The Savage Parade

An Inquiry into Form and Meaning

D.M. Stewart

"J'ai seul la clef de cette parade sauvage."

In "The Borderline of Prose," (The New Statesman, May 19, 1917), T.S. Eliot is concerned with the "recrudescence" of the prose poem:

It is noticeable that poetry which looks like prose, and prose which sounds like poetry, are assured of a certain degree of odium and success. Why should this be so? I know that the difference between poetry and prose is a topic for school debating societies, but I am not aware that the debating societies have arrived at a solution. Do the present signs show that poetry and prose form a medium of infinite gradations, or is it that we are searching for new ways of expression? There are doubtless many empirical generalisations which one may draw from a study of existing poetry and prose, but after much reflection I conclude that the only absolute distinction to be drawn is that poetry is written in verse, and prose is written in prose; or, in other words, that there is prose rhythm and verse rhythm. And any other essential difference is still to seek. (158)

The debate in aesthetics and literary criticism—regarding the limits of interpretive validity, knowledge of a text, and authorial intention—continues, as most domains of theoretical inquiry do, without resolution. The debating societies are serious about what they do, and yet, as per Eliot, I must conclude that the sort of distinctions I am inclined to draw are ones I had in place before I became acquainted with the finer details of ontological problematizing that occurs in this neck of the woods. At the same time, I know that invitation to disappointment too well, having specialized in epistemological normativity and the epistemology of moral value, where these problems (the core from which the trends in literary criticism appear to derive) are more rigorously formulated: the common sense notion loses its innocence after so many theoretical contortions have been considered. In the case of aesthetic experience, where the rejection of common sense amounts to a deflation of aesthetic value, I am not open to that outcome.

Thus, I admit I am less bothered with the upshot of the theory of semantic autonomy for the project of objectively valid interpretation than for the current aesthetic climate, which provides the scaffolding for the dynamic creation of literary works.

Here I make a brief inquiry into how the theoretical debate between stringent normativity such as that of E.D. Hirsch and a chaotic pluralism of readings impacts the cultural setting in which the author lives and works. We make a shift from established literary works (the canon) to the works that are being, and are to be, written.

How insular from theory can the artist remain in these times?

The debates I have mentioned center on the issue of finding the optimal principle for literary interpretation. Authorial intention is invoked by E.D. Hirsch as the principle that grounds the normative practice of literary interpretation, that yields the most effective hermeneutic results, and typically, the objections to this invocation react to such views of intentions as private mental events that might not survive Wittgensteinian practice and other epistemic worries (for a full listing, see Ch. 1 of Hirsch's Validity in Interpretation). As elsewhere in philosophical analysis, one gets into trouble with robust identity statements, and so the idea that the meaning of a text is equivalent to the author's intended meaning has its share of objections to contend with; what concerns me is that the lack of theoretical synthesis over the idea of authorial intention cannot bode well for the insularity of the artist, e.g., the author's privilege to remain separate from the theoretical sphere whilst creating, to engage only in what I term primary accountability.

Primary accountability, the author's accountability to himself and his work, minimally consists of (1) authorial intention and what Eliot states as (2) the inevitability of form (which is what is at fault, according to Eliot, with Richard Aldington's prose poems), though one might argue these reduce to the same property:

And so one finds oneself constantly trying to read the prose poem as prose or as verse—and failing in both attempts. And then one goes on to imagine how it would have been done in verse or in prose—which is what a writer ought never to allow us to do. He should never let us question for a moment that his form is the inevitable form for his content. This inevitableness is the important thing. (158, emphasis mine)

Secondary accountability, then, is to do with the ideal supplementation to the process of primary accountability for the transmission of literary meaning. While this is connected to the achievement of validity in literary interpretation, it could be given a different spin, as a project less characterized by the tenacity of normative disagreement and how it ought to be settled and closer to Gadamer's model of hermeneutics (I leave this open for the moment). By referring to the author, the reader, and the critic, an equilibrium rooted in primary accountability is negotiated within a hierarchy (with AUTHOR at the top): Author, Reader, Critic (or ARC for short). The purpose of the ARC as normative process is to support primary accountability.

