In response to:

Carnal Knowledge from the June 14, 1979 issue

To the Editors:

E.D. Hirsch’s review of Frank Kermode’s The Genesis of Secrecy [NYR, June 14] succeeds only in purveying Hirsch’s rather quirky view of interpretation theory—it does justice neither to Kermode (whose work in this area has been, for several years, of utmost importance) nor to the many “reader-based” critics who have established the problems Kermode studies in his latest book as central to our concept of modern consciousness. There are many points on which one could attack Hirsch, not the least of which is his insistence that anyone can know what an author’s intention is in writing a work; here, I will direct my comments to one of Hirsch’s criticisms which typifies the inherent problems of his position.

Throughout his review, Hirsch cites Kermode’s “limited relativism” as illogical, and comments specifically on Kermode’s “cloudy” notion of “the institution,” the academy of received knowledge which affects and limits the radicality of individual interpretations. But how much less hazily defined is Hirsch’s own body of historically conscious critics, those who have “read the text before” modern interpreters, and who make possible “the recovery of original meaning”? Who are these readers? Who invests them with such authority that their “agreements [as] to the persuasiveness of the evidence” about the author’s intention is seen as empirically sound and verifiable? In fact, Kermode’s notion of the institution, vaguely defined as it may be, that informed body who looks for the inner secret of the text, while making no claims to the validity of the body’s workings or knowledge, seems a more relevant, realistic assessment of how we act as critics. Literature is made of language, and language, as Kermode would acknowledge, is deceptive, secretive, hiding that which it is ordained to reveal. It is far better to understand the critical act as one which consciously acknowledges our inability to ever reach the “origin” of meaning or intention, rather than to see it, impossibly and even undesirably, as a quest for some single, historically verifiable authorial intention.

Patrick O’Donnell

Department of English

University of California

Davis, California

Jr. E.D. Hirsch replies:

Language, Mr. O’Donnell writes, “is deceptive, secretive, hiding that which it is ordained to reveal.” This makes a useful doctrine for publishing readings of already familiar literary works, but it is not a useful principle for conducting a controversy in The New York Review of Books. Under this principle, Mr. O’Donnell cannot possibly know what the language of my review means. In his letter he does not entertain the possibility that my complaints against Kermode’s book were “secretive” praises in disguise.

But of course O’Donnell does understand my review perfectly well, and Kermode’s book too. Moreover, in understanding my meaning he understands my meaning-intention as well, since they are one and the same. And I on my side understand Mr. O’Donnell’s meaning-intention. It may be true that neither he nor I can prove our interpretations of each other’s texts, but absolute certainty is not demanded in even the most rigorous of empirical disciplines, much less in literary discourse. All that is required to establish a meaning-intention is to show its superior probability as based on the available evidence. That is a short answer to O’Donnell’s question about how people decide upon meaning-intentions.

He also challenges me to identify those readers who agree about authorial meaning—implying that they do not exist or do not persuade others by their evidence. But there does in fact exist a community of scholars past and present who share a commitment to discover the meaning-intentions in texts. That commitment is the guiding principle which makes them a community, and it may have been this community which led Kermode to his view that an established literary institution exists. My complaint against his views—now taken over by O’Donnell—is that a literary institution based only on the idea of an institution has no reality in the world because it has no guiding principle or compelling force. If it existed, it would consist of people looking over their shoulders at other people or following the whims of their leaders. O’Donnell is right to suggest that literary scholars exhibit many disagreements and uncertainties imposed upon them by the nature of their subject. But there is another side to this truth. Few scholars have held or will hold that The Iliad is a “deceptive, secretive” satire upon war. The great majority of literary scholars past and present continue to agree about most of the meaning-intentions in most of our texts. They agree because they have a common allegiance to evidence and logic. That allegiance and the community it creates form the only actual institution in scholarship.

For the rest, Mr. O’Donnell’s letter is a useful illustration of the departure from common sense and self-consistency that I was complaining of in reader-based theories of interpretation. O’Donnell does not seem to care that his assumption of an author-based meaning-intention in my review implies a self-contradiction in his theory—a flaw that in rational discourse is generally conceded to be fatal. He is willing to think that we can never reach an author’s meaning-intention except when it suits us in real life to do so. This separation of literary theory from real life induces me to say of O’Donnell’s view exactly what I said of similar ones in my review: they tend to “partition off literary speculation from the rest of life, and thus to trivialize literary speculation.”

Finally, I deduce that Mr. O’Donnell cannot have studied the history of interpretation if he believes that my views on the subject are “quirky.” The idea that a text means what its author meant is a very ancient view, whereas the view defended by Mr. O’Donnell is relatively new and narrowly held. Even today the authorial norm of interpretation is the norm which almost everybody—including Mr. O’Donnell in his non-literary moments—still holds. In that respect, the older commonsense view of interpretation is more “central to our concept of modern consciousness” than is the idea of language “hiding that which it is ordained to reveal.”

This Issue

November 22, 1979