Academic journal article The Romanic Review

For Theory: Modernism, Intentionality and Context

Academic journal article The Romanic Review

For Theory: Modernism, Intentionality and Context

Article excerpt

1. Introduction: Modernism and the Need for an Interpretive Theory

In this essay I would like to look at the way modern poetry conveys meaning, arguing that its interpretation has little to do with intentions imputed to the author, and much to do with a particular kind--or kinds--of context.

Regarding authorial intentionality I will refer to the valuable essay in the Autumn 1992 issue of Critical Inquiry by George Wilson,(1) who sets out to refute the argument of S. Knapp and W. Michaels in their 1982 article "Against Theory."(2) Wilson tells us that the latter argue against the distinction commonly recognised between "what an expression [generally] means in a language and what a speaker means, on a particular occasion, by uttering that expression" (Wilson 1992:170). According to Knapp and Michaels it follows that, as Wilson quotes them, "`the meaning of a text is simply identical to the author's intended meaning'" (Wilson 1992:166). This is a hazardous position indeed from the standpoint of a reader of literature, as it would make the meaning of any text inaccessible unless he were able somehow to search out the author's intended meaning.

Further, Wilson implies that Knapp and Michaels' approach would tend to assimilate "the notion of `the meaning of a text'" too closely to one of the concepts of meaning usually applied to shorter pieces of utterance, such as `sentence meaning' or `word meaning' (Wilson 1992:165). In fact, it is difficult to be sure exactly what Wilson means by this comparison; perhaps he intends to compare literary meaning on the textual level with semantic operations confined to shorter stretches of speech and occurring within the bounds of the language of normal social communication (the sociolect). From a reading of Knapp and Michaels' reply to Wilson printed in the same issue of Critical Inquiry, this interpretation would seem to be justified. Although they appear to be aware of the relation between what we might call `textual' (or idiolectic) meaning on the one hand and `linguistic' (or `verbal', or sociolectic) meaning on the other (Knapp & Michaels 1992:188-189), they insist that the meaning of any type of text depends only on authorial intention.(3) Moreover, they deny that any "theory about the nature of interpretation offers any help in determining the meaning of any particular text" (Knapp & Michaels 1992:187). Wilson, by contrast, points out the existence of a wide range of "specifically literary conventions," implying that, in order "to arrive at a global meaning" of a text, readers will need to make use of "a pattern of narrative-based explanation that fits the set of configurations as a whole" (Wilson 1992:182183). This amounts to acknowledging the need for a specifically literary theory of interpretation.

Since in this essay we are interested in the specific problems of interpreting modern poetry, it should be noted that none of the three scholars ever mentions poetry, nor the characteristics peculiar to modernist poetry--and, in some cases, narrative. Restricting ourselves to modern poetry in any language since Baudelaire, it may be said that the author has recourse to indirect means of expression (in the simplest terms, the use of what is more traditionally called symbolic imagery) precisely because he cannot express his meaning within the conventions of ordinary sociolectic language. The use of obscure, difficult, sometimes at first sight indecipherable imagery is in fact an alternative means of presenting propositions which the poet finds impossible to express in sociolectic terms. Because of this very fact, it is often uncertain whether he himself has been able to grasp in terms of `direct' sociolectic expression what he is trying to say indirectly. Thus the question of authorial intentionality becomes either irrelevant, or at least far less relevant than it would be if direct expression were being used. It should be added that its irrelevance is compounded by the fact that the reader has in principle no access to the author's intentions. …

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