A Case for Intransitive Reading

In my last post (link), I argued that if you want to accurately understand what a text means, you need to acknowledge that it will mean multiple things; I also observed that that “if” was not a given. In this post, I am going to elaborate on that conditional. Now, I have written about it before in my discussion of taking someone to account for their tweets (link) and in my discussion of three kinds of reading (link). To further explain my argument to Jon, this post will mostly be a synthesis and summary of those two, reviewing why exactly a person might want to understand what a text means independent of particular authors and readers.

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Source: Kennedy Library at flic.kr/p/gc8Ufs

A Review

I have identified and named three kinds of reading; I do not pretend that I am the first to identify these things, but I’m going to use my system because I think it is a good one. I laid these out in “Headcanons, Singer-Songwriters, and J. K. Rowling’s Tweets” on this blog (linked above), in order to update and improve my work in “A Theory of Reading 1.0.” I’ll block-quote these kinds of reading below:

Transitive interpretation attempts to understand something beyond the text object itself, something which the text communicates according to the conditions of its creation: the author’s state of mind, information which the text conveys, and so on. This is, as I said, a vexed process; no absolute understanding of that information is possible through the text (or out of the text, but that’s another story), yet the text is still evidence for better and worse arguments about the author, the text’s topic, and so on.

I stole the transitive-intransitive distinction from Roland Barthes, though it should be noted that Barthes denies that texts are transitive at all.

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Complexity as Accuracy

Jon was talking to me about what he wanted to teach his students in the coming year, and he remembered that, years ago, I had argued that complex readings are preferable to simple ones.1 He asked me why that was; he couldn’t recall the argument, only the claim.

I believe he was referring to the series I wrote about literary criticism, or perhaps just literary interpretation, where I tried to lay out what I took to be the lowest common denominators of most people working in literature departments (link). That series does, by way of its central argument, explain why I prefer a complex reading to a simple one; however, that central argument is spread out over several posts, and my series does not answer this question easily or directly, so for simplicity’s sake I will make the case here.

Rackham_GoblinMarket

One of Arthur Rackham’s illustrations for Christina Rossetti’s “The Goblin Market,” a poem often read as containing lesbian subtext.

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MacIntyre on Sophoclean Tragedies

Amod Lele of Love of All Wisdom, in the comments of my second to last post, “A Partial Apology for Liberalism,” recommended that I read Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue. Though I was skeptical for the first few chapters and I found some of the prose unclear, I wound up quite enjoying it. I’m not convinced of the demonstrative half of his argument, but I will discuss that in greater length later. Right now I want to focus on his discussion of Sophoclean tragedies.

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Source: UCI UC Irvine at flic.kr/p/dp67Vf

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FtPA: An Accidentally Intended Effect

There are some pieces of writing from my previous degrees with which I feel happy enough that I might like to share them. I’ll be replacing my Revisiting posts some months with FtPA (From the Personal Archive) posts instead. Today, I would like to share one of the journals I wrote for a course on the American Gothic with Sandra Tomc at the University of British Columbia. This one concerns some of the strangeness involved in Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Philosophy of Composition.” As you’ll see, I drew a bit from ideas I explored with Michael Snediker in my undergraduate program, shared in a previous FtPA. At the end of the year, we were to gather these journals together into a final paper. I titled mine “How to Haunt: Journals on the American Gothic.” I might share more of these later.

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Source: Blueorangutan flic.kr/p/BZjCNv

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FtPA: Constructing Narratives in Charles W. Chesnutt’s “The Goophered Grapevine”

There is some writing from my previous degrees with which I am sufficiently happy that I might share it in a From the Personal Archives series any month I don’t run the Revisiting series. As with last month’s offering, this piece is from Michael Snediker’s 2008-2009 undergraduate course at Queen’s University called American Literature: The Fabulous and the Mundane. And as with that piece, the paper makes more sense alongside the text—Charles W. Chesnutt’s “The Goophered Grapevine” in The Conjure Woman and Other Tales (1899)—but I think this one reads perfectly well even if you know nothing about the original. The last paragraph betrays a lot of my own theoretical preoccupations at the time.

4tw5EY

Source: Ernest Adams at flic.kr/p/4tw5EY

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From the Personal Archive: The Ghost Ship Called Pym of Nantucket

There are some pieces of writing from my previous degrees with which I feel happy enough that I might like to share them. I’ll be replacing my Revisiting posts some months with FtPA (From the Personal Archive) posts instead. Today, I’m offering a short response paper for a 2008 undergraduate course at Queen’s University with Michael Snediker called American Literature: The Fabulous and the Mundane; my paper was based on our readings of Edgar Allan Poe’s The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket (1838). This paper is only an undergraduate offering and furthermore reads much better after one has read Pym, but if you haven’t read the novel this might still interest you as an example of a genre.

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Source: Richard Pierse at flic.kr/p/fSzQyj

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From “The Imaginative and the Imaginary”

Not only the most fascinating play of the period, but its greatest prose work (in England), has melancholy for its theme. Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy is an exhaustive analysis of the causes, symptoms, treatment and cure of melancholy, with two enormous appendices on love melancholy and religious melancholy. Burton was an Oxford don, and his chief amusement is said to have been going down to the Isis river and listening to the bargemen swear. The story may be true, or it may have been invented by someone who noticed that the qualities of Burton’s prose, with its vast catalogues, piled-up epithets, Latin tags, allusiveness and exhaustive knowledge of theology and personal hygiene, are essentially the qualities of good swearing. Burton assumes rather than discusses the connexion of melancholy with creative power: being a scholar himself, like Hamlet, he associates it rather with the scholarly temperament, and includes a long digression on the miseries of scholars. On religious melancholy his position is simple: one can best avoid it by sticking to the reasonable middle way of the Church of England, avoiding the neurotic extremes of papist and puritan on either side. But in love there is no reasonable ground to take, for its very essence is illusion.

This comes from Northrop Frye’s “The Imaginative and the Imaginary” in his Fables of Identity: Studies in Poetic Mythology. Frye is considered obsolete in the discipline, but as with almost any critic who has had any popularity or respect in the field at all, he has excellent observations. I rather like the ones above.

Monthly Marvel: Borgesian Conundrum

On the first Saturday of each month for at least the next little while I intend to share here one of the Weekly Wonders from that previous project. This time I am revisiting the Borgesian conundrum, which concerns either the way the writing makes the author or the way authors make their precursors.


BORGESIAN CONUNDRUM

This week’s idea is the Borgesian conundrum. Jorge Luís Borges (whom I’ve mentioned before now) was an Argentine short story writer, essayist, poet, translator, librarian, and reluctant lecturer who lived from 1899 to 1986. He contributed significantly to the short story as a form, and to fantasy and magic realism as genres. It is also thanks to his work that translations of South American writing became popular in the English literary market. His work is filled with mathematical references (including anything to do with infinity), metaphysical puzzles, and assorted paradoxes.

I think this image is Public Domain, but I might be wrong in this. Let me know if you know that I am and I will remove it.

I think this image is Public Domain, but I might be wrong in this. Let me know if you know that I am and I will remove it.

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After the End: Meditations on Post-Apocalyptic Media

Upon reading Dallas Hunt’s very compelling interpretation of the totemic transfer narrative in Mad Max: Fury Road, I remembered that I had not yet written about the myth-making and existentialism that run through that film—or, for that matter, more general thoughts on what it might mean that the post-apocalyptic has become a pervasive and powerful myth for our time. What does the wasteland, the world in ruin, do for us? What part of the imagination might the wrecks of civilizations and planets capture?

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