The point of this is certainly not to settle the concern of literary objectivity vs. subjectivity, which as I have said is a theoretical minefield, derivative of more rigorous branches of philosophical analysis, but simply demonstrates how we are supposed to retain the author as the focal point in the scheme of things. It strikes me that a more attractive theoretical model could be built along the following guidelines:

  • a hybrid hermeneutics (at times a hermeneutics of recovery, or reconstruction of the circumstances of primary accountability, at other times, a hermeneutics of suspicion that clarifies the unexamined assumptions of the text, providing that the interpretation does not become entirely symptomatic, evaluating the text as a symptom of the non-textual)
  • a rejection of mimesis and referentiality without sacrificing authorial intent (despite that they are assumed mutually exclusive)
  • an enriched understanding of meaning that combines (reconciles) a moderate normativity of interpretation with Gadamer's concept of inexhaustibility

A tall order, especially the final requirement, as it is typically understood that for a full-bodied normativity of interpretation one requires a determinate, fixed notion of meaning. Nevertheless, there should be a way to work out how the text can represent an inexhaustible array of meanings corresponding to different actual and potential interpretations, with the aim of attuning them to the nature of the author's primary accountability. The inexhaustibility of an artwork, of a work of literature, is crucial in that it defines our ability to return to it and discover further properties; meaning taunts us, for a changeless state could not account for the actual process of aesthetic perception, the nature of how we experience an artwork, which leads to interpretation and aesthetic knowledge. I take it that a normative model that ignores the nature of how aesthetic perception works, and why we value our literature as we do, is a less than effective model.

This is not my project. For all I know, Hirsch's model is sufficiently robust to cover these concerns, but from what I have read in Validity in Interpretation, I do not think that his model will resolve it neatly. Various language-as-text models are also inadequate because they fail to respect primary accountability by having such minimal constraints on secondary accountability. Again, not my problem. If someone wants to take a final authoritative stab at how to maintain "normativity in cases of low-resistance texts" [1] and "inclusivity/equilibrium in cases of high-resistance texts", he can go ahead and have a ball. My idea is that, essentially, there is good cause to develop a modified form of intentionalism. We can acknowledge that intention, language game, and meaning are intertwined, that there is no text independent of the human mind, and that the connection between the act of intending and the thing intended is as Wittgenstein said; we can avoid the objectivist trap of separating the author from the work (if that is presumed a side-effect of highly objectivist forms of intentionalism), and still maintain a moderate notion of authorial intention, without which the following problems will arise (read on, dear reader).

The Rimbaud Problem

My case in point: Rimbaud's Illuminations. The nature of difficult, hermetic texts indicates that no single interpretation can exhaust the rich system of meaning potentialities represented by the text. What are we supposed to do about that? A situation in which original, privately imagined meaning is perhaps the only meaning? If the author alone has the key to this savage parade, then what is the purpose of secondary accountability altogether? What if the intended meaning of a work is to subvert the desire for accessible meaning?

Well, it is altogether too tidy a solution to treat Rimbaud's hermetic, impenetrable Illuminations as affirmation of the impossibility to identify and comprehend literary meaning. But it is rather alluring proof of the complexity of primary accountability, of the invisible fulcrum of authorial intention. For nowhere does the author's declaration of his presence appear more insatiable and sphinxian than in a "piece of language" this formidable to interpretation. And so if we dispense with the author as specifier of meaning by asserting that textual meaning is autonomously determined, we hit an interpretive brick wall. If the text doesn't speak, then who does? The target of interpretation is a clear understanding of meaning. Assuming that we agree on the target of the ARC (validity, objectivity, profundity, etc.), it is uncontroversially the case that the author can do what he wants with that relationship; he may be amenable to it, taking a traditional view of form, or he can take his signifiers and distort them, having his signifiers correspond to incongruous, nonsensical signifieds to which he thinks they are best suited. This is evidence of the author's primary role in the ARC. The author has control over the inevitability of form, or as Eliot states, the form in which the work has come to the author: the author is making the decisions and setting the tone for what is to be done with meaning. This is true irrespective of the author's capacity to explain how the decisions were made.

