Critical Postmodern Readings, Part 4: Derrida

This series hasn’t been as rough as I’ve expected this far. The first few parts showed some of the classic postmodernists to be clearer and more prescient than many give them credit for. This changes all that. Derrida is rough going. I chose his most famous work, Differance, for today.

I couldn’t remember if I had read this before, and then I read the first paragraph. Oh, boy. It all came flooding back. Not only had I read this, I’d watched a whole lecture or two on it as well. I’m not sure it’s fair to be super critical of lack of clarity when reading a translation, but in this case, I think it’s warranted (more on that later).

The article begins by Derrida making up a new word: differance. It is phonetically related to “defer,” meaning to be displaced in time, and it is phonetically related to “differ,” meaning to not be identical.

So what is differance? Here’s the clearest explanation I’ve come up with after reading the opening paragraphs many, many times. Derrida wants to say that two things can only differ if there is a relationship between them for comparison. Anything that has such a relationship must have something in common. So:

We provisionally give the name differance to this sameness which is not identical.

Derrida then starts dancing around what he means. I don’t say this to be demeaning. His whole point is that language can’t describe the thing he is getting at, so he must dance around it to give you some idea about what he wants differance to mean.

To defer makes use of time, but differance is outside time. Differance produces the differences between the differences. It isn’t a word. It isn’t a concept. I’m going to describe differance as a “tool” or even “thought experiment” to get at Derrida’s particular form of deconstruction even though he doesn’t exactly say that.

Now I’m supposed to be doing “critical” readings of these texts, so I’ll admit this type of thing makes me feel a little funny. On the one hand, I’m okay with being a bit loose on definitions if the only point is to perform a thought experiment. On the other hand, I fear there will be a switch at some point where we start attributing a bunch of unknowable things without argument to a term that has such nonsensical properties as “being outside time.” So I want to carefully keep track of that.

Derrida moves on to the relationship between spoken and written language. In French, “differance” and “difference” have the same pronunciation. He spends far too long talking about how difficult it will be to talk about this, since he’ll have to indicate verbally “with an a” each time (this paper was originally a talk given to the Societe Francaise de Philosophie).

He next spends quite a bit of time explaining some very precise etymological concerns about the word differance:

But while bringing us closer to the infinitive and active core of differing, “differance” with an a neutralizes what the infinitive denotes as simply active, in the same way that “parlance” does not signify the simple fact of speaking, of speaking to or being spoken to.

This type of thing is a pretty silly game. He freaking made the word up! There is no etymology or historical context to analyze. It’s a pure fiction about the word. I hear the Derrida defenders here saying that this is precisely the point, because every word is made up and we play an etymological game to understand them. Maybe, but I don’t really see what’s gained by presenting that idea in this way.

Derrida then recaps some of Saussure’s structuralist ideas about language: the signifyer / signified distinction. The word “chair” is a mere symbol that signifies an actual chair. The connection is arbitrary. We could easily make up a word like “cuilhseitornf” and have it symbolize the exact same thing. (All that was the Saussure recap).

Derrida wants to now say that actually it’s not so simple as Saussure thinks. Words don’t have a one-to-one correspondence to things (concepts, etc). In fact, meaning comes from being in a linguistic system, and the meaning of a word comes from understanding what the other words are not signifying. He wants to call this negative space “differance.” Again, I’m worried about how much we’re loading into this one made up word.

But overall, if I clarify this point to a degree Derrida would probably hate, I’m somewhat sold on the concept. Think about removing the word “chair” from the English language (i.e. a linguistic system). If you think about something that is different from all the remaining words, you’ll probably get something close to “chair,” because it’s partly defined by the differences between it and all the other words in the system. This seems an okay statement to make, if a little confusing as to its importance to theory.

Derrida introduces the concept of “trace” to make the above point. Basically the trace of a signifyer is the collection of all the sameness and differance left on it by the other words in the linguistic system.

