Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Rediscovering E. D. Hirsch and Authorial Intent

My Footnote Rediscovered a Well-Known But Unfashionable Truth

During my investigation of Toole's A Confederacy of Dunces, I tried to investigate the serious theoretical issues surrounding the issue of claiming, first, that the author of a text was influenced by another text, and second, that the author of the text intended to reference another text. In the introductory literary theory texts that I studied, I discovered that trying to discern the intentions of the author was a major faux pas. For example, in Eagleton's Literary Theory: An Introduction (both 1/e 1983 and 2/e, 1996), he is quite explicit about avoiding hypotheses about the author's intentions. He justifies this position with a footnote that references Wimsatt and Beardsley's famous essay, "The Intentional Fallacy" (Sewanee Review, 1946). I have found other introductory texts that have been written within the last 15 years that agree with Eagleton, and they will sometimes also cite Wimsatt and Beardsley.

Because I thought, in my boorish dilettantism, that the author's intentions ought to be considered, I decided to read "The Intentional Fallacy" myself. I was surprised to discover that the famed essay did not in fact reject using an author's intentions for the purposes of interpreting the point of the text. Instead, their fallacy was limited to aesthetic evaluations of the text. You cannot judge how beautiful a text is by how beautiful the author intended to make it. You have to judge it by what is on the page.

So I added a snarky footnote to the Toole paper that eventually became "The Dialectic of American Humanism" to the effect that literary theorists are all wet. The reviewers of my paper at the journal Renascence insisted that footnote be cut. I couldn't understand why, but I complied. Because I thought it was a worthy point, I decided to slip it into version 2.0 of my Evidence of Influences paper. I had by that time given up on the dysfunctional peer-review system for Evidence of Influences, and I decided to post it with endorsements on the Internet. I continued to ask around to some scholars who had attended graduate school in literature, but no one could explain why my footnote had been dispatched. So I asked the editor of Renascence, and I was told to read E.D. Hirsch's Validy in Interpretation (1967).

I am now working my way through Hirsch's book. The general thesis of the book is: one can and should strive for a valid interpretation of a text. Hirsch believes that humanistic disciplines can and should strive for genuine knowledge. Because, as Dilthey argued, all humane studies are founded on the interpretation of texts, "valid interpretation is crucial to the validity of all subsequent inferences in those studies" (page viii). Hirsch then argues that the only norm upon which to ground a valid interpretation is the author's intended meaning. So the author's intentions are the cornerstone of genuine knowledge in the humanities.

Hirsch even explains the Wimsatt and Beardsley essay exactly as I had come to understand it. Not only that, he dedicates the book to William Wimsatt. After discussing Wimsatt and Beardsley's original point, Hirsch says, "their careful distinctions and qualifications have now vanished in the popular version which consists in the false and facile dogma that what an author intended is irrelevant to the meaning of the text" (11-12). I can confirm that that facile dogma, noted in 1967, continues forty-five years later.

So there you go. Go back and read Hirsch. It is a pretty good book, and it helps justify my methods for my study of Toole's work.

Post script:

I went back to Eagleton. He in fact spends a modest amount of time rejecting Hirsch's main thesis, which is that there is such a thing as a valid interpretation, and that the critic should strive to discover it. Hirsch does get a bit strident about what can and cannot be part of the valid meaning of a text, and I am not sure I accept his entire programme. However, I do think that the intentions of the author do warrant some consideration, so I disagree with Eagleton's blanket reject of authorial intent. I believe that many literary scholars write about the author's intentions in an indirect way, pretending to toe the line of being silent about authorial intent. These scholars know they are forbidden from uttering the phrase "the author intended," but that is what they are on about. And Hirsch says that is what they should be on about.

As for Wimsatt and Beardsley, Eagleton and other literary theorists are simply wrong about the point of "The Intentional Fallacy," and Hirsch strove for and discovered Wimsatt's intent (rim shot). Literary scholars: do not just satisfy yourself with Eagleton's judgement: read Hirsch for yourself.

Monday, April 1, 2013

The Occasional Series of Ideas for Papers on John Kennedy Toole, Part 16

Thesis #16: Toole, Homosexuality, and Carnival

There have been several critics that have investigated the theme of homosexuality and queering in Confederacy. Hardin examines several passages that can be interpreted as double ententres in the book. Pugh discusses the general queerness of the narrative, and he claims that the book "queers medievalism." (see the Other Works Cited section from my "Annotated Bibliography of Obscure Toole Research" for complete citations).

On the one hand, Toole does include gay and lesbian characters in his novel. On the other hand, gays and lesbians are negatively stereotyped in Confederacy. The lesbian characters are not even two dimensional. In my own study on Toole's use of Neoplatonism ("The Dialectic of American Humanism"), I conclude that Toole used the novel's lesbians to represent the furies who punish Lana Lee ("Dialectic of American Humanism," p. 208). And gay men are not treated much better. The only reason not to view the book as gay-bashing is because all of the characters, not just the gay ones, are preposterous and the main character is even more ridiculous than the gay characters he dislikes.

That having been said, no one in the scholarly literature has pointed out that the gay theme ties into the Carnival theme. The first gay ball in New Orleans history occurred in 1959, two years before Toole began to plan Confederacy. The New Orleans police raided gay Carnival balls in the early 1960s.

The biography of Toole Ignatius Rising discusses in detail Toole's interactions with fellow soldiers in Puerto Rico who were gay, but Fletcher (Ken and Thelma) and others have criticized that biography as poorly researched and unscholarly. Use that biography with extreme caution or not at all. Cory MacLauchlin's biography of Toole, (Butterfly in the Typewriter), is well-researched and scholarly, and it discusses the possibility of Toole being gay, but MacLauchlin does not have the same stories of gay activity in Puerto Rico. Perhaps he could not corroborate them.

In my "Dialectic" paper the long footnote (number ten) has a discussion (point four) of homosexuality in Confederacy related to the writings of Marsilio Ficino.

Thesis: Discuss the role of homosexuality in A Confederacy of Dunces against the background of the history of homosexuality and transgender behavior associated with New Orleans Carnival, especially in the late 1950s and early 1960s.