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The Problem of Reading

ISSUE:  Summer 1979
Tropics of Discourse: Essays in Cultural Criticism. By Hayden White. Johns Hopkins. $17.50. On Difficulty. By George Steiner. Oxford. $10.95.

It is increasingly apparent that our dominant model of theoretical self-understanding derives from linguistics and rhetoric. As in Saul Steinberg’s whimsical sketches, we spin out a complexly dense fabric of sounds, letters, sentences, and paragraphs which constitute the possibility of individual and collective life. We discover ourselves in a text-world, “spoken” by a Discourse over which we have only illusory control. In the beginning was the Word, not man who is its concrete embodiment. We must decipher our world and ourselves as part of that world.

This cultural paradigm has been a while in the making. As Hayden White points out in Tropics of Discourse, Vico was perhaps the first modern thinker to understand the man-made world, i. e., culture, through a variety of rhetorical figures. Descartes, Vico’s great adversary, sought to describe the physical world mathematically, an effort which reached its culmination in modern physics’ dissolution of matter into mathematical relationships. As the doctrine of the soul gave way to the problematics of the self, the solidity of personal identity disappeared into a complex web of interpersonal communications. From Hegel down to Sartre and the French Freudians, the self is understood as a relationship. The linguistic revolution initiated by Saussure led to the contemporary emphasis on semiotics, which takes everything as part of a sign-system. Where Jung discovered fixed archetypes, LeviStrauss sees “mythemes,” bits of material which only have meaning in combination with other mythemes. There are no universal, transcultural symbols, only the combinatory mechanisms of the unconscious mind. Freud’s psychoanalytic theory is now seen to be less concerned with the play of psychic forces than the translation of meaning.

If the world is understood as a text (or as analogous to a text), then the act of reading and the problem of interpretation become crucial. And it is a concern with this problem of reading which provides the common starting point for Hayden White and George Steiner in the works under review here. Both Tropics of Discourse and On Difficulty are collections of essays which elaborate upon their authors’ earlier, more authoritative works: in White’s case, Metahistory; in Steiner’s Extraterritorial and After Babel. Both men are wellread in contemporary thought, but neither is overly given to the hermetic, allusive, and self-regarding diction of much advanced thought issuing primarily from France. (Though Steiner can lapse into an arch mandarin prose at times.) Nor are they intellectual bullies. They can admit doubts, appear tentative, and present opposing positions without sneering.

The bulk of White’s essays concern themselves with the problem of reading history. According to White, all discourse is tropistic. It works through figures of speech which, far from serving as decoration or “mere” rhetoric, constitute the field of facts and meanings themselves.

White’s approach to historiography and the philosophy of history implies two crucial changes in our ways of thinking about these disciplines. First, and most obviously, every work of “straight” history implies a philosophy of history and vice versa. More interestingly, White insists on minimizing the difference between fiction and fact, works of the imagination and works of history. To White’s way of thinking, most contemporary historiography is bad science and bad art, still operating with otiose notions of value-free science and naive realism. There is no such thing as an “innocent eye,” no one “true” account of the past, no wie es eigentlich gewesen ist. A work of history has no truth-value in the strict sense, but must be judged on aesthetic and heuristic grounds. For historians work with certain standard modes of emplotment, explanation, ideology, and troping. What is said is synonymous with how it is said. One judges history according to its richness, coherence, density, and range of implication, description, and explanation. This is not to say that facts are unimportant or to be capriciously disregarded. But it is to say that what counts as a fact and what determines its “weight” are determined by the angle of vision which the historian brings to the data. Indeed, it is not clear whether the historian’s framework is imposed upon or discovered in the empirical evidence.

Critics have already had a go at Metahistory where these views were developed in great detail through an analysis of 19th-century historians and philosophers of history. There White granted that the best, most satisfactory history was marked by tensions among the various modes of plotting, troping, ideological implication, and explanation and thus could be read in several ways. But why precisely these four categories and why does each break down into four parts? In Tropics of Discourse White suggests that the four master tropes—metaphor, metonymy, synecdoche, and irony—are psychogenetically grounded, and he advances a brief discussion of Piaget to bolster his point. According to White, what Piaget sees as the progressive unfolding of the mind from identity with the world to distantiation from it and from representation of it to self-consciousness matches his own four-fold schema of tropes. And harkening back to Vico, White suggests that cultural development can be understood in terms of this same progression. Presumably one should only accept White’s theory as long as it seems useful, helpful in making sense of the world. But by anchoring his “tropology” in biological development, White asserts, albeit tentatively, a privileged position for his own efforts.

