Reichert on Literature

Philosophy and Literature 23 (1978): 258-65.

Denis Dutton

Theory-weary readers will be relieved by John Reichert’s declaration at the outset of this provocative new book that “what is needed is not another theory of literature . . . but a view of reading and criticism that cuts through the plethora of competing critical languages to recover and redignify the simple procedures of reading, understanding, and assessing literature that the English language has long been adequate to describe” (p. x). And Reichert’s admirably clear-headed approach, bent as it is on the “demystification of criticism,” has much to recommend it. Yet compulsive theoreticians fearful that Reichert might actually solve the problems he raises — leaving them with nothing more to do — will take comfort from contemplating the tangles which ensue: the procedures of reading, understanding, and assessing literature are far from being as simple as all that.

“All reading is reading as” (pp. 4-5). This point of departure, adapted from a Wittgensteinian commonplace and developed with the aid of the reversing figure analogy, is fairly uncontroversial: we can read a piece of writing under any aspect, just as we can see Reichert’s reversing figure as a square suspended in a frame, a lampshade seen from above, or a tunnel. But surely one is not as free to see it as a circle (or King Lear as a comedy), and the individual who cannot be made to see it as a tunnel (or the Iliad as more than a good war story) is missing something. Indeed, Reichert insists that not every interpretation of a work of literature is as satisfactory as every other, even though his view allows for a range of valid or plausible interpretations. Still, “how we read a piece of writing depends on such matters as our situation, our conception of the author’s intention, our relationship to the text and its author, and the sort of text we believe it to be. These considerations exclude certain ways of reading in a given case, but they do not determine which of the admissible ways of reading we shall follow” (pp. 5-6).

Of course, we all have different “situations,” and we can have different "interests” and “purposes.” These considerations may have little or nothing to do with the work itself, but rather with us. The other constraints Reichert mentions are more problematic. As he points out, much disagreement in critical theory stems from the tension between two fundamentally different views of the writer: one which treats the author as sayer, the other which treats the author as maker (p. 61). Anti-intentionalist theoreticians such as Monroe Beardsley have wanted to use the text as the final authority in interpretation.[1] For them, the text itself — or whatever it says — is what the critic interprets. In its more extreme forms, the opposing position holds that the interpretation of a text ought to take as its ultimate purpose the revelation of what the author himself is saying by means of the text. Authorial intention, on this view, becomes the criterion of interpretive validity.[2]

Though Reichert does not go so far as to embrace this latter position, he stresses the crucial relevance of authorial intention to the critical enterprise: “all interpretation is either an attempt to discover the author’s intentions or else assumes that those intentions are understood” (p. 64). It must be said, however, that the examples he adduces to support this contention are of uneven persuasiveness. Frost’s “West-Running Brook,” is shown, for instance, to express things about “living and dying . . . marriage, human bonds, about the differences between the ways people see things and how these differences may be bridged by love.” Reichert finds “preposterous” the notion that in such interpretation “we are not trying to figure out what the real author was trying to do. If we see tracks and other signs in the woods and conclude that an animal must have been foraging for berries there, we are constructing an interpretation to the effect that a real animal, not a fictional one, was foraging” (pp. 73-74). Anti-intentionalists will be unimpressed: unlike grizzly bears, human beings have the capacity to leave the tracks of elephants or armadillos (not to mention unicorns or snarks), to invent speakers of poems or narrators of novels whose perspectives or purposes may be far from those of the text’s actual creator. More than one critic has started out with the objective of tracking down authorial intention through textual analysis, only to be left in the end holding the bag in a critical snark hunt.

Can it be said, however, that an interest in intentions is irrelevant to the interpretation of literature, that it is a matter of, if not idle, at most merely historical curiosity? Reichert is certainly correct in thinking not. The text is more than simply a string of words made sense of by one or another conventional set of rules: “knowing what rules are being invoked is also a matter of inferring intentions” (pp. 62-63). This does not entail that everything hangs on a conception of the author’s intentions, only that intentions cannot be dismissed as irrelevant to critical understanding: “One might retain a high esteem for ‘My Last Duchess’ on the assumption that it was intended as a confessional lyric, but the grounds for such esteem would be very different from our present grounds for admiring it” (p. 66).

