“Why does everything you know, and everything you’ve learned, confirm you in what you believed before? Whereas in my case, what I grew up with, and what I thought I believed, is chipped away a little and a little, a fragment then a piece and then a piece more. With every month that passes, the corners are knocked off the certainties of this world: and the next world too. Show me where it says, in the Bible, ‘Purgatory.’ Show me where it says ‘relics, monks, nuns.’ Show me where it says ‘Pope.’” –Thomas Cromwell imagines asking Thomas More—Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel
Wednesday, April 21, 2010
How you mean, "Wrong"?
Terry Eagleton, in his book Literary Theory, responds to the complaint that theories get in the way of reading, creating a barricade between the readers and the text, by pointing out the all readings are based on some theory, though it may perhaps be implicit.
But there are people out there who have never been trained to apply Freudian psychoanalysis to a text, or feminist theories, or poststructuralism, or new historicism. Granted, the number of readers who have only passing awareness of these theories but who nonetheless have the education and comprehension to appreciate great works of literature is somewhat smaller than the audience for Tom Clancy or Nicolas Sparks books. But I believe they're out there--primarily because, until recently I was one of them. (Though I had applied Freud's theories to stories before, I gladly fell out of the habit.)
I propose as a definition for a wrong theory of literature, or a wrong reading of a particular work, the following: the reading provided by a theory is wrong if no one not conversant with the theory would experience the work, at any level of consciousness, in the way spelled out by the critic suggesting that reading. And a literary theory is wrong if the readings it inspires are wrong.