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The New Trahison Des Clercs: Reflections on the Present Crisis In Humanistic Studies

ISSUE:  Summer 1986
. . . because there is no end To the vanity of our calling, make intercession For the treason of all clerks.
W. H. Auden, “At the Grave of Henry James”

The opening sentence of an essay (“The Uncertain Future of the Humanistic Educational Ideal”) written by Lionel Trilling the year before he was stricken by his last illness carries the kind of prophetic power that had already given a classic status to much of his work long before his death in the autumn of 1975. That sentence says: “Partly for Socratic reasons, but chiefly because it is my actual belief, I shall take the view that at the present time in American society there are few factors to be perceived, if any at all, which make it likely that within the next quarter-century there will be articulated in a convincing and effectual way an educational ideal that has a positive and significant connection with the humanistic educational traditions of the past.”

Now it may at first seem strange that Trilling should have committed himself to such a view in the spring of 1974, when these lines were composed, for by then the newly powerful institutionalization of humanistic enterprise in American culture was well under way. Indeed, to say nothing of the numerous scholarly and professional organizations that were actively seeking the advancement of humanistic learning, a quite momentous undertaking had been launched a decade earlier in a most impressive way. For in 1963, under the auspices of the American Council of Learned Societies, a Commission on the Humanities was formed, in the hope that it might secure in the corridors of power in Washington the establishment of a program of federal support for the humanities and the arts. Though the commission’s report, after being issued in April of 1964, did not immediately win any large measure of attention, already by that October President Lyndon Johnson had endorsed many of its goals in an address at Brown University. Then, early on in the sessions of the 89th Congress, Senator Claiborne Pell of Rhode Island introduced a bill which embodied the main substance of the commission’s report and which, after its enactment a few months later by the Senate and the House, resulted in the creation of the National Endowments for the Arts and the Humanities. And by the time Lionel Trilling ventured his disconsolate prophecy the programs initiated by both endowments had undertaken sizable agenda.

Nor had our colleges and universities been remiss in their fealty to humanistic ideals. When I began my own teaching career in the late 1940’s, one of the most widely read books in the academic community was the Harvard Committee’s Report on General Education in a Free Society (or the Harvard “Red Book” as we called it, after the color of its wrapper and binding). And in those years at Howard University I taught in a yearlong Great Books course that represented, along with certain other parallel courses mounted by the Howard faculty, the local response on that campus to the Great Books idea—essentially humanistic in its emphasis—that had been so persuasively fostered by St. John’s College and the University of Chicago, and by the colleges at Columbia and Harvard. I remember still with pleasure the intense and sometimes heated discussions that went on amongst the teaching staff handling the course at Howard about how particular texts should be approached in the classroom and about how the curriculum should be annually revised (next year, would it be the Iliad or the Odyssey, Swift or Voltaire, Dostoevsky’s The Possessed or Melville’s Moby Dick, Death in Venice or The Dubliners?). And, by the early 70’s, so faculty discussions on campuses across the country had gone for a very long time indeed. True, under the disruptive pressures that university life suffered in the 1960’s, it appeared for a moment that the winds of doctrine were shifting, but in the spring of 1974 there were numerous indications to be descried on the academic scene, as Trilling himself admitted, of “renewed commitment to the promise of the humanities.” Yet, for all this, he issued his disheartened forecast.

Trilling did, of course, in his essays cultivate every now and then a teasing kind of evasiveness that tended to make his argument (to paraphrase a remark of Basil Willey’s about Coleridge) slip lizard-like into a thicket of mandarin circuities, and those who are familiar with the essay to which I am making reference (now available in the posthumous volume The Last Decade: Essays and Reviews) will recall that the reasons it wants to advance for its pessimism about the future of a humanistic paideia are not easily pinned down. But it does at last appear that the principal reason for his uncertainty about what the future might hold was his fear that “an educational ideal related to the humanistic traditions of the past” could not effectively withstand the deep commitment of our popular culture to the idea of the autonomous self (and to the attendant idea that to elect such a life as traditional humanistic education proffers is to close out a multiplicity of other options).