Examples of ironic writing serve Reichert’s case particularly well in this connection, and he might have given more attention to them. “Satire,” he tells us, is a term which specifies “intentions in the very act of describing a work” (p. 64). I would add that what counts so decisively here against anti-intentionalist doctrines is the fact that satirical writing is not a style or genre identifiable in the same manner as other genres: it is a form of expression in which any style or genre may be used against itself. Thus in defending “the authority of the text,” such a champion of the anti-intentionalist view as Beardsley is forced to say that “if the alleged irony” of a purportedly satirical poem “remains unsupported by the text, even after further analysis, then it cannot be experienced as a quality of the poem.”[3] But in the case of irony, it is not sufficient to appeal to the text apart from its relationship to its author: without some notion of how the text is meant to be taken, we do not yet fully know what it is. In that sense, the words may not speak for themselves entirely; there may be no feature of the text to tell us what it is. If I write a parody of the bathetic messages we are accustomed to seeing on greeting cards, and it turns out that Hallmark publishes a card with exactly the same message, does this identity of words mean that we have before us essentially identical texts? Only a typesetter — or a philosopher determined to uphold some formalist dogma — could be satisfied with an untroubled “yes.” (This point has been made as effectively as it ever will be by Borges’s justly celebrated story, “Pierre Menard, Author of Don Quixote.”)

How then are we to arrive at “what is variously called the truth, correctness, plausibility, or validity of interpretations” (p. 97)? Critical interpretations, Reichert tells us, are assessed according to their completeness, simplicity, consistency, and coherence. The meanings of these notions are rather easily set out, but there persists the question of the relevance of intentions, and of extratextual evidence in general, to interpretations which are otherwise complete, simple, consistent, and coherent. Reichert cites a quatrain from Donne’s “A Valediction: Forbidden Mourning”:

Moving of th’ earth brings harmes and feares,
Men reckon what it did and meant,
But trepidation of the spheares,
Though greater farre, is innocent.

Wimsatt and Beardsley, from whom he borrows the example, challenge Charles Coffin’s reading of “Moving of th’ earth” as referring to the planet’s revolution around the sun.[4] Their point is that they are able to do so not by appeal to extratextual evidence regarding Donne’s interest in the new astronomy, but by an examination of the text: “earthquakes” is the more plausible "moving” in question, since it helps us to make better sense of the tense in the second line, the imagery of the previous quatrain, and so forth. Reichert in his turn claims that it is unfair to fault Coffin for having been misled by a concern with biographical evidence into ignoring the text of the poem: earthquakes apparently never even occurred to him.

That may be true. But all of this ignores what is to my mind the central question. What if, despite the fact that “earthquakes” makes better sense of the whole, "revolution” could be unequivocally shown to be what Donne had in mind? It is philosophically useless at this point to claim that, as an empirical matter, in almost all cases the best interpretations are those which are consistent with the author’s intentions. (Reichert takes note of this fact [p. 103] and mentions that Wimsatt and Beardsley offer no examples where textual and extratextual indications point in opposing directions: but why should they be expected to supply evidence which might embarrass their own thesis?) The question remains to be answered: what would we do in an instance where a more coherent reading of a poem could be had by going straight against the author’s intents than by going with them? If, for example, “dark Satanic Mills” had in the mind of William Blake “nothing to do with industrialism"[5] (leaving open the question of whether the conventions of Blake’s time might have allowed such a reading), then I think we will not wish to adopt that meaning, even if such a reading might satisfy us in any number of ways, allowing us to read greater richness and complexity into the "Jerusalem” lyric of Milton than any other way of taking the phrase.*