According to Eliot, Rimbaud's Illuminations has the following notable qualities (my own terminology enclosed in parentheses):

  • effect by instant, simple impression (unity)
  • unity achieved through apparent incongruity of images (complexity)
  • no hesitation between media (the imperative of form)

This is quite an idea, that form is compelled of its own internal necessity, with author as both determiner and vessel. We have to fill in the blanks: this kind of decision is not possible without an enriched conception of the author, which allows a suggestion of the metaphysical, not to be conflated with the purely abstract (about which nothing can be known). Let us look specifically at what Eliot says: "They find their proper expression in prose because they seem to have come to their author already clothed in that form; just as Dante's account of the Aristotelian soul is right in verse, because it seems to have come to the author in that form" (158, emphasis mine). And so we have this all wrapped up in a package for us: the metaphysical opacity of intention becomes vividly embodied in form, allowing form to be related, finally, to meaning, with the author as the indispensable decision-maker of form, providing the basis for actual and potential meaning. It is commonsensical to restrict the validity of interpretation based on the very source of meaning qua form. Without authorial intention in place, Eliot's argument is senseless. Yet his observation cannot be rejected as senseless, even if it does not resonate with all authors. By making reference to how a work comes to the author, and attending to the nature of how a literary work is made, we will have a greater likelihood of designing the appropriate model for secondary accountability, or a more grounded understanding of form and meaning.

There is a corollary to this, and it makes me wonder how exactly to think of experimentation in our literary times. I have stated that, regardless of which of the models comes out as victor (normative model vs. language-as-text model), the critic has not understood his role within the ARC. If the critic thinks he can arrive at the correct meaning by coming to know—fully—the author's intended meaning, then in a sense he has done a better job than the author himself. The oscillation between the extremes of overblown objectivist interpretation and non-committal, fraudulently democratic knowledge is undesirable. It could result, in conjunction with other contemporary cultural and aesthetic trends, in a kind of paralysis, such that there will not be much by way of buffer between the production of literary works and their interpretation. In other words, a paralysis of secondary accountability that leads to a widespread (yet non-uniform) theoretical reductivism will favor (theoretically, economically, politically) works that decode more rapidly along those reductivist lines. And so there is a break-down in the impetus for literary experimentalism. Actually, it nullifies it.

I wonder: is this very bad? Because it looks to be: experimentation is, as it were, the healthy choice for the author, who must come to know his boundaries of form, in order to arrive at the inner necessity or inevitability of form as discussed per Eliot. This is not to say that an author's intention is to be experimental with form. Because I don't think that's true. It is certainly untrue of dedicated/formal/mature experimentalists, who do not decide to be experimental. Authors need to experiment, to lose themselves in the gaps of their creative process, and resurface with new knowledge. The most compelling authors, those in greatest command of their aesthetic powers, need to deny what they are up to as they create, and primary accountability must be dispensed at a tolerable rate, as it is partly a poison.

The homogenization of authorial techniques and the collapse of substantive literary experimentation follow, in part, from a decrease in the quality and methodological certainty of the ARC. Secondary accountability, with all its conflicting targets of interpretation, works its way back to have an influence on the author's primary accountability. This is more vital than the mere issue of authorial desacralization. When the platforms for theory begin to dictate the space in which authorial expression happens, there is a serious problem.

A Quick Detour: Language Poets

How do we show that the commitment to a viable normative ideal (such as the author's intended meaning), as governing the interpretation of texts, matters to the holistic state of literary production? An entire history of the avant-garde would be in order; let us be content to briefly discuss the more recent phenomenon of the Language Poets.

On the surface, it would appear that, in light of the Language Poets, who combat the tyranny of normative syntax, there hasn't been a break-down in the impetus for literary experimentalism—it is alive and well. Michel Delville states that "the question of whether the emphasis of Language poetry on writing as "impersonal" (or collective) process, rather than on a personal assertion of one's power as an individual to twist it to one's use, actually supports or subverts the strategies of self-legitimation of late capitalist society (including, for instance, the obliteration of Silliman's "gestural") remains an open but highly crucial one (227).