Trilling originally prepared this essay for presentation before a conference held by the Aspen Institute for Humanistic Studies in the summer of 1974 on “The Educated Person in the Contemporary World,” and my own imagination of his sense of the occasion leads me to feel that, as he anticipated an audience of Midwestern millionaires who’d been charmed by Mortimer Adler into “improving” themselves and a motley group of various other assorted persons, he simply could not persuade himself that he dared risk even attempting to set forth what the real source of his alarm actually was. For in 1974 the new ideologies intending to rule humanistic studies that were drifting from Paris across the Atlantic into Baltimore (Johns Hopkins) and New Haven (Yale) were imperceptible beyond certain isolated pockets of the university community, but they had already such an ominous presence for Trilling that he was prompted one evening in the autumn of 1973 in his Claremont Avenue apartment on Morningside Heights to say to me with an unwonted sternness (as my friend Robert Langbaum reports his having also said to him) that, were he 20 years younger, he would take on the Structuralists and their various descendants and epigones in the same way he had taken on in the 1940’s those currents of thought he was so exigently interrogating in the essays forming his great book of 1950, The Liberal Imagination. And I would hazard that it is just in this range of thought that we are to locate the real antagonist at which he truly wanted to tilt in the essay on which he based his Aspen Institute address in the summer of 1974.

Today, of course, the enterprising anti-humanism of the post-Structuralist movement is in full tide, and it presents us with the great example in contemporary intellectual life of the new trahison des clercs. This phrase forms the title of a once famous book by the French critic Julien Benda which was first published in Paris in 1927, and in English the phrase is perhaps best rendered as “the betrayal of the intellectuals, ” for the French term clerc looks back to the Middle Ages, when virtually all scholars and learned persons were clerics, and thus the term in its old sense, like its English counterpart clerk, makes reference not, as it commonly does today, to one who performs secretarial functions but to one who practices an intellectual vocation. And, as Benda looked at such (relatively marginal) figures as Ferdinand Brunetiëre, Maurice Barrés, Charles Péguy, Gabriele D’Annunzio, Charles Maurras, and Jules Lemaïtre, he was moved to advance the rather extravagant charge that the typical intellectuals of the modern period, in identifying themselves with class rancor and nationalist sentiment, have abdicated their true calling in the interests of political passion: instead of quelling the mob and beckoning it toward genuine community, they have joined the mob, concurring in its lust for quick results and adopting its devotion to the pragmatic and the expedient. So, as Benda argued, they represent a great betrayal, a great trahison. And it is his fiercely reproachful term that appears now to be the appropriate epithet for the intellectual insurgency that is currently sowing a profound disorder and confusion in the human sciences or, as they are customarily spoken of on the American scene, the humanities.


Humanistic studies, whether they be conducted in the field of philosophy or religion or imaginative literature or music or visual art, are of course in the nature of the case most centrally focused on the meaning and value carried by our funded cultural heritage for ourselves—and not just for ourselves, since we must first of all seek clearly to understand what the Summa Theologica and the Isenheim Altarpiece and the Faerie Queene and the B-Minor Mass meant for Aquinas and Grünewald and Spenser and Bach and their contemporaries. Which means that the distinctive activity of humanistic scholarship, in whatever particular area it be carried on, is one of critically reading texts, whether the text be something like the Parthenon or Michelangelo’s Ceiling Fresco in the Sistine Chapel or Locke’s Essay Concerning Human Understanding or Wordsworth’s Prelude or the score of a Brahms symphony. And thus, when powerful advertisement is given to a new and revolutionary theory of reading, a considerable freight of implication is inevitably entailed for the entire range of humanistic inquiry.

Now it is to such a juncture that we find ourselves brought at the present time. For the new theorists, whether they march under the banners of the late Roland Barthes or Jacques Derrida or Stanley Fish or J. Hillis Miller or Harold Bloom, are bent on convincing us that, prior to the enlightenment which they bring, all reading was misguided and illusionary, since it was under the spell of what M. Derrida in his book Positions calls “the authority of meaning”—and thus what the New People are concerned above all else to do is to “de-mean” meaning itself.