Overall, I don’t get what real contribution this paper makes. To me, it is essentially a reiteration of Wittgenstein’s ideas about words in linguistic systems/games with a single, seemingly unnecessary, mystical layer that comes through the meta-concept of “differance.” Maybe if I were to read some of Derrida’s later work, it will become clearer why he needs this, but at this point I don’t get it.

Derrida is less confusing than I remember. He’s not hard to read because of obscurity or complex sentences or big words. He’s hard to read because he just meanders too much. There are entire pages that can be thrown out with nothing lost, because they are pure reiteration of minor tangential points.

Why Would Wolfe Choose a Torturer in New Sun?

Sorry for the extremely weird question in the title. Gene Wolfe’s most famous work is The Book of the New Sun. It is four novels long and follows Severian, a torturer. I’ve been reading the first one in the series: The Shadow of the Torturer.

This post is mostly going to be uninformed musings. I have not read the series before, so I don’t know the later events. I have not delved very deeply into the first novel either (there are people who have devoted a huge amount of scholarship to these books). I wanted to read them with as few spoilers as possible.

But I do know that the most accepted interpretation of the series has Severian as a Christ figure. In fact, I’ve heard it’s supposed to be a straight up retelling of the life of Jesus. This post lists some early ideas I have for why Wolfe would choose a torturer to play this role.

The premise of the book is that Severian feels sympathy for a woman who has been sentenced to be tortured. He gives her a knife to commit suicide so that she is spared the torture. It is portrayed as an act of compassion, but the fact remains that this is very disturbing. The Christ figure enables a woman to kill herself.

It is well-known that Wolfe is a devout Christian. He also writes with meticulous attention to detail. So we can automatically rule out the laziest idea that this is some blasphemous retelling of the Gospels. Severian is not a torturer in order to put out some anti-Christian story. The profession of torturer was chosen for a reason.

The following ideas are being recorded for my own general purpose. I’m mostly curious how my views on this aspect of the book will change as I read more of the story.

Idea 1: The first, somewhat shocking, thing I noticed was that the Guild of Torturers had the official name: Order of the Seekers for Truth and Penitence. This is quite suggestive. Not only did early Christians consider themselves seekers of truth, they sought to convert people by having them repent of their sins. Despite their actions being antithetical to Christianity, the name of the order is highly suggestive of early Christianity. The society at large hates the torturers (obviously), and this is also in line with how broader society viewed early Christian sects.

Idea 2: In Luke, Jesus appears to be aware of the torture he must undergo when going to his own crucifixion. One reason Wolfe might have chosen a torturer for the protagonist is that when Severian defies the order he is a part of, he does so fully knowing what his punishment will be. He goes through with his act of compassion despite this, which makes Severian’s act more humane.

Idea 3: I don’t want to put in spoilers, so I’ll just say that being part of the order of torturers gives Wolfe a plausible way for Severian to “perform miracles” similar to a certain miracle Jesus performs. Although, it does require a certain tool that I’m not sure I fully understand the symbolism of yet.

Idea 4: Wolfe might have wanted to create moral ambiguity and raise tough questions about the morality of torture and death. This strikes me as not the full story. I can see this being part of the reason, but I really believe he could have done this with any number of professions for Severian.

Replies to Against Theory, Part 2

Continuing on with the responses to “Against Theory,” I was kind of excited to see that Richard Rorty wrote one. I’ve written about him on the blog, and he is one of my favorite philosophers. Here are my notes on Rorty’s “Philosophy Without Principles.”

Recall that the original Knapp-Michaels piece tried to take out E.D. Hirsch, Jr.’s Validity in Interpretation. The main point of Rorty’s piece is to identify the philosophical first principles from which such an (anti-Hirsch) argument could be made. For the record, Rorty disagrees with Hirsch but also think the Knapp-Michaels approach did not succeed.

Rorty begins by pointing out that not everyone agrees with their assessment that a random string of symbols appearing to be language has no meaning if there was no authorial intent. H.P. Grice is one person in this camp. There is a more subtle question that still leaves some room for theory: “Granted that the sentence means such and such, did its author use it to mean that on this particular occasion?”

