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Tuesday, 16 August 2005


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ben wolfson

You've already mentioned negative capability in connection to this book. If it goes where I think it might go, it'll be somewhat similar, I think, to Mimesis as Make-Believe.

Ray Davis

'How can the coherence of an author's imagined world rely on the work of critics who would "enhance the coherence of the world projected by the author even if the states of affairs thus added are utterly foreign to the author's intentions."'

This is a false paradox because the existence of the text establishes the distinction between "an author's imagined world" and "the world projected by the author". The word "author" is used literally in the first phrase and figuratively in the second, where it stands for "text". Also, "world" should be plural -- but more on that in a bit.

Anyway, I can picture Knapp's initial move being useful as a clearing away gesture, but it seems more like a weed-whacker than like fertile soil. How strongly is he stressing the empowerment of this "empowered" critic? Because that in itself isn't enough to explain what we go to literature or to critics for. Out of effectively infinite texts and infinite worlds extractable from them, something's being used to decide between:

a) Reading Ulysses with a 1904 Dublin street directory by your side.
b) Reading a 1904 Dublin street directory with Ulysses by your side.
c) Reading a 1993 Manhattan White Pages with a 1904 Dublin street directory by your side.

Whatever the heuristics are, they're not limited to what can be definitely established as the author's intentions, and many authors try to stay alert to that in the course of writing. No matter how much the author "invests" in this awareness, though, if the work continues to be read, the gross readerly "speculation" will always outstrip the author's investment (or at least move to different currency at some point), and so the usefulness of the economic terminology seems to collapse very quickly.

I have no idea where Knapp's going, but I know one place I went from the same start: Since this is an obvious aspect of literary reading, obviously some writers and readers will want to play with it. In a science fiction fan's strong misreading of Milton (akin to Thurber's "The Macbeth Murder Mystery"), Eve might be mouthless. And in Blake's strong misreading, God might be the villain.

Ray Davis

Having posted such an absurdly long comment, I might as well add to it to forestall possible misreadings of my own.

Given Knapp's field, he'd have to address why we'd call Blake and the sf fan mis-readers -- why we might admit their extracted Miltonic worlds to be amusing or valuable without necessarily calling them valid scholarly criticism. And I don't think we can put all the blame on Milton for having invested insufficient funds in Paradise Lost. It also has something to do with what rules are being followed -- what heuristics are preferred -- in the contemporary critic's game, including the collection of evidence as to the author's possible imagined worlds. So I'd hope he's headed in that direction.

(Also, congratulations on the half-birthday.)


Well, if the author invests so the readers can speculate, that would make the critic/interpreter... An economic something-or-other? A stockbroker (That's pretty much the only term I know that fits "economic something-or-other")? Or a thingamabob that makes stock value go up? (You can tell I'm really straining for those Peeps, now)

Adam Stephanides

I enjoy reading your blog, but this post was not one of your finest hours (as you admit in your follow-up post, though I'm not sure it's for the right reasons). The big problem is that the statement by Knapp you quote -- "[A] critic is empowered to imagine additional states of affairs that will enhance the coherence of the world projected by the author, even if the states of affairs thus added are utterly foreign to the author's intentions" -- which you take for Knapp's own view, is actually a view that Knapp states only to reject. He rejects it in the very next paragraph, in fact, and for the same reason that you do: "the fact that Milton or any author has failed to project the world he intended to project is altogether irrelevant to the fact that a critic can revise the content of an imagined world by imagining states of affairs that go beyond authorial intention." (Knapp, 25)

The primary question Knapp is asking in this chapter is whether it is possible for a work of literature to necessarily mean something other than what the author intended it to mean, using Paradise Lost as a test case. As would be expected from the co-author of "Against Theory," Knapp's answer is "no.” He first rehearses the argument that the imagined world of Paradise Lost, as intended by Milton, is logically inconsistent: specifically, that though Milton's God is perfectly good, and therefore must always act justly, his actions towards Adam and Eve are unjust. (Knapp calls this the Romantic Argument.) If we grant, for the sake of Knapp’s argument, that the Romantic Argument is true, we may be tempted to rescue the coherence of Paradise Lost at the expense of Milton’s intention, by positing that the God of the poem is not God as Milton conceived Him, but a being like the Gnostic Demiurge: powerful, but either not benevolent or not omniscient. But Knapp rejects this option, basically on the grounds that once you allow the critic to “imagine additional states of affairs” that are not part of the author’s intention, there is no reason to limit the allowable “supplements” solely to those that enhance the work’s coherence, and in fact no way to limit the allowable supplements at all, thus allowing any work to trivially possess an infinite number of “meanings.”

Scott Eric Kaufman

Adam, have no fear of offending...I realize now the mistakes I made and why I made them, and promise not post about books I haven't finished anymore. I should've known better, but in my excitement, well, I wrote too much and didn't think nearly enough. I think you'll find my later account much more satisfactory--i.e. correct--in that what I take issue with are its assumptions instead of my assumptions about its assumptions (which I've formulated before finishing the book). That said, I will have a post up in a couple of days expressing my displeasure with much of Knapp's argument...but this time I'm going to be double-super-secret careful that I'm taking issue with his argument and not isolated argumentative advances within it.

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