I add that it is open to question whether the Language Poets, with all their lust for syntactic disruption and formal indeterminacy, constitute the locus for the most integral, exciting and aesthetically valuable strategies of substantive literary experimentation. Marjorie Perloff writes:

Even the jagged free verse (or "new sentence" in the case of much Language-centered prose), designed to obstruct the very possibility of pattern or ordering principle, underscores the primacy of the poet's invention as constructive principle. (9)

Discussing the Language Poets' handling of the ontological gap between signifier and signified, Delville explains that:

In theory, the methodological foundations of the Language poetry movement, far from declaring poetry bankrupt, should logically result in an enlargement of the social, thematic, and, more generally, epistemological scope of poetry. This is, at any rate, what Marjorie Perloff is implying when she describes Language poetry as a counterhegemonic practice capable of accommodating a variety of extraliterary discourses. (236)

I have just said that there is a problem when the platforms for theory begin to dictate the space in which authorial expression happens. On the other hand, there is the problem of the authors themselves. Have we reached a consensus on the state of the avant-garde: swindle or recovery? Not at all. We have terrible difficulty deciding what is poised between symptom and critique, between erosion and experimentation, between self-proclaimed and genuine radicalism with respect to the possibilities of meaning in literary production. We all know this is what needs to be thought about. What is the author, the poet, to do? Can he stop thinking about it, or can someone show me the one who is lucky enough not to have started and great enough to know precisely how not to start? As authors ranging from the traditional to the experimental, our aesthetic solution to the problem of the tyranny of the signified has to have literary integrity, the axioms of which are arguably less immediate than ever. Personally, I know enough to say that this is the first and last time I will write (as critic) on the subject.

Barthes was too optimistic: the author is drowning.

Hybrid Models

Without the concept of the author, we can still make sense of achievements originating in the aesthetic vectors at work upon the author's imagination, but as a literary community we lose a sense of the crucial features of imaginative sustenance. Texts have to be difficult. Authors have to be. It all has to be. I mean this procedurally, but here is a quote of validation from Geoffrey Hill with a political twist:

I think art has a right—not an obligation—to be difficult if it wishes. And, since people generally go on from this to talk about elitism versus democracy, I would add that genuinely difficult art is truly democratic. And that tyranny requires simplification. This thought does not originate with me, it's been far better expressed by others. I think immediately of the German classicist and Kierkegaardian scholar Theodor Haecker, who went into what was called "inner exile" in the Nazi period, and kept a very fine notebook throughout that period, which miraculously survived, though his house was destroyed by Allied bombing. Haecker argues, with specific reference to the Nazis, that one of the things the tyrant most cunningly engineers is the gross oversimplification of language, because propaganda requires that the minds of the collective respond primitively to slogans of incitement. And any complexity of language, any ambiguity, any ambivalence implies intelligence. Maybe an intelligence under threat, maybe an intelligence that is afraid of consequences, but nonetheless an intelligence working in qualifications and revelations . . . resisting, therefore, tyrannical simplification. (Paris Review, The Art of Poetry No. 80)

Not all simplification is tyrannical, of course; nevertheless, in the aesthetic realm complexity (ambiguity being one crucial aspect of complexity) needs to be protected and understood. I think that Hirsch is wrong about one thing especially: authorial intention is not always public, shared, and reproducible. Often it is not. There are many examples available to contradict the Hirschean thesis; I have chosen just one. Literary works are located along a spectrum of difficulty and intelligibility, which implies a core of private indecipherable meaning in the case of high-resistance texts. In parallel, the more resistant to interpretation, the more likely the text is to trigger repeat readings by the reader and/or critic (Gadamer's inexhaustibility), as the richness of the work lies partly in the prompting of multiple aesthetic experiences, similar to the act of returning, again and again, to a great painting.

(This is not to say that a low-value high-resistance text cannot be out-performed by a high-value low-resistance text. Value and resistance to interpretation should not be conflated.)

We want to keep (i) the general treatment of a literary work as an object with knowable meanings, which comes with the tradition of objectivist/intentionalist thinking (careful: my point is that intentionalism can come in degrees of objectivism; that "knowable meanings" will in some cases be compressed by the author to challenge the act of interpretation) and (ii) avoid the backlash of a radical subjectivism, while maintaining the platitude that rich literary works are infinitely discoverable.