Rorty takes what seems to be a radical view here. He claims that anything should be counted as language if a human construes it as such (he even includes “an arrangement of stars” as an example).

Recall that Rorty is a pragmatist, so basically he wants to say that Knapp-Michaels are being wildly unpragmatic with their view that we must always identify an author before considering something that looks like language to be language (i.e. have meaning). How do they know that the random symbols in the sand at the beach have no meaning if they come across them and can’t tell if it is an accident or intended?

Trying to identify intrinsic properties is futile in a pragmatic framework. Rorty wants to forget the question of what was intended and instead examine the language in various contexts and describe the advantages/disadvantages as such. We can never “know” the true authorial intent as a pragmatic matter anyway.

This view is clearly against Hirsch and an argument “against theory” (stop theorizing and interpret already!). But I’m not sure how he escapes the paradox that by describing why he feels this way, he has laid out the foundation for a pragmatic “theory” of interpretation. It’s a Catch-22. No one has the answer to why we should be pragmatic without the theory to back it up.

Rorty tries to escape these endless circles by appealing to Heidegger and Derrida. The philosophers who developed theory have skewed the debate by the terms they’ve deemed important enough to study: intention/meaning/etc. This jargon is in place because of tradition, and we should first ask if we have any reason to continue to go along with it.

We can’t argue against theory by using the language of theory. The vocabulary must be changed first, and vocabulary doesn’t change through arguments. It changes because a new vocabulary comes into usage and serves the discussion better.

Rorty takes the view that we shouldn’t stop teaching theory, because it gives philosophers the opportunity to discuss novels, poems, and essays with literature students. It is wrong-headed for Knapp-Michaels to think of teaching theory as some sort of indoctrination into a particular view of interpretation that skips out on the actual interpretation of texts (personal note: I don’t blame them if you think back to the New Critical climate in which the original essay was written).

Knapp and Michaels actually wrote a direct response to the Rorty article entitled “A Reply to Richard Rorty: What is Pragmatism?” So now we’ll look at that. First, they clarify that they are not against making critical arguments about a text. We can analyze texts without engaging in “theory.” The theory they attack is the attempt “to stand outside practice in order to govern practice from without.”

Without going further yet, I have to insert my own reservations about this. I get the distinction, but they seem to run into the same epistemological problems they worry about in the original article. Sure, you can do some analysis, but I’m worried how you’ll know it makes any sense without some theoretical grounding. It’s sort of like saying: do math, no wait, stop formulating a theory, just manipulate the symbols, what do you mean you want to make sure you’ve done something legitimate?

Next they push back on the issue of “an author” vs “its author” (this was discussed last time). Knapp-Michaels reiterate that the same set of words authored by various people can have different meanings (one can’t help but think of Borges’ Pierre Menard here). This is because these are different texts. It is problematic to refer to the same text having different (even if fictional) authors.

Knapp and Michaels make a very strong case that the its/an distinction is irrelevant. When someone says “fire,” they could be talking about burning or discharging a weapon or terminating someone’s employment or any number of things. The only meaning that matters in interpretation is the one intended by the speaker. To even contemplate alternate meanings that “an” author could have meant is at best a masturbatory indulgence and at worst a complete waste of time.

Well, I think I’m done with this series of posts for now. I had planned on doing more, but I’m finding this quite tedious and exhausting. For now, I land somewhere in between the pragmatist and Hirsch viewpoints. On the pragmatic side, it does seem a waste to contemplate intentionless meanings. On the Hirsch side, we need some sort of foundation and theory to work out a range of valid interpretations (we get a range because we can never truly know the intention of the author).

Is Twitter our Penal Colony?

I know that’s quite the inflammatory title, so I’ll explain it up front. I recently read Kafka’s In the Penal Colony. If you haven’t read it, go do it. I liked The Trial and The Metamorphosis, but neither compare to the true horror that is In the Penal Colony.

