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WHAT'S THE POINT OF PROFESSIONAL INTERPRETATION OF LITERATURE? by Martin Steinmann, Jr. In a free country, people — including literary critics — may say what they please. And — die later Wittgenstein, RyIe, Quine, Feyerabend, Derrida, Kuhn, Sellars, and, recendy, Rorty have almost persuaded us — there are no neutral or privileged ways of saying anything, except perhaps of saying tiiat there are none. One kind ofsaying tiiat a great many literary critics are given to nowadays is interpretation of individual works of literature — mostly works of fiction (The Waste Land, The Golden Bowl), but also revered works of nonfiction (SirJohn Davies's Orchestra, Areopagitica) and mixtures of fiction widi nonfiction (Paradise Lost, War and Peace). Here, in a somewhat tendentious essay in cultural anthropology, my purpose is not to propose a neutral or privileged or better or even just different way of such interpretation. My purpose is, rather, to anatomize it and ask what its point is. Until about World War II, literary criticism and scholarship in America — as manifested in articles in PMLA, for example, and in books published by university presses — was chiefly a historical and theoretical discipline. Its goal was to contribute to knowledge ofliterature and its context. This goal it tried to achieve in a great variety of ways: by describing recurring diemes or motifs in an author's oeuvre, by formulating the conventions of a genre, by formulating the principles of meter, by describing parallels and establishing influences, by constructing critical editions recovering their authors' final intentions, by establishing the sequence of stories in a text, by establishing dates of composition or publication, by tracing the stage history of a play or the history of the critical reception ofa novel, by showing the relationship between a work and die author who wrote it or the time in which he wrote it, by tracing the history of a taste or literary fashion or the evolution of a movement, by describing an audior's style, and, of course, by interpreting individual works of literature. 266 Martin Steinmann, Jr.267 But interpretation did not bulk large. What there was ofit was virtually exclusively of earlier works, was historical reconstruction of the interpretive competence of readers or audiences who were the authors' contemporaries, and was pretty much confined to interpretation of parts of works rather than whole works. Using their knowledge of the language of the time, of the literary or dramatic conventions of the time, and of literary, political, economic, or social history, critics and scholars tried to answer questions both about texts and about the world, real or imaginary, signified by texts. What is the meaning ofswyven in Chaucer? What is the reference of the noun phrase Prince of Cats in Romeo and Julia II.iv? What is the subject of the verb rung in Paradise Lost III.347? The direct object? Are Hamlet's soliloquies a sign that he is introspective? Is Othello's believing Iago's calumnies about Desdemona a sign that he is gullible? Ofwhat, if anything, is the Duke in Measurefor Measure a symbol? What, if anything, is the cause ofAntonio's melancholy in the first act of TheMerchant of Venice? Critics were especially interested in trying to explain famous cruxes or puzzles. What, for instance, is die "two-handed engine at the door" in "Lycidas"? Only rarely did they ask what a poem or play or novel means — as contrasted with what a word or phrase or scene or incident means. In particular, they rarely asked what, if anything, the underlying or hidden or real theme of a work is. The earliest exception I can recall is Greenlaw's asking (in 1917) what Milton means in (or by) Paradise Lost. On the surface, he said, the theme of this epic is what Milton says it is: "Man's disobedience, and the loss thereupon of Paradise." But the great underlying theme is the conflict in man between reason and passion. The poem is Greek, not Hebraic.1 Now — need I argue? — this is vastly changed. The changes were, of course, gradual, but by the end of World War II they were pretty well accomplished. Perhaps they began with I.A. Richards's Practical Criticism in...


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