In this effort they are in part greatly assisted by the hermeneutical nihilism of Nietzsche, particularly by the drastic forms in which that nihilism is expressed in the IIIrd Book of The Will to Power, where Nietzsche lays it down that the reading of a text never entails the definition of meanings objectively immanent within the text but always involves instead filling up the emptiness of the text with meanings which the interpreter himself provides. “Ultimately,” says Nietzsche, “man finds in things nothing but what he himself has imported into them,” and thus “interpretation is itself a means of becoming master of something,” Which is a line of argument that the new theorists find so persuasive that they are led vehemently to deny that there is any such thing as a “wrong” reading of a text.

But, then, beyond this, they want to explain, to account for, the essential emptiness and weightlessness of texts. And this weightlessness is conceived to be consequent upon the absence of any transitive relation borne by texts to things extrinsic to the world of textuality itself. By “text,” of course, the nouvelle critique means any system of signs—whether it be a narrative, a philosophic treatise, a scientific theorem, a style of courtship, a method of economic transaction, a mode of burying the dead, or whatever—whereby meaning is conferred on experience. And, as Edward Said puts it (in his book Beginnings: Intention and Method), “Everything . . .is a text—or. . .nothing is a text.” Which is to say that the notion of there being anything outside or beyond the world of textuality is simply phantasmal: the symbolic order itself, in other words, is coextensive with all reality, since for anything to be accessible to the mind it must already have been organized and constituted by some system of signs. So texts are quite “blind” with respect to the world “out there”: they have no “meaning”—or, rather, they have multiple meanings which cancel one another out under the pressure of the mercurial play of the tropes which are at work even in what may appear to be the most immitigably conceptual or referential uses of language. Language, in short, is marked by a “radical intransitivity,” since, as Michel Foucault says, it “has no other law than that of affirming. . .its own precipitous existence; and so,” as he tells us, “there is nothing for it to do but to curve back in a perpetual return upon itself, as if its discourse could have no other content than the expression of its own form.” And thus the task of interpretation is declared to be that of “deconstructing” or nullifying whatever a given text may appear to be intimating in the way of a coherent account of things extrinsic to itself—or, if not this, the text is conceived as presenting merely an occasion for the interpreter’s assertion of his own hegemony and for his then creating a new text of his own, this of course being cheerfully acknowledged to be simply another fiction incorrigible by any objective norm.

It is such ideas as these that have become the commonplaces of the new hermeneutics, and its sources are many and various; but certain strategists appear most especially to be at the fore. His immense influence just now will lead one first of all to think of the French critic Jacques Derrida, as well as of his major disciples on the American scene, J. Hillis Miller and the late Paul de Man, who have been perhaps more responsible than anyone else for creating an atmosphere in our intellectual life conducive to a genial reception of M. Derrida’s project of deconstruction. But, then, almost equally influential has been the Rezeptionsaesthetik or reader-response theory emanating from the University of Konstanz and from the work of the circle there centered around Hans-Robert Jauss and Wolfgang Iser—whose ideas have been very greatly radicalized in the version of them presented (so persuasively, for some) by the American critic Stanley Fish. And, thirdly, one must speak of still another American theorist, the immensely prolific Sterling Professor of the Humanities at Yale, Harold Bloom, who, since the appearance in 1973 of his book The Anxiety of Influence, has been a central presence in the forums of theoretical poetics— and, his major ideas being easily summarized, we may turn immediately to him.


Bloom is, of course, perhaps above all else, notable on the contemporary scene for his untiring advocacy of a single proposition, that the activating motive controlling literary history is nothing other than revenge or a passion for patricide. This is a theory that he first advanced in his book of 1973, The Anxiety of Influence, and he has been ringing various changes on it ever since. He considers the poet—or, as he likes to say, “the strong poet”—to be one who is filled with a kind of rage by the achievements of his predecessors, since they threaten to rob him of any space for himself; and the nettled defensiveness with which he faces his precursors prompts him to misread the poems of his fathers and to embody these destructive misinterpretations in the poems of his own composition. As he says in his book A Map of Misreading, “A poet. . .is not so much a man speaking to men as a man rebelling against being spoken to by . . .[some dead precursor who is] outrageously more alive than himself.” And it is in such bitterly internecine strife that Mr. Bloom finds that which gives momentum and élan to literary history, most especially to that phase of it by which he is most fascinated—namely, the great “visionary company” of Milton and Blake and Shelley and Whitman and Yeats and Wallace Stevens.

