[Milton-L] Reply to Prof. Fleming on totalization

jfleming at sfu.ca jfleming at sfu.ca
Tue Dec 2 10:15:05 EST 2008

Interesting theoretical matters about which I do not pretend to be an

On Sun, 30 Nov 2008 09:32:51 -0800 (PST) milton-l at lists.richmond.edu wrote:
> Prof. Fleming
> As our posts have gotten long and irritating to others, I will take up 
> any matters from my last two, which you have generally answered, with
> you off line, at a later time, after I have read your book (which I
> started last spring)	 However, I feel the question of mimesis is
> important, and I offer the following response.
> Yes. literature must be about something.  But (1) I presume you are
> not going to ask “something”
> to be ontological, that literature provides and internally justifies
> truthful
> statements about the real world itself.  Does Hell really have burning 
> lakes, or Paradise a real tree of life?	

I'm not sure that mimesis collapses into reference (as you seem to suggest).
But if it did, I don't think that the capability of imaginary reference
would register as a significant hit against realist accounts. Frege himself,
in order to give an account of intension (sense) as the semi-objective
mirror of extension (reference), notes that there can be intension without
extension (his example, I believe, being a unicorn).	

I think (2) that we
> decide on the “something” as a first act of interpretation, not as an
> outcome,
> particularly about a work with as vast a compass as Paradise Lost.  We 
> may be interested in Eve and patriarchy
> (the “something”), then read relevant passages of the poem and other
> opinions
> to decide for ourselves what we think the poem has to say about Eve and
> patriarchy.  As there are more than fifty
> articles and one book on Eve (not all about patriarchy), with diverse and
> incompatible conclusions drawn from the poem, it would be hard to say
> that the poem
> itself produces a mimesis of Eve and patriarchy.	

I don't (although many would) actually agree with your premise here (about
deciding how to read), which seems to me inconsistent with a pragmatic sense
of what it is to read a text -- what we are trying to understand in so
doing. It seems to me we are trying to understand what the text is about. To
be sure, our emergent understanding of the latter immediately re-enters our
reading and helps to determine it (this is the hermeneutic circle). But, as
per your further remark above, this describes, it does not vitiate, what it
is to read "relevant passages" -- those from which we find ourselves
learning about a certain subject-matter.

It is this aboutness -- this being-about a subject-matter -- that I would
characterize as consistent with the concept of mimesis. But that does not
entail, contra reductive accounts of the latter from Plato (who has his
tongue in his cheek) to Goodman (who, I fear, does not) some kind of
non-interpretative xerox.

Instead, (3) as you
> observe through Gadamer,
> an interpretation comprises (at least) the text, our interests in the
> text (not
> drawn from the text itself), and within those interest various beliefs 
> that we
> bring to the poem.  Those interests must
> influence our interpretation, provide content to the interpretation,
> and (more often
> than we would like to admit) direct and may provide all of the
> material of an interpretation.	

Up until your last remark about "all the material," I don't disagree.

How do we read “He for God only, she
> for God
> in him”?   Well, it depends.	If we decide it is not ironic, then it may
> become either a claim for the actual relationship between men, women,
> and God
> (with the usual biblical citations), or a statement of female
> oppression (with
> various real-world treatments of women quivering in the background).
> If we decide it is ironic, (it is seen
> through Satan’s eyes, after all, and the narrator is not reliable),
> then we  begin a journey through the poem that has Eve
> resisting patriarchy, or ironically defending patriarchy as a necessary
> component of civil order.None of these can be justified by the poem
> alone.	

If interpretation always involves us in the htc circle, then there is no
such thing as justification by the poem alone (_sola carmine_?). But this
point increases, it does not lighten, the burden of interpretative
responsibility that falls upon us. To some extent, I think this means that
it won't do to say, as it were arbitrarily, "let's see what happens if we
read remark x ironically." Rather, our job is supposed to be to figure out
what remark x means. It may be that, in some important cases, we never can
figure that out. To another extent, therefore, I think we may have to pick
other burdens. In other words, we have to figure out what the text before us
may be able to teach us; rather than noting the ways in which it is able to
bewilder us. And that is to say, again, that we have to figure out what the
subject-matters of the text are. 

I claim that
> (4) mimesis works in one direction, from the reader to the poem, as a
> means of
> understanding and organizing the interpretative process, but that
> mimesis does
> not work in the other direction, that we learn from the poem on its
> own terms
> something about the world.	

I don't agree with that. I take it that the poem is a text; and I take it
that we read texts in order to learn something about the world.

I believe a
> careful reading of Aristotle’s poetics will reach the same idea, that
> fictions
> have necessary properties that require mimesis to understand but preclude
> mimesis as a poetic outcome.
>	      Perhaps a
> classic formulation of the problem I mean can be found in Kerrigan’s
> The Sacred Complex  He says, “The survival of literature as
> anything more than an artifact depends on our ability to extend its
> original
> reference into a genuinely revelatory description . . . of the world
> we inhabit
> now.”  (p2)  He then proceeds to self-consciously read the
> poem through the lens of Freudian psychoanalysis.  This is not
> revelation, it is (very ingenious
> and interesting) imposition of an external theory of the world. 

Yes -- or, perhaps slightly more appositely, an external theory of the text
and what it is about. Kerrigan, as it were, has decided that in advance.
That's precisely not what I would call application to our own situation. We
have to find the ways in which the text becomes binding upon us (as HGG
says); not the ways in which we can bind it.

Paraphrasing what the archangel says to Adam (who understands the advice
better than he does): "for [the reader's] good [the text] is dispensed."
Both parts are necessary to the exchange.

> anyone believes that the poem cannot be
> made to confute rather than defend a Freudian view, they have not been 
> reading
> criticism latterly.
>	      I realize
> this makes the justification of literature itself difficult.	If it
> does not teach us about the world, or
> make a better world (by teaching virtue, or otherness, or any of the other
> things so many even recent scholars have advanced in favor of beauty and
> instruction, still the most common justification), or critique or
> defend our
> cultural, moral, political order, or order our thoughts, or create a
> consciousness (all of which may be considered mimetic), what does it
> do?  I do not know the answer to this
> question.  It may have no answer (rather
> like saying what poetry is).	But it
> seems to that literature on its own revealing truths of the world
> cannot be one
> of them.
> Kim Maxwell

I think the answer to the question has to do with determining the
subject-matters of literature. For me, these all derive from the concept of
intensionality (aboutness), and have a performative character. Anyway, I
hope to argue that in print one of these days, but haven't yet. Best wishes,

James Dougal Fleming
Associate Professor
Department of English
Simon Fraser University
cell: 604-290-1637

"Not always, nor of necessity, nor for the most part."

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