Tuesday, July 3, 2018

Quick notes on ‘meaning’ in literary texts

When a literary critic explicates the ‘meaning’ of a literary text, what is it that they are doing? What is the relationship between the meaning thus explicated and the text which is supposed to somehow ‘harbor’ it? A problematic matter, no?

Early in my career I seem to have converged on the idea that this meaning was something one took up in the course of reading the text, but that was not consciously available. So the job of the critic was to state the content of this unconscious meaning. By convention such meanings are said to be ‘hidden’. Hidden how? where?

Psychoanalytic thought provides perhaps the clearest ‘model’ for such an approach. When a psychoanalyst approaches a dream, the dream has a manifest content and it is the analyst’s job to help the patient arrive at its latent content (or meaning). So it is with the critic and the text. The text itself is the manifest content, which can be summarized and paraphrased. The latent content is something else; it must be discovered, dug out if you will, by other means. But when one reads a text that latent content is there in the mind along with the manifest content. It’s just not consciously available.

Thus, when I was in graduate school in the mid-1970s I studied computational semantics/psycholinguistics and created an explicit model of a mind reading a Shakespeare sonnet (#126, The expense of spirit). That model was no more than an intellectual toy, but toys are useful if recognized as such. 1) It was explicit in a way that standard accounts of (literary) reading were not and are not. 2) Whatever it was, it certainly was NOT a reading or an interpretation of the text.

If what happens in the mind is something like what is made explicit in that model, then what are ordinary interpretations? Whatever they are, they don’t seem to be accounts of the inner workings of something that works like that model does.

So then, what are interpretations? They flow from the conviction that there is something important about these texts, their meaning, and that we have to do SOMETHING to register this. That something has turned out to be interpretation. Now, back in the days when I was first learning my craft the argument was often made that the meaning critics find in texts are, in fact, put there by the critics themselves, and so not really in the text at all. And this argument was countered by the argument that the object of critical scrutiny was the author’s intended meaning. But if THAT’s what the author intended, why didn’t they SAY that instead of writing this poem, play, or novel? And so it went, round and round.

The questions have never been answered or resolved. They’ve just, for the most part, been abandoned.

Should we also abandon the activity of interpretation? Perhaps. But only perhaps. If we’re going to continue it we need to come up with a rationale.

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