Wednesday 28 January 2009

Interpretation and Identification, by David Miall

I don't have a problem with Keith’s observations, in his post of January 26. If the historical or cultural issue is intrinsic to the text then interest in that seems a legitimate way of enriching one's experience of the text. What troubles me is the translation of some aspect of the text's meaning to an alien discourse, in which the text is often found wanting for failing to measure up to the exigent ideological tenets of the critic. In romantic studies, for instance, it is notorious that Wordsworth has been subjected to this treatment: see, for instance, Marjorie Levinson’s treatment of “Tintern Abbey” in Wordworth's Great Period Poems: Four Essays (1986).

That's why I find the term Abstract Displacement helpful. In the alternative, what is offered is extension of a cultural perspective intrinsic to the text, not displacement. Similarly, I agree that “every piece of fiction prompts us to understand allegiances and motivations”: these again seem to me intrinsic to the text, but they can be considered (or should I say experienced?) in the literary context, where we generally empathize with the main character, and usually feel in attunement with the character’s feelings and motives. This can sometimes take us further than we might wish to go.

Keith suggested that it would be difficult to identify with the character of Stauffenberg if he endorsed Hitler’s war aims while rejecting Hitler himself:
to enjoy this film one must identify with the Stauffenberg character, and one can only do this by making an interpretation that he felt as people generally feel today about Hitler as wicked. This is a large part of how the film "works in the mind and brain."
I suspect this may not always be the case. I used to teach a short story class in which one of the first stories we read was Edgar Allan Poe’s "The Cask of Amontillado." In this story Montresor, who seeks revenge on Fortunato, tricks him into his extensive cellars supposedly to assess some amontillado he has bought, plying him with drink as they go. At the far end of the cellar Montresor chains the now confused Fortunato to the wall then proceeds to brick him up, in effect burying him alive. This murder remains undiscovered after 50 years. Poe’s protagonist thus presents a problem for the reader: he is engaging, witty, and clever, while his victim Fortunato is clearly a fool. Typically, on discussion, I would find that about half the students identified with Montresor, although he is manifestly wicked and cold-hearted. I suspect that readers tend to identify with a protagonist with little prompting, and despite what may be thought damning evidence against them. Didn’t some of the romantic poets identify with Satan, at least in the opening couple of books of Paradise Lost? – and would this be because Milton portrays events primarily through Satan’s perspective?


Keith Oatley said...

Thank you very much David, for this very clarifying post on Interpretation and Identification. It sorts out, admirably, a number of issues over which I have been puzzling. It seems to me that in the new movement that we are discussing, of trying to understand, as Bill Benzon puts it, "how texts work in the mind and brain," we should not neglect interpretation, because a certain openness of interpretation is one of the things that seems central to art. But we should probably regard interpretation as secondary, and certainly look sceptically at displacements that seem to have more do do with critics' political predispositions than with the text itself.

Bill Benzon said...

One thing to keep in mind, one position that's common enough in the lit crit biz is that "it's ALL interpretation." According to this position, the fact that this squiggle is an "a" and that a "z" and so forth, none of this is built-in to the structure of the mind. It all must be learned. There is a mental act involved.

The problem with this notion, of course, is that it trivializes the notion of interpretation. Surely there is a difference between simply recognizing letters and words and the rather more complex business of arguing that a story about boy-meets-girl is REALLY about capitalist hegemony or the return of the repressed, what have you.

But where do you draw the line between these extremes? And how do we find a "level" where the work is pretty much the same for all, even if different readers may say different things about it?

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