To Be or Not To Be

A little kingdom I possess,
Where thoughts and feelings dwell;
And very hard the task I find
Of governing it well.
-- Louisa May Alcott.
...........hmmm....that more or less describes my situation !!

~A Wise Man Said~

It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.
-- Aristotle

Wednesday, April 04, 2012
On His Blindness

WHEN I consider how my light is spent
E're half my days, in this dark world and wide,
And that one Talent which is death to hide,
Lodg'd with me useless, though my Soul more bent
To serve therewith my Maker, and present
My true account, lest he returning chide,
Doth God exact day-labour, light deny'd,
I fondly ask; But patience to prevent
That murmur, soon replies, God doth not need
Either man's work or his own gifts, who best
Bear his milde yoke, they serve him best, his State
Is Kingly. Thousands at his bidding speed
And post o're Land and Ocean without rest:
They also serve who only stand and waite.

-- John Milton

I have been reading Stanley Fish’s critical essay Interpreting the Variorum, and it was quite a task manoeuvring around the elaborately argumentative piece. I will probably want to discuss my thoughts at length when I am at more leisure, but such a time never comes, so I will at least briefly run over them for now.

Stanley Fish’s important claim in this essay is that literary texts cannot be judged on the basis of their ‘formal’ features. Formalism is a school of thought that believes that the text is an independent entity, and whatever needs to be understood or analysed about it, can be done by purely studying the text’s form such as the literary devices used, narrative strategy, and so on. Fish is completely opposed to this mode of thought, so much so, that he believes that an independent text, as such, does not even exist! The latter appears to be too radical a thought to admit belief; however, Fish takes the reader through a series of arguments to prove his case. For my part, I found the arguments going a bit round and round, in that, some of the premises themselves didn’t hold water with me.

Now, the question is, if the text’s form is not the ideal basis for literary analysis or criticism, what is? Fish’s answer to this question lies in the ‘Reader’. The Reader’s ‘experience’ in the course of reading the text is what makes the text what it is, according to him. No Reader, no text, and as such the text as an independent entity, does not exist. The text as an independent unit that can be analysed without reference to an intended reader, does not exist.

To elaborate and explain his point, Fish selects some of Milton’s poems as examples. The poem On His Blindness (reproduced here) is one such. In the course of reading this poem, the reader traverses a gamut of emotions. In the beginning, the reader feels the pain of the speaker and cannot but empathise with his complaint—why did God deprive him of the very gift or eyesight that he could have used best in God’s service? As we move along the poem, our emotions continuously undergo change. When the speaker says ‘I fondly ask’, we know that the speaker’s faith is a bit shaken merely but still intact; the speaker instinctively believes that God has his own ways of dealing with his servants. The voice of Patience brings another perspective, and soothes or fails to soothe our troubled emotions depending on how convinced we are with its arguments. The last line “They also serve who only stand and waite” leaves us confused. We do not know, for sure, who spoke this line¬—Patience or the speaker. We do not whether this line suggests the speaker’s acceptance of his passive duty (which would be the case if he spoke this line) or whether this line merely continues the argument that Patience has been making, in which case, the speaker is still ambiguous about his role and faith. The words ‘stand and wait’ are also susceptible to two readings—does it mean ‘wait for a suitable opportunity for active service’ or does it mean ‘wait passively’? Literary critics over the centuries have apparently debated over what these lines exactly mean, who spoke them, and such other questions that are difficult to determine by studying the text. They have also tried to introduce extra punctuation and other such intrusions to give the text the meaning they chose to interpret. According to Fish, the problem lies in the fact that we believe that the text is supposed to have some independent or inherent meaning. According to him, there is no such independent meaning; the experience that the individual reader goes through in the act of reading is the meaning!

This is not the end of the argument nor is this the only dimension. He also goes so far as to say that readers do not read a text—they actually write or create the text in the process of reading!

I must admit, I do not agree with many of his arguments. I do not feel that the form of a text is as fluid or as arbitrary in the interpretive process as that. While Fish says that readers create the form of the text depending on how they interpret the text, I choose to believe that the author’s intention of giving the readers a particular experience leads him to choose a particular form.

What I find intriguing and useful about Fish’s argument, though, is that the readers’ experience cannot be ignored while interpreting a text (whether that experience is not motivated by the text at all, as he says, or whether the experience does arise because of the author’s studied use of markers in the text, no matter how successful or unsuccessful, is a different argument). The experience of the reader, as Fish says, is a ‘temporal’ one as against the ‘spatial’ experience suggested by form analysis. It is not a moment of experience after reading the text, but a series of thoughts and feelings and mental adjustments that the reader steers through in the course of reading the text that accounts for the overall experience.

… When you think about it that way, you do realise that you had hitherto never given this ‘experience’ that much notice, hitherto only thought about ‘what the text is’ but not ‘what the text does to me’. That’s a potentially rich line of thought to explore.