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Fear of Theory Author(s): Michael Riffaterre Source: New Literary History, Vol. 21, No.

4, Papers from the Commonwealth Center for Literary and Cultural Change (Autumn, 1990), pp. 921-938 Published by: The Johns Hopkins University Press Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/469192 . Accessed: 24/09/2011 20:36
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Fear of Theory
Michael Riffaterre
HE FEAR THAT LITERARY THEORY inspires needs to be explained. One cannot deny that this fear is very real, since most current discussions of literary theory echo doubts about its usefulness, or question whether a separate theory is needed for literature alone.' The first position implies that the practice of the texts is quite enough. It seems to assume that conscious reading will blossom forth into evaluative criticism. For such to be enlightened criticism, taste and a sense of tradition should suffice, together, perhaps, with an open-minded readiness for the future (which more often than not means an ability to identify in that future echoes of the past, or a promise to return to it). Sensibly enough, this practice leans on the crutch of philology. Moreover, it expects literary history to provide the diachronic dimension and supply the means to detect influences, account for readers' awareness of genres, and even, perhaps less prudently, justify aesthetic tenets of imitatio, originality, revolution versus evolution, and so forth. Halfway between this opposition to theory per se and the denial of a need for a theory ad hoc, a not inconsiderable school hopes to find in history itself a contextualization of literature, the need for which is assumed to be obvious enough to require no theoretical underpinnings. The reluctance of tradition-bound humanities scholars to welcome theory is easy to understand. Theorizing rests on principles clearly alien to the spirit and to the traditional approaches followed in the humanities. Alien to the spirit: the role of the humanities is to preserve a tradition in order to better inform the present and to prepare the future. The liberal humanist teaches what is appropriately called a discipline, attempting to maintain a culture and a social consensus, or class consensus, by linking the concept of literacy to the concept of canon. It is only natural that the humanist should fear precisely that approach that questions the validity of a canon, or of oriented readings of that canon.

New LiteraryHistory, 1990, 21: 921-938

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Alien to the approaches: theory entails a systematic interrogation of entrenched habits. This has led to its relentless attacks against the wrongs still practiced in the humanities: the importance attached to intention, the reduction of the work of art to its author's concept of it, the unquestioned assumption that literature mirrors reality without any mediation (for if it were otherwise, fiction and symbolism-we are asked to believe-could not provide students with ethical lessons). Hence a counterattack meant to privilege the event, the actual instances rather than the laws that account for their formation. A still deeper rift results from the humanist's inability to translate the descriptive into the normative without the mediation of value judgments. This, of course, is the province of criticism, and while theory can pinpoint or foresee those elements of a text that will trigger evaluations, it cannot comment upon the content or validity of such evaluations. Theory can tell whether or not a text is literature, but not whether it is bad or good literature, for these evaluations correspond to the third stage of the hermeneutic process, the subtilitas applicandi,2 and that stage is manifest only within the reader, thus historically localized and defined. It remains outside of the text because it is the nature of the text to transcend or survive such localizations. Furthermore, theory's aim, to go beyond the individual and the particular, and to seek to discover general features, is basic to the study of human behavior, and that applies preeminently to literature. But even this elementary statement offers grounds of conflict or of disagreement with the humanities. Within the humanities, literature is the domain in which beauty is allied to truth. Teaching literature in the humanities, therefore, provides an alternative to experience, a faster, less painful way to learn about life. Hence, a primacy of the individual: you have to single out the individual to propose it as exemplary. This tendency is bolstered by historical and comparative studies, that seem condemned to swing dialectically between imitation and originality. Influence is seen as the transmission of traits solely to serve as a backdrop for new developments. Literary art is what is worthy of imitation, both because it reflects a tradition, and because it separates itself from that tradition, to find timely answers to eternal questions. As a result, while theory focuses on the general and the constant, on rules and structures, the humanities focuses on examples, preferring the illustrations to the rule. It seems to me, however, that these divergences can be overcome, and the humanist's fears assuaged, if theory is shown to be capable of accounting for the ability of literature to provide mankind with a durable and recognizable image of itself. This can be achieved

