Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

Jeremy Bentham's Wager, the Game of Reading and "Wesron Wind."

Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

Jeremy Bentham's Wager, the Game of Reading and "Wesron Wind."

Article excerpt

Practitioners of the new literary history, whether it is called "new historicism," "cultural poetics," or simply "new history," generally agree on the value of examining the vast interconnections of literary texts in history. As Herbert Lindenberger observes, "historical writing, as we have begun to realize...imitates and expresses the characteristic gestures and practices of the artistic realm as surely as the latter feeds upon what could once confidently be isolated as the historical realm" (192). The issue that must be addressed consistently from the perspective of the new history is the question of what factors at any given time in history actually imposed meaning or were used in an effort to explain actual historic events. From this perspective, even literary history cannot really be examined in isolation from other culturally or historically specific forces. Better to understand the literary past often necessitates being able to make use of other concrete disciplines that help to recover historical particularities that often have simply gotten lost in time.

Anonymous works, especially those from early periods, offer a particularly good challenge and call for innovative reading strategies that are strengthened by interdisciplinary research. The anonymous 16th-century lyric, "Westron wind," for instance, is a textual mystery since nothing is known for certain about the historical circumstances upon which it was based. Yet, as I will argue in this essay, the lyric's meaning and literary appeal can be enhanced by making an educated and reasonably acceptable effort to "fill in" details that are missing. The effort requires a close look at the poem's texture and the willingness to gamble with its meaning. The gamble is what Clifford Geertz, citing Jeremy Bentham as his source, calls the "deep play" (432).

In order to solidify the argument upon which my "risky" subjective reading and response to "Westron wind" ultimately depends, I will draw support from past theoretical discussions of texture as a useful, though neglected, critical and analytical tool in the effort to recoup history. I will also discuss in some detail the notion of the "gamble" as Geertz and Bentham present it, taking into consideration the relationship between the "gamble" and Stephen Jay Gould's recent discussion of "contingency theory" as a way of "replaying the tapes of history" (287). By appealing to the authority of Geertz, Bentham, and Gould in an argument for reclaiming history, I hope to promote among critics and students of literature an increased willingness, especially in the context of reader-response criticism, to make the "deep play," to gamble with the historicity of a text in an effort to add to its meaning and significance. And since, as Wolfgang Iser suggests, literature must always be "regarded as 'evidence' of something," I hope that my reading of "Westron wind" sheds a credible light on the "something," now hidden in time, that was the motivating factor for the production of the poem in the first place.

John Crowe Ransom's essay on "Poetry: A Note in Ontology" in The World's Body (1938) has gained fame as a classic example of early formalist hostility to a preoccupation with literary didacticism associated with 19th-century critical theory. But the essay also includes a pioneering discussion of distinctions between texture and structure in literary analysis that has gone largely unnoticed over the years. As Rene Wellek suggested in 1963 in Concepts of Criticism, Ransom's was the first convincing modern effort to distinguish between the two concepts: texture embodying the minute particulars, the half-formed often "seemingly irrelevant detail, the concrete local life" of a text; structure embodying the "indispensable logical statement," message, or idea that the text links psychologically to the reader's comprehension of reality (61). More recently, in a 1990 collection of essays on critical terminology, John Carlos Rowe has similarly described structure as a "referent for the ultimate human product" as opposed to simply a natural use for an object (37). …

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