I am a Cretan

Patrick Parrinder

  • On Modern Authority: The Theory and Condition of Writing, 1500 to the Present Day by Thomas Docherty
    Harvester, 310 pp, £25.00, May 1987, ISBN 0 7108 1017 2
  • The Order of Mimesis: Balzac, Stendhal, Nerval, Flaubert by Christopher Prendergast
    Cambridge, 288 pp, £27.50, March 1986, ISBN 0 521 23789 0

The story goes that, on the day when William Empson moved into Magdalene College, Cambridge, to take up a fellowship, his suitcases (as was the custom in those days) were unpacked by one of the college servants. The gyp was so shocked by the contents of Empson’s bags that he decided to report him to the college authorities. Next morning the young poet and critic was summoned before the senior dons and accused of concealing ‘sexual machinery’ in his luggage. Empson received his marching orders, and the best that his mentor I.A. Richards, also a fellow of Magdalene, could do was to fix him up with a hastily-arranged professorship in Tokyo.

The point of this (surely apocryphal?) story is not to present Empson as a worthy forerunner of our current morality, even though the ‘machines’ in question were made of rubber. What brings his escapade to mind is the contemporary craze for metaphors of ‘unpacking’, ‘untying’, ‘unlocking’, ‘uncovering’ and ‘undoing’ to describe the process of textual analysis. The supposed aim of these interpretative acts is to liberate the hidden contents of the ‘laden’ or ‘fraught’ text: but opening up the text increasingly resembles a search for contraband. In these deconstructive times authors are routinely unmasked as imposters travelling under false pretences, and even the best-accredited texts are revealed as having secret compartments and false bottoms.

The two contending schools of literary interpretation today may be compared to two sorts of baggage inspector. The first simply searches your belongings for signs that you are who you say you are; the second is more concerned to establish your guilt by planting some offending item upon you. On the one hand are the followers of E.D. Hirsch, whose concern is to establish the original and ‘correct’ meaning of a text. According to Hirsch, this is the meaning the author put there. On the other hand is the school of ‘misreading’, which argues that texts contain whatever can be read into them, so that responsibility for their contents belongs to the reader. The moral attitudes prevalent in these two schools are in sharp contrast to one another. Hirsch, like an upright customs official, writes of the ‘vocation’ of the interpreter and the duty of ethical probity that goes with it. The deconstructionist, more often than not, is a self-conscious outlaw. Thomas Docherty in On Modern Authority takes up the pose of the Noble Robber and gleefully uncovers an etymological affinity between criticism and crime. His aim is to redistribute textual power and authority to the dispossessed ‘readers and listeners’, who have been condemned to languish in the shadow of authorial tyranny (so Docherty argues) ever since the Renaissance.

In Validity in Interpretation (1967) and later essays, Hirsch argued that texts have both a determinate ‘meaning’ and a wider and less determinate ‘significance’. The text ‘means’ what the author intended it to mean, though recovering this intention may not be easy. In literary interpretation, as in a face-to-face speech situation, there is a moral duty to attend to what the writer or speaker is trying to say. Having done this, we are free to assess its ‘significance’. Any attempt to draw distinctions between the modes of interpretation appropriate to the spoken word, to written speech and to literary texts is futile, according to Hirsch. For the deconstructionist school, on the other hand, the difference between speech and writing is fundamental, though also extremely complex. Docherty is like many contemporary theorists in arguing that the problem of meaning in literary texts cannot be reduced to that of a confrontation between speaker and listener. The act of writing produces meanings not governed by a supposed authorial intention, but licensed by the dizzying variety of the typographic font.

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