But he finds “anxiety of influence” to be the controlling principle not only of literary history but also of critical interpretation. For, in his view of it, the relation between a reader and a text is as much an affair of “misprision” as is the relation of the poet to his predecessors, since any “strong reader,” when he engages with a strong text, finds the independence of his own intelligence and imagination being challenged and threatened. And, as Mr. Bloom contends, the result is that all interpretations become misinterpretations, all readings misreadings, since for him, as for Nietzsche, interpretation is but a means of winning mastery over that which calls into question one’s own autonomy. So it follows that “there are no right readings”: there are only “weak mis-readings and strong mis-readings.” Which means, in the particular case of literary interpretation, that the real “poem” is a triadic complex of what the precursor has written, of its deliberate misreading by the ephebe, and then of the critic’s equally deliberate misconstruction of the relation between ephebe and precursor. It is such a radically nihilistic hermeneutic that Mr. Bloom has developed most principally in four books—The Anxiety of Influence, A Map of Misreading (1975), Kabbalah and Criticism (1975), and Poetry and Repression: Revisionism from Blake to Stevens (1976). And it is a hermeneutic that wants essentially to say that the enterprise of interpretation is corrigible by no objective norm, that its whole value consists in the degree to which its misreadings are “strong” and therefore interesting: in short, a rampant anarchy is to be thought of as the state of affairs that ought normally to prevail in the critical forum.

E. D. Hirsch, in his book The Aims of Interpretation, has labeled the kind of dogmatic relativism in hermeneutics represented by Harold Bloom “cognitive atheism,” and the same scepticism about the possibility of winning any sort of genuine hermeneutical knowledge is expressed today perhaps even more radically by Stanley Fish, who, since the appearance in 1980 of his book Is There a Text in This Class?, has had to be regarded as the chief American proponent of what is called “reader-response criticism.” But whereas nothing more than the reification of a myth of patricide forms the basis of Harold Bloom’s theories, Mr. Fish appears, at least to some extent, to be influenced by philosophical considerations of a vaguely neo-Kantian sort. Indeed, so simple is the idealism he embraces that he does not hesitate to reject out of hand the possibility of any sense or meaning being objectively embedded in a text. For, as he insists, texts are quite empty of any meanings other than those with which they are invested by the reader; and, since they are in effect the result of the reader’s framing and compositional powers, their meanings are wholly indeterminate: all interpretations, in other words, are equally volitive and equally valid: “no interpretation can be said to be better or worse than any other,” since “interpretation is not the art of construing but the art of constructing.” And from the brink of the very bleak kind of solipsism such a doctrine would seem to be positing Mr. Fish retreats in some measure only by way of his notion that “the informed reader” dwells always in an “interpretive community.” Such a community, as he suggests, is constituted by its members giving their suffrage to certain “interpretive strategies,” and he argues that it is the prevalence within a given critical guild of this kind of consensus that keeps interpretation from being completely random. That is to say, members of the same interpretive community, because they share a body of fundamental presuppositions, can disagree with one another and debate with one another because they stand on common ground, because, in pursuing the same interpretive strategies, they construct a common text. But, apart from “the fragile but real consolidation of interpretive communities,” there can be no right and wrong interpretations of Hamlet and Mansfield Park and The Magic Mountain, since texts are brought into being by interpreters who have no accountability to any objective norm beyond that which is established by the particular critical circle which they elect to join and since there are no principles at hand for adjudicating disagreements between interpretive communities.