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only if theory can produce a model for the definition of literature, comprised of fundamental features, of traits that would have to be unique to the literary text, and such that even if only one of them is missing, the text cannot be perceived as literary. Thus theory can continue to question the traditional teachings of literature without destroying their object. Theory simply enables us to analyze the functions of that object independently of the prescriptive and normative constructions it may be made to illustrate. The advantage of such models is that they offer solutions more economically and more quickly than, for instance, comparative studies would, because they start from logical hypotheses. If, for instance, we recognize the literary text's ability to provide exemplary images of man, that exemplariness is best explored by singling out the fact that its validity endures, and by postulating that this durability is the essential difference between literary and nonliterary communication. Obviously it would be a tiresome, endless, and nevercompleted task, to verify that permanence by following, from generation to generation, the history of the reception of the work of art and its successive phases of obsolescence. Better to recognize that that permanence has one aspect that the vicissitudes of value, the shifts from accepted to rejected exemplarity, do not affect: the linguistic stimulus of the reader's evaluative behavior, of the reader's perception of exemplariness, right or wrong, relevant or irrelevant. This aspect is the representation of exemplariness, a representation designed to work always, although it sometimes does so literally, sometimes figuratively. Our postulate will then be that the linguistic stimulus is made permanent, or rather timeless, because of its textuality. The literary text can disappear physically, but it cannot be modified, altered, tampered with, or read incompletely, without becoming another text. Hence we find the unique and defining trait of its textuality: the text is singular and different from any other, and its difference is steeped in history. It can be exemplary, and thus an ethical and aesthetic object, only inasmuch as it contains an idiosyncratic linguistic structure that transcends its original difference, or rather, retains it while history moves on. This theoretical postulate may be reformulated by separating the two modes of existence of textuality: as a thing created by historical circumstances, it is literature; as a stimulus forever maintained in the fabric of the text, it is literariness. The difference is that the former is dated, the latter is timeless.3 Let me now assuage the fear of theory by pointing out that there are theories which actually threaten or ignore the literariness of literature. These are incomplete theories that focus either on artificially isolated aspects of literature in order to use them as documents

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for an understanding of nonliterary facts, or on acts of communication. These theories are irrelevant, because they do not recognize the unique characteristics of literature. Indeed, each one of these theories assumes that literature does not differ intrinsically from other social, cultural, or, more generally, anthropological, systems. This assumption is easily disproved by invoking another component of literariness. Literature differs from all other systems in one major respect: that it is a representation and can be used and, indeed, is used, for the representation of all the others. This is precisely the reason why literature is central to the humanities. A theory is incomplete when its premise ignores our empirical perception or experience of a separateness of literature, that its texts form a class apart from other texts, or that literary discourse differs from other linguistic phenomena. The exclusionary premise is made manifest by the addition of an ideological tag: the word theorycomes with a modifier, such as Marxist theory.Not infrequently, the ideological premise is rephrased as an objective definition, as when gender theoryis substituted for feminist theory.To be sure, some modifiers (such as speech act theory, reader responsetheory, or reception theory)properly refer to formal categories or functions of the literary event, designating components or functions of the specialized communication process that yields literary texts and engages the controlled but active participation of readers. By contrast with these, adjectives like feminist or Marxist, or even psychoanalytic, refer to creeds, or stated positions, that all have in common that they exist outside of literature and aim at producing principles and rules for explaining the whole of man as a social animal, not man as a being who reads for pleasure. Their goal is to integrate into one overall picture all human activities, including literature. These theories are thus actually philosophical and political systems, rather than descriptive ones. Each has its own angle, as the phrase goes, or slant-the calculated warp or distortion of a perspective; they are, in effect, more like anamorphoses than representations of the object to which they are applied. No wonder, therefore, that they should appear threatening to those literary scholars and teachers of the humanities who happen not to share their premises. Under the guise of explaining facts, these theories organize them in accordance with a preconception, thus depriving theoretical thinking of what may be its most important principle, or the decision that no explanatory feature--the completeness hypothesis will be valid unless it encompasses all facts it claims to categorize, organize, and explain. Of these ideological theories, two, the feminist and the psychoanalytical, will undoubtedly maintain

