Monday 26 January 2009

On Interpretation

In comments to a post on 28 October 2008, a very interesting discussion developed between Bill Benzon and David Miall. David endorsed Bill's position, that what we should pursue is "how texts work in the mind and brain" rather than "what they mean." David went on to say:
My problem with interpretation is that in literary scholarship it typically takes us away from the text itself to using the text as a specimen of some historical or cultural issue. Peter Rabinowitz has characterized this very effectively as the "Rule of Abstract Displacement." There are two steps to it. "The first step involves an act of substitution: according to this rule, good literature is always treated as if it were about something else." Its "real" meaning, that is, lies in something other than its ostensible, surface meaning. The second step is "an act of generalization," towards some proposition that is supposed to have universal value ... I don’t believe that most ordinary readers (outside the classroom) are engaged in interpretation, in this sense. Of course, there are other meanings to interpretation, and I wouldn’t want to suggest they are without interest. It’s the bypassing of the text itself that I want to point out.
I have been continuing to ponder these very thought-provoking comments, with which I largely agree, but aspects of the principle of abstract displacement continue to puzzle me. I completely see how this can distract from understanding readers' experience, but consider the recent film which is presented as a "specimen of some historical or cultural issue," Valkyrie, a passable (though not especially good) film about Claus von Stauffenberg's attempt to assassinate Hitler in 1944. Although the film has a historical basis, it is constructed, quite properly for the commercial cinema, as a piece of fiction. The interpretation invited is that Stauffenberg's motives were of a kind that modern audiences, knowing in retrospect how wicked Hitler was, would be able to identify with today. It would make a difference to the film (or to any comparable piece of fiction), if Stauffenberg were portrayed as someone who had thought it was a fine idea (and there is evidence for this) to colonize Poland to obtain prison labour for German agriculture, but who thought that Hitler was a disaster because of his military incompetence.

My point is that 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."

Of course, one may say, this film was (as Hollywood puts it) based on a true story. But does not every piece of fiction prompt us to understand allegiances and motivations in the contexts it offers us? Is this necessarily a distraction?

Peter J. Rabinowitz (1996). Reader Response, Reader Responsibility: Heart of Darkness and the Politics of Displacement, in R. C. Murfin (Ed.), Case studies in contemporary criticism: Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness (pp. 131-147). Boston: Bedford Books.

1 comment:

David S. Miall said...

Interpretation and Identification

I don't have a problem with Keith’s observations. 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?

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