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TSE  February 2010

TSE February 2010

Subject:

Re: Literalism and Its Discontents, was 'Gerontion'

From:

Carrol Cox <[log in to unmask]>

Reply-To:

T. S. Eliot Discussion forum.

Date:

Tue, 23 Feb 2010 12:52:06 -0600

Content-Type:

text/plain

Parts/Attachments:

Parts/Attachments

text/plain (205 lines)

That is a very profound and searching critqiue: the non-literal is
different from the literal, but to ask what the literal is is "silly."
You were wandering on abut Derrida some time ago but apparently you were
just spoofing us. I is precisely the difficulties of the _literal_
(which exists only in quoted texts) that was the point of departure for
that "radi al uncertainy" you bloviated on. Now the very first time that
someone seriously approaches a text in that "postmodern" fashion,
recognizing the radical uncertainty of the text (as contrasted to the
metaphysics of presence in oridnary speech) you retreat the most naive
and silly of all the complaints abut "postmodernism" -- it's SILLY.

A text (written rather than spontaneously spoken) is _encoded_ and has
to be decoded by the reader. (See any of the studies in semiotics
published in the lat 60 years and you will find that matter discussed at
some length.) Literal cannot mean anything else that what is _thee_ on
the page, and what is on the page is a cdoe which is meaningless until
painfully decoded. That this process is not automatic is shown, for
example, by the phenomenon of dyslexia. Most dyslexics have a good 
comand of English; they can follow complex oral staatements and they can
formulate complex arguments in flexible and precise Enlish, but they
cannot decode those inscrutable marks on the page. You recently yourself
sufferered from a tmporary attack of dyslexia when you consturd _tion_
as _ing_, and have been digging a deeper and deeper hole for yurself as
you stubbornly try to defend this error in decoding the literal.

(Incidentally, the radical uncertainty that Derrida focuses on has
nothing whatever to do with quantum mechanics, which is why the phrase
is in scare quotes above. That uncertanty was one of the discoveries of
modernism, not postmodernism. And of course the really serious
uncertainty is the subect of the opening line of the oldest complete
document we possess, neither modern nor postmodern, the Iliad which is
all about what are sometimes now called "unintended consequences," i.e.
the toatl inability of humans then and now to know what _all_ the
consequences of any act will be, however simple that act.)

"Gerontion" on the page has no meaning whatever -- literally it is
unintelligible, and in gaily disregarding that and pursuing the
figurative meanings of a non-existen literal meaning you show yourself
utterly blind to all the tough issues of the hermeneutic circel.

So let's rehearse. You cannot begin to speculate on the non-literal
meaning of a word until you have (at least provisonally) construed the
inconstruable, the word's _literal_ 'meaning,' that is, until you have
somehow decoded thos strange marks on the page. For example, I'm a bit
confused aboaut the lemon juice your refer to in the first line of your
post. It makes little s ense to say that the literal was not lemon
juice. Perhaps another example hypothetically contrasting the quoted
from the unquoted will help here. (You have to remember that Derrida
analyzed _some_ spoken language as "written," that is, as text.

Suppose you were to hear someone in an auditroum or perhaps off to one
side in a park singing one of the old Civil-Rights/Union songs -- say
the one with the puzzling lines (when quoted in a text) "Like a tree
that's standing by the river / We shall not be moved." It's really a
pretty dumb song WHEN QUOTED, AS TEXT -- quoted either on the page or by
the group singing it in the park. It not only is pretty banal and
unintesting but it is nearly uninntelligible. To make sense of it we are
thrown back in the hermeneutic circle of understanding the part before
we understand it so we can understand the whole so then we can
understand the part which we understood before without understanding it.
But now let's (in our imagination) move to a location/time when the
words were not quoted (even though they were not new but merely recited
an older song they were still not text, not quoted) but were mouthed in
the fac3 of the fire hoses and the police clubs and dogs by those who
were, albeit stubbornly, moving, being moved, but continuing to sing "we
shal not be moved," like a tree. Now the words are NEITHER litral nor
metaphorical. There is nothing to construe, no 'literal' and
'non-literal" "meanings" to link together someohow, but an idividble
unity of people, firehoses, police dogs, clubs, excited radio reporters,
photogrpahers, water running down the gutters, bleeding foreheads. . .
No text. Nothing quoted.
Andthereareincidentalllynospacesbetweentheordsforspacesexistonlyintextnotinspeech.
I guess you may not have realized that spaces were a code and like any
code meaningless until the code is broken as it were. 

The genre of the word "Gerontion" is a title, and titles are empty
until                                    completed by the text of which
ther are the title. (What is the 'literal' meaning of "his" in the
title, "To His Coy Mistress"?) What is the literal meaning of "Paradise
Regained" when the story ends with the hero merely returning unobserved
to his mother's house. I inquired some weeks ago if anyone cudl link the
varus pasages in 4Q to the instruments in a qurtet. Is it a violin,
viola, or cello that sounds in theopening lines of Burnt Norton or is it
some combination of two or all three of the instruments? No one
responded: that is, none of us kows the literal meaning of the title
under which the four poems were pbulished. And I've slipped into your
vocabulary here, for obviously the printed marks (nine of them
altogether including the spaces on both sides) don't refer to any
instruments but to the quoted word "quartet." I believe Northrop Frye
called this level, the level in which we have departed from the literal
and are focusing on the sign theliteral refers to, as the historical
level. So none of us is very sure abut eithr the literal or the
historical meaning of this title, and probably before we start talking
about the symbolic meaning of the phrase we should be a bit more certain
aboaut those 'lower' levels.

