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Christopher Norris DERRIDA AT YALE: THE "DECONSTRUCTIVE MOMENT" IN MODERNIST POETICS IN seven types of ambiguity, William Empson breezily remarked of his critical method that it was "either all nonsense or all very startling and new." The reactions went very much as Empson predicted, with a whole new school of criticism eagerly latching on to the idea of multiple meanings in poetry, while the sober-sided scholars indignantly attacked his wayward "misreadings" and flagrant anachronisms. At present, there is a similar controversy raging around the figure of Jacques Derrida, whose influence on literary critics—mainly the Yale school of Geoffrey Hartman, Harold Bloom and J. Hillis Miller— occupies the forefront of debate in current theoretical exchange. Apart from all the sideshow of polemics, this parallel with Empson is a useful jumping-off point for an approach to Derrida and the implications of his writing. Empson opened up the literary text to a practice of reading which released as many ambiguities, overtones, and hints of recondite meaning as the analyst could reasonably claim to find in it. Reason, or commonsense judgment, still played an arbitrating role, since Empson wanted his readings at least to match something in the credible intention—at whatever "unconscious" level—of the author concerned. Subsequently, Empson has taken issue with the American New Critics on precisely this ground of authorial intention. Where they have dismissed all such considerations as outside the critic's proper interest or competence—treating the text as a "verbal icon," detached from any speculative background of motive or intent—Empson has come out in sturdy defense of "intentionalist" readings, based on available evidence of what the poet was trying to express. In other words, Empson, for all his dazzling inventiveness, held to a notion of the author as (implicitly) a self-possessed creator of meanings, one whose intentions demand critical respect, however broadly that requirement is to be interpreted in practice. Anglo-American criticism 242 Christopher Norris243 has lately been much preoccupied with the question of whether—or exactly how far—an author's original "meaning" can be recovered by close attention to his text. E. D. Hirsch's Validity in Interpretation is a classic if long-winded statement of the conservative view: that the critic's obligation is to come as close as possible to establishing what an author most probably meant in using language as. he did.3 The discipline involved is partly a matter of historical semantics (drawing a limit or "horizon" of possible meanings in context), and partly a matter of interpretative tact and sympathy. Hirsch grounds his argument on the Kantian premise that a text is in some sense the surrogate voice of its author, and that texts must therefore be treated, like people, as ends in themselves, and not means toward the critic's display of self-advertising brilliance. All the same, Hirsch has to acknowledge that authorial intention, as such, is beyond the grasp of this reconstructive program, which offers at best a kind of inferential yardstick for narrowing down the range of semantic potential. The problem which Hirsch never quite gets to grips with, despite his elaborate argumentation, is the fact that texts come across to us always from a distance of time, of experience or culture, which makes their meaning more or less opaque and problematic. The author is not simply there in the text, a self-authenticating "voice" of intent, as Hirsch (in his more sanguine moments) would have us believe. One might expect some such assurance from the homely narrative address of a novelist like Fielding, or the intimate soul-baring style of Wordsworth's poetry. Yet Fielding is as cunning a narrative tactician as any, his "voice" a shifting multitude of ironies and ploys; while Wordsworth manages a complex and selective rhetoric of memory which (as recent critics have shown) by no means communicates the "unmediated vision" of purely personal address. Hirsch yields a hostage to the relativist case by proposing a distinction between "meaning" (that which inheres in the text, and which the critic is duty-bound to preserve), and "significance" (the purely associative values which change with the passage of time and make room for rival or updated interpretations...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1086-329X
Print ISSN
0190-0013
Pages
pp. 242-256
Launched on MUSE
2011-10-05
Open Access
No
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