Monday, August 15, 2005
Interpreting the Idiot
This is a guest post by frequent Valve commenter Peter Sattler. - the Management
Let me get one thing straight: there is nothing wrong with doing philosophy. And what’s more, there’s nothing wrong with exploring the creative ground that philosophy and literature might share. Heck, in my day, I dreamed of such a union. Perhaps I hoped that a quick injection of philosophy might juice up my scrawny lit-crit game — making it a bit heavier, a bit smarter. Better, stronger, faster.
But things have changed. Nowadays, I leave a book like The Literary Wittgenstein feeling little better than disappointment. To be sure, by the book’s end I was convinced that “the literary” (more a concept than a practice or an attribute) had much to offer Wittgenstein scholars. But what does “the literary” get in return? What does philosophy — as philosophy — have to offer literature that it doesn’t already have? What can philosophers tell literary critics about their jobs that critics don’t already know?
To explore these questions, I turn to an essay that promises a strong interaction of literature and philosophy: Rupert Read’s “Wittgenstein and Faulkner’s Benjy: Reflections on and of Derangement” (267-287 in Gibson and Huemer, but available online here). In this piece, the writer and the philosopher share top billing. Faulkner’s work, Read tells us, will yield deep “philosophical lessons,” and Wittgenstein will help us to access those lessons by acting as a “virtual literary critic” (267). It’s enough to make you ignore the fact that The Sound and the Fury disappears for the next seven pages.
For those too tired to click, I’ll summarize the essay’s claims. Simply put, Read want to use Benjy Compson (and real-life case studies like Daniel Schreber) to make the following Wittgensteinian claim: there is no such thing as profoundly schizophrenic thought. To put it another way, there is nothing going on inside the head of a profoundly schizophrenic individual that we could recognize as thinking — i.e., as something that we could translate and/or understand. This is because Benjy and (severe) schizophrenics lie so far outside of our lived systems of understanding — our rules for using and misusing language, for distinguishing reality from illusion, for adjudicating meaning and truth-claims — that such individuals cannot even be apprehended in those terms.
We can no more conceive adequately of “Benjy’s point of view” or the “schizophrenic mind” than we can, from Wittgenstein’s vantage, make sense of a truly “lived solipsism” or a wholly “private language” or “illogical thought.” These so-called different ways of thinking only make sense in distinction to our shared world and the “reality-testing games” we use to talk about things like dreams and mistakes and nonsense. The experience of total mental illness would only make sense from the outside, from the world of the ordinary. And, as Read puts it, “with severe schizophrenia, one might say, there is no outside“ (271). Hence, there is “no authoritative first-personal account of what severe schizophrenic experience is like.” (Similarly, the schizophrenic sentence is so far outside our “form of life” that it also makes “no sense.” Vague approximations and guesses at what a schizophrenic might be inclined to say of his experience in a moment of clarity do not count.) We cannot understand what it’s like to be them, and they cannot understand what it is like to be them: “They just aren’t candidates for understanding” (278).
What does all this have to do with Faulkner? Read actually talks very little about Benjy, but this may be intentional: from Read’s point of view, he and the youngest Compson literally have nothing to say to each other. Benjy’s dissociation and his “narrative” are so extreme — so outside our rules — that we can never understand them, or him. We “cannot actually succeed in imagining” something so completely outside our realms of sense (276). In fact, says Read, we shouldn’t try. Even the act of “translating” Benjy’s thoughts into meaningful, signifying language “do[es] violence” to the absolute difference of that (non-)language and “giv[es] up on Benjy’s ‘alterity’”:
Insofar as one translates (say) Benjy’s tale — his sentences — into our language, one strips away their ‘literariness,’ their particularity, transforming them into our own pale reflections (of them), finding ways of making sense of them such that they are no longer nonsensical, alien. (277)
And as someone once said, “What we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence.”
But I’m not quite ready to shut up yet. I could gripe about Read’s maddening “suggestiveness” and bet-hedging. I could rant about any writer who promises to talk about the philosophical lessons of Faulkner’s novel, but refuses to quote — much less talk about — that novel directly in the body of his text. I could describe how Read stacks the deck and even “begs the question“ (like when he claims that we cannot understand schizophrenics, but then restricts that assertion to “very severe” cases, with whom “all our efforts to understand founder” [282n12]. That is, we cannot understand the patients that we cannot understand). I could even toss off a paragraph or two about the wisdom of confounding Benjy’s (internal, fictional) narrative with the statements and actions (external, actual) of real-world schizophrenics and autistic people.
