Big Books of American Literature: Alchemies of Mind
Day 10: Thursday, February 16, 2006
A Brief Journey Through the History of Literary Theory

I. Coursekeeping:
Second paper due, 5 p.m. tomorrow IN A FOLDER w/ the first one

Reduced requirement for on-line postings (10 over the course of the semester, w/ time off for good behavior/papers due!)

Get going on Uncle Tom's Cabin (aim to finish Ch 11,
through p. 100, by classtime on Tuesday)

Today we're going to move beyond interpretation (?!)
to talk about (the risks of) reading-as-rhetoric

"A life buoy of a coffin!" (p. 394) vs. "No buoys allowed"

Anyone here ever participated in synchronized swimming?
What's the trick?
What makes it work?
How do the swimmers coordinate their movements?

II. Setting the practice
(of swimming? of reading?
in synch? a-synchronously?)
within a theoretical framework

W.K. Wimsatt and Monroe Beardsley, The Verbal Icon (1954)

(What's an icon??)

  • The Intentional Fallacy meant a confusion between the poem and its origins (=an expression of the author's self, an aspect of biography)

  • "The Affective Fallacy is a confusion between the poem and its results...It begins by trying to derive the standard of criticism from the psychological effects of the poem and ends in impressionism and relativism."

  • both these fallacies assume that a literary work is an object with a certain autonomy, that it has an ontological status of its own

  • objectivist critics worked with a concept of the poem as having an independent public existence

Cf. what George Klauba ("George Tatoo")
did with the iconic Moby Dick

...with what Jane Tompkins did in "An Introduction to Reader-Response Criticism" (1980):
  • a poem cannot be understood apart from its results

  • meaning has no effective existence outside of its realization in the mind

  • Wolfgang Iser: the reader must act as co-creator of the work by supplying that portion of it which is...only implied....Each reader fills in the unwritten portions of the text, its "gaps" or areas of "indeterminacy" in his own way....The range of proof of the text's " reading...we uncover the unformulated part of a literary work and what we uncover "represents the text's intention."

  • Stanley Fish: concentrates on the reader's moment-to-moment reactions to the words as they succeed one another in time...the method...slows down the reading experience so that 'events' one does not notice in normal time...are brought before our analytic attention. It is as if a slow-motion camera with an automatic stop action effect were recording our inguistic experience and presenting them to us for viewing"...Meaning is not something one extracts from a poem, like nut from its shelll, but an experience one has in the course of reading. not...a fixed object of attention but...a sequence of events that unfold....the center of critical attention...[is] the reader's cognitive activity.

  • Jonathan Culler: literary not the result of a reader responding to an author's cues...but is an institutional matter, a function of conventions that are publicly agreed upon...of the assumptions shared by the groups he belongs to.

  • to be defined in experiential terms. It is what happens to a reader as he negotiates the text and is not something that was already in place before he experienced it.

  • As meaning comes to be defined more and more as a function of the reader's consciousness, the powers and limitations of that consciousness become an object of critical debate.

  • Walter Michaels: "the desire to preserve textual objectivity has its roots in a long-standing American "fear of subjectivity, of the individual interpreter's self." This fear derives from the idea that "if there were not determinate meanings the interpreter's freedom could make of a text anything it wanted"....the only mistake the critic can make is to imagine that he is free to impose his own subjective fabrications on the text....self is constituted by interpretive codes that define it and the world simultaneously....there is never a moment when we are not in the grip of some value-system....meaning is a consequence of being in a particular situation in the world.

  • So--let's run this test one more time:
    How do we read the doubloon?


    ...significant lurks in all things, else all things are little worth, and the round world itself but an empty cipher..."There's another rendering now; but still one text." (Ch. 99, The Doubloon, p. 331)

    Adina: Norton footnotes really get to me....I can see that this is not the only interpretation of the passage.

    How do we read Queequeg?


    ...his own proper person was a riddle to unfold; a wondrous work in one volume; but whose mysteries not even himself could read, though his own live heart beat against them; and these mysteries were therefore destined in the end to moulder away with the living parchment whereon they were inscribed, and so be unsolved to the last. (Ch. 110, p. 366-367)

    How do we read Ahab?


    What is it, what nameless, inscrutable, unearthly thing is it; what cozzening, hidden lord and master, and cruel, remorseless emperor commands me; that against all natural lovings and longings, I so keep pushing, and crowding, and jamming myself on all the time; recklessly making me ready to do what in my own proper, natural heart, I durst not so much as dare? Is Ahab, Ahab? Is it I, God, or who, that lifes this arms? can this one small heart beat; this one small brain think thoughts; unless God does that beating, does that thinking, does that living, and not I. (Ch. 132, The Symphony, pp. 406-407)

    Emily: Clearly, Ahab believes it is his fate to hunt the whale, or even more, that some other power is controlling him, making him hunt the whale against his own better jugement. But I believe that this is simply his madness speaking, and that his fate he himself is deciding.

