[Milton-L] hidden meaning

jfleming at sfu.ca jfleming at sfu.ca
Tue Aug 1 08:38:28 EDT 2006

On Sun, 30 Jul 2006 03:35:57 -0700 (PDT) Horace Jeffrey Hodges wrote:
> While I don't think that Milton was really writing a
> critique of the Christian God rather than justifying
> the Christian God (and thus I reject that particular
> Straussian type of reading), I wouldn't flat-out
> reject a covert possibility. I see the paradox that
> you set up, but this seems too radical a distinction
> to me, one based upon an overly strict definition of
> covert-esoteric. A covert-esoteric subtext could leave
> clues for the astute reader.
> But perhaps I haven't understood you. Are you making a
> terminological point, or are you arguing that there
> are never any hidden meanings that subvert the
> ostensible meaning?

 I am arguing, I guess, that the concept of "hidden meaning," although
extremely tantalizing (so much so that it powers everything from Gnosticism
to Derrida to the Da Vinci Code), is hermeneutically dubious. (The
connection to M, incidentally, is both that he got us into this, and [as I
am also keen to argue] that his work is largely about this hermeneutic
dubiousness.) Clearly there are intentions that are withheld from textual
expresson. While writing these lines, for example, I could be thinking that
I would really like them to be a recipe for the philosopher's stone. But if
I don't express myself to that effect, my intention is withheld from
expression. Does it, therefore, become a hidden meaning? Hardly. It is no
meaning at all. 

And yet: the situation just adumbrated conforms, pretty closely, to the
exemplar of esotericism, namely code. The latter, clearly, has nothing to do
with clues left behind in the text. Clues, insofar as they creep into coded
text willy-nilly (eg, as patterns) are exactly what allow the text to be
decoded by people who are not supposed to decode it (ie, one's enemies).
Properly, coded text is supposed to be transmitted and understood via an
extra-textual agreement to treat the text as coded in a certain way (ie, in
accordance with the rules of a certain code-book), while recognizing that
the text gives no indication, in and of itself, that it is so encoded. 

Now, is the real meaning of the coded text, within its encoding, its "hidden
meaning"? No doubt -- but only because we are dealing with a totally
artificial manipulation and falsification of textuality and understanding.
The code-book held by spooks and diplomats corresponds very well to the
etxra-textual or post-textual intention sometimes expressed by authors (or
wished for by students). "That's not what I meant," they may say. We can
only respond: "if not, why should we believe you now?" or, more simply,
"but, apparently, it is." Even the receiving spooks, if they are feeling
unwontedly ludic, are logically and hermeneutically free to say this sort of
thing (and, presumably, get fired). And that is because, again, there is no
"hidden meaning" in the text per se. "Hidden meaning" is an extra-textual
agreement among parties about how to treat the text.

> >>Second: Straussian esotericism has, at least, the
> merit that it claims to be interested in what a writer
> meant. But of course this is not the same as an
> interest in what a writer meant to mean, or would have
> meant if he had attained greater reflexive clarity,
> "unconsciously." Indeed, the two interests are
> hermeneutically antithetical.<<
> Could you clarify this distinction for me? By "what a
> writer meant," do you mean what the text actually
> states? I ask because "what a writer meant to mean"
> seems to imply that if the writer had attained greater
> clarity, then the text would have more closely
> corresponded to the writer's intention.
I accept the view, articulated by Knapp and Michaels, that "what a writer
meant" and "what the text actually states" are synonymous. The interest of
this view, however, is precisely not that it sends us on a chase for an
idealized intention, but that it turns us to textuality as the actual venue
of intention. 

Thanks for the responses. JD Fleming

James Dougal Fleming, Ph.D.
Assistant Professor of English,
Simon Fraser University,
(604) 291-4713
cell: 778-865-0926

Laissez parler les faits.

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