[Milton-L] overt beliefs & reading; the Son's role

jfleming at sfu.ca jfleming at sfu.ca
Sat Jul 29 18:06:04 EDT 2006


A note on decorum: no doubt we are all guilty of lapses. I apologize,
retrospectively and prospectively, for all mine. But after all, the reason
we both err and suffer in this way is that we are interested in certain
subjects-matter. So let's focus on those.

First, to "verifiable erroneousness" -- falsehood, for short. Professor
Strier made the claim that the Son played no necessary role in PL. This is
simply false. That's what I said. Strier asks here "prove it." I think Diane
McColley has already done this. But the point hardly requires proving. 

Second, to unconscious authorial self-critique, and the possible evidence
for it. This is, it seems to me, a genuinely interesting and difficult
issue. Perhaps it is simplest to interlineate. Thanks to Strier forn doing
the heavy lifting. He writes:
> That writers -- and other (all?) persons -- may, and 
> often are, divided in their minds about key issues, or hold 
> incompatible values, or have beliefs, etc that they may not admit to 
> themselves should hardly need demonstration.	And that the texts 
> produced by persons with divided minds, etc should reflect this 
> situation in ways that are not fully under the control of the writer 
> should also hardly be surprising.	
No argument here. But not much interest either. It amounts to saying "texts
are written by people."

The evidence for such divisions of 
> mind, etc are contradictions, inconsistencies, moments were a text 
> seems to be undermining its overt intentions, etc. -- all of the 
> things that careful reading, deconstructive or otherwise, turns up.
Here we have several arguments. Strier adumbrates, more-or-less, the
esoteric hermeneutics that has such broad and complex support in the Western
tradition, and finds its classic modern expression in the work of Leo
Strauss. My difficulties with the point are of two main kinds. 

First: esotericism is a paradox. It directs the reader to a text behind the
text, an intension behind an intension. But if the said text/intension is
_evident_ -- whether in textual consistencies or inconsistencies -- it is
not esoteric. Conversely, if it is esoteric, it cannot be evident. Thus to
the question "how can we recover covert intentions?" the only real answer is
"we can't. We can only recover intentions as they are made available to us
in a text. The esoteric/exoteric and covert/overt distinctons are not, as
they appear to be, hermeneutic advances, but entrammelments and red
herrings." Strier aligns the esoteric theory, correctly, with Freud,
deconstruction and some New Criticism. I would align the countervailing
exoteric theory, just outlined, with Gadamer, Davidson, and speech-act
theory.

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. 
 
> It's hard for me to believe that any serious reader at this point 
> believes that texts simply mean what their authors say they mean 
> (inside or outside the text).  What an author says about what he/she 
> means may, of course, be  evidence about their overt intention 
> (assuming the statement is not coerced, etc, etc).  But that's the 
> most that it is evidence for.  If that's all the evidence one could 
> use, one wouldn't have to pay attention to details of texts at all.
I disagree with everything here. Perhaps the most portable point is the
positted difference between "overt" and "covert" intentions. This returns us
to Straussianism, and to the paradox of covert intentions. Also relevant is
the following-through of intentionalist logic made (if not always adhered
to) by Steven Knapp and Walter Benn Michaels. Most of all, though, Strier's
concluding point seems to me symmetrically wrong. It is precisely when we
posit covert intentions, what the writer would or could have meant as an
entity distinct from what he means, etc., that we don't need to pay
attention to the details of texts. Why would we? They are all, allegedly,
vitiated by a non-material and totally immanent intention. See Fish, for
whom everything proper to textuality and reading ends up in the category of
"temptations." JDF

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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