So, then, in Harold Bloom and Stanley Fish we have two quite different exemplars of that new mystique which insists upon the indeterminateness of textual meaning. But it is undoubtedly the French theorist Jacques Derrida (in residence for a part of each year at Yale with Mr. Bloom and J. Hillis Miller and Geoffrey Hartman) who presents the key case of contemporary hermeneutical scepticism, and his immensely difficult books—most especially Of Grammatology and Writing and Difference—are among the most crucial documents of our period. Though his thought has many sources—in Hegel, Nietzsche, Husserl, Heidegger, Lévi-Strauss, to mention but a few—it is perhaps Ferdinand de Saussure whom we need first of all to have in view, since M. Derrida’s whole project seems to want most essentially to collapse the distinction so central to Saussure’s epoch-making book of 1911, Cours de linguistique générale—the distinction, that is, between le signifiant and le signifié, the signifier and the signified. True, M. Derrida, like Saussure, thinks of a text as constituted of signs: indeed, he likes to regard it as simply an affair of “noir sur blanc,” as nothing more than so many black marks on white paper. And, again in the manner of Saussure, he takes the meaning of these signs to consist in what they are not, in their “difference” from other signs within a given linguistic system. So, since their meaning resides in what they are not, the meaning of a particular sign is absent from the sign itself and is therefore something evanescent, fugitive, occult. Moreover, what can the signifier be said to be a “sign of,” since to consult a dictionary is only to be confronted with alternative signifiers? And, when the meanings of these are in turn checked, we find ourselves again confronted with still other signifiers, and so on ad infinitum. All our signifiers, in other words, merely bear upon themselves the traces of other signifiers—and thus the very distinction between le signifiant and le signifié proves in the end to be an utter delusion. For what we dwell amidst is the unending play (jeu) of significations whose meanings are always deferred into an ever more distant future: meaning, it appears, is forever “not yet.” And so ghostly is the universe to which we are committed that even the human image itself must be found to be strangely insubstantial and vaporous. For if the meanings of signs are always scattered and deferred, if they are never a part of the signs themselves, how can I make “present” to another my thoughts and feelings and intentions, my own inwardness, my own reality as a person—and not only to another but to myself as well?

But, of course, an axial premise of M. Derrida’s entire philosophy is that nowhere can we locate any kind of “presence, ” any kind of being or reality which is outside the play of signification and on which our thought and language might be grounded. And it is precisely the large hospitality it has given to a “metaphysics of presence” that accounts for his wanting to jettison very nearly the whole of the Western philosophical tradition, since this is a tradition, from Plato to Heidegger, whose last recourse has been to some ultimate referent (the “transcendental signified”)—whether it be God or the Idea or the Self or substance—which has been conceived to be prior to all discourse and the foundation of all experience and thought. But Jacques Derrida lays it down that, however comforting such “logocentric” projections may be, they are in the final analysis nothing more than systemic functions of the linguistic process—and, as such, deserving to be relegated to the discard as merely “metaphysical.”

There is, in short, nothing at all that can be counted on to “center” language, to limit the “free-play” of the significatory process, and to establish stable referents outside language for spoken and written utterance. For outside language there is only le néant—which, as M. Derrida would warn, is not itself to be taken as presenting any sort of ontological principle, since nothing is, quite simply, nothing. So, since “il n’y a riens hors du texte,” texts open out into the abyss of that infinite and ungrounded process of signification initiated by the signs within the text itself, that abyss wherein all signifieds are collapsed within signifiers.

And what, then, is the task of the interpreter? It is, as M. Derrida suggests, to do nothing other than to plunge into the significatory process initiated by the text, joyously affirming “a world of signs [which is] without error . . .[and] without truth.” And, given the well-nigh infinite chain of indeterminate significations initiated by the text, the work of the interpreter will involve not so much a dismantling of the text as a demonstration of how it dismantles itself with respect to all such views of it as would posit for the text anything resembling a stable and definable meaning. When we begin to tackle a text, in other words, we are committing ourselves to what Fredric Jameson calls a “prison-house of language,” and the job of the hermeneut is to make it clear that within this labyrinth there is no kind of arché or telos, no guiding thread—nothing but the interminable chain of signification into which the constituent words of the text have been locked by their myriad usages in various languages across the entire span of historical time. Which means, of course, as the critic-undertakes to expose how dizzyingly vast is the number of all those irreconcilable meanings forming the sediment with which any key term of a text is endowed, that his discourse inevitably takes on the character of a kind of free association infinitely surpassing anything that could have been dreamt of in that long-ago time when we sometimes suspected that the Empson of Seven Types of Ambiquity found the main grist for his mill in the O.E.D.

