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  • Deformance and Interpretation
  • Lisa Samuels (bio) and Jerome McGann (bio)

With nothing can one approach a work of art so little as with critical words: they always come down to more or less happy misunderstandings.

Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet 1

I have often noticed that we are inclined to endow our friends with the stability of type that literary characters acquire in the reader’s mind. No matter how many times we reopen “King Lear,” never shall we find the good king banging his tankard in high revelry, all woes forgotten, at a jolly reunion with all three daughters and their lapdogs. Never will Emma rally, revived by the sympathetic salts in Flaubert’s father’s timely tear. Whatever revolution this or that popular character has gone through between the book covers, his fate is fixed in our minds, and, similarly, we expect our friends to follow this or that logical and conventional pattern we have fixed for them. Thus X will never compose the immortal music that would clash with the second-rate symphonies he has accustomed us to. Y will never commit murder. Under no circumstances can Z ever betray us. We have it all arranged in our minds, and the less often we see a particular person the more satisfying it is to check how obediently he conforms to our notion of him every time we hear of him. Any deviation in the fates we have ordained would strike us as not only anomalous but unethical.

Vladimir Nabokov, Lolita 2

I. A Question of Interpretation

Works of imagination encourage interpreters, who respond in diverse and inventive ways. The variety of critical practices—indeed, the number of differing interpretations directed at the same works—can obscure the theoretical commonality that holds those practices together. We can draw an immediate distinction, however, [End Page 25] between critical practices which do or do not aim to be interpretive: bibliographical studies and prosodic analysis, for example, typically discount their interpretive moves, if any are explicitly engaged.

The usual object of interpretation is “meaning,” or some set of ideas that can be cast in thematic form. These meanings are sought in different ways: as though resident “in” the work, or evoked through “reader-response,” or deconstructable through a process that would reinstall a structure of intelligibility at a higher, more critical level. The contemporary terminology will not obscure the long-standing character of such practices, which can be mixed in various ways. In all these cases, however, an essential relation is preserved between an artistic work and some structure of ideas, that is, some conceptual form that gets more or less fully articulated “for” the work. To understand a work of art, interpreters try to close with a structure of thought that represents its essential idea(s).

In this paper we want to propose—or recall—another way of engaging imaginative work. Perhaps as ancient as more normative practices, it has been less in vogue for some time. This alternative does not stand opposed to interpretive procedures as such, nor to the elaboration of conceptual equivalents for imaginative work. But it does try to set these modes of exegesis on a new footing. The alternative moves to break beyond conceptual analysis into the kinds of knowledge involved in performative operations—a practice of everyday imaginative life. We will argue that concept-based interpretation, reading along thematic lines, is itself best understood as a particular type of performative and rhetorical operation.

II. Reading Backward

In an undated fragment on a leaf of stationery, Emily Dickinson wrote what appears to be one of her “letters to the world”: “Did you ever read one of her Poems backward, because the plunge from the front overturned you? I sometimes (often have, many times) have—a Something overtakes the Mind” (Prose Fragment 30). 3 In the light of recent promotions of “antithetical” reading models, we might find Dickinson’s idea a compatible one. But the physical and performative character of her proposal sets it in a tradition of reading and criticism far different from those we have cultivated in the twentieth century. This difference is exactly why we should listen to what she...

Additional Information

ISSN
1080-661X
Print ISSN
0028-6087
Pages
pp. 25-56
Launched on MUSE
1999-02-01
Open Access
No
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