    Here's food for thought, had Ahab time to think; but Ahab never thinks; he only feels, feels, feels; that's tingling enough for mortal man! To think's audacity. God only has that right and privilege. Thinking is, or ought to be, a coolness and a calmness; and our poor hearts throb, and our poor brains beat too much for that (Ch. 135, The Chase--Third Day, p. 419).

    Marina : So I finally (!) finished Moby Dick and I really can't understand why it is considered a classic. So this insane captain Ahab wants revenge on a whale for taking his leg?....This book drove me crazy.

    Chris: Both his anger and his obsession lost puts him into a whirlwind of emotion and distress, so much that he cannot control his emotion and brings about his own demise.

    How, finally, do we read the whale?

    "He Declared that a Whale Must be Near"

    " is quite impossible for him to completely digest even a man's arms? And he know it too. So what you take for the White Whale's malice is only his awkwardness...he never means to swallow a single limb; he only thinks to terrify by feints. (Ch. 101, p. 339)

    How vain and foolish...for timid untravelled man to try to comprehend aright this wondrous whale, by merely poring over this dead attenuated skeleton...Only in the heart of quickest perils; only when within the eddying of his angry flukes; only on the profound unbounded sea, can the fully invested whale be truly and livingly found out. (Ch. 104, p. 348)

    "No; only heard of him; but don't believe in him at all" (Ch. 115, The Pequod Meets the Bachelor, p. 375).

    Retribution, swift vengeance, eternal malice were in his whole aspect (Ch. 135, The Chase--Third Day, p. 425)

    Margaret: While reading the book I was convinced that Ahab was making all of the stuff up about Moby Dick being an evil, evil whale, but at the end...well...Moby Dick was an evil, evil whale.... I was terribly upset that he was seemingly hunting US!!

    Steph: I understand that it's a book... using whales as a metaphor for...something, but...enough is enough....

    How do we read?

    "The Castaway" the tumultuous business of cutting-in and attending to a whale...there is no staying in any one place; for at one and the same time everything has to be done everywhere. It is much the same with him who endeavors the description of the scene (Ch. 72, The Monkey-rope, pp. 254-255).

    ...whatever is truly wonderous and fearful in man, never yet was put into words or books (Ch. 110, Queequeq in his Coffin, p. 364).

    Lauren : life on the ocean is really, really boring most of the time. It only seems logical that someone would try to entertain themselves contructively....Yeah, reading might be a method of escapism, and yeah, it might be a poor substitute for experience, but isn't it a great exercise for your brain? You never know when you might learn something. You never know when a book might change your life. Isn't it (dare I say)

    Emily: I think it's really interesting to read the book thinking that Melville believes it's better to do than to read.... Why does one read for pleasure? Maybe it's because we become too tied down to be able to go on adventures, and so live surreptitiously though books.... Reading allows us to visit places and do things we wouldn't otherwise think of...fulfilling the infinite range of activities the world provides.... Life is too short to do everything we want to do, so books improvise for reality where we fall short.

    Jillian: I was often frustrated by my inability to understand references that, in his day, were contemporary, or at least well known, such as the biblical ones. What a joy to not have to try and get through all that anymore!

    Amy:now my only choice is to react to the text, and I... don't know. To me it's either this Big Book, up on a pedestal and not actually touched, or else it's something that's not Great Literature, it's just a series of fragments that I can't quite piece togethre- and neither of these is a way for me to approach it for a class.

    Another (major?) turn of the screw: working this idea of reading AS doing....
    Jane Tompkins, The Reader in History: The Changing Shape of Literary Response (1980):
    • the location of only an issue when one assumes that the specification of meaning is the aim of the critical act

  • an attitude toward literature and langauge that is characteristic of classical antiquity and fundamentally alien to twentieth-century modes of understanding literature and art...[is of language as] a form of power...[this is an] instrumental view of language...

  • unlike the ancients we equate language not with action but with signification...[Their concept oflanguage was] as a force acting on the world, rather than as a series of signs to be deciphered....literature is thought of as existing primarily in order to produce results and not as an end in itself...not so much an a unit of force...

  • What matters ultimately is the behavior, not the discourse....the text is no longer in a situation that immediately clarifies its intent, and so the business of the always with interpretation....When the literary work is conceived as an object of interpretation, response will be understood as a way of arriving at meaning, and not as a form of political and moral behavior.