At one point here Reichert makes an observation which, though not developed, gets at something important about the nature of our relationship to works of literary art: "if the intentions we infer from the text are at odds with other signs of the writer’s intentions, the solution lies in granting the discrepancy” (p. 103). Whether this can be taken as a “solution” is uncertain, but better surely to accept the discrepancy than adopt either the view that the intended meaning of the poem is the only correct meaning or the antithetical stance that intentions are irrelevant to determining meaning. We simply must accept, as Reichert puts it, “a problematical and ambiguous situation.” At least that is what we must do for the present, because Reichert’s discussion is a reminder that — with due respect to the many critics and philosophers who have tried these waters — we still do not have a plausible general theory of the relevance of authorial intention to critical understanding.

But even within the constraints imposed by intentions, however they are to be taken into account, it is a curious fact that many works of literary art are open to a number of interpretations, some of which may be incompatible with others. Or “allegedly” incompatible, as Reichert would have it, for he objects to proposals by Joseph Margolis, among others, that there is something special about works of literature in this regard.[6] All descriptions, of anything, he tells us, are incomplete. Different descriptions concentrate attention on different aspects of their objects. So it is, Reichert would seem to be claiming, with many incompatible critical accounts of poems and novels. But his chosen analogue of describing different aspects of a pencil is inadequate. It is true that one can say of a pencil without inconsistency that “it is on my desk, it is mostly black, it was made in Danbury, it reminds me of my cousin,” and so on. The interesting cases of incompatible interpretations, however, are not like that: they are more like saying it is mostly black, but no, it is mostly pink; that it is in the same respect sharp and then again blunt. Thus one can build a strong case for claiming that the ultimate or essential meaning of The Brothers Karamazov is in support of Christianity and a strong case for saying it expresses what are essentially existentialist sentiments. This is not just a matter of aspects: if on one reading Christ’s kiss for the Grand Inquisitor is the final, decisive, and ultimately triumphant vindication of Christian love, where on the other reading it is a feeble gesture which implicitly recognizes the power and truth of the Grand Inquisitor’s vision, then the interpretations entail what are plainly incompatible descriptions of the same event, and are ipso facto themselves incompatible.

I do not find Reichert’s treatment of this matter satisfactory. “Once one looks hard at what two critics are saying, one will find either that their views, though different, are complementary (they’re talking about different aspects of the work), or that they are incompatible and susceptible of being adjudicated according to the criteria [completeness, simplicity, etc.] I have sketched . . .” (p. 121). The only other apparent alternative is to say that the work is ambiguous and that neither of two supportable, yet incompatible, interpretations “alone is correct” (p. 116). But what then would correctness consist in? It begins to look as though the best interpretation of The Brothers Karamazov would be one which catalogued all the supportable interpretations of the novel. But would that catalogue — which I imagine as a rather motley collection — be itself a plausible interpretation of the novel? I do not think so. And this suggests an intriguing dilemma: it may be that in giving a critical account of a rich and complex work of literature, the criterion of completeness runs directly against the criteria of consistency and coherence. It might be that with some works of literature, the only consistent and coherent interpretations will of necessity be those which are incomplete, while the only complete accounts, by virtue of the fact that they must embrace incompatibilities, will be inconsistent and incoherent. This state of affairs is in stark contrast to what obtains in the natural sciences, where, pace Heisenberg, it is expected that completeness, coherence, and consistency will converge in an acceptable analysis.

At any rate, Reichert is wrong in suggesting that the notion that there are incompatible interpretations of the same work implies a disavowal of “procedures for discriminating among interpretations” (p. 121). One can fully accept the validity of Reichert’s criteria for justification of interpretations and still allow that two incompatible interpretations can be equally well justified. As Jack Meiland recently argued in the pages of this journal, the cognitive status of criticism, which Reichert wishes to defend, is not threatened by the idea that a number of incompatible interpretations of a work may be supported, but only by the idea that every interpretation is as good as every other.’ This latter thesis may have its proponents, but Reichert quotes none of them in its behalf.

