Criticism: Erotic or Martial Arrow to Heart of Literary Work?
Eli Park Sorensen -- assistant professor at SNU's College of Liberal Studies and a specialist in comparative literature, postcolonial thought, and cultural studies -- has published another interesting article, "Complex art of interpreting literature," in the Korea Herald (April 25, 2013), from which I excerpt the following on literary ambiguity and critical clarity:
Writers . . . have always had a troubled relationship with their critics; a love-hate relationship that often involves hostility, sycophancy or mischief. But writers and critics need each other. Criticism without a literary work seems like a contradiction in terms; a literary work without criticism is typically a sign of insignificance, failure. Writers may loathe the criticism of their works, while critics may loathe the literary works. Without the existence of both, however, it would be hard to recognize the texts as -- respectively -- literary works or critical pieces.I'm curious about Sorensen's remark that "Without the existence of both [literature and criticism], however, it would be hard to recognize the texts as -- respectively -- literary works or critical pieces." Does he mean that without criticism, literature would not be recognizable? This seems unlikely, since we'd still recognize stories as stories and read them even if there were no criticism -- and most people do read them without reading criticism -- so he may mean that we wouldn't truly understand them as literary works. By that, I mean that we'd miss their ambiguity. This point of ambiguity is clearly what Sorensen is getting at in his first question above: "But why do we adhere to the notion that a literary work needs commentary and interpretation -- that it cannot be read independently, unaccompanied by criticism?" His answer, "that literary works are never quite what they initially appear to be," implies a literary work's "ambiguity."
But why do we adhere to the notion that a literary work needs commentary and interpretation -- that it cannot be read independently, unaccompanied by criticism? And why is it that we rarely, if ever, read criticism -- a comment on another text -- as a literary work? . . . The simple answer is that literary works are never quite what they initially appear to be. Interpreting a literary work thus involves more than merely understanding what the text literally attempts to do or say. The literary work invites criticism and interpretation. As a critic, one accepts this invitation to engage with the literary work's otherness, its ambiguity. The literary work's ambiguity haunts us, like a ghost whose presence we desperately attempt to capture and strap down, once and for all.
But what about his second question: "[W]hy is it that we rarely, if ever, read criticism -- a comment on another text -- as a literary work?" I don't find a clearly explicit answer in Sorensen's article, but I think that I know the answer. Aside from the fact -- a significant one -- that we read many literary works simply for the stories that they tell, we also read stories as literary works to appreciate their ambiguity. A great literary work may have multiple levels of meaning, and we read for those meanings. Criticism generally tries to clarify precisely what those meanings are, but to do so, the criticism itself must remain as unambiguous as possible, and this explains why we do not "read criticism . . . as a literary work."
Or rarely do. Perhaps Mary Ruefle's "writing on writing" -- of which she says, nevertheless, that "writing is writing" -- is one of those rare examples of criticism as literary work, by which I refer to her Madness, Rack, and Honey (page VII).
And on a different sort of textual ambiguity, see my post of two months ago on Professor Lee Jae-min and textual interpretation in law, where the point -- unlike the literary critic's judgment in clarifying the fact of ambiguity -- is the legal theorist's judgment in clearing away ambiguity itself . . .