I would suppose the historical meaning of "Gerontion" (looking back on
it from a prelinary 'reading' of the rest of the pome) has to be a
person rather than some unkown speaker Geronting whatever that might be.
The text retains its radical undecidability but at least we have a
provisonal basis for talking about it with each other. If we start with
neither the literal nor the historical meaning and plunge into some
alleged symbolic meanign we are poor little sheep who have lost our way.
Nothing connects. And while it is true that we will never have more than
a provisional and uncertain understanding of the (historical and
symbolic) meanings of the whole, we really can't talk abut the
(historical) meaning of any one word, including the title) except by
referring back to that (provisioal and undecidable) symbolic meaning of
the whole. And unless we wish to launch into complete originality (which
Eliot notes would be hpelessly unitelligible), we need to start with
somethning fairly simple (unlie the quite unimple literal meaning and
the onl slightly less complex than the historical meaning) -- which wuld
seem to be an old frustrated man remembering his many failures to act.
That's pretty simple, and quite unsatisfactory as an end point of our
discussion, but it does enable discussion, which any attempt to move
from the literal to the symbolic of the title word in isoaltion
frustrates.

And of course this is what Nancy has been trying to hammer into closed
ears -- we need a place to start, and playing around with the
unintelligible literal meaning of the title by itself frustrates even
beginning to talk abut the poem.

And now you should answer Marcia's quetion: "The chair's leg.  A
metaphorical usage, don't you think?"

Again, a failure to grant the complexity of the literal and historical
meanings can frustrate discuusion. If we focus on the historical meaning
of "chair" by itself we cannot tell whether we are referring to an
article of furniture or the Vice President of the United States while he
ispresiding over the Senate. If that is the historical meaning here,
then, I guess, Marcia is wrong and "leg" is quite non-metaphorical. So
before we deicde the "literal" or "non-litereral" status of leg we do
need to decode "chair," which taken by itslef we could not do. (Note,
there is no problem in speech, with its metaphysics of presence: we are
all standing in a room togeher and oneof us points to the chair and
notes that the  chiar'sleg is scratched. No problem with the Vice
President here.) I'll stop here because I can't quite figure out even
the correct question to ask of "leg." But before say8ing it's all
simple, I really think you shouldanswer Marcia's question.

Carrolu

P.S. I advixe against anyone trying to show familarity with Derrida or
decosntruction on the basis of my remarks, since I haven't really done
the homework to cosntru "metaphysics of presence," "radical
undecidabilty," "qutation," and "text," which are all technical terms I
haven't myself fully mastered at all.


DIana Manister wrote:
> 

> Carrol,
> 
> Granted that "literal" was not le mot juste for what I was trying to
> say, but your explication is silly. Being literal does not mean
> focussing on the letters in a word. A literal meaning is simply
> different from a metaphorical or symbolic meaning.
> 
> Diana
> 
> Sent from my iPod
> 
> On Feb 22, 2010, at 7:15 PM, Carrol Cox <[log in to unmask]> wrote:
> 
> > Diana Manister wrote:
> >>
> >> Dear Nancy,
> >>
> >> I think it's counterproductive to be strictly literal about meanings
> >> in poetry.
> >
> > Probably not possible. And if one wants to try to be literal, the
> > place
> > to start is with "literal," which if understood literally means
> > focusingon the letters, their sounds, the progression of those sounds,
> > etc etc. It would be the equivalent of geting so close to Picaso's
> > Gurnica that all the lines and shapes disappeared and all one was
> > examing were the brush strokes. As soon as you go by that 'level,'
> > youcan no longer be literal, for words literally focused on are
> > literally unitelligible. Look at "strokes" above. Does it refer to
> > strokes of an oar, a medical condition, parts of love-making, parts
> > of a
> > lashing abut the fleet in the Royal Navy of the early 19th-c,
> > instances
> > (as in "strokes of luck"), a misprint for "sokes" as in "stoes the
> > fireplace") or for "spokes" (as in a wheel), and so forth. (These are
> > the kinds of difficulties, incidentally, that those who cry for a
> > "literal" interpretation of the Constituion purposely ignore, for to
> > take them into consideration is to show their hypocrisy.) To escape
> > the
> > trap of literalism means putting the letters, and thus the word, in
> > some
> > context, that is to identify the genre of the sentence, or larger
> > unit,
> > in which the word appears. (This is one version of what is called the
> > hermeneutic circle: one must understand the whole to understand the
> > parts but the whole can only be understood by understandin the
> > words. It
> > can be either a vicious or benevolent circle. And at that point it
> > really becomes complicated.)
> >
> > Carrol
> >

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