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  • Responding to the Sovereign Work:Gadamer and Mallarmé
  • Brian O'Keeffe

Literature goads literary theory and the philosophy of literature into exploring the limits of interpretation. There is something about literature, or something of literature, that slips through the fingers, evades the hermeneutical grasp, refuses to be fitted up as a definite concept. Yet while that "something" may remain provokingly out of reach, there is no reason to cast literature as an antagonist, blame it for withdrawing into evasive secrecy after it has claimed our attention. We do not necessarily have to compensate for our dashed hopes by adopting an attitude of hermeneutic suspicion. For the altogether more encouraging scenario—Gadamer's, for instance—replaces provocation by friendly invitation: readers are invited into a relation that can be characterized as a conversation, a dialogue between friends. To encounter a text is to enter into a good-willed partnership—goodwill being what we bring to the relationship, and what we trustingly impute to the text. From such conversation, surely, will come a release of the text's meaning. What will come is reinforcement of the faith in the meaning and value of literature that interpreters— friends of literature—hold fast to, even if it remains hard, nonetheless, to fully grasp what a text wants us to understand.


This faith in the virtues of hermeneutic goodwill has lately been much disturbed. Nowadays we are likely to be seduced by interpretive scenarios that enjoin a much more radical response. This preference for more extreme hermeneutic encounters has been motivated, in part, by the turn to ethics in literary studies, especially when it has turned to the scenarios described by the so-called "ethics of alterity." For this approach to ethics declares that the interpreter must respect the otherness of the text. Quite how a text is supposed to be 'other' is a matter for much debate, and it is only slightly easier to declare that a literary text gives voice to the call of the Other—as if, in the interstices of a text, the imperious "saying" of the Other articulates itself along with all of the other things a text has to say. Whatever the difficulties, the very fact that current literary studies is striving to shoulder such difficulties has been taken, at least by some, as evidence that the call of the Other is being [End Page 107] heard. The risks we take with our interpretive methods, the willingness to countenance the loss of all conceptual purchase on our object of study furnishes some proof that literary studies has understood the nature of "responsibility." But risks they still are. The ethical responsibility formulated for us by the ethics of alterity puts great strain on hermeneutic methods rooted more comfortably in ideas of well-intentioned dialogue. The very objective of hermeneutics, namely to understand the text, might have to be surrendered, on the grounds that interpretation assimilates what is initially strange into already existing frameworks of understanding; it converts the other into the matter of the 'same,' and this is a betrayal of the responsibility to preserve the alterity of the literary text.

Such are the dilemmas of "radical" hermeneutics. Elsewhere on the critical map, however, and at some remove from ethical concerns, there are challenging concepts of "literature" that still need to be reckoned with. There is, for example, the difficulty of inspecting literature's specific mode of being—in what mode it can be said to exist, and what essence it may have. There is the difficulty of confronting certain ideas of artistic refinement, as if certain art forms achieve a certain quintessence, or a purity. As in poésie pure, for instance. These refinements are not easy to describe, and it is difficult to say whether such ideas refer us to the abstract purity of literary form, or to an exquisite quality—a content, concentrated like the precipitate of a chemical distillation. And then there is not purity, but impurity—the essence of the literary understood as a content that is not restricted to any given literary form, but as a content that overflows boundaries, a quality (for example, "poetry"), or an intensity (the "poetic") that does not...


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pp. 107-122
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