But I’d rather stick closer to Faulkner. What is the critical cash value of Read’s claims? Is he saying that Faulkner was trying to produce, with Benjy, a completely nonsensical (a-sensical?) language? If so, was that really the best Faulkner could do? Personally, I keep having trouble not understanding sentences like “Dilsey went away” and “I ate some cake” (The Sound and the Fury, Vintage edition, 57). Is Read saying that no one in the Compson family understands Benjy, or that Benjy, in principle, cannot understand them. That also seems off. Luster, Dilsey, and Caddy seem to know some of what Benjy is feeling, or at least the things that set him off: “Luster said. ‘Beller. You want something to beller about. All right, then. Caddy’” (SF 55). And Benjy responds (both inside and outside) to words in a way that indicates understanding: “Caddy turned around and said ‘Hush’ So I hushed” (SF 19).
Of course, none of the Compsons understand Benjy completely (understand “the totality of [his] words,” as Read puts it ), but they all try — even Jason, who wonders if castration might be the answer to some of his own desires and problems:
I often wondered what he’d be thinking about, down there at the gate, watching the girls going home from school, trying to want something he couldn’t … want any longer. And what he’d think when they’d be undressing him and he’d happen to take a look at himself and begin to cry like he’d do. (SF 253)
To say that Jason and Luster and Caddy all miss the mark — or that our empathy and understanding only go so far — isn’t the point. From Read’s point of view, we can’t say that Jason gets Benjy wrong because we get Benjy equally wrong. The fact that we have access to what seem to be Benjy’s thoughts (while Jason has access only to Benjy’s actions) doesn’t matter at all. Quite simply, there is no getting Benjy. There isn’t (really) a “Benjy” to get.
But why would we limit these types of claims only to Faulkner’s man-child? Isn’t the entire novel built upon the form and fiction that all its characters have inner “narratives,” patterns, and obsessions that are inaccessible to others? Isn’t The Sound and the Fury a fantasy of this very type of (un-Wittgensteinian) inaccessibility? Admittedly, it’s easy to see how Benjy’s words and “sense” might be untranslatable, either to us, his family members, or the neighborhood schoolgirls:
I was trying to say, and I caught her, trying to say, and she screamed and I was trying to say and trying and the bright shapes began to stop and I tried to get out. I tried to get it off of my face, but the bright shapes were going again. (SF 53)
But can we do any better with the following passages, from elsewhere in Faulkner’s text? Can the novel’s other characters penetrate to these inner meanings? Are our attempts to understand them caught any less short? Consider:
Hats not unbleached and not hats. In three years I can not wear a hat. I could not. Was. Will there be hats then since I was not and not Harvard then.… Not Harvard then. Not to me, anyway. Again. Sadder than was. (SF 95)
After all, like I say money has no value; it’s just the way you spend it. It dont belong to anybody, so why try to hoard it. It just belongs to the man that can get it and keep it. (SF 194)
“When de long, cold-----Oh, I tells you, breddren, when de long, cold. . . . I sees de light en I sees de word, po sinner! Dey passed away in Egypt, de swingin chariots; de generations passed away. Wus a rich man: whar he now, O breddren?” (SF 295)
“Mmmmmmmmmmmmmmmm!” (SF 296)
In each of these passages, we encounter interpretive friction, rubbing up against the limits of our ability to make sense of human speech and human thought. Thoughts twist, word by word, phrase by phrase. At the same time, though, we work our way through the words — sometimes connecting, sometimes translating, sometimes just slowing down. We feel ourselves trying to make sense, “trying to say” what it is that that these fictional minds and mouths are trying to say, and not say.
In this way, “understanding” Benjy is no different than our attempts to understand any of the above thoughts and actions. And as we proceed, we (and Faulkner) are not trying to make sense of the whole, but simply attempting to trace the pathways of a human mind in action. Benjy’s narrative makes “sense,” for instance, as we notice patterns of presence and absence, attempts to say and not say. If Benjy’s words are non-sense, are they any more extreme than those of Quentin, whose thoughts drift from Harvard hats to his upcoming senior year, only to catch themselves on the fact that he will not be around to experience that year or, solipsistically, Harvard itself? Or think about Jason, whose words shuttle violently between clichés and contradictions? How do we make coherent “total” sense of his self-refutations? And finally, what is the propositional content of Reverend Shegog’s string of broken, emotional allusions and figures — or the long moan of the congregation, amid which Benjy himself sits? If Benjy’s moan is “just sound” (see Read’s epigraph), how is that sound any less meaningful — any less a candidate for meaning — than the hum of the black churchgoers?
