Jottings Logo - John Fraser



Saying Simply



It occurs to me that one way of coping with a Fishean reading of that blackboard text might be to keep asking "How?" It’s not a bad way of coping with any reading of a text, one’s own reading(s) included.


If you're out driving with that still useful fiction the Enquiring Martian, and you stop when you come to a stop sign, (s)he asks you why you stopped.

There was a stop sign, you say.

A stop sign?

Yes, you explain, that octagonal red shape on top of a post with the word STOP on it. The word STOP conventionally means, "Cease what you're doing," and what we're doing is driving.

But how do we know that that’s what the word means?

I'll show you a dictionary when we get home.

Could the sign have been put there as a prank? Or by an art student doing a piece of conceptual sculpture?

Well, yes, it could have been, but it doesn't seem likely. Let’s go back and look at it. Look at the metal, the kind of paint, the weathering, the words "City of Halifax" stamped on the back, the concrete base. Making it and installing it would have taken some time.

But still couldn't some obsessed artist have put it there?

Yes, they could have, but it seems highly improbable.


Well, how do I know you're telling me the truth about stop signs?

OK, let’s watch out for other such signs and see how drivers behave when they come to them.

Yes, they do stop, but what about this woman standing in the roadway with a yellow hat on and holding a sign with "Stop" on it?

She’s a member of a road crew.

But mightn't she be a member of a gang engaged in some criminal activity?

She could be, but look at the other signs, the men at work on the road, the cop car parked beside the road.

Yes, but.....

OK, rent yourself a car and ignore all the Stop signs you come to and see what happens.


Or take the Martian (in traction?) and the Wordsworth/Winters sonnet which you read out to the Martian and which goes as follows:

From low to high doth dissolution climb,
And sink from high to low, along a scale
Of awful notes, whose concord shall not fail;
A musical but melancholy chime,
Which they can hear who meddle not with crime,
Nor avarice, nor over anxious care.
Truth fails not; but her outward forms that bear
The longest date do melt like frosty rime,
That in the morning whiten’d hill and plain
And is no more; drop like the tower sublime
Of yesterday, which royally did wear
Her crown of weeds, but could not even sustain
Some casual shout that broke the silent air,
Or the unimaginable touch of Time.

Excuse me, says the Martian, but I seemed to hear some odd repeated sounds as you read that out. Is the writer perhaps trying to send a message in code? The English sounds strange at times, too.

So you explain to her/him/it that this is a sonnet, written in England a good while ago, and (anticipating being asked how you know that) allow the Martian to look at the Norton Anthology where you found it.

Yes, I see, says the Martian. Other people have indeed written texts with those characteristics. But why is this particular one in this book.

Well, you say, it’s an important poem by a great writer. It’s saying important things about important topics--dissolution, truth, time.

May we examine what it says? says the Martian.

Of course.


So you walk yourself and the Martian through the syntax and diction of the text, referring it/him/her, when necessary, to dictionaries and to the principles of English syntax (nouns, verbs, pronouns, participles, modifiers, parallelism, parentheses as displayed at work in this poem and (for naturally the Martian keeps questioning) in other poems in the anthology, and various pieces of prose, and the way you and the Martian are speaking right now.

And you try to answer questions like, "But how do we know that the grammatical subject of 'drop' is 'her outward forms' or "How do we know that a typesetter didn't accidentally omit a noun after 'low' and another after 'high' in the first line?"

You patiently go on introducing examples of various kinds, both real and hypothetical, for purposes of comparison and contrast.

And you suggest that where "knowing" something is concerned, it is better to think in terms of degrees of probability, rather than of a dichotomy of total truth and total indeterminacy.


A few days later, the Martian says:

"You told me last time that the sonnet was important and helped me to see what statements are being made in it. But we did not talk about whether, in your opinion, those statements are true.

Since our last conversation, I have read a discussion of the poem by someone called Yvor Winters. To me, at least, his objections and questions seem valid.

Could you tell me, please, what you yourself think of each of them. If you think most of them are sound, can the poem really be a good one, let alone a great one.

I would appreciate it if we could discuss each of his points in sequence and then go on to that broader question."



A few weeks later the recuperating Martian is in the library and falls into conversation with someone who had been in that famous class of Fish’s.

The individual writes down the Fishean poem for the Martian on a library slip and proceeds enthusiastically to explicate it, along the lines we see in Fish’s passage. (We had better assume here that the expounder has not read Fish’s account of that class.)

