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The Senses of the Text: Intensional Semantics and Literary Theory
The Senses of the Text: Intensional Semantics and Literary Theory, by William C. Dowling; xviii & 120 pp. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1999, $15.00.
William C. Dowling wants to accomplish at least two things with his book, Senses of the Text. First, he wants "to attempt to come at the problem of determinate meaning in literature from a new angle." Second, he wants "to provide an introduction to the work of J. J. Katz for those in literary theory" (p. ix). Katz's intensional semantics provides the theoretical foundation for Dowling's version of determinate meaning. To a considerable extent he accomplishes both things he sets out to do, but let me take them one at a time.
Dowling deplores, as many have been doing lately, the damage to literary studies done by a generation of theorizing, mostly at what he calls the level of "second-order interpretation." He pokes good-natured fun at some of the culprits, including Stanley Fish and his interpretive communities. Dowling writes convincingly about the need to recover some of our former and now abandoned conceptions of literary works. Primarily, he is interested in defending the concept of "determinate meaning," which was hardly a contested notion in the days of the old New Criticism, when gifted close readers like Cleanth Brooks taught an earlier generation how to read and interpret literature. Dowling does not exactly propose a return to those naïve times when determinate meaning was merely an axiom of literary interpretation, what Michael Polanyi called "the tacit dimension of interpretive activity." But he does propose to demonstrate why such tacit assumptions about the meanings of words in a work of literature worked as a convincing method of reading or interpretation, without recourse to "interpretive communities, or social conventions, or language games, or anything else . . . outside the text" (p. 1).
Essentially Dowling accomplishes his first aim in Chapter 1 with two well-chosen demonstrations of close reading applied to poems by John Donne. The first example takes a puzzling stanza from "Valediction: Forbidding Mourning" [End Page 508] and recreates a classroom exercise in literary interpretation. In the passage Dowling uses for his lesson, Donne refers to the "Moving of th'earth," which "brings harms and fears / Men reckon what it did and meant; / But trepidation of the spheres, / Though greater far, is innocent" (ll. 912). At issue is that earthly movement. Is it the earth's celestial movement around the sun or perhaps its diurnal rotation around its own axis? Or is Donne referring to a different kind of movement, the violent shaking of earthquakes?
Of course, anyone who has ever taught this poem will have gone through this exercise. The correct answer is earthquakes. Attentive students will already have found the reference to "earthquakes" in their edition's footnotes or commentary. Most notes go on to give a brief gloss on Ptolemaic astronomy and its "spheres" as well, which will help explain Donne's later extension of the conceit in the allusion to "Dull sublunary lovers love" (l. 13). Dowling has chosen a good example to demonstrate his case for "determinate meaning" in literature. But it works best if students have to puzzle out the answer for themselves instead of finding the right answer in the commentary. Dowling prefers to use the OED for this, letting his students learn a little history along with their poetry. Donne has very specific meanings and images in mind for the elaborate conceit in this poem, and teaching students how to uncover all the connections is an excellent lesson in the value of close reading.
Dowling's second demonstration of determinate meaning in Donne's poetry is even better. This time he chooses to discuss an essay by William Kerrigan that deftly demonstrates how scrupulous attention to what Dowling calls "first-order meaning" can bring free associating "second-order interpretations" back to reality. Here again we have a famous poem, but the...