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their legitimacy despite the effect of anamorphosis, because the modifier in both cases refers to objective facts, such as gender and the unconscious. More serious and more widespread is the threat anamorphic theories present to the canon. It is no doubt logical that a specific viewpoint should cast away some works of art that do not reflect it, and should resuscitate texts that may have sunk into oblivion simply because they did not exemplify canonical features recognized by the humanities' establishment. Additions to the canon should not be unwelcome. My only worry is to see important works fall by the wayside to make place for minor ones, not simply because the former do not enter the new categories, but because programs allow only for limited teaching time. Canonical ablations may affect the speed and ease with which readers recognize literary genres and identify intertexts, for want of enough texts for the reader to compare with one another. However, textual interpretation founded on semic analysis as a substitute for interpretation founded on genre and intertextuality, may palliate these losses to some extent. Semic analysis is an operation readers perform unconsciously when they identify in a text verbal derivations from a key word's semantic features, the semes. When there is a canon to supply comparable texts, readers will spot the same verbal derivations in the intertext, or, more distantly, in an archetype of the text: a textual outline, or rather, a ghost text existing nowhere except in the mind of readers when they compare actual texts with one another and call that ghost text a genre. Since this analysis applies to the source of derivations that are visible in the text being read, it is by definition relevant to its interpretation. Anamorphic theory tends to blur relevancy by proposing for the same texts readings derived not from their own words, but from the system or systemic principles the theory has postulated. An example will show the extent of the damage wrought by postulates unrelated to literature itself. I find it in Fredric Jameson's double allegiance to Marxist and psychoanalytic theory. I am alluding to his perceptive analysis of Balzac's La Vieille Fille (The Spinster).4 The novel tells the melancholy tale of what the French language still calls an "old maid"-still desirable despite her mature years, but desired above all because of her ample dowry-who wants very much to quench in marriage her legitimate thirst for honest sex. Despite her natural and inherited advantages, the fish she nets is a man who is outwardly prosperous and very macho, but who, in reality, is penniless and impotent. Married, she remains frustrated. Jameson applies to this straightforward story his psychoanalytic and

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Marxist model, seemingly pertinent insofar as Balzac as a child had known a family situation that linked sexual and monetary yearnings (a wealthy aging peasant father and an impoverished aristocratic mother), and reduces the sexual comedy to the function of directing readers towards Balzac's political utopia of a landed aristocracy, and toward a symbolic relationship between potency and class power (163). Jameson's demonstration of the psychological motivations is entirely convincing, although it would be a relapse into the intentional fallacy if his evidence were not beyond the reach of the reader and certainly outside of the novel. Even if it were within the reader's reach, the only pertinent psychoanalysis would be one centered on the reader's perceptions, not on the author's. The author has long been absent, leaving the text to speak for itself. There is, it seems to me, a basic irrelevancy in putting into the text what the author took care to exclude from it, or what he kept screened from view. The worst irrelevancy, however, is to make the sexual comedy a means towards a higher interpretation, a transition to an allegedly more important hidden message. To be sure, the message is there, Balzac's utopia of monarchy and landed aristocracy, but only from the viewpoint of the ideology that Jameson means for his theory to serve. Jameson's analysis ends up treating the novel as if it were just a document among others about nonliterary objects of inquiry. It does so at the cost of downplaying a structure that the novel itself emphasizes, a structure that points to the subgenre that defines it, and the perception of which regulates and informs ordinary readers' interpretation of the text and the interest they find in it. This generic identification, these hermeneutic and affective components, are what makes Balzac's text literary. Unfortunately, it is precisely this literariness that Jameson must disregard. In privileging components that document his theory, he bypasses the one striking feature for which he has no use, even though he sees it very well. This feature is a mechanical, simplistic repetition, and it is set in motion by a system of imbalances that throws readers off their habitual perception of reality. The text itself emphasizes what Jameson downplays, putting the comedy to the fore, the more visibly so because the protagonist's failures would be a tragedy in real life. This tragedy is transformed into a tragicomedy, and, indeed, into a farce, by a mechanical device that belongs more to vaudeville than to a novel. It is a comedy of errors, of which the sole diegetic mechanism is the heroine's sexual frustration that engenders the various episodes as functions of the