  • The distinction between response conceived as meaning, and response conceived as action or behavior, separates the current conceptions of literary response...from the way responses to literature have been most critics before the twentieth century.....The first requirement of a work of art in the twentieth century is that it should do nothing.

    Kathy Rowe, et. al. Reading the Early Modern Passions; Essays in the Cultural History of Emotion (2004): our modern inclination to script passions as individual and proprietary...leads us to miss those feelings that come from the outside....This same movement...seems to parallel an increasing sense of...literature's "ethical uselessness"...the separation of the expressive arts from other spheres of experience and knowledge...the private inaccessibility of emotions...marks the end of the humanist confidence that drama can rehabilitate unruly passions in the service of the state...

    So...let's try our hand @ pre-20th-century way of reading:
    something instrumental...something forceful...
    something "beyond interpretation,"
    something aimed @ moving us to change our behavior....

    "The Chase"

    Catherine: First I would like to discuss the discussion we had today about the relevance of moby dick to modern day politics....I'm the one that's afraid to speak up....I feel this is a one-way street. I am afraid to speak my political views to others for fear of ridicule. Maybe fear is not the reason the crew does not revolt.

    Laura O: Catherine's comment about politics above has made me feel regretful....I wish there had been more variety in opinions in that class discussion....I think Moby Dick and Captain Ahab have little, if nothing, in common with our current political and global situation today.

    Allie: perhaps the book is more realistic than anything else. It acknowledges the limits of a group of men, who as individuals in society are considered fish out of water. Driven by differencing needs to return to the water, their group is like a school of fish that seems to mindlessly follow Ahab, regardless of their logic to avoid the impending dangers ahead. Once fast fish men, AhabŐs goal was adopted by theses men turned loose fish. Each of these skilled whalers, gives up their experience and right to mutiny in order to travel together with a common mission, safely, or not. Is MelvilleŐs challenge to the reader to stay fast and swim away to avoid the doom and the powerlessness of the loose fish? Melville saying rather that because nobody would want to be like Ishmael and spin around alone in the ocean for eternity, it is better to go down with the ship and the rest of the school of loose fish?

    Anna: if the pequod sank, does that mean our world has to? i refuse to believe that we would let ourselves slip that far. id like to think of the world of politics in a pendulum-swing kind of way. riding from extreme to extreme, yes, but never completely snapped off or away. i just cant imagine this ship sinking. and over what, a whale?...what does the pequod sink for? does it sink for sanity? peace of mind? closure? insanity?....for WHAT does the pequod sink - it has to sink for a reason, and i dont mean a reason like, "the wood failed". i sank for ahab. it sank for brotherhood...cheers to_______??? a toast for______?

    What advice does Melville give us, about being guided by the past?
    ...the whale's unharming set down in the log--shoals, rocks, and breakers hereabouts: beware! And for years afterwards, perhaps, ships shun the place, leaping over it as silly sheep leap over a vacuum, because their leader originally leaped there when a stick was held. There's your law of precedents; there's your utility of traditions; there's the story of your obstinate survival of old beliefs never bottomed on the earth, and now not even hovering in the air! There's orthodoxy! (Ch 69, The Funeral, p. 248).

    How well does Melville read the future?
    The moot point is, whether Leviathan can long endure so wide a chase, and so remorseless a havoc...whehter he must not at last be exterminated...the far different nature of the whale-hunt peremptorily forbids so inglorious an end to the Leviathan (Ch. 105, p. 352-353).

    Of what earthly use are passages such as...

    ...aye, chance, free will, and necessity--no wise incompatible--all interweavingly working together. The straight warp of will still free to ply her shuttle between given threads; and chance, though restrained in its play within the right lines of necessity, and sideways in its motions modified by free will...chance by turn rules either, and has the last featuring blow at events (Ch. 47, The Mat-Maker, p. 179).

    Doubts of all things earthly, and intuitions of some things heavenly; this combination makes neither believer nor infidel, but makes a man who regards them both with equal eye (Ch 85, The Fountain, p. 293).

    So man's insanity is heaven's sense; and wandering from all mortal reason, man comes at last to that celestial thought, which, to reason, is absurd...and...feels then uncompromised, indifferent as his God (Ch 93, The Castaway, p. 322).

    In her Preface to Uncle Tom's Cabin, Stowe says that the "object of these sketches is to awaken sympathy and feeling." What feelings did she awaken in you? What particular moments in the novel moved you? To what sorts of feelings? And how well do you think such feelings work as a guide to political action? Where does "feeling right" get us...?

    Go to on-line forum.

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