- Inductive Hermeneutics and Cross-Cultural Interpretation
Reading Ranjan Ghosh and J. Hillis Miller's fine book, Thinking Literature Across Continents (2016), which considers the nature of literature and its relationship to cultural and geographical boundaries, has caused me to consider how I approach literature, particularly literature from outside my own cultural experience. As an undergraduate student, I studied both English and philosophy. Many of the philosophy professors at my university were strongly drawn to the works of Hans Gadamer and Edmund Husserl. And I remember a fellow student telling me of one professor in particular who began his class by asserting that Husserl's was a presuppositionless philosophy. My friend then read me the first paragraph of I think it was Cartesian Meditations and remarked on point after point, "Isn't this a presupposition? And isn't this a presupposition?" and so on. I was reminded of this incident when in thinking about this essay I recalled yet another undergraduate experience. My English professors were a bit behind the times in their approach to literature. While many or perhaps most English professors elsewhere were then enthralled with the new developments in literary theory ushered in by poststructuralism, my professors were all New Critics. New Criticism came about as a response to the belles lettres tradition of literary commentary and the biographical/historical criticism of [End Page 826] the early twentieth century, arguing that the former emphasized mere praise with no analysis and that the latter emphasized mere biography/history with no literature. In large part, New Criticism looked to focus on the literature by approaching a literary work in isolation, the poem found in a bottle washed up on a beach as it were, with no indication of the author, culture, or historical epoch in which it was produced—in effect a presuppositionless criticism. Trained in this approach to literature, by my senior year of college, I felt adept at analyzing literature without considering context and in what I considered, I suppose, to be a presuppositionless environment, and I felt that through this methodology I could interpret any piece of literature.
That idea quickly exploded in the space of a single class. Along with my studies in English and philosophy, I also minored in Japanese. In my senior year I took my first class on Japanese literature and suddenly realized that rather than being presuppositionless New Criticism in fact concealed many important presuppositions with its high value on ambiguity, irony, and metaphor, and, particularly with fiction, the additional expectations of conflict, complication, rising action, falling action, and denouement. I abruptly discovered these presuppositions upon reading, for example, Kawabata Yasunari's Yukiguni (Snow Country) or the sadly inelegantly English-titled The Makioka Sisters (for the elegant original title of Sasameyuki or Thin-Falling Snow) by Tanizaki Junichirō. I found myself finishing so many literary works in this class puzzled and saying to myself, "What just happened here?" My expectations, that is my presuppositions, of rising action, falling action, denouement, irony, and so on seemed absent from these works, and it was as if I had suddenly been thrust back to my freshman year and was reading Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness or Ernest Hemingway's The Sun also Rises for the first time and coming away with the same confused response. I then understood that rather than approaching literary works with no presuppositions, I in fact had been approaching them with many presuppositions, and while I may have come to literature without the presupposition of knowledge of biographical or historical context, I had come to it with other presuppositions concerning elements that I had thought were necessary for a literary work to be literary.
This experience came to mind as I was reading Thinking Literature Across Continents. If there were a single global culture and a single global language, then there would be no need to inquire into thinking about literature across continents, but of course that is [End Page 827] far from reality. And if we wish to appreciate literature not of our own culture (as I do), then we must look to ways to best appreciate what it has to offer. It seems to...