Now it hardly requires to be said that in so brief a conspectus of the present hermeneutical situation as is being aimed at here no really nice kind of justice can be done to the extraordinarily complex and subtle arguments of Harold Bloom and Stanley Fish and Jacques Derrida: indeed, these immensely gifted rhetoricians are nothing if not subtle, and rapid summaries must in the nature of the case fail adequately to remark the acuity and sinuousness of their thought. Nor are they by any means the only significant figures on the contemporary scene with whom we need to reckon. Behind Jacques Derrida, for example, in France are the important careers of Maurice Blanchot and the late Roland Barthes, and one thinks also of the late Michel Foucault. Or, again, as was mentioned earlier, the reader-response theory of Stanley Fish has its European analogue in the Rezeptionsaesthetik of the Konstanz circle, as well as in the work of the distinguished Heideggerian, Hans-Georg Gadamer. And, of course, in the case of Harold Bloom, one thinks also of J. Hillis Miller and Geoffrey Hartman and the late Paul de Man, who, together with Mr. Bloom, were occasionally being spoken of somewhat snappishly a few years ago as forming “the Yale Mafia.” But, though Jacques Derrida and Stanley Fish and Harold Bloom need not be accorded pride of place amongst such theorists as these, they may at least, in the way of the sort of verbal shorthand it is necessary to use in plotting cultural tendency, be said to be focal exemplars of the kind of hermeneutical terrorism toward which these others (and still more who might be listed) appear in one degree or another to be drifting. In theory of interpretation they represent (as Hayden White speaks of it in his book Tropics of Discourse) the “Absurdist Moment” into which we are presently plunged, for they typify that whole insurgency which now wants in the most radical way possible to call into question the quiddity of the text, and perhaps even to dance a jig on its grave. Harold Bloom regards the hermeneutical event as an occasion on which the interpreter, lest the autonomy of his own vision be in some way contested by the text, cannily produces a misreading of the text—a misreading which is neither right nor wrong but which is simply either “strong” or “weak.” Stanley Fish regards a text as (to borrow a phrase of Northrop Frye’s) “like a picnic to which the author brings the words and the reader the meaning.” And Jacques Derrida conceives it to be a system of signs cut off from any signifié, a mere epiphenomenon (as Edward Said puts it) of “the eternal, ongoing rush of discourse.” But, though each has his own characteristic emphasis, what is regularly taken for granted by those belonging to the circles to which these men are attached is that in this late time it is no longer possible to think of texts as having any kind of determinate meaning or to think of interpretation itself as being any less indeterminate in its import than the text it addresses.


Now the particular matrix out of which this ferment comes is, of course, literary theory, but it is a ferment that lowers threateningly upon the entire range of humanistic studies, so much so that everywhere there begins to arise a sense of the humanities being overtaken by a wholly unprecedented kind of crisis; and virtually nobody any longer, whether in the field of history or religious studies or philosophy or literature, is at ease in Zion. For it is apparent that, given the premises of the New Irrationalism, we can hardly continue—in jurisprudence, in theology and Religionswissenschaft, in philology, in literary history and criticism, in philosophy (metaphysics, ethics, aesthetics), and in much else—to conduct business as usual. And those who are responsible for the superintendence of academic enterprise nervously ask themselves how, in these bad days, they are freshly to justify a humanistic paideia, given the degree to which it must necessarily be involved in the transmission and interpretation of texts. But they find themselves caught in something like the kind of embarrassment that overtook some years ago William Phillips, the editor of Partisan Review, who (as Norman Podhoretz reports, in Making It), after a period of conversation with the New Left English critic, the late Kenneth Tynan, could find no other riposte to stutter out than the announcement that he could no longer discuss politics with him, since he could no longer remember the answers to Tynan’s arguments.

