- The Resistance to Interpretation
For many years, in paris and in New York, both at Columbia University and at the Sorbonne, I taught an introduction to literary research course. In the United States, the setting was a proseminar for incoming graduate students; in Paris, the context was that of methodology lectures for the DEA (Diplôme d’études approfondies), the first year of the doctorate. Both courses were team taught, and I enjoyed giving such an introduction to research, examining and discussing methods. This is because I believe that I don’t have any method myself. I learnt everything on the job, and I always prefer a hands-on approach to an academic one. I never read guides, manuals, instructions, before visiting a city or opening a box, and I reach for them only when I have broken the device (be it a washer, a computer, or a car). The only valuable section in an owner’s guide, the only one worth reading, is the one that is labeled "Troubleshooting." As a literary scholar, then, I picked up my techniques by myself, and I have little patience for abstract methodology.
Perhaps this is because I was initially trained as a scientist, as an engineer. On the one hand, I enjoyed the beauty of pure mathematics, and on the other, I liked to get my hands dirty as a mechanic. At the school where I was taught mathematics and physics, we also had to be able to take a car engine apart, and to put it back together again. This is the best introduction to close reading. With my first car, a basic Renault, I could still manage the mechanics. Now, of course, cars are software nests.
Claude Lévi-Strauss famously opposed the engineer and the bricoleur. As much as I love him, the distinction is obviously exaggerated; it is as wrong as C. P. Snow’s notorious break between "Two Cultures," and one that no engineer worthy of the name, that is to say, someone who is ingenious, would be likely to make.
I therefore enjoyed teaching a methodology course because I am not a believer in methodology, and there was some irony in my introductory course. In fact, my whole Literary Scholarship 101 could be summarized in Pascal’s dictum, my minimalist methodological takeaway: "Be of good cheer (or console yourself). You would not seek me if you had not (already) found me."1 Here Pascal is remembering Saint Bernard [End Page 271] of Clairvaux in On Loving God: "Here is a paradox: that no one can seek the Lord who has not already found him."2 This is the paradox of grace.
Granted, it is harsh to leave prospective scholars with such a viaticum—a paradoxical provision, as Bernard rightly said—but Pascal added a note of solace. I can think of no better summary of the so-called hermeneutic circle, that is, the mutual precedence of the whole and the parts, or of the question and the answer (in Hans-Georg Gadamer’s rephrasing), the question put to the text and the answer given by the text (a résumé which, en passant, confirms the inherently religious, Biblical origins of hermeneutics): "You would not seek me if you had not already found me," and "That which is hidden somewhere in the Bible lies in plain sight somewhere else," as Saint Thomas, after Augustine, wrote.3 The only recommendation I could honestly give my students had to do with interpretation: "You would not seek it if you had not already found it." An awesome blessing, which implies labors, travails, but which also promises rewards, recompenses. It presupposes that something must be found before something will be sought.
I would go on, both in Paris and New York, by expounding on the analogy between literary research and hunting, or, in French, between the "chercheur" and the "chasseur." Of course, I endorse the theory that locates the origins of literature in the hunting narrative, the report on the hunting expedition that is made to those who stayed behind to care for the crops. Literature and hunting are inherently linked, and the scholar is a hunter...