Whatever its difficulties, White’s work in “reading” history is extraordinarily stimulating; and all historians, particularly those trained in this country, should be forced to confront it. Indeed, historians such as J. H. Hexter, Peter Gay, Gene Wise, and David Levin have dealt with some of these issues in their own work, though in a less sophisticated manner. This promises, one hopes, an added sophistication in the writing of history in the future. For, as White suggests, history-writing has yet to catch up with the 20th century.

George Steiner exemplifies what White calls the modern “ironic” consciousness. For a central theme of Steiner’s On Difficulty is the loss of canonical authority in our culture. The authoritative texts of the tradition, ones which the educated elite were assumed to know, have largely been lost to us. As a result, we now read them with difficulty bordering on incomprehension. Explanatory footnotes vie with the text for pride of place. Indeed, Steiner suggests that the activity of reading itself may come to be a distinctly minority activity, a sort of cultural guerrilla war against dominant taste. Now, obviously, Steiner means something fairly specific by “reading.” Reading, for him, refers not to the perusal of printed matter for useful information. Rather he means the sympathetic penetration of the text, a coming to terms with it and the sensibility informing it.

In the difficult, but rewarding title essay, for instance, Steiner sets forth four types of difficulty a text may exhibit. The difficulty may be a “contingent” one, the remedy for which comes by consulting a reference book. “Modal” difficulties refer to difficulties the reader has in making a coherent whole of a work, even though he may understand everything in it. “Tactical” difficulties arise when the writer intentionally obscures in the name of some higher clarity. And finally when the matter of speech, meaning, and the literary text themselves are called into question, we may speak of “ontological” difficulties. Thus in an age in which the “honest man sings or mumbles,” Steiner asserts, “we shall have to teach reading.”

A second thread runs throughout On Difficulty, and that is Steiner’s concern with the decline of “internal” and “private” speech. Always historically sensitive, he suggests that internal and private speech has declined in our culture with the disappearance of religious meditation and prayer, the emancipation of women who were the principal purveyors of diaries and letters, and the increasing influence of psychoanalysis and related therapies which claim therapeutic efficacy for saying aloud what we previously only dared say to ourselves (if we dared that even) and to our most intimate friends and loved . ones. A long essay, “Eros and Idiom,” charts the growth of sexual explicitness since the early 19th century and suggests that this willingness to say the unsayable has paradoxically limited the freedom and compelling force of fictional characters in particular. As a result, there has been a certain flattening of sensibility, an insensitivity to nuance and complexity, and an inflation of expectation which has gone unrewarded. We need, he concludes, a “sexual idiom free from compulsive literalness.”

Thus Steiner emerges as a man not all at ease in the modernist, post-bourgeois culture. The last classic age of reading and privacy ended in August 1914. Indeed, it was perhaps the only such period in Western Culture. This loss of privacy and of interiority went hand-in-hand with the decline of reading and the loss of an authoritative tradition. But Steiner is no blind reactionary and is willing to face the fact that reading and privacy came at a certain cost which, whether we like it or not, must now be paid off. As a cultural critic with that historical “sixth” sense, he forcefully reminds us where we have been and what we have lost.

It is a larger irony of Steiner’s thesis that precisely at the historical moment when serious reading of texts has become problematic, the culture’s most advanced thinkers have begun to see the whole world as a Text. In the final essay in Tropics of Discourse White reflects on the structuralist critics’ refusal to elevate the printed text, particularly ones which have been taken to be classics of the culture, over any other semiotic system. This, he suggests, illustrates the “awareness of the arbitrary nature of the whole cultural enterprise and, a fortiori, of the critical enterprise.” Whatever their other differences, Steiner and White still believe in the text and thus, in a certain sense, in the possibilities of the survival of the culture.


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