I’m going to spoil the whole story so that it can be discussed. The story takes place around an execution machine called the Harrow. The main character asks questions about it. In a brilliantly paced set of revelations, the reader becomes aware of how the torture happens:

The condemned person is gagged and strapped to the machine. A bunch of tiny needles stabs them for six hours, repeatedly tattooing their crime on their body. They bleed a lot, but the machine is carefully designed to not let them die. Then they’re buried alive.

But it’s much, much worse than that. There is a collection of laws that must followed in the colony (it was unclear whether anyone had access to them to know what they are). When charged with the crime, you are not told what it is. You have no chance to defend yourself. You are convicted without trial. The first time you learn of any misdoing is too late, because it is from the words appearing on your body from the Harrow.

Unfortunately, this should sound all too familiar from Twitter shaming. People post jokes without knowing what the rules are for offending the wrong group. Then they get accused and convicted without trial. The first time they learn of their un-PC crime is when the words start flowing across their Twitter feed. By then it is too late. They will probably lose their job and have the next several years of their life wrecked.

Does the story give us any hope or are we stuck in this twisted sense of justice forever? The end of the story is hard to make sense of. The executioner turns the machine on himself and gets the words “Be Just” tattooed on him. By administering this punishment on others, the executioner has clearly broken the rule of being just. This machine and system is so clearly unjust that we don’t need the story to understand that. By analogy, I think the Twitter punishment is not just, but the people doing it have not realized this yet. They call it social justice the same as the executioner in the story calls the Harrow justice. This doesn’t make it so.

One interpretation in light of this analogy would be that when members of the mob become targets themselves, they will be dealt a sort of poetic justice and see how wrong they were. Although this is satisfying to see when it happens (think of the “dongle joke shamer” who lost her own job as well), it is a “two wrongs don’t make a right situation” and is unsustainable. An eye for an eye and the whole world would be blind.

Ultimately, I think the ending teaches us that we can only get out of this mess if the people instigating it take matters into their own hands to stop it. Outside forces won’t ever be enough. Unfortunately, these people will probably have the machine of their own making turn on them for this, and like the main character, they too will be a victim of this justice. But it has to be their own choice, otherwise the practice will continue unhindered.

The Stories of Cheever Part 3

This is the last post in the series. He really only has two more stories that are well-known: “The Five-Forty-Eight” and “Goodbye, My Brother.”

“The Five-Forty-Eight” is a strange case study for me. To my eye, it breaks a ton of traditional advice given to writers. The story itself is a suspense/thriller plot. A man notices that a woman is following him. He realizes that it is a secretary he used to have but fired. She is crazy and wants revenge, so she follows him onto a train and threatens him at gunpoint to listen to her.

First, it was originally published in The New Yorker. I hate most stories from The New Yorker. I think I wrote this back when I commented on some BASS 2014 stories. I’m not sure if they get heavily edited to always sound the same, but I started reading this story and immediately knew where it had been published. I looked it up and was correct.

The prose is very formulaic and tedious. It is pronoun heavy and has this too precise alternating between he, she, we, they to the point of distraction. Fake sample: “He looked at her. She shied away. He knew what she was thinking. She reached out for his hand. They walked together. We live our lives as if there will always be a tomorrow.” I swear, that type of thing is in every story they publish.

The story starts out with the suspense of being followed. Structurally there is a flash back to learn about this woman. Starting with a flashback is usually considered very bad form, because it breaks the suspense. I think that is correct in this case.

I’m not a no-flashback purist, but when the flashback information can easily be transferred to the story body, I think it can only improve the flow. In “The Five-Forty-Eight” the material could be naturally conveyed through later conversation, since this is happening anyway. It would also heighten the suspense of not knowing who this woman is.

The most interesting detail is how the main character keeps coming back to the woman’s handwriting. We are meant to see the instability in her through the ugly, chaotic writing. It makes me think of Palahniuk’s Diary. I wonder if he was referencing this story when he chose to make handwriting analysis such a major part of his novel.

