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Shorter Reviews The Act of Reading: A Theory of Aesthetic Response, by Wolfgang Iser; xii & 239 pp. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1978, $15.00 At the heart of this unnecessarily convoluted study of reading is a sensible description of how readers arrive at an understanding of novels, constructing the world implied by a text and "assembling" its meaning. Reading is presented as a purely intellectual, ideational affair. Not a word is said of the emotional component of a reader's response. For Iser fiction is a mode of communication. A novel is "a system of perspectives designed to transmit the individuality of the author's vision" (p. 35), and the reader participates "both in the production and the comprehension of the work's intention" (p. 23). The author's vision is a vision of the social and cultural norms of his time, which he may either "shore up" and affirm, or break down by making us experience their deficiencies. Iser is at his best in explicating the "time flow" of reading, the "wandering viewpoint" which the reader must adopt in the "continual interplay between modified expectations and transformed memories" (p. 111). What we experience while reading is a shifting sequence of points of view—the narrator's, the implied reader's, a particular character's—and a sequence of events that either confirm or disconfirm these points of view. We build up "images" of the characters and events, and of what they seem to mean, and then must correct them as new information is provided. Thus our initial image of Fielding's Squire Allworthy as "the perfect man" must be modified when Captain Blifil dupes him, and modified again when he sees through the appearances of Tom's behavior to his benevolent motives. What makes reading an active, constructive process is the fact that the text does not provide all the necessary links between points of view and the train of events. What it provides instead are "blanks," apparent inconsistencies that the reader must fill in or explain. To do so, driven as we are by the search for consistency, is both to construct the meanings and experience them. As we discover, for example, the deficiencies of the various points of view in Tom Jones, each of which represents a particular eighteenth-century view of human nature, we simultaneously construct one of the central meanings of the novel: that there is a "gulf between the rigid confines of principle and the endless fluidity of human experience" (p. 77). The significance of this meaning is whatever it reveals to the reader about himself: "The reader should see himself reflected in the characters, and so should come to a better 131 132Philosophy and Literature understanding of himself," recognizing that "a sense of discernment is useless without a moral foundation" (p. 123). A peculiar feature of The Act of Reading, given its stress on the discovery of the meanings of novels, is its initial exposé of the "traditional expository style of interpretation" whereby the work is "reduced" to a "single 'hidden' meaning" (p. 10). Iser makes use of James's "The Figure in the Carpet" to discredit such reductions, but proceeds to enunciate the story's meaning: "that meaning is no longer an object to be defined, but is an effect to be experienced" (p. 10). Indeed Iser tells us the "hidden meaning" of every text he discusses, and he may be read not as having discredited traditional interpretation but as having lent it theoretical substance. While he insists on the difference between "image" and "discourse," the fact remains that we must fall into discourse when we start to discuss a work. Like Iser, we come up with general propositions to account for the fictional "world" we have discovered and assume them to represent the novelist's ideas about the world we live in. Williams CollegeJohn Reichert Heidegger and the Language ofPoetry, by David A. White; xv & 245 pp. Lincoln and London: University of Nebraska Press, 1978, $13.50. This reworked dissertation offers a systematic reconstruction of Heidegger's discussion of poetic language. What guides this reconstruction is the promise of Heidegger's claim that poetry furnishes us a language more adequate to "the...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1086-329X
Print ISSN
0190-0013
Pages
pp. 131-132
Launched on MUSE
2011-10-05
Open Access
No
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