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Critical Discussion Making Sense of Literature, by John Reichert; pp. xii & 222. Chicago: University ofChicago Press, 1978, $10.50. Discussed by Denis Dutton Theory-weary readers will be relieved by John Reichert's declaration at the outset of this provocative new book that "what is needed is not another theory of literature . . . but a view of reading and criticism that cuts through the plethora of competing critical languages to recover and redignify the simple procedures of reading, understanding, and assessing literature that the English language has long been adequate to describe" (p. x). And Reichert's admirably clear-headed approach, bent as it is on the "démystification of criticism," has much to recommend it. Yet compulsive theoreticians fearful that Reichert might actually solve the problems he raises—leaving them with nothing more to do—will take comfort from contemplating the tangles which ensue: the procedures of reading, understanding, and assessing literature are far from being as simple as all that. "All reading is reading as" (pp. 4-5). This point of departure, adapted from a Wittgensteinian commonplace and developed with the aid of the reversing figure analogy, is fairly uncontroversial: we can read a piece of writing under any aspect, just as we can see Reichert's reversing figure as a square suspended in a frame, a lampshade seen from above, or a tunnel. But surely one is not as free to see it as a circle (or King Lear as a comedy), and the individual who cannot be made to see it as a tunnel (or the Iliad as more than a good war story) is missing something. Indeed, Reichert insists that not every interpretation of a work of literature is as satisfactory as every other, even though his view allows for a range of valid or plausible interpretations. Still, "how we read a piece of writing depends on such matters as our situation, our conception of the author's intention, our relationship to the text and its author, and the sort of text we believe it to be. These considerations exclude certain ways ofreading in a given case, but they do not determine 258 Denis Dutton259 which of the admissible ways of reading we shall follow" (pp. 5-6). Ofcourse, we all have different "situations," and we can have different "interests" and "purposes." These considerations may have little or nothing to do with the work itself, but rather with us. The other constraints Reichert mentions are more problematic. As he points out, much disagreement in critical theory stems from the tension between two fundamentally different views of the writer: one which treats the author as sayer, the other which treats the author as maker (p. 61). Anti-intentionalist theoreticians such as Monroe Beardsley have wanted to use the text as the final authority in interpretation. For them, the text itself—or whatever it says—is what the critic interprets. In its more extreme forms, the opposing position holds that the interpretation of a text ought to take as its ultimate purpose the revelation of what the author himself is saying by means of the text. Authorial intention, on this view, becomes the criterion of interpretive validity. Though Reichert does not go so far as to embrace this latter position, he stresses the crucial relevance of authorial intention to the critical enterprise: "all interpretation is either an attempt to discover the author's intentions or else assumes that those intentions are understood" (p. 64). It must be said, however, that the examples he adduces to support this contention are of uneven persuasiveness. Frost's "West-Running Brook," is shown, for instance, to express things about "living and dying . . . marriage, human bonds, about the differences between the ways people see things and how these differences may be bridged by love." Reichert finds "preposterous" the notion that in such interpretation "we are not trying to figure out what the real author was trying to do. If we see tracks and other signs in the woods and conclude that an animal must have been foraging for berries there, we are constructing an interpretation to the effect that a real animal, not a fictional one, was foraging" (pp. 73-74). Anti-intentionalists will...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1086-329X
Print ISSN
0190-0013
Pages
pp. 258-265
Launched on MUSE
2011-10-05
Open Access
No
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