The plot itself feels very cliché, even for its time. This is the basic plot of tons of pulp thrillers and Hitchcock films. I don’t think it is supposed to be a parody. It just reads like a standard psychological thriller.

The one thing I really liked about the story was how the random act of violence changed the characters. We don’t like to think about it, but these types of things can and do happen all the time. They change people forever. The man and the woman have opposing trajectories. The man starts confident, but by the end of the event, he is shattered, face down in the dirt. The woman starts timid and self-conscious, but is confident and restored after the event.

I’m not sure I like the message: revenge can be fulfilling and helpful in overcoming someone that has wronged you.

“Goodbye, My Brother” I have a bit more respect for. It is told in first-person, but overall it reads like an ensemble piece. The impressive part is how he gets such a large number of fully developed characters into such a small space. Having more than two or three main characters is difficult to handle in short stories. Cheever achieves this by setting up a large number of tightly written scenes to get different combinations to interact with each other.

In addition, the house itself almost becomes a character. Each of the characters derides problems with it or takes comfort in memories from it. This aids in fleshing out the family history. Not that he’s doing anything original with this technique, but it fits the story well.

I like that even though there is no action, there is still a lot of tension and forward motion that give way to moments of emotion. It is interesting how he can achieve this by making it feel like something is always about to boil over into a major catastrophe. It does, in fact, eventually happen, but I won’t spoil it here if you haven’t read it. There is a very intense scene between the main character and his brother. It is the only bit of action, and the slow build up makes the release far better than if there had been action the whole time.

Now that I’ve gone through the major Cheever stories, I can say that I can see hints of greatness throughout. It is still a mystery to me why he is heralded as one of the best. He is very good, but so are a hundred other people. My guess is that his material spoke to a particular demographic that had most of the literary power of his time.

On Sontag’s “Against Interpretation”

I meant to do this a while ago as a contrast after the series on Hirsch’s Validity in Interpretation. If you are unfamiliar, Susan Sontag was a well-known cultural critic and essayist (among other things). She started publishing in the mid 60’s and continued all the way into the 2000’s. “Against Interpretation” was published in 1966.

The context here is interesting. Hirsch reacted to the New Criticism as somehow being too loose. You could make anything mean anything through a close reading. He wanted only certain narrow, well-justified interpretations to be valid. In “Against Interpretation” Sontag also reacts to the New Criticism, but in the opposite direction: the whole idea of interpretation is wrong-headed.

She begins by lamenting for a time when we weren’t so inundated with theory. She argues that we’ve become too obsessed with content. We tend to approach a work of art ready to interpret and extract its content. We start pulling out symbols and translating these into some meaning before we even have a chance to experience the work.

Art is supposed to be messy, complicated, and uncomfortable at times. The act of interpretation clears out the mess, simplifies it, and makes it comfortable. We often feel an overwhelming urge that works of art must be about something. How often do you hear, “I’ve heard of that book. What is it about?”

It is even possible that the artist intended certain objects to be interpreted as symbols, but the meaning is not what gives art its merit. Abstract art tries to be all form and no content in order to resist the destruction of interpretation. But artists shouldn’t have to flee from interpreters in order to escape.

In the seventh section of the essay, Sontag makes a startling prediction. “The fact that films have not been overrun by interpreters is in part due simply to the newness of cinema as an art.” I think from our vantage point, 50 years later, we can say she was correct. Open any newspaper or go to a film blog or find an academic journal of film studies. Cinema gets dissected through interpretation as much as any other art form.

She ends the essay with a solution to this problem of over-interpretation. Commentary and criticism are both possible and necessary. We need to switch from our obsession with content and talk more about form. She points to Barthes and others for people who have given solid formal analysis. We could also try to “reveal the sensuous surface of art without mucking about in it.” We can focus on description rather than on what you think the description means.