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distribution and alternation of the defining traits of the four suitors. Each suitor is nothing more than a variant of a single agent, the subject of the desire of which Mlle. Cormon would like to be the object. The first, an aristocrat, but of dubious nobility, is poor but sexually viable. The second, the above-mentioned upstart, is impotent. The third is neither rich, sexually promising, nor noble: this cipher can only fade away; thus, he commits suicide. The fourth is an authentic nobleman, truly rich, and truly male. Unfortunately, he is married. In fact, he belongs to the pack of pursuers only in the imagination of the pursued. Indeed, each of them unfortunately adds to her uncertainty a problem that she is incapable of resolving, since in each case she is unaware precisely of that element which should dictate her choice. The result is a series of misunderstandings, a sort of erotic April Fool's Day that makes of the novel a story of disillusionment as the genre requires, but above all, a comical story. We are still faced with one problem quite pertinent to literary art. Why does Balzac maintain an enormous descriptive apparatus, and waste such riches of delicate social observation, such a vast array of conversations recorded with such an ear for people's talk, of keen, revealing detail of dressing, gesturing, and eating, on so simplistic a low comedy? The answer to our problem, and the resolution of the discrepancy, is provided by language itself, as an elementary semiotic analysis will show. As we know, any word corresponds to a sememe, a set of distinctive semantic features, the semes, whose relationships determine that word's meaning (for example, the semes human and female are components of the sememe woman). Semes determine much more than the meaning of the word. They determine its generative power, for the sememe can be regarded as an inchoate text and, conversely, a narrative is best defined as an expanded sememe to which a time dimension has been added. The theorist, donning the hat of the semiotician, therefore fully accounts for the continued efficacy of a narrative by showing that it is entirely derived from spinster, that it is a textual amplification of that word. The sememe makes her into a symbol of topical deprivation: as a human being characterized in terms of sexuality, her story unfolds only by repeatedly robbing her of that sexuality. The narrative, like any novel, explores the consequences of an experiment, here a vivisection that cuts sexuality out of a sexually-charged person. This is as effective and pathetic as the sufferings of the deaf musician, of the painter going blind, of the paralyzed athlete-all melodramatic cliches that the so-called "bad" literature of pulp magazines and

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television shows thrives on, but that the so-called "good" literature does not spurn. Our novel, therefore, is endowed with the feature without which no literature is literary: the requirement that it be somehow exemplary. But in comparing the spinster deprived of sexual fulfillment to Beethoven deprived of sound, or the athlete bereft of motion, I still fail to explain the essential difference. That is, that a deaf Beethoven and a palsied Hercules are tragic, while the spinster is comical. The pleasure of the text is unmitigated by the monstrous unfairness that these torments would entail if they were visited upon an actual mature unmarried woman. Do we need to turn to history, to the sexist prejudices of the nineteenth century, to account for the fact (or to excuse it) that Balzac, having to choose between drama and sitcom, selected the latter (he kept the drama for his Cousine Bette, where enforced virginity makes his heroine into an evil schemer)? Whereas a historical approach to the humanities has to certify that Balzac's painting of society is true to its model (thus seeming to suggest that only an archeological reading can vindicate his time-capsule interpretation of the timeless war of the sexes), theory simply points to the fact that, as words, spinster or vieile fille contain the negative marker, the index of disparagement that dictates the selection of a farcical version. The novel, as we have it, with its mechanical oppositions and obstacles, and depriving characters of their rights to know, is then evaluated as the effective development of a given for which language itself, that is, the atemporal side of society, is the authority. The repetitive development is comical because it keeps emphasizing the negative marker, but it also conveys a high level of exemplarity and truth normally expressed in serious terms, since the reinscription of the given at every turning point, at every proairesis of the plot, becomes an image of inescapable fate. For the word fate here is simply the translation into dramatic terms of the dictionary definition of the words old maid, a classeme, a type designation, a term of semantic typology: Rose Cormon is pitiable as a victim of entrapment in a class, as much as she is comical. She is an example which is relevant to the humanities curriculum, because her predicament results from her embodying a type, and the novel's exemplarity can be spelled out in terms of semantic typology: taxonomy is destiny. The reason why Jameson cannot recognize the centrality of the mechanism I have just described is that his theory is aimed at the traces left in the text by economic and psychological causes. These causes are pertinent as an explanation for the lexicon of that text, and for the mimetic function of that lexicon. Jameson shows how

