Matthew F. Wickman, Founding Director of the Humanities Center
Truth, beauty, goodness: the three great philosophical categories furnish us with three ways to think about the kinds of meanings we derive from literature. And actually, our list of ways could far exceed three. What about vicarious experience? Inspiration? Whimsy? Abstract companionship?
But for a dominant strain of literary criticism, literature is all about truth—or rather, untruth. In 1979 Paul de Man, an influential literary critic, forcefully articulated an idea that had long become, and still is, commonplace: “Rhetoric is a text in that it allows for two incompatible, mutually self-destructive points of view, and therefore puts an insurmountable obstacle in the way of any reading or under- standing.” Literary texts, for example, not only lend themselves to multiple interpretations, they often operate in contradictory registers. Therefore, we never truly understand a text, because whatever we think it means, it also (probably) means something very different at the same time.
As an illustration, think of an exasperated parent screaming “Be quiet!” to a group of rowdy children—a tone that contradicts its own command. Or consider a poem that tells us one thing but shows us something else; William Wordsworth’s “Tintern Abbey,” for example, addresses the subject of poetic imagination, but in romanticizing poverty (as one with “nature”) and describing a subordinate role for women (lauding the poet’s sister, Dorothy, as a mirror for the poet’s self-reflection), it seems also to be a poem about the privileged social position of famous (male) poets.
All literature works this way, de Man argued; all texts mean more than they’re capable of saying. And the point of criticism is to catch texts “in the act” of “meaning.” The philosopher Paul Ricoeur called this approach “the hermeneutics of suspicion.” This school of interpretation had become prevalent with such thinkers as Marx and Freud, he argued, for whom cultural exhibits like literature are made possible by forces they repress, like class conflict and primal human aggression.
Over the past few years, however, this school of suspicion has come to be seen as a text in its own right—one not so much riven by conflict as characterized by an artificial narrowness and, perhaps, a lack of generosity and even a trace of dullness. Rita Felski, a literary scholar from the University of Virginia and one of our BYU Humanities Center guests this year, published an article in 2009 that serves as the 2016–17 year’s theme: “After Suspicion.” In it she speaks of things she began to encourage in her students’ interpretive habits: a proclivity “to describe . . . to look carefully at rather than through appearances, to respect rather than to reject what is in plain view,” and to appreciate the “complexity of appearances.” All these things require that we suspend our suspicions that texts have truths to tell and, more important, truths they obscure.
Post-suspicious approaches open new possibilities for how we engage literature, derive meaning from it, and reflect on what is true—and good, and beautiful, and more—in it. In some cases, it means learning anew how to read.