Friday, August 31, 2007

Continued, con’t.

Prof. McGann: "In an epoch like our own, where the limits of knowledge are mapped onto models of language, the special character of historical criticism (as opposed to literary hermeneutics) may be clarified by asking the following question: must we regard the channels of communication as part of the message of the texts we study? Or are the channels to be treated purely vehicular forms whose ideal condition is to be transparent to the texts they deliver?" (The Scholar's Art, 121)

Clarified? First of all, not one ("the following") question is posed, but two. And both posit two seemingly opposing propositions: that either the medium is the message or it's vehicular. Notice, too, that in the second of these questions, the deck is stacked: "purely," "ideal condition." I think the upshot of the essay in which the quote appears, "Mr. James and His Discovery," mediates this a little bit (again, McGann is expansive, brilliant, too) - yet it turns out, as you will have guessed, that the essay's really another attack on "intentionality." ("Mastering textuality," as he nicely puts it, "is not finally the point of entering the textual condition." No, not "finally.") McGann's essay describes a textual crux which Henry James, perversely and characteristically, flat out refused to clear up himself. It's a fine essay about that crux, yet the elephant in the overstuffed room here is that should James have made his "intention" known, that crux wouldn't serve the argument. His intention was to conceal his intention, but not so that we could read The Ambassadors in simultaneously contradictory ways! Of course we have to decide, as readers, how to make do with antithetically mixed texts. I don't see why that's a big deal. If we care, we read a number of different versions of them, various translations... or we don't. This doesn't undo editorial responsibility? McGann isn't arguing that it doesn't - but he is saying that "in an important sense there is no such thing as a bad text." Would Shakespeare really have agreed? Are we saying that it wouldn't matter whether he'd have or not because as readers we "master" the texts ourselves? That's disturbing, but it does explain why many poets writing now don't have to care about form except as something to overcome; after all, "each [text] is best of all just because each is so deeply involved with all the others." (131)

Don't get me wrong, I'm having a ball reading these essays, and learning a great deal. I'm... argufying. It all sends me back to Empson, who had little trouble exposing the fallacy of the intentional fallacy.

Currently reading :
Selected Letters of William Empson
By John Haffenden

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