Here’s what I think Wittgenstein would really say: yes, there can be no such thing as “logically alien thought” — but this is as much a limit to ourselves as interpreters as it is a limit to the thoughts of others. To recognize someone as thinking means to recognize the logic, the sense, the translatability of their thought. Benjy and his brothers become candidates for understanding at exactly the moment we discover or imagine a way to understand them. We normalize our encounter with strangeness though looking, not thinking, and working out how words “now ha[ve] significance — in these surroundings” (Investigations §583). (For more in this vein, see Dave Cerbone’s great contribution to “The New Wittgenstein“.)
But here, possibly, is the bigger conclusion. Perhaps Faulkner simply isn’t trying to demonstrate anything that can be adequately reduced to the word “philosophy.” He just isn’t worried about establishing the abstract preconditions for truth or language. Perhaps he has no overarching “philosophy of psychopathology” no “philosophical lessons” to teach.
This is because Faulkner seems concerned not with “how people think” as much as “how these three individual minds think.” Is he trying to create a coherent system that explains thinking or supports the possibility of lived solipsism? Or would it be better to say that he is trying to use language to approximate the feeling of thinking — three very different selves, bumping and edging their way from sensation to sensation (Benjy), thought to thought (Quentin), assertion to assertion (Jason)? And when we try to “do philosophy” with Faulkner’s text, reducing it to a series of claims or examples, aren’t we leaving out just this type of particularity? The particularity of form? The particular practice of (literary) reading?
This is where Read’s essay and Wittgenstein’s philosophy do provide a helpful reminder to literary critics. Read warns us of the “violence” that we do to Benjy’s “alterity” and his “language” when we translate his sentences into our own. The very process “strips away their ‘literariness,’ their particularity, transforming them into our own pale reflections” (277). And, indeed, this does seem to be the worst thing that literary criticism can do — to tame the work at hand, to make Benjy (or Quentin, Jason, Shegog) seem less strange, less disarming, less confusing and overpowering. When we think we know too clearly what Benjy is “trying to say” and fill in his blanks with our knowledge, we stop attending to what he is actually doing (on the page) – his “trying” and his not-saying and his attempts to “get out.”
At the same time, however, “translating” and “restating” and “transforming” are the only things that we critics ever do. We trying to explain and describe the particular “strategies of unfolding” (Vendler) of any work. Rupert Read tells us that, ideally, all we should really ever do — if we wish to be true to the “alterity” and “strangeness” of the (Modernist) text — is to remain silent. Our every paraphrase is the worst kind of heresy. And this doesn’t just go for Benjy; this goes, ultimately, for any strong work of art. If “particularity” matters, then even our most faithful attempts to understand and describe a text will turn it into something that it is not. (And be honest. Haven’t we all wanted to tell our students, now and then, “Don’t worry about what it means for a minute! Just be quiet and look at how cool it is!!")
Every book is Benjy. With every text, we encounter the idiot. And with each interpretation, we try to make him seem more sane, more rational, more predictable and conversable. And isn’t there something insane in our efforts, every interpretive victory sowing the seeds of aesthetic defeat? Is there any process less rational, maybe less “philosophical”? Who’s crazy now?
But thankless as it is, that’s our job: our endless, futile allegiance to particularity, traducing and betraying its own efforts with each word. We are a rebuke to the demands of philosophy. And the best thing that philosophy — and especially Wittgenstein — can teach us is to acknowledge this fact. And then get over it.
Sometimes philosophy’s most profound gift to literature — and literary criticism — is to remind it of what it was never trying to do in the first place.
By translating, restating, and transforming, critics also defend works of literature. Without critics to pay professional attention to cultural works that are worth preserving, their particularity would easily be lost beneath a kind of popular shorthand which would enable people to think they were knew or understood a given work without going through the trouble of looking at it. So that violence you do to the text or the object is, to my mind, necessary and useful, especially if it takes place in the context of a lively and non-routine conversation, such as occasionally occurs in the classroom. Such a discussion of a text is probably different from the lust for quantification and reproducible logic/abstraction that philosophy sometimes indulges, which, as the post above perhaps suggests, wouldn’t even need literature as long as it had a satisfactory definition for it.
What is it like to be a text?
First of all, this post is simply a marvel.