The Martian, as you would expect by now, proceeds courteously but persistently to interrogate the Fishean as to how he/she knows this and, more to the point, how the six jotted-down words "mean" what the explicator has just said they mean.

I will leave it to you to think of what kinds of questions the Martian might ask, what kinds of answers the explicator might give, and what kinds of evidence the explicator might adduce in support of those answers.


But did the students in Fish’s class all go on saying those kinds of things to each other in private afterwards, I wonder? Did none of them have second thoughts? Had none knowingly engaged in the exercise as play? Had none of them sat there mute and sceptical?

I doubt it. At least, I'd like to think that doubt here would be reasonable.

I also doubt that had Fish tried the "poem" out on some of his fellow seventeenth-century scholars he would have had the same results.

Which is a not insignificant consideration.


Fish as a theorist depends heavily on the concept of "communities" of readers, and there is truth to that.

One can indeed talk about--may have to talk about--the kinds of readers that a poem appears to be intended for, just as one can talk about the readership of different kinds of magazines.

But to call something a community doesn't mean that it’s a cluster of clones, any more than are the inhabitants of an English village, or the members of an extended family.

There can be wide divergences in belief and behaviour inside an extended family, some of whose members may in fact detest one another.

The Dalhousie Department of English is a community, but its members have been far from all thinking and feeling in the same way about literature, so far as my own thirty-some years experience of it goes.


So when Fish goes on to maintain that because each "interpretive" community reads a text in its own specific fashion and cannot help doing so, each community-specific reading is therefore right for that community and no one reading can be considered truer than any other, he seems to me to be departing from any reality that I myself am acquainted with.

Or rather, to be misrepresenting realities that I am acquainted with.


Of course there are wide varieties of communities, and some, such as the U.S. Marine Corps, do indeed work at getting a high degree of uniformity among its members (albeit a uniformity that permits of a high degree of self-reliance on the part of individual members when cut off from their fellows).

But when we call an extended family a community we are likely to mean that, as with physical characteristics, there is some sharing among some members of some kinds of knowledge, facts, myths, and modes of communicating, together with a good deal of diverging and mutual ignorance.


If there weren't divergences inside a human community, it couldn't evolve.

And a benign evolution, which is likely to be partly a response to changing conditions not of the community’s own making, seems to me inseparable from the concept of truth, the making of truth claims, and the examining of those claims.

Fish writes, elsewhere, as if individuals' attitudes were programmed and set in the way that those of the vast majority of species are, and as if interrelations were simply an affair of a sought dominance and submission.

But when one person is persuaded by another’s arguments, comments, and less definable reactions to change her/his opinion about something, it is because he/she has been shown something that had previously escaped her/his gaze.


By "shown," here, I don't just mean that an assertion has been made. I mean that an assertion has stood up to interrogation, perhaps interrogation by a number of individuals, and that it "works."

Certainly this happens for myself in this seminar.

As a result of what someone else in our tiny ad hoc community has said or written, I can see that some word or statement in a poem means something different from what I had hitherto assumed, or that some scansion of mine was incorrect, or that I had simply not noticed some interesting fact.

And I would say that I now know something that I didn't before.


Of course things get more complicated with larger questions of interpretation and value judgments, and obviously it is impossible for any of us to experience a poem in identical fashions. But we can still experience something in somewhat the same way.

Fish’s famous question, "Is There a Text in This Class?" might seem to invite the flesh-creeping post-modern answer "No." But of course there are texts--i.e.,clusters of alphabet characters arranged, normally, in horizontal lines.

Despite all the editorial doings, the text of Macbeth in the First Folio is still, or so I seem to recall, remarkably close to the up-to-date ones. Nor are there disagreements about a lot of facts.

No-one would get very far who wanted to argue that King Duncan was in fact murdered by Banquo in drag (the real Lady Macbeth having been kidnapped by Macduff) and that Macbeth failed to see this because (a) he was hopelessly alcoholic and (b) his eyesight had badly deteriorated but he was too proud to acknowledge the fact even to himself ( "Is this a dagger that I see before me?").

Moreover, different kinds of accounts are not necessarily in conflict with each other.

An account of how the time of day and the weather matter in the play would not necessarily conflict with an account of the workings of guilt in Macbeth’s psyche.


