- Even Homer Sometimes NODs:Against Hermeneutic Perfectionism
In one of the more prominent passages of his Essay on Criticism, Alexander Pope delineates the hermeneutic principles to be observed when dealing with the great authors: “Those are but Stratagems which Errors seem, Nor is it Homer Nods, but We that Dream.”1 For Pope, Homer never erred, Homer never dropped off to sleep. In these lines, he gives voice to one of the fundamental assumptions of literary interpretation: if a literary work appears to be plainly bad it must be a case of misinterpretation.
Certain interpretations, such as the idea that a great author might somehow have written a novel with superfluous chapters or inconsistent characters, are generally to be avoided by means of more intense interpretive efforts and special hermeneutic strategies. This practice of avoiding the ascription of poetical or intellectual flaws at all costs might be described as a form of hermeneutic perfectionism. An examination of recent theories of literary communication exposes the characteristic logic of this practice and its fatal blind spot: bad literature. [End Page 549]
Most literary texts are anomalous when seen in terms of everyday communication because of the significant hermeneutic challenge they present. A first response of “I don’t understand this” is common in the case of literary texts, and usually suggests that further interpretive efforts are needed. Thus, it is characteristic of literary communication that its paradigmatic objects make considerable demands on the interpreter.
This state of affairs is often obscured by theories of literary communication that seek to liken it to everyday linguistic communication. Prime examples of this approach are those based on the Gricean theory of communication and the reformulation and extension of the Gricean paradigm in the context of Dan Sperber and Deirdre Wilson’s relevance theory.2 Fotis Jannidis, for instance, draws on the cooperative principle of the Gricean logic of rational conversation to formulate a cooperative principle in the context of his theory of literary communication, thereby treating the logic of literary communication as analogous to that of everyday linguistic communication.3
The cooperative principle of the Gricean logic of conversation treats conversations as forms of linguistic cooperation that facilitate the efficient exchange of information; all participants in a conversation assume that the other participants in the conversation (1) act on the basis that the efficient exchange of information is the objective of their cooperation, and (2) share the assumption that all the other participants in the conversation act on the basis that this is the objective of their cooperation.4
This raises two problems. On the one hand, the considerable hermeneutic effort that is expended and perceived as appropriate in interpreting literary texts does not, at first sight, suggest that successful literary communication is guided by the aim of minimizing communicative effort. On the other hand, it does not seem likely that the considerable effort often associated with the interpretation of literary texts can simply be put down to mere communicative inefficiency.
Literary artifacts present a hermeneutic challenge: as anyone who has sought to teach literature to a roomful of undergraduates can attest, most literary works are hard to understand. Indeed, the “difficulty” that requires additional processing or interpretive efforts and yields additional insights is often thought to be a defining characteristic of “literature”; literary communication differs from everyday communication in “that it is intended to require a large amount of processing effort to come up with an adequate interpretation.”5 [End Page 550]
The adequate elucidation of paradigmatic literary artifacts calls for a considerable interpretive effort that is outrageously excessive when seen from the perspective of everyday communication as articulated by Gricean logic. According to this paradigm, it seems unlikely that anyone would readily consent to take part in the communicative exchanges that (high) literature offers.
Relevance theory appears, at first, to offer a solution to this impasse. It maintains that the likelihood that interpretive engagement with difficult literary artifacts will not be avoided increases with the predicted benefit of such an engagement; this benefit does not necessarily have to be an aesthetic one. If, though, literary texts must rely on the investment of substantial effort on the part of...