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The Literary Work Is Not Its Text

From: Philosophy and Literature
Volume 11, Number 2, October 1987
pp. 307-316 | 10.1353/phl.1987.0060

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THE LITERARY WORK IS NOT ITS TEXT by Susan Wilsmore The work of literature is not its text; a musical work is not its score. The text ofa literary work, the score of a musical work, are not sufficient to identify diem as diose individual works of art. This is my answer to the question raised by Goodman: "Is a work to be identified widi die text or with an interpretation of it? Is Ulysses its text or are there as many works as right interpretations?" 1 His own answer, as we know, is that the literary work is the text. As he poses his question, if we deny tiiat the work is the text, we have then to identify it widi its right interpretations , which means that there are as many works as there are such interpretations. Can we avoid this conclusion? I think we can. Theories of the identity of notational works of art such as poems and novels like that of Nelson Goodman,2 and many tiieories ofliterature like those of the New Critics, the structuralists and die poststructuralists which hope to explain what the work ofliterature is as a reading ofdie text assume diat die text suffices to identity die work itself. My view, which avoids multiplying works of art according to every right interpretation, is on the contrary that such theories neglect an account ofthe work ofart as a normative structure embedded in the practices ofa shared culture where values enter into die determination ofdie identity ofdie work ofart and in normal contexts we have no difficulty in determining how to apply such expressions as "same work of art" and "different work of art." Our competent use of the expression the "work of art" is enough to determine die identity of individual works of art togedier with our use of words like "novel," "symphony," "painting," and "statue." (In philosophical terminology such words are called sortais because of their identificatory 307 308Philosophy and Literature role in our language.) Such competence is shown in their proper application in that to use die expressions "a painting* and "a work of art," or "a poem" and "a work ofart" ofan individual work implies diat it is senseless to say diat it is die same painting but not die same work ofart, or the same poem but not tiie same work of art. By our coming to understand such identificatory practices that determine what is to count as die same work of art, it becomes clearer how we are able to pick out what we call works of art, and to re-identify diem as the same works of art as those that were picked out previously. Why then is a work of literature not its text? Because a text is a text of something— ofa novel or poem. A work ofliterature is not a work ofliterature of something else. When we identify an individual as a novel for instance , then the proper use of the word "novel" has itself provided criteria ofidentity for the individual novel, and thereby for its text. Given that the novel is a work of art, then the rules for the use of the terms "novel" and "work of art" coincide in application to individuals, i.e., die same novel must also be die same work of art throughout its history. While to know what a novel or a poem is requires that we understand diose practices in which it has its place in our culture, to understand which text we are reading we have only to know what it is of— ofdiis novel, diis poem, this article, etc. The identity of die literary work it is of is presupposed in our being able to pick out in the world what we are to count as being the same text. Our ability to do diis requires more of us man merely being able to pick out words having sameness of spelling, as Goodman would have it. Talking of die same text in die context of picking out a literary text as being the same as the one we read before is to talk of a "text of the same spelling giving the same meaning." In...