. The references to Wordsworth and WCW tipped me off. I learned them both (and lots more) in your class, and I'm still reading them. Thanks for the great list (and lots more).

Michael Leddy said...

Chris, that’s a distinction that E.D. Hirsch makes (or made), between meaning and significance. Significance could involve the ways in which we might see a work in relation to other works by the same author, in relation to works by others, in relation to historical events, cultural matters, whatever it might be.

Stefan, that makes me smile.

Zhoen said...

"When I use a word,' Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, 'it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less."
"The question is," said Alice, "whether you can make words mean so many different things."
"The question is," said Humpty Dumpty, "which is to be master— that's all."

journaljim said...

Great list. May I share it with my workshop via link?

Also, s there an extra "what" in #4?

Michael Leddy said...

Zhoen, that passage, as you may know, gets quoted often in discussions of this stuff.

Jim, of course, you’re welcome to share. If you reproduce it, just add the link and my name.

Zhoen said...

Yes, I apologize for being obvious.

Michael Leddy said...

No apology needed. I was just noting that it’s in the air.

Oh, and Jim, thanks for catching the “what.”

Unknown said...

Best.post.ever.