Monday, April 20, 2009
Problems of Literature (Part 2)
The question inevitably arises then, how is one to proceed in the face of these problems of interpretation? In light of the competing drives for individual experience and supposedly universal impulses, all implications of interpretation become suspect. We can assume two extremes; one which assumes not only the possibility but the necessity of absolute interpretations; and the other which assumes ‘interpretation’ itself is not possible per se but sees literature and the examinations of texts as ideological constructions to be used documents of possibility. At the first extreme, literary critics continue to write who contend that there exist ‘correct’ interpretations of literary texts for which one simply needs to supply the appropriate textual and contextual evidence and arguments in order to establish the truth of the matter. Such is the case with the ongoing debate over the issue of Satan in Milton’s Paradise Lost. A number of Romantic era authors (William Blake, William Godwin, and Shelley primary among them) contended Milton, regardless of his intention, made Satan the hero of Paradise Lost. The Romantics suggested that this portrayal made Satan an example of a revolutionary character who was rebelling against arbitrary authority and asserting the possibility of individual identity against tyranny. Many critics, even contemporary ones, contend that such is an improper ‘interpretation’ of the work of Milton. Stanley Fish, a well known authority on Milton, wrote a book recently entitled How Milton Works, in which he goes to great length to say how Milton intended his poem to work and what interpretations are appropriate given Milton’s beliefs. Such authoritative notions are steeped not only in academic elitism but inevitably hide ideological intentions which, if they are to retain their authority, must remain under wraps. In recent years, of course, the winds have shifted a great deal – even if many people do not realize the gravity and significance of the change. The great shift toward political, feminist, and psycho-analytic criticism has naturally allowed people to recreate textual significance in light of non-formalistic issues that swirl around both the text and our own experience. But while these complex debates churn through academic and intellectual realms, the problem exists on a more prosaic level where general readers play with textual meanings in ways that relate to their experience but which magnify their sense of personal significance through their perceived connection to universalism. And so our culture generates continual chirping of discourse on literature which combines basic notions of literary criticism with personal self-importance. This discourse, which has become familiar in popular culture, assumes this dichotomy discussed above and never looks for reconciliation of the opposites which it simply does not recognize as existing.