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certain words heat up, so to speak, and become valorized, lexical dynamite. Unfortunately what constitutes the literary event is not this valorization itself, but its subsequent coded exploitation in the text. It is what Balzac extracted from this code; not the raw material, but the use to which it was put. Like his contemporaries, Balzac recognizes and reacts to dynamite, but that explosive lexicon informs the work of art and attains literariness only when integrated into the diegesis, when it becomes the engine that sets the narrative in motion. In other terms, Jameson's theory forces him to see the literary text as a result, as the end product of the social and psychic forces his theory is calculated to account for. His inquiry stops at the textual element that for him is a result, but that is for the lay reader a beginning. He stops before the lexicon starts producing a syntax, the textual derivation that creates the comical effect of repetition and distortion. Once we understand this, we are equipped with the difference between linguistic and nonlinguistic communication that we need for a radical theory of literature. We are equipped with a relevant definition of timelessness. Instead of being once and for all the end of a process, the text is continuously the starting point of that process. It is an origin, a generator, always new, always creating, whenever the reader starts reading it. Always creating, because it is founded on a principle of transformation. The text is thus timeless, because it is always in the present time, because the reader's reaction to it will always consist in asking himself the same question: not what does this mean?, but what is this substituted for? what is lacking here?, and finally, what is it that replaces or fills out the lack? The answer can be given, but it is given by the difference between the past of the text's beginning and the later past of the text's ending. One clarifies the other, and indicates the range of the transformation, of the translation from a given into a derivation from that given. Let us now oppose a radical theory of literature to theories of the anamorphosis type. It differs from these in selecting as its focus not a principle of explanation borrowed from another larger system of reality, of which literature is only a part (like the human mind, as interpreted by psychoanalysis; or like society, as interpreted by Marxism), but a principle based on literature's ability to represent all other systems, all forms of reality; that is, its ability to integrate them and treat them as if they were parts of the literary event. This simply reflects the fact that literature is language. But it is language used in a restricted way, language subservient to literar-

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iness, language with one major rule that overrides all other grammatical rules, the rule of transformation, or of substitutability. To be effective, a radical literary theory must be complete, which is not the case with anamorphic theories. The speculative model we are building must include all three components of the act of reading: One, language, or rather, the sociolect, that is, language not just as lexicon and grammar, but also as the repository of the myths and stereotypes with which a society organizes and allegorizes a consensus of its members about what they imagine reality to be; two, the idiolect, that is, the special usage to which the text puts the sociolect; three, the reader who actualizes in his mind the contact or conflict between the two, recognizing the sociolect under the idiolectic manipulation of it, making judgments as to the value of such transformations, interpreting their effects, and eventually rationalizing them as signs of intention, of the presence of the artist. Every component of the text, therefore, must be accounted for in its three forms: as a sociolectic fact, as an idiolectic fact, and as a performative factor, or, again, as a special response elicited by this transformation. To achieve this goal we need no history. We need only our linguistic competence. Theory harnesses it in the service of interpretation by positing formal principles whose simplicity makes them ideal tools for replacing changing historical perceptions with permanent models. Thus theory services the humanities. I will now exemplify the model I have been discussing in the abstract: the substitutability principle. The given is the situational and linguistic starting point from which a literary text is derived. It posits the first elements from which readers will build their interpretations of what is to follow. In doing so, the text can imply much more than it actually spells out. Readers have to practice the so-called participatory reading in order to guess the direction the story will take, and form a first idea of the rules of the game, so to speak. These may be substitution rules, if the text is a poem which relies on figurative language: readers will have to determine which statements are figurative and which literal, or whether literalness remains entirely implicit--repressed, as it were, by uninterrupted symbolism. In the case of fiction, on the contrary, the narrative given is likely to be situational, which is easily done in a narrow verbal stretch, because all possible dramatic situations are variants of a finite number of invariants (themes, motifs, narrative structures). These invariants allow for an even more limited number of endings, since genre-induced restrictions intervene in order to

