- Premodern and Postcritical:Medieval Enigmata and the Hermeneutic Style
Some people say they can't understand your writing, even after they read it two or three times. What approach would you suggest for them?WILLIAM FAULKNER:
Read it four times.—1956 interview for The Paris Review1
I did the jumble two ways and both ways were right.I got VERSE and LIVED and RANKED and VEINEDAnd ENVIED and DANKER and DEVIL and SEVER.—Adrienne Raphel, "Glockenspiel"2
When jean stein asked william faulkner what he would suggest for "people [who] say they can't understand your writing, even after they read it two or three times," Faulkner's nonchalant recommendation—that they "read it four times"—offered little practical advice. Reading, he quipped, is the obvious response to a recalcitrant text. But how? Even without any of the modifiers that have lately come under pressure across the humanities, the action is at once glaringly obvious and devilishly elusive—something we know how to do and yet can never get quite right. According to Jeffrey J. Williams and others who have traced the rise and fall of various strands of literary criticism from the 1940s to the present, "'Reading' as we know it"—that is, as a critical practice of unpacking the meanings of texts, whether via close reading or theoretical frameworks—"has a relatively short history."3 Yet, we find strikingly similar accounts of it in the 940, [End Page 43] too. Although at first glance we might think of demanding passages with shifting viewpoints and moody, uncommunicative authors as strikingly contemporary, medieval writers similarly delighted in practices and forms that invite readers to grapple with obscurity. These invitations to difficult reading occurred both on the level of the line in the layered epithets of Old Norse skaldic verse and in the Old English kennings that allude to "whale-roads" rather than oceans, and in larger formal experiments, as in the collections of riddles I will focus on here.4
Now that we are embroiled in what Rita Felski has termed the "method wars," these medieval antecedents and the broader literary-theoretical investments they embody provide an important counterpoint.5 They helpfully illuminate how, in schematizing our own reading practices, we too readily divide our work into a this-or-that paradigm: we read closely or distantly, and our reading is either paranoid or reparative, critical or uncritical, literary or paraliterary.6 Critics tend to begin dismantling these divisions before their scaffolding is even halfway up, but as we continue to propose new systems, our descriptive categories usually fall into two opposing camps.7 Felski argues that instead of "trying to get behind" a text to uncover its hidden secrets, critics should "face squarely up to it and consider the meanings and motives it makes manifest."8 She frames this "postcritical reading" as an antidote for the overly suspicious and symptomatic frameworks that proliferated so widely in the English departments of the 1970s and 1980s—much as Stephen Best and Sharon Marcus have advocated elsewhere for a turn to surfaces over hidden signs.9 No matter with which camp we align ourselves, all of our reading seems rigidly dialectical without any neat Hegelian synthesis in sight.
In the ever-proliferating conversations about what and how we read, the interpretive practices elicited by medieval enigmata ("mysteries" or "riddles") and the self-consciously difficult tenth-century aesthetic they inspired explode all binaries. These riddles privilege neither surface nor symptom, closeness nor distance. Rather, the experience of reading them is dynamic and multidirectional, akin to the motions of a Hoberman sphere that continually contracts, expands, and rotates. They are emblematic of a longstanding approach to literature that "did the jumble two ways and both ways were right," as Adrienne Raphel puts it. As a self-consciously playful and multiplicitous hermeneutic movement, tenth-century "hermeneutic Latin" and its seventh- through tenth-century riddling antecedents thus offer a particularly helpful antidote to postcritical work in the wake of Bruno Latour, which has been missing a sense of playful multiplicity.10
Indeed, this body of literature helpfully answers Latour's most salient question for the future of critique...