When we interpret, we take the sensory experience for granted. The purpose of art is to be experienced, not over-analyzed. “Our task is to cut back content so that we can see the thing at all.” The goal of criticism should be to make works of art more real to us. “The function of criticism should be to show how it is what it is, even that it is what it is, rather than to show what it means.”

Now that I’ve summarized the essay, I’ll comment on it. I think this is in some sense an overreaction or maybe even a straw man argument. For example, Hirsch, who values the author’s intent, would probably say that if the author intended for the work to be a purely visceral experience with no excess symbolism in it, then to read that symbolism in it would be an invalid interpretation.

More specifically, genre matters. Some genres call for detailed, complicated interpretation and some call for no interpretation. Sontag’s essay seems to call for a complete rejection of interpretation whereas the other side seems to argue that if you want to interpret, then here are some tools for it.

Maybe this is the 50 year gap, but I don’t know anyone that calls for always interpreting all the time. Even the most analytic of critics would admit that it is perfectly valid to just experience a work sometimes. So I guess I’m somewhat confused at what this essay is really arguing against.

On the other hand, I fully agree that we often over-analyze and reach for interpretations without first experiencing a work. I absolutely hate the question: what is that about? Romance novels can be about something. A TV sitcom can be about something (or in a particularly famous case about nothing). Essays can be about something. Great art stops being art if you try to reduce it to some five sentence plot line. The thing that it is about is not the thing that makes it worth experiencing.

On Validity in Interpretation

I have two volumes of critical theory, and an excerpt that appears in both of them is a selection from E.D. Hirsch, Jr.’s Validy in Interpretation. I just got the full book, because I’m fascinated by the argument. This is one of those things where I’ve made a complete reversal of opinion over the course of this blog. Let’s start at the beginning.

If you’re unfamiliar academic literary criticism, there was a period of time starting around the early 40’s (still kind of going on) where literary theorists thought a text could stand on its own. It began with Wimsatt and Beardsley’s The Intentional Fallacy, which argued that the intention of the author shouldn’t matter when interpreting a text. The text would make you feel something. The symbols and themes would mean something to you. And that was how it should be, since you were the one doing the interpreting.

That description is an oversimplification, because these were complicated academic papers making these arguments. The nail in the coffin of the author came a bit later with Barthe’s Death of the Author. This school of thought was roughly associated with something called “New Criticism.” The New Critics argued for doing close readings of a text, and this came to dominate the scene so much that we were all taught this as the only way to analyze literature.

It is extremely difficult to get out of this mode of thinking, because we were taught to think this way in school. When talking about literature, we are told there are no wrong answers. We can come up with a theory of what the book is about and then find passages to support it. We get an A if we do this successfully. What is interesting is that despite the fact that this is what people will publicly espouse, everyone secretly believes that there are wrong answers.

The whole point of this post was to point out that we recognize some interpretations as nonsense even if they are well-supported. But we’ve been taught this New Criticism stuff so thoroughly that it becomes impossible to call someone out on it. This is because most people aren’t familiar with a philosophy of literature that allows you to talk about valid versus invalid interpretations. Isn’t the whole point of an interpretation that it is personal and can change from person to person? I say no. If a text can mean anything to anyone, then it doesn’t really mean anything.

Hirsch gives us a way out of this bind with Validity in Interpretation, published in 1967. The excerpt I’ve read is the first chapter, and it is brilliant. Before going on to describe a positive theory of validity, he first goes through and dispels the common objections to a notion of validity for interpretation. That’s what the rest of this post will be. Note that Hirsch’s argument is a whole chapter of a book, so I can’t do it justice here. I just want to give an overview.

Counterargument 1: The meaning of the text changes (throughout time), even to the author. Thus, the original intention of the author should be irrelevant.

This is obviously nonsense. The example used to support this is of authors that reject their old work. But it isn’t the meaning of the text that has changed, but the author’s attitudes or opinions. If the meaning had changed with the author, then the author would have no need to reject it. In this example, the changed author still recognizes the original meaning as the meaning.

Counterargument 2: It doesn’t matter what the author means, only what the text says.

