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  • Why Poe?Why Not Peirce?
  • Roger Seamon

Frederick Crews has twice tried to mock deep interpretation to death, but it won't work. There is, as he himself says, "a desperate need to root around and 'find' some redeeming features of Pooh to hang on to," and thus The Pooh Perplex did not, and Postmodern Pooh will not, put an end to the love affair between literary interpreters and deep meanings.1 The opposition of Plato and Aristotle did not do it in the ancient world,2 and Dr. Johnson was still protesting two millennia later: "They see with great clearness whatever is too remote to be discovered by the rest of mankind, but are totally blind to what lies immediately before them. They discover in every passage some secret meaning, some remote allusion, some artful allegory . . . which no other reader ever suspected" (Rambler, p. 176). Early in the last century academic critics tried to resist the practice within academe, but they too failed, and Crews himself only gave it up after writing one of the best works of the genre, The Sins of the Fathers.3

Disbelieving in literary deep meanings is roughly the equivalent of being an atheist. We have a strong propensity to find them in both natural and cultural phenomena. Stars and entrails are interpreted as symbols of a deeper reality, and we create such devices as the I Ching and the Tarot deck to gain entrance to a hidden world of meaning. Dreams, which straddle nature and culture are, perhaps, the most common object upon which to exercise the impulse, and Hayden White reminds us that this propensity has also been part of our intellectual tradition

from the time that Plato set the world of ideas over against the world of things and Aristotle set the contemplative life over against the active life as end to means. This Absurdist moment [White is speaking about post-structuralist [End Page 256] literary interpretation] was potentially present from the beginning of modern European humanism, with its gnostic bent, its celebration of scholarship as an end in itself, its notion of privileged readers enjoying the status of priests interpreting the book of life. It was potentially present in modern Western philosophy, with its insistence that things are never what they appear to be but are manifestations of noumenal essences whose reality must be supposed but whose "natures" can never be known.4

We are often not content with surface meaning in life and texts, but wish to find what Paul Tillich calls, none too modestly, "ultimate reality," which "characterizes the whole appearing world as non-ultimate, preliminary, transitory and finite," and "it is the awareness of the deceptive character of the surface of everything we encounter which drives one to discover what is below the surface."5

There is, however, an oddity that may offer non-believers in deep interpretation some consolation. Philosophical texts, which share many characteristics with literary ones (see below, p. 4, for a discussion of the relevant similarities), are almost wholly immune from deep interpretation. There is no hope for us skeptics that literary deep interpreters will abandon their trade, so all we can do is console ourselves with trying to understand why our rich and beloved surfaces are so often abandoned for the very dubious depths. Crews says that interpreters "yearn to have their 'values' validated by books—the killer app of the 1400s" (Postmodern Pooh, p. 136); yes, but why don't other disciplines, such as history and philosophy, engage in the same practice? What is it about literature that makes it vulnerable? Why, in particular, are philosophical texts almost totally immune to such interpretation? As my title puts it, why Poe, why not Peirce?

But why just Poe and Peirce, philosophy and literature, in the first place? There are, of course, many other kinds of discourse, but literary and philosophical texts have an especially intimate relationship. First, they have a canonical status that, for example, history no longer does, and it is the canon that attracts hermeneutic attention. Students of philosophy and literature learn a canon—or did until recently, and that is not true of modern historians, psychologists, and economists. Second...


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