17 December 2009

MCT: E D Hirsch Jr

The fact that Hirsch is "Jr" and that his essay is called "In defense of the author" reveal that he's American. This essay is from his book called Validity in Interpretation or Validity of Interpretation (it's referred to by both versions in the editors' introduction).

It's a defence against what Hirsch would consider the abuse of the "intentional fallacy" argument: the belief, which he traces back to Eliot, that an author's intention in writing something is no concern of ours in reading it. He refers to "the sensible belief that a text means what its author meant". In fact, the whole argument is semantic (appropriately). He distinguishes between meaning and significance. He makes the case that an author must have had a meaning in mind while writing. A reading is better the closer it matches that meaning, and a work is better the more accurately it conveys that meaning.

I'm prepared to accept the view that of course an author had a meaning in mind, and his dismissal of the view that because we can't wholly know the author's meaning, we might as well not bother to try to understand it. I think I'd say, using his terms, that it is significance that is important. The problem with this, for Hirsch, is that there's no normative measure of value in an interpretation based on significance.

But, if we start from the view that the purpose of reading and interpretation is (i) to understand the author's meaning and (ii) to evaluate the work in terms of its success in transmitting that meaning, why would we bother? I don't care if an author wants to tell me that (say) war is a fearful but exciting thing; if a novel should demonstrate that, make me feel the fear and excitement, what does it matter what the author had in mind? There are ways of demonstrating that a reading is valid without reference to the author's meaning: simple things like evocative use of words and imagery. In fact, all the apparatus of practical criticism.

So I'm unconvinced. And I'm prepared to admit that this is partly due to Hirsch's appalling use of non-inclusive language. I mentioned this when I looked at George Steiner, and I know everyone used to do it and I suppose I should cut some slack for something written in 1967. But it's hard to overlook. It's an unconsidered reflex here to use generalising male pronouns: "Since we are all different from the author, we cannot reproduce his intended meaning in ourselves", and even worse: "It is proper to demand of authors that they show consideration for ... the generality of men" (p273). The generality of men? It sounds like a phrase he's invented deliberately to wind me up. But I shouldn't be guessing at his intentions! Just note that above I've managed to avoid using generalising masculine pronouns entirely.

1 comment:

Brian said...

Thinking further about this, we probably ought to consider also the kinds of writers we are dealing with. New French criticism, such as Barthes, was inspired by the writings of Mallarmé, etc, where the concept of understanding the author's meaning is almost invalid. Similarly with Eliot and Ashberry - who would both, I think, deny that they were trying to convey a meaning. If pressed, they might say they were trying to let the reader create a significance. This kind of writing brought about a new approach to interpretation, which is, however, valid for more traditional writing too.