To expand on this argument a bit, it often appears in a different form: an author may intend something, but not have the technique to effectively convey that meaning. This is part of the argument in The Intentionally Fallacy. A text must be evaluated on what it does and not on what the author intends it to do.

We must pull apart a few distinct concepts here. If the point is evaluation, then the intention is important. We can’t evaluate whether the author effectively conveyed their meaning without first knowing their intended meaning. The other concept is meaning.

The only way to successfully argue that authorial intent doesn’t matter is to find examples where there is a consensus that a text meant one thing and the author intended something different. The New Critics use this example as a thought experiment, but in reality no such example exists. Even if these examples were abundant, then we wouldn’t need to have a theory of interpretation at all, because everyone would agree to the valid interpretation confirming the fact of validity in interpretation.

Counterargument 3: We can never truly know what the author meant, because we are not the author.

Implicitly, this argument is asking: why bother trying something that is an impossibility? First, we don’t have to be the author to claim that a certain proposed meaning is highly improbable. To take Beardsley’s own example, a poem in 1744 in reference to God, “He raised his plastic arm.” We know beyond all doubt that “plastic” was not intended to mean the material that wasn’t invented yet.

All a theory of validity involving authorial intent is trying to do is bring up a range of possible valid meanings. There can be interpretations that hit every part of the spectrum from highly likely to literally impossible (as the above example). We get around the problem of knowledge of the author’s internal states by using probabilities.

One more thing. Certainty is also impossible in science, but that doesn’t mean it is not worthwhile to try to understand what is happening in the universe around us. Similarly, being certain of what the author intended is impossible, but it is still worthwhile to try to reconstruct the possible intentions.

Counterargument 4: The author often doesn’t even know what they mean.

The example given is that Kant claimed to understand Plato better than Plato himself. This is a subject/meaning confusion. Kant doesn’t understand what Plato meant better than Plato. He better understands the subject matter.

The other example is where someone makes a compelling case that an author had an unconscious meaning that came out in the artistic process, but was not intended. Hirsch beautifully counters by asking, “How can an author mean something he did not mean?” In other words, things that come out from subconscious processes are still part of the author’s meaning.

That’s it. All common objections to authorial intent and validity in interpretation have been dealt with. Hirsch can proceed to constructing the theory. I’m quite excited to read it!

Critical Theory through If on a winter’s night a traveler

I recently read Italo Calvino’s If on a winter’s night a traveler. Before trying to explain what made this book so entertaining for me to read, I’ll try to sketch an outline of the book if you haven’t heard about it. The overall form consists of alternating chapters. Half the chapters are in second person and refer to “you” the reader. It tells you how you are reading the other half of the chapters and what you are doing between reading those.

The other half of the chapters consists of “short stories” which are fragments of novels. Thus the whole book is in a sense a novel, because it has one overarching story in which you are the protagonist. But it is also a book of short stories which runs the gamut with style and genre. The frustrating thing is that you keep getting stopped right when each story starts to get interesting. There is no closure. The reasons for being interrupted start becoming weirder and sillier (and we’ll see there is good reason for that).

It starts with a bad binding. You go to the store to replace it. Every time you keep getting what you think is the full version of the book only to find out that it is actually a different book. One time you are in a college seminar and the seminar only needs part of the book to do their analysis, so no one has the full thing. By the end, the reasons become much stranger as you enter a Kafka-esque prison situation. The absurdity of the reasons and even conspiracy behind it should keep a smile on your face. As you approach the end of the book, it reads like Pynchon.

Let’s answer an easy question first. What’s up with the title? Part of what is nice about the form of the book is that it tells you what to think sometimes. The book as a whole is a commentary on the falseness of novels. Classical novelists try to give you the sense that what they write is a neat and tidy story. There is a beginning, a middle, and an end. In reality, you are just getting a snippet of the character’s lives.

