I was sitting quietly in my library carrel (where I spend approx. 20 hours of every day) when a friend sent me a Gmail chat, asking “Are you going to the talk?” I was feeling a bit tired, and a bit confused – “what talk?” I typed back, thinking that there was very, very little that would get me to leave the library that day. “Stanley Fish!” he answered. “12.30 in 523 Butler. Only Grad Students and Faculty invited.” Since I didn’t have to leave the library to walk downstairs, and it was even on my side of the building, I figured I didn’t have much to lose.
I was curious, and that was the major reason I wanted to go. I’ve had my share of disagreements (one-sided to be sure) with Prof. Fish. I’ve taught him in class and read his NYTimes blog when I manage to get past my email backlog while procrastinating. I don’t always agree with him. In fact, I actually don’t think I agree with him much at all – as he’s a Miltonist, this hasn’t really been a central facet of my increasingly Beowulf-focused life in recent days (as a side note: Hi, everybody! It’s been ages!). But I’m always interested in hearing what another “giant” of the field is like when giving a talk – will he be well-spoken? Dismissive of grad student questions? Funny? Irascible?
Thus I found myself at Stanley Fish’s talk, on “Milton and Theory.”
I have to say: I was quite impressed. I found his analysis of other Miltonists quite amusing at times, and enlightening at others, if often a bit harsh. His central claim revolved around how theoretical readings of texts tend to turn the literary works they treat into “allegories” which simply prove the reader’s point, again and again. As a medievalist, I found this assertion quite interesting: I hate allegory with a firey passion, mostly because I often have trouble finding where the allegory ends and where whatever takes its place begins. Fish was speaking on a very specific kind of reading of Milton, Deconstructionist with a Capital ‘D’. Again, it’s a theory I’ve largely lost interest in as I’ve gotten further into my own work. Deconstruction is fascinating, and an important theoretical tool, but I’ve never been able to see it as more than just that, a tool.
In the end, Fish’s talk made a single claim with three major points, beyond his annoyance with other interpreters of John Milton. The claim was about “what to do with John Milton and Paradise Lost,” a question to which Fish gave three answers:
- Find out what the author meant. (Find the author’s intention).
- Find out how other critics have read the author, for example, how the Romantics read Milton.
- Find out what you can make with the text in question.
I was curious about Fish’s point here. In college, while working on my senior thesis, a biweekly colloquium convened to help us work through the difficult task of writing a paper longer than anything we’d ever written. I remember one colleague, struggling with the awesome difficulty of beginning to write on Shakespeare (the details of her argument are fuzzy now) who was petrified of beginning. With everything others had said already, she explained, what could she do? What if she was wrong? I vividly remember turning to her, saying the single thing that I would give anything to be sure of now: “Shakespeare will be fine. There’s nothing you or anyone else can do to him that will ‘mess up’ the plays.”
At 21, apparently I knew something that I have trouble remembering at 27: the critics rarely become anything more than just critics. That is to say: while literary criticism is difficult and beautiful and life-changing, the consequences are perhaps more humble than our highest aspirations (or deepest fears) would have us believe.
But, returning to Fish’s talk, I was very interested in the three theses he proposed. So, like all good sixth year graduate students do at such events, I asked an evenhanded but still (I hope) engaging question. Explaining that I was a PhD candidate working with Old English texts – a tidbit of personal information that I hoped would contextualize the question I went on to ask – I inquired as to Prof. Fish’s ideas about Methodology. Is it possible to ask a fourth question of a text? I asked. Is it possible what a poem or other literary work does -- that is to say, not what does it mean so much as how does it construct this meaning? Could we productively raise a question of methodology here, and might the methodology literary scholars seek to employ also determine (or pre-determine) what types of evidence is admissable, and does this have ramifications for our enterprise?
To begin a response, Prof. Fish acknowledged that these questions were very complicated – and I’m sure they were more so when constructed on the spot during the question and answer session. But what it seemed to come down to, in his response, was that being an Intentionalist meant that one believed the text meant what its author said it meant. It is a critical affiliation, to be sure, but it is not a methodological point. Fish averred that our best option is using the “usual empirical way” – interpretation, for Fish, is an empirical activity, not a theoretical one. There is no methodology that attaches to it. This accumulation of empirical research may “take too long” – but there it is.
I’ve been mulling over this since Tuesday: what does it mean, if we are to be empirical in the pursuit of literary studies? On some levels, I suppose, it means what I always tell my students: use textual evidence. But at the same time, aren’t close readings also a form of methodology, and doesn’t empiricism hold its own theoretical rather than interpretive troubles? To wit, can’t empiricism itself proceed from a single (and allegorizing) premise? That everything is both explainable and reproducible, and moreover, that steps taken in an orderly proceeding will inevitably point us to an explanation for – well – everything?
Fish raised some important questions, and I was glad to find him humorous and erudite, and very much accepting of questions from all levels of scholars. I want to engage the points he raised, but in part I don’t know how to begin: all I know is that some of the evidence I accumulated while writing my most recently completed chapter was taken very well, and some of it was deeply disliked and disapproved of. There are, it would seem, certain ways that It Is Okay to Read Beowulf – and stepping outside those is difficult, if not impossible. How, then, to define a literary endeavor? How do we accumulate evidence to interpret a text – what tools do we have to use, and can we use them as tools rather than allegory?
What, dear readers of In the Middle, do you think? What is Methodology, and how does it relate, or not relate to Interpretation? Or to the study of Medieval Literature? Is there a difference between interpretation done in pre-modern and early modern/modern texts? And as regards literary criticsim, is there a methodology in this field?