While I’m sympathetic to every word of it, I think there is another side to literary criticism that shouldn’t be forgotten, Not that it is superior, rather that it’s worth to keep its existence in mind to remind us that interpretation is just vein among others:
Formalist criticism, with a capital F and and an implied “Russian” in the beginning, that mostly does not deal with paraphrase and interpretation, but rather with the machinations and orchestrations of effects. Criticism that is about honing the reader’s sensitivity to the surface than attempting to reconstructs the depth-structure. Not that it doesn’t have its own existential angst- the very concept of revealing
latent effects the average reader might miss is founded upon a strange posit of an Ideal Reader, or Implied Reader, which is full of its own problems. But still, it’s a pretty different ball of wax, I think.
One of the pieces of this post that made me cheer was this sentence: “I could rant about any writer who promises to talk about the philosophical lessons of Faulkner’s novel, but refuses to quote — much less talk about — that novel directly in the body of his text.” Criticism and theory have often been allowed to operate in a world that privileges the “abstract,” a world that seems to say, “it’s so complex I couldn’t possibly pin it down to the pedestrian realm of the actual text. Just trust me on this one.” (I’m in the process of reviewing a study on modernism that is doing the same thing, so this is my peeve of the day.)
When we start losing track of the “text"--even if it’s only the edited or contested artifact of the printed word, rather than the more holistic experience of the text--we start forgetting the impetus of thought, that grain of sand that we’re trying to develop into a critical pearl of wisdom. To be polite, it seems lazy. To be rude, it seems irresponsible. But either way, losing track of the novel in the attempt to produce a criticism about it amounts to nothing more than a shell game. Bravo, Peter S!
I appreciate each of these replies, especially as the Valve is now clogged (?) with many noteworthy posts. I’m in agreement with each of you – and your comments have helped me to see other ways in which my views (about reading literature) perhaps diverge from many expressed in The Literary Wittgenstein.
Peri: Thanks for the kind words. I endorse your description of literary criticism’s “Formalist” goals – goals that seems to diverge from what we normally think of as “interpretation.” I suppose that by alluding to Helen Vendler’s work above, I was trying to embrace that very kind of “interpretive” (or as you and she might say, non-interpretive?) activity. “Deep” descriptions are central to what we do – are central to the goals of “particularity.” Deep re-description constitutes the activity of getting at Faulkner’s goals and Benjy’s mind, attending to the nuances that make this mechanism unique, different, and interesting. Like you, I worry about “interpretive” activity that irons out these complexities and (too quickly) substitutes “what the work means” or “what the work (really) says” for “how the work was ‘trying to say.’”
Now my query: do our shared attitudes have any bearing on the question of “interpretation” being played out in the essays (and posts) by Martin Stone and Sonia Sedivy? They want to say that “interpretation” is a peculiar activity, which only comes into play when we encounter strange or ambiguous or incomplete utterances – or when we are doing strange, incomplete activities like “being a literary critic.” Otherwise we just “read,” and we encounter the meanings of the texts directly and immediately. For me, this seems to boil down whether you believe that “understanding” Benjy Compson is qualitatively different from “understanding” other kinds of characters – and other kinds of texts. But this may be all critical sound and fury…
Tim and Meg: I think we all park our cars in the same garage. Tim says that we “defend” literature by “looking,” and I couldn’t agree more. I suppose that what we defend it against is the idea of periphrasable meaning and propositional content – and from the easy knowledge and false wisdom that such “interpretative” goals sometimes promise. (Perhaps, as Meg indicates, we defend it against our own illusions of mastery as well.)
Even a writer like John Gibson, who clearly appreciates literature, can be seduced by these promises. In his Lit-Witt essay, for instance, Gibson tries to validate the truth-value of art by arguing that great works “distil” complex experiences into portable public forms. They provide cultural definition of large abstract terms (Othello defines “jealousy”; Notes from Underground is our benchmark for what we mean by “suffering"). Would you two agree that we don’t want to sail in that direction? It reminds me, for one, of the attractive dangers of “symbolism.” When you decide that the whale is really a symbol of Nature, God, language, or the ineffable, you tend to stop looking at the thing, cut up and strewn around your deck.
And nnyhav: I think I’ll miss you most of all. Yes, there is a bit of the “mysterian” in Rupert Read’s claim that we can never know what it’s like to be either a real or a fictional “schizophrenic,” and that we should just stop trying. That seems oddly un-Wittgensteinian. Or at least un-Faulknerian. Un-literary.