It would seem, however, that the recovery of confidence in the dignity and validity of humanistic pursuits will largely depend upon our beginning to cultivate most carefully the art of anamnesis. And what may need most principally to be recalled is the kind of hermeneutical sanity that has underlain and made possible the entire project of Western culture. From, for example, the time of Plato and Aristotle till, as it were, the day before yesterday it has been understood that all rational discourse, whether spoken or written, is in the nature of the case predicative, that, far from having such an intransitivity as recent Structuralists and post-Structuralists attribute to it, it intends to speak about various realities— things, persons, states-of-affairs—outside the world of language itself. All that those who follow M. Derrida have to say about the “free-play” of signification may have a certain relevance to what holds within the system of a given langue where, to be sure, signs only refer to other signs and these to still others; but when, as in all concrete utterance, sentential forms are used, language, as Paul Ricoeur reminds us (in his book Interpretation Theory), “is directed beyond itself” to the circumambient world. Semantics (which is the science of syntax) cannot, in other words, be collapsed into semiotics (which is the science of signs), as contemporary deconstructionists undertake to do.

Moreover, it is a part of the funded hermeneutical wisdom of Western tradition to know that in all discourse language is employed intentionally, that the speaker or writer intends to say somthing quite particular and specific. Which means, despite the contrary testimony coming from much of post-Structuralist theory, that discourse cannot be collapsed into linguistic codes, just as semantics cannot be collapsed into semiotics. The doctrine lately imported from Paris would have it that persons are simply linguistically encoded machines and that, far from being the impresarios of language, they are its slaves. Or, as we are frequently told, in the terms of the familiar Saussurean distinction, parole is merely an epiphenomenon of langue. But, again, it is a part of the wisdom of traditional Western hermeneutics to know what Paul Ricoeur phrases with an elegant simplicity when he says, “Languages do not speak, people do.”

And what the speaker or writer does is to mean: this is, indeed, the primary function of discourse, to mean. Which is to say, when we are dealing with written discourse, with texts, that the meaning of that which we read is nothing other than the meaning of the author: it is what he or she intended to set forth. The deconstructionists would, of course, maintain that the import of a text is an affair of all the various significations which its constituent terms have gathered across the span of history and that, since we are without any principle wherewith some of these significations may be selected as relevant and others may be rejected as irrelevant, the text must therefore be regarded as a vehicle by means of which all sorts of meanings, many of them irreconcilable and contradictory, are held in (to use the phrase of Mallarme’s for which Hillis Miller has a great fondness) a suspens vibratoire. But, as E.D. Hirsch reminds us in his powerfully argued book Validity in Interpretation, a text “is not a mere locus of verbal possibilities, but a record . . .of verbal actuality.” And the actuality is the particular structure of meaning that the author intended to convey.

It is true, of course, that the chief strategists in theory of interpretation a generation ago—such people as T.S. Eliot and Rene Wellek and W.K. Wimsatt—were often strenuously insisting that authorial intent is an ineffable and that all we have before us is the text itself which has a life of its own that is wholly separate and distinct from the particular scribe who may be declared to be its maker. And it is undoubtedly the case that the psychic inwardness of those writers who produced The Prelude and The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire and Bleak House and Process and Reality must forever remain largely inaccessible and cannot therefore become any sort of hermeneutical datum. But to say that the meaning of a text is the author’s meaning is not all to locate textual meaning in the hidden interiority of the author’s psyche: it is only to say that verbal meaning is constituted of those intentions of the author which are embodied in his text and which, under the prevailing conventions that control linguistic usage, are shamble by his readers.

