230. (William Empson)

In the blog posts lately, I’ve discussed literature as happening when an author gets a condition of judgment inside of a judgment about what is possible, given the contingencies of human bodily existence. That descriptions looks outwards: a judgment of what is possible is historically dependent, will depend, that is, on what meanings and understanding are available to an author, among which, centrally, will be the meanings and understandings an author has about history (the past, present, and future) itself.


The notion that literature is concerned with the realm of the possible, rather than the actual, is at least as old as Aristotle (philosophy, incidentally, would be concerned with the conditions of what is possible on one Aristotelian account by Jonathan Lear). In appealing beyond a work, and recovering the horizons of understanding at the time of its creation, we are undertaking a fundamental task of the humanities; those horizons determine how the possible might have been conceived, and can help us understand the judgments of a work. Such a task has been undertaken, I’ve pointed out, by the greatest critics and scholars.

One of those critics, William Empson, whose work is persistently engaged with the possibilities of an author’s historical moment (see esp. his reading of Coleridge’s “Ancient Mariner”), offers another understanding of what it means for literature to be understood in terms of what is possible, rather than actual. Empson frequently tells us that he is attempting to riddle out the meanings that a reader responds to in a work of literature; more accurate, I think, would be if he admitted that he was modeling what it means to be a reader-of-literature, given its relation to the possible rather than the actual.

When students announce that a work of literature can be interpreted many ways, they are usually being fatuous or lazy or both; Empson insists time and time again that it is generally true that a work of literature gains in stature and power for being open to multiple interpretations, which he is able to tease out. To the skeptic of Empson, his method resembles pulling rabbits out of a hat; he perceives possibilities of meaning that other readers simply cannot see. For Empson’s admirers, even, the virtuosity can exhaust.

But on a modified version of the Aristotelian account, Empson is affirming what literature asks all readers to affirm: the possibilities suspended within a single works, whose resolution or irresolution is itself an aspect, as well as condition, of its judgment. To say that literature concerns itself with what is possible rather than what is actual might be taken as a statement of form as well as of referential content; to say that literature generates its own possibilities, some more and some less plausible, which must be balanced against one another, and that those possibilities are themselves concerned with what is possible rather than what is actual in a world.

It might be that the one is impossible without the other, that the fact that literature is open to the possible, which cannot be determinate or specified as an actual event would, means that it must itself be generative of possible interpretations; to say that a work of literature contains possible interpretations would be meaningless were it not bound by, and also motivated by, the range of possibilities in a world to which it is open. The judgments of what is possible is necessarily a nexus of judgments; the conditions of those judgments that get into the judgments, are similarly a nexus, limited by the horizon of a given world.

The political, utopian, and creative instinct of literature is sustained by a vantage point of bound indeterminacy; it is a form of communication in which alternatives must be considered. More than that, though, literature—and other forms of art—become the ideal form for communicating the possible: to do so depends upon communicating an array of possibilities which are held in a whole whose cohesion is itself persuasive, and which, as a consequence, seem justly to co-exist against and among one another.

Critics recover the context and horizons of possible meanings; they insist also on the competing, conflicting, harmonizing possibilities that are being played out against that horizon; and they make sense of how these possibilities—each a judgment in itself—contains within itself a condition of judgment that is likewise possible within the horizon against which the work was written. The task is three-fold: historical, formal, and evaluative.

Empson would have disliked this way of talking about his work, I suspect. He prefers to speak of it in terms of his theory of mind, and being a positivist, he preferred his theory of mind to rest upon empirical, clinical psychology. But his theory of mind is perhaps one of his greatest exercises in the elaboration of a possibility, and it seems difficult to believe that the theory of mind he leans into during his most dizzying exegetical feats could be sustained without appeal to something more metaphysical than he is prepared to admit. At the level of generality at which I’m operating, little will change for how a work of literature is read—nor, indeed, will the loose metaphysics of my theories do anything but emphasize that works of literature must be read, in the historicized, formalist, and evaluative modes that criticism has always demonstrated. Rather than vindicate literature, I’d hope for my theories and metaphysical dabbling to vindicate the sort of reading practices that themselves demonstrate what literature can be and do, variously and surprisingly, each time it is read. Empson’s is an exemplary practice of such reading; but it is not alone, and if it is to be appreciated against others, and those in turn preferred against lesser alternatives, some common terms for comparison ought be to be found.


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