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orient the plot towards the telos, that is, the one class of denouements authorized by the genre. Add to this that, as the sequence of events unfolds from the situational given, at each point where a character is faced with a choice, at each proairesis, narrative predictability is reduced to very few solutions in terms of the expectations allowed by the generic telos, the context, the characterization of the actors involved, and so on, starting with the basic choice of acting or not acting. This would account for the enormous amount of information latent in the given which the reader must uncover little by little, by referring back to the implications of the beginning. One is reminded of Terry Eagleton's clever analysis, perhaps too good to be quite convincing, in his Literary Theory.5He offers three pages of surmises a normal reader can extract from the first two sentences of John Updike's novel Couples, one being a question about new acquaintances, who have met for the first time before the text begins, the other one the verb attributing the utterance to one character known only by a first name, who is addressing another also known only by her name. The time of day, the age of the speakers, their presumed sexual relationship, the nature of the neighborhood, all these are determined with more certainty than the age of the bus driver from the average speed of the bus and the number of its stops, in the familiar joke. Now all this is possible because the given incorporates into the text contents and forms which are already known, and which can be reconstructed and developed by any reader by virtue of that reader's linguistic competence. These forms and contents are selected from language, from the sociolect. They are selected as they come, in their unmodified, original form, only to be transformed by the text through the very process of derivation I have sketched out. One recognizes Mikhail Bakhtin's well-known opposition between the given and the newly-created form of that given.6 The literary text is the combination on the one hand of the given, of the recognizable elements, of the components that are, in Bakhtin's terms, repeated from language, and on the other hand, of their transformation by the text under the rules-also given, recognized, and repeated--that are assignable to language, to the genre, to the figurative-literal opposition, and so forth. The point here is that on both sides of the opposition, readers have at their disposal the same familiar elements, the only difference being that they are given in summary and implied form before transformation, and then developed at length with new implications

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after transformation. The interpreter's task, little more than being conscious of what one reads and why, is dictated and directed by the difference between the pre- and post-transformation versions of the given. This, it seems to me, is the reason why theory is capable of replacing new historicism altogether. New historicism operates on the assumption that interpretation is read into the text in terms dictated by the interpretive community. It assumes that the expectations raised by our society's ideology prepare us not just to approve or disapprove a literary structure as an object of evaluation, but to prove or disprove it as an object of perception. However, the difficulty is lifted when we recognize that the text already contains, in the shape of a given, a partial or implied mimesis of the ways of the interpretive community. For the given is indeed a represented fragment of the sociolect, and one whose pertinence to the post-transformation version of it is established by the very fact that this version is derived from it. The text therefore contains both the model for interpretation, and the derivation whose modalities and status as a work of art are generated through departures from the model, departures that can only be measured and evaluated in terms of the model. The stuff, the lore, the mythology, the ways to interpret these are the same on both sides of the fence. Only the emphases have changed in the text-generating transformation. Tropes calling attention to this or that aspect of the representation of reality create a hierarchy that constitutes the text's literariness, but that hierarchy or that coloring could not be perceived without the given, and the given gives us, in effect, all that is pertinent to the changes wrought on its forms. The substitutability principle is none other than a generalization of the very notion of tropology. In the presence of a trope or figure, the reader senses that it displaces another wording, which it now presupposes. The reader fully reconstitutes the displaced wording, and perceives the presupposition itself as an index of figurality. As we have seen, all that which makes Balzac's novel a suitable example for the humanities, a lesson about life and about the power of language, is the iterative hypertrophy of the given, exhausting every possible narrative consequence of the implications of the title The Old Maid. Perceived substitution frees the interpreter from the urge to hypothesize about the author's intended meaning, from the need to recover the values or issues of the past, and from the burden of demonstrating whether they apply to us. The mere physical difference in size and complexity between the substitute and the

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given it transforms is in itself a self-sufficient, foolproof signal of the importance of the substitute, of its function in the text, of what it emphasizes. It is therefore a sign of intentionality, that functions as if we knew the intention. As for its content, the reader's mental superimposition of the meanings of the substitute on those of the displaced item creates a new sign whose combined referents now produce the significance we looked for, which may be the sum of the components, or the elimination of one by the other, or just an index of how we must read a text where such substitutions are permitted. An instance of this third possibility is found in the second stanza of Emily Dickinson's "Because I could not stop for Death," a poem not infrequently used in the humanities to introduce discussions of the ways Death is viewed from a New England perspective. Death, we remember, has come to the speaker to take her for a ride: We slowly drove-He knew no haste And I had put away
My labor and my leisure too, For his Civility'