Calvino writes this explicitly near the middle of the book, “Everything has already begun before, the first line of the first page of every novel refers to something that has already happened outside the book.” The book could almost be read as satire in how it comically exaggerates this point by giving you a bunch of fragments of books that never amount to anything. This is the point of the title. All of the books get cut off with no sense of closure, so why not emphasize the point by making a title that feels cut off?

I think basically everyone that reads this book will have gotten that far. They will be aware of how the literary devices fit right in with other postmodern works of that time (late 70’s early 80’s). It is subtly self-referential and comments on what you are reading as you read it. People will probably pick up on the fact that the book is filled with imitation. Allusions to Borges with infinite regressions, labyrinths, and huge libraries are all over the place.

I can tell this will be a long post, because at this point I haven’t even started commentating on what I think most people will miss. I now want to argue that the book takes you on a historical tour of critical theory by example. By this I mean that each segment presents a different mode of reading a text and theory behind the relationship between writer and reader. As you move through the book, you see the evolution of these ideas.

The book starts with a very simplistic and intuitive approach which can be linked back to Aristotle’s Poetics. The writer writes a book, and the reader reads it. Novels consist of mythos, ethos, etc. Good books make you feel something, and this is catharsis. The book doesn’t use these terms, but “you” the reader essentially describe the reading process with another character in classical pre-modern critical terms (plot, character, etc).

Soon you go to a place where books are made and your simple philosophy of reading starts to become confused. “Now you understand Ludmilla’s refusal to come with you; you are gripped by the fear of having also passed over to ‘the other side’ and of having lost that privileged relationship with books which is peculiar to the reader: the ability to consider what is written as something finished and definitive, to which there is nothing to be added, from which there is nothing to be removed.” This is the start of the problem of hermeneutics maybe as seen by Heidegger and Gadamer. The book starts introducing these early problems of getting at meaning and whether authorial intent is important in interpretation.

We then start moving on to the “New Criticism.” We get to something along the lines of Wimsatt and Beardsley’s famous essay “The Intentional Fallacy.” The main character starts to believe that meaning comes from the reader. Calvino writes, “If you think about it, reading is a necessarily individual act, far more than writing. If we assume that writing manages to go beyond the limitations of the author, it will continue to have a meaning only when it is read by a single person and passes through his mental circuits.”

We then start moving on to the structuralism of Levi-Strauss. In “The Structural Study of Myth” he shows that you can put texts into categories based on which mythological structure it follows. Calvino writes, “What is the reading of a text, in fact, except the recording of certain thematic recurrences, certain insistences of forms and meanings?” This is a succinct way of summarizing that essay.

Then we get a parody of the Derrida school and the deconstructionist response. This comes in the form of giving such a close reading that the text gets pulled apart into just a list of the words that appear most frequently. This part of the book is pretty interesting, because as is noted, you feel that you do have a good sense of what the book is about based on merely a close, fragmented study of the words it uses.

Then we move on to the school of Deleuze and postmodernism. This is where foundations were ripped apart. In what I imagine to be a parody of the dense, confusing style of these writers, Calvino writes, “Perhaps my true vocation was that of author of apocrypha, in the several meanings of the term: because writing always means hiding something in such a way that it then is discovered; because the truth that can come from my pen is like a shard that has been chipped from a great boulder by a violent impact, then flung far away; because there is no certitude outside falsification.”

By the end, Calvino starts to backpedal a bit. Despite being a book without conclusions, I think he wants to take this quick tour through the critical tradition and pull out of the endless trap it sets up. His conclusion is interesting, because it seems to foreshadow the “New Historicists” which wasn’t a movement at the time he wrote this. He writes, “The conclusion I have reached is that reading is an operation without object; or that its true object is itself. The book is an accessory aid, or even a pretext.”

It would be interesting for someone to take the time and make a more convincing argument that this is what he is doing. I think a much stronger case can be made, and even a finer tuning of the trends in thought can be found. Since this is merely a blog post, I didn’t have the space or energy to do that. Examples that I think fit would be to add in Lacan/Freud, Marx, and Adorno/Horkheimer.