I am aware that there are some hybrid attempts out there by Roger Scruton and Alexander Nehamas (Scruton I admire), but I don't think anyone has really sorted this mess out. I strongly suggest that as they, or anyone else, attempt to sort it out, they do so pragmatically, with a straightforward emphasis on bringing things round to the author. And I'll say generally (this isn't to do with Scruton's model) that there has been much too much confusion over which is to be the irreducible entity: the author, or the triadic relation with objects and interpretants in reference to language games (or grounds). Stipulate it pragmatically. It's the author. Ontologizing in the aesthetic realm is dead boring, anyway.

In short, these works don't come from nowhere, and with Ben Mazer and Philip Nikolayev of Battersea[2] I unreservedly agree, that it is time to hand things back to the author, who is not a Saussurean creature, who very much operates from a sense of the inevitability of his language, and who requires a unified pattern of external sustenance, a steadfast readership embedded in a theoretical sphere that does not disturb these values. It should be fairly basic to separate the contingencies of the author from the inevitability of his language (think Eliot). Once we make the separation, we have not decided between an intentionalist model and a textualist model—both models can achieve this—and so what forces us to make a compromise between the two models, to adjust things from both sides, is the Rimbaud Problem.

Poor thesis: Authorial intention is never irrelevant.

Better thesis: Enumerates all of the conceivable contexts in which authorial intention is relevant, and shows how, acknowledging the possible meanings of texts as constrained by authorial intention.

Best thesis: Builds on the better thesis and tops it by allowing the paradox of authorial privilege ("J'ai seul la clef de cette parade sauvage") and finding that elusive point of equilibrium on the spectrum of minimal-link-to-possible-authorial-intentions to actual, epistemically, historically determinable intentions, thus preserving the concept of authorial intention to the extent that unsuitably anachronistic interpretations are eliminated (normativity does well with that) and high-resistance texts are respected (you need authorial intention + a degree of textualist openness for that). This thesis, which is clearly not an a priori model of authorial intention, doesn't hedge on the issue of putative meanings or felt intentions, engaging with a postulated author; rather, it can take on what is real and present in the work[3].

Two quick points, then: First, that act of balance with regards to high-resistance texts implies that indeterminacy of meaning and preserved authorial intention are meant to be achieved simultaneously by the optimal model (Hirsch argues that the two concepts come apart, and that is an understandable expectation to have until you encounter more difficult texts). Second, merely preserving the historically determinable sense of authorial intention supports the practice of criticism, but if we really want to make the distinction between primary and secondary accountability clear, we have to go all the way and admit the metaphysically opaque construal of authorial intention as well.

Otherwise it is just the critic's version of authorial intention that matters.

Furthermore, I am glad not to have spent more than 72 hours of my life considering post-structuralism, so glad, in fact, I delegate: I would love to see some postgraduate student address the issue of how the act of intention in the realm of aesthetic creativity is to be defined in relation to an ordinary act of (non-creative) intention. Then plug those results back into the model. Providing that this strategy isn't used to re-open epistemic wounds and combats the need for the application of familiar analytic debunking methods[4], it should be a helpful gesture—and a nice PhD thesis for someone (who knows, perhaps it has been written already).


Critical emphasis should be shifted to the author at center, as art is not made in a skeptical domain and the entire process of literary production at this moment is being undermined by a paralysis of secondary accountability. I am unconvinced that this pluralism of quasi-theoretical frameworks and proliferation of technology, this hotbed of distraction and dissociation, are doing the state of literary production much good. We should care about criticism losing its status as a cognitive discipline insofar as it impacts primary accountability. I don't think criticism much matters in itself. It does, however, feed back into the aesthetic climate, a concern for living, working, breathing authors: a metaphysical and epistemic critique of authorial intention may not prevent normative literary criticism from occurring in dusty offices, or entirely shut down meaningful literary experimentalism, yet it has none of the rigor of nihilism evident in other realms of philosophical analysis and all the costliness of a skepticism applied to that which we should be least skeptical about: the art and experience of language through literature.