No, the problems come for the most part when someone makes value judgments and/or tries to offer a totalizing account of a work (their "interpretation" of it) and claim that it is the only valid one--that their Macbeth or their "Au Lecteur" is the only "real" work.

But entering the lists on behalf of one’s own totalizing account of a work and defending it against all comers seems to me far from being the only valid way of proceeding.

One can also collaborate with others in the task of assembling and animating the bare-bones words on the page or blackboard, or which is more common, trying to get more substance and order into one’s own initial impressions of a work by seeing what others say about it.

And the making of value judgments can have a heuristic function.


When I myself say, with pseudo-arrogance, that such-and-such a poem is simply the best in a group, I mean, usually, that it is what holds up best for me out of the group and gives promise of continuing to do so.

But I'm not just reporting on my feelings, which of course are unarguable, as in an exchange like "'I love chocolate.' 'No, I don't.'"

I mean, rather, that if pressed I could, I feel, point to particular features of the work itself, or at least come to perceive them under the pressure of discussion, that would help explain why, for me, that work does stand up best.

But I'm also aware that my mind may change with the passing of time, and that in the course of a discussion I may come to see weaknesses in my own favorite, and/or strengths in someone else’s, that I had overlooked.


In what used to be a well-known paradigm, F.R. Leavis said that responsible discussions of literary texts implicitly have the form of, "'This is so, isn't it?' 'Yes, but...'" It’s the "Isn't it?" and the "but" that really matter here.

No doubt the answer could also be, "Yes, of course," or, "No, certainly not.'"

One of the things that I like about Leavis and Winters is that they demonstrate in their own judgings that responsible disagreements with received opinions, including ones that "everyone" knows to be true, are always possible, and that no-one else can do one’s judging for one.

Personally I've found that liberating. Certainly I've never felt that I myself was ever bullied or conned into an opinion that I didn't really want to hold.

But of course if I were to come across Winters dismissing "The Song of Wandering Aengus" out of hand and calling "The Moods" the best poem in Yeats’ The Wind among the Reeds, I would have to do some more thinking about the matter.


Personally I find critics like Leavis and Winters less dominative and authoritarian than I do the ostensibly permissive Fish.

By reducing the academic-critical life to self-advancement within prestige systems whose tacit rules the quick-minded figure out to their advantage, Fish seems to me to impoverish academic discourse. It dwindles to rhetoric in the service of power.

And it makes challenging power harder. The more powerful are licensed (a) not to attend seriously to the arguments of the less powerful about specific poems, novels, plays, etc and (b) not to work intensively at firming up their own arguments with respect to those texts.


Moreover, it removes those texts themselves as voices in the dialogue.

The plays of Shakespeare have been of inestimable value to individuals across four centuries who have questioned the nature of authority in their own societies.

But in a postulated world of discourse in which the only real (which is to say power-charged and change-effecting) texts are those of the currently arguing academics, the discourse of Shakespeare as itself an arguing is written out of the loop.


The privileging here of secondary over primary texts is of course a reversal of the older and basically Romantic view of things in which "creative" writers, especially "geniuses", were assumed to be (like Wordsworth in that sonnet) conduits through which The Truth benignly flowed.

But trading one falsification for another seems to me, as I may have said before, like saying, "We used to believe that the moon was made of cheese. Now we know it’s made of styrofoam."

Which bring me back to discourse and evaluation.


Whether we find it easy or not, evaluation is inescapably a part of literary studies and related activities.

Whether one is editing a magazine or anthology, or being a judge in a poetry competition, or compiling a syllabus for a class, or putting together a Ph.D. reading list, or deciding what texts to teach in a class, or praising poets or poems to friends, one is willy-nilly engaged in deciding that for certain purposes some things are better than others.

And unless one simply wants to be a carbon copy, one can't just say that this or that work has to be on a list because it has always been there. It probably hasn't always been there. What we refer to as canons (there is no such thing as the canon), have always been in process of change.

The point is that unless someone is willing to take a risk and say that, in her/his considered opinion such-and-such a poem/poem is not as good as has generally been thought, and that another is a good deal better than has been thought, principled change would not be possible.


But of course evaluation is not something defined and orderly, like fumigation or pruning. It is a variety of activities.

At times, the members of some prize-giving committee may indeed be looking for roughly the same kinds of things when reading submissions--the degree of originality, the displayed command of whatever set of conventions the writer has chosen to adopt (the tacit "rules" of the chosen game, as it were).