So, if the horizon of the text is bounded by the horizon defining the author’s intention, it is surely not the case—pace the tribe of Harold Bloom—that the interpreter is perfectly free to mis-read his text in whatever “strong” way that may happen to strike him as agreeable and interesting. Nor is it the case—pace the tribe of Stanley Fish—that, the text having only such meaning as that with which it is invested by the interpreter, he is accountable to no norms other than those prevailing in the particular “interpretive community” to which he gives his allegiance. On the contrary, since the meaning of the text, controlled as it is by authorial intention, is by no means indeterminate, the interpreter’s task, once he has identified the genre to which his text belongs and the special structures it imposes, is to specify those patterns of emphasis which his sense of the whole leads him to regard as forming the essential ground of the coherence that distinguishes the vision of the world that the author has sought to convey. There is, in other words, no escaping “the hermeneutical circle”: that is to say, it is the interpreter’s sense of the whole that enables him to discern the important subordinate structures of meaning in a text, whereas his sense of the whole, on the other hand, must itself be based on his sense of the inner harmony of the parts. And it needs also to be said that, since objectivity in interpretation requires primary reference to the author’s intention, the interpreter’s sense of the whole must be able to claim for itself a higher probability of correctness than can be claimed by divergent hypotheses—on the basis of the greater justice it does to all that can be learned about the cultural and experiential (and, hence, the intentional) world of the author.

The protocols that properly govern the task of interpretation entail, of course, a complexity by far surpassing what can be considered within the brief compass of a single essay. And thus I have wanted to do little more than allude to a few of the elementary “home truths” the recollection of which may help to restore some measure of self-confidence and poise amongst those practitioners of humanistic studies who, under the pressure of la nouvelle critique, have lately felt their backs to be against an unyielding wall.

Of one thing at least we may be certain, that the questions brought to the fore by the new theories of reading cannot just be impatiently dismissed, with recourse then being taken to one or another kind of fustian about the healing, civilizing, liberating, elevating, and redemptive power of humanistic pursuits. It may well be that the humanities offer such rewards, that (as Newman and Arnold and Sidgwick argued in the last century), by putting us in touch with noble and profound thoughts and lofty feelings, they enlarge our views and expand our sympathies—though George Steiner’s dark reminder (in Language and Silence) ought not to be forgotten, that, when barbarism befell Europe in the 1930’s and 40’s, “the arts faculties in more than one university offered very little moral resistance,” and the worst bestialities were often enforced by men who knew their Goethe and who delighted in Schubert and Rilke. But, in any event, if in our time a decent case is to be made in behalf of humanistic-studies, it needs to be grounded not on the various felicities of mind and spirit to which they may be presumed to conduce, for their cultural authority as fields of inquiry must rest wholly on what can be claimed for them as disciplines aimed at knowledge and at truth. And since the nihilism that brandishes itself in the form of the new hermeneutics does in effect so radically impugn any truly cognitive dimension of humanistic endeavor, it strikes at its most vital nerve—more threateningly than anything else in our period, since it strikes from within.

There has, of course, been no end to the troubles with which the humanities have had to reckon since the beginning of the modern world in the 17th century, and no reason appears now for supposing that these challenges will lessen in the coming years. In the climate of an advanced technological culture the Kulturwissenschaften will no doubt continue to find it necessary over and again freshly to justify themselves in relation to the Naturwissenschaften. And they will surely find it necessary also periodically to respond to all sorts of extravagant charges that they are failing to meet their full responsibility for the “health” of the nation. But they themselves will not survive in health, if they consent to be persuaded that the materials which they handle are without any determinate meaning and that their procedures can therefore be neither right nor wrong. To be sure, there are powerful influences currently seeking to persuade humanists to embrace the new “absurdism,” and thus a major crisis for the humanistic enterprise is by way of being prepared. But it is well to remember that an important meaning of the term crisis in its original Greek form (krisis) concerns that point of time when the necessity has arisen to decide whether a given state of things should continue, or whether it should be in some way modified or even terminated. And, if the decision now needing to be made in the forums of hermeneutical debate proves to be the right one, then the humanists of our period can proceed on toward what the late Lionel Trilling hoped that they might once again manage to accomplish— namely, the articulation “in a convincing and effectual way [of] an educational ideal that has a positive and significant connection with the humanistic educational traditions of the past.”


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