Random Readings 7

In “The Intentional Fallacy,” W.K. Wimsatt and Monroe Beardsley argue against both the Romantics and I.A. Richards from their objectivist New Critical standpoint. They seek a centrist position in the discussion of the role of an artist’s intention. They state that the author’s intention is “neither available nor desirable” for the understanding or interpretation of a work of art. They go beyond the obvious case of the author being dead and say that even if you asked an author what his intentions were, he wouldn’t really know. They quote Plato, where Socrates explains his realization that poets aren’t aware of their intentions, and therefore poetry is a result of inspiration, not intention. However, the study of the author’s world is not seen as a key to his inspiration, for a researcher can get bogged down in biographical detail and be unduly influenced by it in his or her reading. This section of their argument seems to be a reaction to the developments in poetry during the first half of the twentieth century, especially the “allusiveness” of poets, the most notorious being T.S. Eliot. Wimsatt and Beardsley see that the dense network of allusion in works like The Waste Land would drive an intentionist crazy. And, as they have pointed out, asking Eliot himself would not provide reliable explanations.

Roland Barthes also attacks the critical focus on the author in his 1968 essay “The Death of the Author.” He echoes the Keatsian idea of “negative capability” when he states that writing brings a loss of identity in the creation of the “voice” of the text. It is the language that speaks, Barthes insists, not the author. He argues that focusing on the author puts a break on the writing and hinders the meaning.

On the other hand, E.D. Hirsch, Jr. argues against the “anything goes” attitude that is the end result of the focus on the reader that critics like Barthes espouse. In “Objective Interpretation,” he argues that in order for criticism to be valid, it must be based on a correct understanding of the text. Criticism, in his view, is concerned with the “relevance” of a text, whereas “meaning” is explored through interpretation. Therefore, criticism must follow interpretation. Meaning, he believes, is in the text, and it does not change over time. The meaning of Shakespeare’s plays does not change over the centuries, only the relevance changes for each era, each generation, each person. Although he strongly challenges New Criticism, Hirsch echoes Wimsatt and Beardsley when he states that “in most cases it is impossible (even for the author himself) to determine precisely what he was thinking of at the time or times he composed his text.” He also echoes Stanley Fish when he argues that a sense of the context will reduce the chance of misinterpretation. Hirsch defines context as “a sense of the whole meaning, constituted of explicit partial meaning plus a horizon of expectations and probabilities.” His reliance on expectations, probabilities, and coherence to determine validity seems rather Aristotelian as well.



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