We should be evolving norms for construing the meaning of the text that are hermeneutically beneficial[5] to literary production as a whole: the rationale for a systematic investigation into and restoration of the concept of authorial intention is not to cling to an unreflective objectivism rooted in logical positivism, or to revive the importance of criticism, but to support the living work of the author.



May 28, 2013


  1. Of course, a fully normative model will insist on normativity for all texts, regardless of degrees of resistance to interpretation. But I should think the objections to that are well-mapped out: I argue that, at the very least, this kind of normativity does not take into account the nature of the act of aesthetic perception (see Rimbaud Problem). I am not an expert on Hirschian hermeneutics; in this essay I do not evaluate his solution to this objection.   // back
  2. Please see Battersea Review No. 2: Ben Mazer, "Authority and the Nature of Poetry", and Philip Nikolayev, "The Irreducible Author".   // back
  3. As for what is "real" in a work, Denis Dutton has a good point about the difference between fictive/implied irony and real irony in the article, "Why Intentionalism Won't Go Away", which is well worth reading. He also makes a very nice point about stretching the limits of interpretive charity, as a rebuttal to Laurent Stern's discrediting of the notion that ironic works decisively support the appeal to authorial intention. I happen to agree that ironic works aren't decisive as an appeal to authorial intention, but not for Sternian reasons, which do not effectively add up to a full-proof anti-intentionalism.
         When assessing a literary text, the reader/critic is methodologically uncovering authorial intent; however, to refute the notion that the text always speaks with greater authority than speculations about the author's purposes, one must argue exactly how there is a presupposed understanding between author and reader that is excluded from the text. It should be possible to establish this. As Dutton states, "For once a categorical framework for understanding has been established (using intentionalist criteria), it might be argued that only then can criticism be undertaken (using non-intentionalist criteria)". I think this is correct. There just needs to be more said about why and how this is the case. Dutton's thought experiment about the Hopi anthropologist is roughly the same as my point about high-resistance texts, though he goes on to discuss irony and audience bifurcation, and I discuss the technique of exclusion achieved by the hermeticity of texts, in which the declaration of the author's presence is more absolute, not confined to any single literary technique.   // back
  4. I have always been at home with the methods of analytic philosophy, to such an extent that I have arrived at a conceptually problematic place: of having to radically separate aesthetic value from other forms of value (ethical and religious), as I am committed to debunking ethical value and maintaining a robust aesthetic faith. This difficulty has been with me for quite awhile. It amounts, I think, to conflicting arguments regarding intuition.
         With regards to aesthetic intuition, what is the deconstructionist after, anyway? What is gained? That there is a mystery to be respected and nothing to be known are two claims that couldn't possibly be more opposed, no?   // back
  5. One could vouch for a kind of theoretical indifference, arguing that there is no telling in advance which of the norms will provide the optimal scaffolding for literary production. This shouldn't be too much of a problem. We have history as a guide, the response of living authors, and our intuitions, as a map to the holistic flourishing of literary productivity. One of those intuitions, I have suggested, is that we ought not see the impact of difficult texts (Rimbaud's Illuminations, experimental forms, high-resistance texts) dulled by the prevailing hermeneutic norms. It is my observation that this is what is happening right now. So clearly the scaffolding is not doing its job very well. The hard problem is how to isolate the interpretive values that best support the separation of high-value high-resistance texts from low-value high-resistance texts. The commodity fetish (think Ron Silliman) will not really be cured until the hard problem is addressed in a unified aesthetic movement, preferably supported by a non-hostile critical movement, though perhaps it will need to happen without the official blessing of the critics.   // back


  • Michel Delville, The American Prose Poem: Poetic Form and the Boundaries of Genre. University Press of Florida, 1998.
  • T.S. Eliot, "Borderline of Prose", The New Statesman. May 19, 1917.
  • E.D. Hirsch, Validity in Interpretation. Yale University Press, 1967.
  • Marjorie Perloff, Unoriginal Genius: Poetry by Other Means in the New Century. The University of Chicago Press, 2010.
  • John K. Sheriff, The Fate of Meaning: Charles Peirce, Structuralism, and Literature. Princeton University Press, 1989.

D.M. STEWART lives and works in New York City.