The issue of interpreting works is always a complicated one; in any work, there can be varying interpretations and views of what the author means to say or what can be taken from it. Given the concept of ‘death of the author,’ the subjective views of the interpreter can often be said to be just as accurate as authorial intent. However, the views and theories of Fish, Eliot and Heidegger on the subject of literary interpretations should also be considered when determining the boundaries for what constitutes a legitimate interpretation of a written work.
Stanley Fish, in his essay “Interpreting the Variorum,” expresses a very clear perspective regarding disparate interpretations of works, as he does with the interpretations of the works of Milton over the years. According to Fish, on the subject of the interpretation of the word ‘spare’ in the last couplet of one of Milton’s poems, “Whatif for the question “what does ‘spare’ mean” we substitute the question “what does the fact that the meaning of ‘spare’ has always been an issue mean”? (Fish, p. 750). Instead of looking at the context of the word in the poem itself, Fish argues that one should discuss the reasoning behind this conflict of context in the first place.
Fish ask that, if “everyone is continually executing interpretive strategies and in that act constituting texts, intentions, speakers and authors, how can any one of us know whether one of us know whether or not he is a member of the same interpretive community?” (Fish, p. 750). With this in mind, the only real interpretive strength comes from the acceptance of that interpretation from someone else who interprets the poem the same way. With this gesture, consensus is reached, and the interpretation is supported. There can be no real evidence to support a claim, as it would also be interpretation itself; therefore the only barometer of accuracy can be from the rest of the interpretive community. In this respect, accuracy is reached through consensus; others have to accept one’s theory to lend it credence.
Eliot’s essay “Tradition and the Individual Talent” discusses the ways in which tradition is perceived, especially as it pertains to poetry. Eliot believes that the poem itself should come from a somewhat derivative sense of tradition and knowledge of the literary canon. A poet or artist should not shy away from tradition, as it provides an important framework by which the reader can extrapolate the information needed to interpret the poem themselves. At the same time, the author needs to distance themselves from their own sense of identity or message.
With this rejection of individual talent in Eliot’s works, one can extrapolate that to his concept of literary interpretation, which would thereby eliminate authorial intent as a marker for what the poem or work means. Since, in Eliot’s eyes, the author is meaningless to the work itself, the author should not be considered when interpreting it. Instead, the work’s relationship to tradition becomes an important set of criteria for interpreting the work – “Every nation, every race, has not only its own creative, but its own critical turn of mind” (Eliot, p. 951).
Eliot’s grasp of interpretation includes our compulsion to separate ourselves from the interpretations of others; “We know, or think we know, from the enormous mass of critical writing that has appeared in the French language the critical method of habit of the French; we only concludethat the French are “more critical” than we, and sometimes even plume ourselves a little with the fact, as if the French were the less spontaneous” (Eliot, p. 951). However, the only criteria that can be used for literary interpretation should be one’s own, instead of using the lens of another.
Heidegger places a great amount of importance on poetry as a creator and originator of language. He is also the creator of philosophical hermeneutics, a trend which deemphasizes interpretation itself in favor of a greater understanding of the existential nature of the work. Instead of knowing the world of the poem, Heidegger professed to exist in the world itself. Heidegger saw this as more authentic, as you are experiencing what the characters and the setting are and what they are saying to you instead of reviewing it from a distance. The author’s unique circumstances, by which they wrote the book, are revealed through the text, which Heidegger advocates studying through their language.
These three different authors have different theories on how to interpret literary text. Fish thinks that interpretation is evidence-less, and that accuracy can only be found within acceptance by other interpreters within the same community. Text and context are very important ideas to Heidegger, as opposed to Eliot’s view that the author should be removed from their intent or viewpoint. Eliot believes that the author is merely the vessel for transmission of the idea. Heidegger thinks the origin of the language used in the poem is the key to figuring out intent or interpretation, though he is more interested in existing within the world of the poem. These conflicting ideas offer equally interesting notions for literary interpretation.
The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism 2nd Ed. Ed. Vincent B. Leitch. New York: WW
Norton, 2010. Print.