But in practice, in discourse inside the academy, people rarely, if ever, say to each other, "All right, now let’s evaluate the poem. Get out your check lists."

And it occurs to me that the way in which most people normally turn immediately to some particular when asked to support a large gesture of praise or dispraise is methodologically sound.


To defend a conversational claim that Hamlet is Shakespeare’s masterpiece by saying "I mean, it is the play that best epitomizes the Renaissance perception of the inseparabilty of love and death in human sexual relationships" would (even if one were capable of such a move) invite a discussion that zoomed at cosmic speed away from the play itself into ever more rarified abstractions, including, no doubt, the concept of Tragedy and the nature of Western sexuality.

Whereas enthusing about the graveyard scene, which happens to be the one most vividly present to one at the time, can invite further anchorings in specific scenes and works, either because one’s interlocutor adduces some particular that he/she loves about that scene and wants to go further into the scene, or expresses dislike or puzzlement regarding that scene.

And to demand to know at the outset, debating-fashion, whether the presence of a great scene in a work guarantees that the work itself is great would seem to me another too-swift move into abstractions.


A good discussion, from my perspective, would be one in which both individuals felt at the end that they had learned something profitable about the work under discussion, and about other works.

And it occurs to me that were I myself to be teaching a class in seventeenth-century poetry and my students were so little acquainted with the styles and procedures of seventeenth-century verse that they assumed without question that the Fishy text belonged in that category, I would be asking myself what I had been doing wrong.

As might a medievalist whose students all assumed that an unidentified passage from Cymbeline was by Chaucer.


The purest and most natural "evaluative" discussions are usually those that occur when people are talking about some movie that they have seen together. If we all read lots and lots of poetry for pleasure, no doubt we might see the same kind of unanxious and non-games-playing purity there too.

I wonder what it would be like talking with Fish over coffee about a movie that you and he had recently seen.

It is possible the discussion would soon shift to being about Fish’s theories rather than about Pulp Fiction or (God forbid!) The Lion King.

On the other hand, Fish might do what you and I would do if we had strong feelings, and insist that his own view of the movie was the right one ("It’s great," "It’s despicable," whatever), and point to things in the movie that he had noticed and that he wanted you to recall.

In sum, he might behave as though he believed that what he had to say about the movie was not only interesting but true.

But perhaps Fish doesn't care for movies?



It seems to me me more and more likely (taking a tip from Mark Bruhn, as I recall) that some/most/all of those original students of Fish’s understood Fish’s (mis) information correctly as an As-If directive and acted accordingly, interpreting those words on the board as if they were a 17th century poem.

In the same fashion, I might tell graduate students in a class of mine, in straightfaced Borges-fashion, "Three paragraphs in Chapter VIII of The Great Gatsby were by Hemingway; identify them," or, "Jack [sitting across the room] is a Martian. At the end of this class meeting, present me with proof of this. You may not question him directly."

I would hope for, and no doubt get, some interesting displays of problem-solving.


Fish seems to me to confuse reading in the same way with arriving at the same results.

Three doctors, trained in the same way, subscribing to the same beliefs, and using the same methods, may disagree strongly about the nature of a patient’s distress and the appropriate way of dealing with it.

Orthodox Talmud scholars, I assume, have disagreed strongly with one another about a good many matters.

Chess-players abide by the same basic rules, but with very different results.

Indeed, I suspect that for there to be disagreements as distinct from divergences, there have to be shared assumptions.


If what Fish is trying to talk about with his notion of interpretive communities is identity of results, then his postulated communities are liable to become very small very fast where the arts are concerned.

Two or three persons (though I have doubts about the three), may indeed be or become very close to one another, and find the same things amusing, and be irritated by the same kinds of pretentiousness in art movies, and not have to explain to one another why they don't find Woody Allen funny.

But even then there are going to be plenty of matters about which they disagree strongly. In the long run, indeed in the short one, Fish’s interpretive communities are liable to come down to communities of one. At which point one has to start over again about the nature of a community.


It seems to me a sad commentary on the demoralized state of our profession that a swashbuckler like Fish should have gotten so far by working so small a handful of basic ploys, like the kind of would-be flesh-creeping village cynic (Gertrude Stein called Ezra Pound "a village explainer—interesting if you are a village; if not, not") who contends in the tavern against all comers, endlessly, that there is no such thing as free will, and no such thing as an unselfish action.


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