Interpretation, Deconstruction, and Ideology: An Introduction to Some Current Issues in Literary Theory

By Christopher Butler | Go to book overview

3.1 Linguistics and Interpretation

In our discussion of metaphor in relation to interpretation, we saw that it had a double aspect : (1) it was interpretable into a 'literal' language exploiting 'grounds of likeness' which might reveal certain systematic (associative) features within language, and thus be part of larger-scale metaphorical models, thereby (2) opening up all sorts of possible conventions of reference from the literary text to the external world (its context of situation). We also saw the beginnings of arguments against these propositions, which asserted that there were no such reliable stopping-places for interpretation, since all language is ultimately metaphorical.

These opposed views of the nature of interpretation lead further on in two directions, which I shall explore in this and the next chapter. The first leads us to examine what we shall call the 'coherence-conferring' version of structuralism, which relates the larger features of the text to systems within language which are the conditions for literary meanings and thus make possible, so it is asserted, a descriptive science of literature, or 'poétique'. The second direction, that taken by 'post-structuralist' critics, seems entirely opposed to this. It criticizes the very basis of our trust in the literary sign, and thus leads us to believe thai literary texts, far from being models or examples of coherent linguistic structures, whose conventions can be stated with some finality, are self-contradictory, fissured, and full of gaps, and do not allow for any static stopping- point in interpretation.

We thus come to look at features of the literary work which are on a larger scale than that of metaphor or of the single sentence which usually encloses it, but which are subject to the same basic interpretative procedures.

An unrigorous notion of the unifying structure of poetry has long been available to literary criticism, as will be seen if we consider my fairly simple analysis of a poem by E. E. Cummings:1

if everything happens that can't be done
(and anything's righter
than books
could plan)
the stupidest teacher will almost guess
(with a run
skip

-26-

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