But by raising “consciousness” as a topic, you allow me to ask a question that I hope is not too silly or mysterious: in what way is getting to know a text (a novel, a character, a story) like getting to know a person, or a good friend?
Yes, I know that people “talk back” to us – and that they keep saying and doing new things, while books are formally “the same” each time we open them. But there seems to be something similar in the two activities – in the way we attend to and slowly pick up on a person’s (or a book’s) quirks, idiosyncrasies, obsessions, patterns of behavior, and contradictions. We figure out how she works and how she means, from the inside out. Getting to know a person (or a book) means getting to know her as an individual, in all her particularity. And, in the process, our deep knowledge of one person helps us to understand something about how people work in general – just as the constructed world of a book, in its uniqueness, can also illuminate the wider real world that we all share.
Thanks for sharing, all. Peter
I don’t think we should sail toward a great work of literature as the proper distillation of some complex and persistent truth or cultural experience to the extent that the connection between the truth and the work is authoritative. (Of course, it would, to my mind, be a better world if you were to look up the word “jealousy” in the dictionary and find yourself confronted with the full text of Othello. My problem with that idea is that the concept of jealousy shouldn’t be contained entirely by Othello.)
I have to admit I’m a little impatient with this issue of whether we understand literary works and other texts directly and immediately. If you are going to go in that direction, don’t you have to strip from your own interpretive activities the possibility that you could be wrong about anything? And what would it mean, in that case, if you failed to understand something? You certainly wouldn’t want to admit it and thereby ally yourself with Benjy Compson and the other idiots, putting the question of, say, your possible emasculation into the hands of those who aren’t troubled by your tears and wailing because you don’t speak a language they understand.
That’s a melodramatic example, but I think the issue of exclusion, or of where our understanding of ourselves and how we understand things places us in relation to our peers and the influence they wield willfully and accidentally over our lives and the achievement of our desires, plays an enormous role in where we place our allegiances on this question of above-the-head or beneath-the-feet attitudes toward language and meaning.
Obviously, there’s a range of intelligibility within “lived systems of understanding” but I don’t think we should be at all cavalier about defining those systems’ boundaries. Which is why I agree with the proposal that the text, the work of literature, the object itself, is so worthy of our unprepared attention, an, as far as I can formulate it on the spot, open-minded meditation, one which is perhaps somewhat unmoored from the most mechanical associations that abide in a straightforward, nuance-free systems of undersanding.
But by raising “consciousness” as a topic, you allow me to ask a question that I hope is not too silly or mysterious: in what way is getting to know a text (a novel, a character, a story) like getting to know a person, or a good friend?
In a word, so-bytie, as Bakhtin unpacks it: the event of representation or communication requires co-existence and/or co-creation, text doesn’t merely operate within but constructs a context of some consciousness behind it (which readers manufacture even for manufactured texts—not quite an intentional fallacy but a useful fiction). (Cf Steve Hoenisch on Wittgenstein secretly sharing this perspective on language.) And while the text is static, the (re)reader isn’t, so the relationship develops.
I enjoyed the take-down, Peter, but weren’t the stakes set a little high? It seems a bit like deciding the vaporization of Earth on single combat with Ataru Morobishi. I’ve seen similarly rude mechanicals flailing away with hammers labeled “historicism”, “psychology”, “biography”, “economics”, or plain “me and the book.” The hapless NYTBR reviewer who wondered what zombies were metaphors for didn’t need to reach outside the English department.
It might be true (or something like it) that metaphysics is mostly useful as a frame to brace against, along the lines of “what it was never trying to do in the first place.” Personally, I’ve found twentieth century math and sciences more useful along those lines than Wittgenstein, but then I think Wittgenstein’s been more of a boost to artists than to critics.
Philosophy in general, though? The semblance of rational argument is embarrassingly hard to avoid in discursive writing, so we might as well get the basics down. And it might be nice to not claim we’re building on a philosopher when we’re not. (It might also be nice to avoid thinking that we’re being funny when we’re not, but one reform at a time.)
More generally, I think I’ve encountered criticism which usefully deployed Plato, Kant, Nietzsche, Hume, Hegel, those scary French people.... Why, I cited Aristotle on the Western in this very site!
Now you might say that’s cheating, since they sometimes wrote about aesthetics. But aesthetics has been pretty solidly part of philosophy for a while, and its relative absence from Ango-American analytic philosophy departments may not be a sign of philosophy’s limitations but of those departments’.