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  • Moving Literary Theory On
  • Wendell V. Harris

Paradox has long been especially seductive to literary critics and theorists. For the New Critics, the presence of paradox in a text served to vouch for the complexity and therefore value of the perspective on life the text offered. For poststructuralists it seems to be even more important: paradox is the hallmark of earnestness. And if paradox is good, self-contradiction is even better. That at least would seem to be the reasoning that justifies the amount of internal contradiction to be encountered among the critical principles most in vogue these days. Let us note twelve of the most egregious of these contradictions.

(1) New Criticism is dead. But the New Critics’ major activity, the pursuit of the author’s intended meaning through close reading, is still very much with us. However much poststructuralists have wished to deny the importance of or possibility of achieving understanding of authorially intended meaning, their own critical commentary necessarily begins with the meaning the author is assumed to have intended. For instance, that which Derrida seeks to deconstruct or undercut in Saussure, Rousseau, Austin, or Searle begins in what he thinks they intended to say. However, the New Critic sought to resolve apparent contradictions on the principle that the interpretation producing the greatest consistency would be nearest the author’s meaning (since the author was assumed to have assumed that the reader would assume that the author intended a non-contradictory statement). In contrast, the poststructuralist typically seeks to find and emphasize or, if necessary, induce contradiction—but only after having assumed that degree of consonance and unity in the text necessary to interpret the intended meaning within which can be sought the contradictions for the [End Page 428] discovery of which the reading was undertaken. The result is thus more often than not a New Critical reading into which contradictions have been injected. One is reminded of the old story of the student in a short story writing class who told his friend that he had the story all written—all he had to do was go back and put in the symbols. The typical poststructuralist begins with a reading much like what one would expect from a New Critic and then begins inducing contradictions.

(2) Literature and language cannot really be about anything beyond themselves. At the same time literature and the language on which it is dependent are regarded as largely constituting that which we experience. If language cannot refer to non-linguistic things and events, either it cannot have the power to shape our classifications, descriptions, and evaluations of things and events experienced, or there exists nothing beyond language—in which case we can abolish poverty, racism, and sexism by denying that those words have any meaning. Moreover, if language is about nothing but itself, any formulation that uses language to make statements denying the relationship of language to anything outside itself must be meaningless.

(3) All narratives, indeed all statements about the world, are fictional. Yet “fictional” would have no meaning if it did not stand in contrast to those things that are not fictional, while the distinctions made available by the contrast are ones we can hardly do without. There are narratives (1) that both tellers and their hearers/readers know to be not true (“not to be the case” is the evasive formulation popular with philosophers), (2) that tellers and/or hearers/readers think true though they prove not to be, and (3) that tellers think true and are in fact partially, perhaps largely true, but erroneous in some details and necessarily incomplete. These classifications require a modicum of explanation, but to lose one’s way among them would seem to require a wilful pursuit of confusion.

Class 1. Oliver Twist is fictional even though there were workhouses, thieves, and such sites as The Angel and Newgate existing at the time at which the narrative is set. Of course, within a fictional narrative, there may be subnarratives the reader is to regard as true within the total fictional narrative and others that are to be regarded as false. To take a light-hearted example, within the narrative of Gilbert and...

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