The influence of Wolfgang Iser has been so deep and so pervasive that many are unaware of the origins of ideas that he first described and which are now commonplace. By theorising the simple perception that the meanings of a literary text are not created solely by the author and that the reader is not an inert recipient, Iser transformed the way in which literature is perceived, interpreted, presented, and theorised in academia, although - unfortunately - not yet in mainstream culture.
In a pleasing little book, How to Do Theory, published a few months ago, Iser described the changes that he helped to bring about.
Until after the Second World War, interpretation - "criticism" - had seldom questioned its own practices. Emerging from a tradition of biblical hermeneutics in which a professorial priestly class advised laities on what were the "right" meanings, literary studies could no longer cope with the fact that interpretations are contested, that what is taught as "true" or "correct" frequently changes, and that the whole enterprise relied on hierarchies that post-war generations had every reason to distrust.
The arrival of literary theory, whether based on aesthetics, semiotics, psychoanalysis, information theory or reader response, offered a way of understanding and legitimating the existence of differences in interpretation without conceding to the undisciplined individualistic consumerism that Iser dubbed "the great adventure of the soul among masterpieces".
Born in 1926 in the spa town of Marienberg, Iser studied English literature, German literature, and philosophy at Leipzig (in the Russian occupation zone), Tobingen and Heidelberg, where he received his doctorate for his dissertation on the 18th-century English novelist Henry Fielding. A series of academic appointments followed, including a spell at Glasgow University in the early 1950s that he looked back on with affection. But it was with his arrival at the recently founded University of Konstanz in 1967 that his main work began, and he was to remain there for the rest of his life, with occasional appointments elsewhere, notably at the University of California at Irvine. He was a frequent visitor to Britain and a valued overseas Fellow of the British Academy.
In the 1960s, Iser and his colleagues at Konstanz deliberately distanced themselves from the traditions of older German universities. Ignoring institutional linguistic boundaries ( G er- manistik, Anglistik), and well schooled in aesthetics, philosophy and other theoretical disciplines, they set out to investigate literature itself as the most complex - as well the greatest achievement - of all symbolic communication. The seminars were soon famous all over Germany, and the "Konstanz school" pioneered some of the most vital recent innovations in the humanities.
Iser recalled in 1976 the circumstances of his decision at the age of 18 to devote himself to the study of literature. Standing amongst the ruins of Germany at the end of the Second World War, among colleagues who were compromised, the young Iser needed no convincing that the notion that high culture is benignly humanistic was an illusion. Indeed, the bourgeois sacral-isation of art and literature was part of the problem. …