Academic journal article Studies in Romanticism

Dissenting Textualism: The Claims of Psychological Method in the Long Romantic Period

Academic journal article Studies in Romanticism

Dissenting Textualism: The Claims of Psychological Method in the Long Romantic Period

Article excerpt

WHEN FRANK KERMODE PUBLISHED THE GENESIS OF SECRECY: ON THE Interpretation of Narrative in 1979, he presented his analysis of the first four books of the New Testament, the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, as an exercise in Biblical hermeneutics. At the same time, he was at pains to describe his interpretation of Biblical as unmotivated by personal faith in the religion that the texts represented. (1) He took the Gospels seriously, as worthy of interpretative attention, and, simultaneously, depicted them as literature, as texts that might profitably be read with what Coleridge called that "willing suspension of disbelief for the moment which constitutes poetic faith." (2)

In the course of his attentive reading, Kermode developed an account of intercalated episodes in Mark and weighed the relative claims of historicity (as reference to actuality) and of" story as such (as making minimal referential claims in its attention to its internal connections). At the same time, however, he eventually reencountered the very problem that he had seemed to sidestep in announcing his own detachment from the beliefs that the Gospel texts had been designed to register. The Biblical text as he saw it continually presented a tension between latent and manifest meaning, in which the apostles (sometimes) appeared to understand what Christ really meant while other auditors interpreted them in variously obtuse, malign, or disastrous ways. In singling out various passages that revolve around the difference between having and lacking ears to hear, Kermode developed an important Biblical theme and, simultaneously, transferred the problematic to the interpretation of texts that, in seeming to have no claims on our belief about the state of things in the actual world, had sometimes appeared to offer a way of muting the question of the relation between a reader's personal belief and his ability to understand particular texts. Literature, in the line of thought that Coleridge had made available to Kermode and many others, was a domain in which shared beliefs were unnecessary for interpretative authority--by contrast with the religious canon considered as a body of religious scripture.

Yet Kermode was at the same time haunted by the possibility that professional hermeneutics in a literary vein was itself merely belief in another guise--that the profession of the literary interpreter (what Kermode designated by the word "institution") was at bottom as doctrine-ridden as religious discussion. And he ultimately took comfort in an existential commitment to interpretation as a decision to accept the world: "The desires of interpreters are good because without them the world and the text are tacitly declared to be impossible; perhaps they are, but we must live as if the case were otherwise" (126). He presented an array of different types of interpreters--from those who "wish to discover what [a text] originally means" (126) to those who "seek to liberate texts from all historical constraint by a process of 'deconstruction'" (126) and those who forego "the banal pleasures of continuity with the original sense for the sake of a joy more acute, if more dismaying, a jouissance that goes beyond the pleasure principle and arises from a quasi-sexual experience of loss and perversity" (126). In producing these descriptions of various ways of conducting literary interpretation, Kermode was able to develop something like critical conviction by default. He generated a backhandedly positive hermeneutic program by laying out an array of possible kinds of interpretation that he translated into their elements so that their unsatisfactoriness would be readily apparent. Interpretative commitment, even with its full measure of disappointment, looked to be, on the face of it, preferable to critical doctrines that could be resolved into such terms as those that Kermode had plausibly supplied for them.

The problems of literary hermeneutics thus appeared, in Kermode's account, to replay the problems of religious hermeneutics of two and three centuries earlier, in that it seemed as if dispute had set in at the most basic level of individual words and their definitions. …

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