Elsewhere in the book we find a desultory but illuminating discussion of meaning in literature, and useful critiques of Jonathan Culler’s Structuralist Poetics, John M. Ellis’s The Theory of Literary Criticism, and — though it is perhaps taken a bit too seriously — Morse Peckham’s Man’s Rage for Chaos. Here Reichert’s remarks are designed to show that there is little sense to “claims that such and such is the essential, fundamental, or privileged way to talk about or read literature,” and that there is among these and other theoreticians “a tendency to exaggerate the distinction between the literary and the nonliterary” (p. 170). Given his annoyance with veiled or explicit forms of essentialism in literary theory, it does not come as a surprise that in the end he falls upon Wittgenstein’s notion of family resemblances to make sense of an art which includes everything “from lyric poems to dramatic monologues to epics, from imagist haikus to political satires to allegories like Everyman and The Faerie Queene, from science fiction to Arthurian romance to the nonfiction novel” (p. 170). Moreover, Reichert is skeptical about the value of literary theory in general: “Not only would a theory of literature be of no use to the critic who wishes to say what is good about a work; he can get along very nicely without one . . .” (p. 172).

Perhaps he is right. But I think we ought not to underestimate the extent to which bad philosophy leads astray what might otherwise be good criticism. It is in the nature of the work that practicing critics and literary scholars need to engage in philosophical reflection more often than, say, practicing chemists need to think about problems in the philosophy of science (in this respect, critics stand closer than chemists to social scientists, who are in desperate need of competent philosophy and who receive precious little of it). Whatever quarrels it might generate, Reichert’s study helps fill that need. It has the merit of presenting its claims in a clear and direct manner and of eschewing fashionable jargon. Cheers for anyone willing to deplore the fact that “much of what now passes for critical theory leaves the student of literature with the impression that he won’t really be able to think clearly about literature at all until he’s first mastered Husserl or Levi-Strauss, Freud or Nietzsche, Marx or the Kabbala, and decided what ideological cap is most becoming” (p. x). Whether one agrees with its perspectives or not, Making Sense of Literature is an admirably unpretentious study of some of the most important and difficult issues currently nagging the philosophy of criticism.

                          UNIVERSITY OF MICHIGAN — DEARBORN


* Are there clear examples where a decisively more cogent reading of a poem or work of fiction can be constructed by going against the particular linguistic uses and references the author had in mind than by following them? I would be interested in hearing from readers who know of such cases.


1. Monroe C. Beardsley, The Possibility of Criticism (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1970). This book is an indispensable starting point for considering problems of intentionality in interpreting literature.

2. Cf. E. D. Hirsch, Jr., Validity in Interpretation (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1967), and The Aims of Interpretation (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1976).

3. The Possibility of Criticism, pp. 36-37.

4. W. K Wimsatt, Jr., and M. C. Beardsley, “The Intentional Fallacy,” Sewanee Review 54 (1946): 468-88. This widely reprinted article has been the subject of many criticisms, one of the most provocative of which is Frank Cioffi’s paper “Intention and Interpretation in Criticism,” Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society 64 (1964). Both of these pieces, and a number of related articles are contained in On Literary Intention, ed. David Newton-De Molina (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1976).

5. This remark is Harold Bloom’s, in Blake’s Apocalypse (Garden City, N.Y.: Anchor Books,1963), p.335. Some other scholars are less confident that no allusion to industrialism is intended.

6. Joseph Margolis, The Language of Art and Art Criticism (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1965). For other criticisms of Margolis on this issue, see The Possibility of Criticism, chap. 2; Robert J. Matthews, “Describing and Interpreting a Work of Art,” Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 36 (1977): 5-14; Denis Dutton, “Plausibility and Aesthetic Interpretation,” Canadian Journal of Philosophy 7 (1976): 327-40.

7. Jack W. Meiland, “Interpretation as a Cognitive Discipline,” Philosophy and Literature 2 (1978): 31.