The many glosses on what seems merely to express an anxiety to return her amorous visitor's politeness suggest that this talk of manners has a deeper sense. Most commentators concentrate on
"My labor": "she is so completely captivated . . . that she has put

away everything that has occupied her." Such is the translation of a woman critic into housewife talk. Jerome McGann, noting that irony here is at the expense of those "who give all their attention
to mortal affairs . . . fearful of Death and too busy . . . to stop

for him" reaches all the way back to the Scriptures to argue that this can only be interpreted in the light of a Christian ideology.8 Except of course that Paul, after Matthew, mocks only those who would still finish their business when it is time to go: for those unmindful of eternity, parting from mortal life always comes too early. But this ideology is precisely what Dickinson's line leaves out. A closer look, or a look at the text rather than at the given it plays with, shows that labor here has nothing to do with man's preoccupation with the ephemeral. Labor is simply the complementary of leisure, and the two together are the periphrastic equivalent of life. Periphrastic, and pointlessly so, unless this is a joke. The model here is not neotestamentary, it is not the Pauline quotation handy to times of anxiety whence presumably a lesson will be taught of the kind that will always fit everybody's experience; it is the

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humor of Lichtenberg's line which Freud chose as one of his examples of verbal wit,9 a way of depicting that erases as quickly as it describes: a knife without a handle with the blade missing. The word Lichtenberg's periphrasis displaces is, of course, nothing. In Dickinson, the words are my life. In fact, she uses the same device later to represent the nonexistent, the symbolic unreality of the Prophet Elijah's biblical chariot: "Elijah's Wagon knew no thill / Was innocent of Wheel" [no. 1254] in which the Americanization of the vehicle combined with its instant erasure reads like a parody of exegesis: the prophet's celestial vehicle is but a realistic image retranslated into abstract spiritual ascension. This is achieved by canceling out the components of a very real chariot, the realism of which the American flavor accentuates. Thus the contrast is more powerful between this Far West conveyance and its metamorphosis into a trope. In Dickinson, the displaced phrase is: I died. The playful absurdity of her beating around the bush sweeps aside any temptation we may have to see the line as a variant of Matthew or St. Paul. It firmly establishes the irreverent tone of the whole poem, and, therefore, indicates in what direction its interpretation should proceed: this is humor. Not satire, but humor, as we already sensed it in the rhythm of the second line, which removes with its lilting speed whatever ponderous overtone of a Scriptural lesson we might find in the death facet of the pun on stop, stop meaning both "pay a visit" and "put an end to one's life business or busyness." Indeed humor, thus designated as the proper reading strategy for this poem, is the only conceivable interpretation for the following lines: "The Carriage held but just Ourselves- / And Immortality." How can the newlyweds be alone at last, and still have an interloper riding along? This is a very slight discrepancy from strict verisimilitude here, but one that revealingly triggers disproportionate reactions among critics. Allen Tate felt that "Immortality ought to be the destination of the coach and not one of the passengers.'"' Harold Bloom finds himself compelled to read in this a female author's reversal of the conventional representation of the inspired poet in Romanticism: he sits with a Muse looking over his shoulder. Says Bloom: "since a woman poet reduces the male to muse, Death is put in his place."" That Tate should insist on strict logic here, and Bloom on a rather irrelevant construction, suggests that readers obscurely sense a looseness in a sentence that the constraints of verse should make tighter. Strictly speaking, the body count is wrong, since three personified

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allegories are unaccountably riding in a carriage where only two should be sitting. But indeed it is only strictly speaking that something is amiss, only if the allegorical content of each personification must be taken seriously. Humor raises no such difficulty, for it is a purely formal device, more akin to the metric pattern of verse than to that of a trope. If this is humor, these lines must be another substitution like that of labor and leisure for life. The periphrasis divides the act of dying into its three components: the Grim Reaper in a mellower mood, the dear departed, and Immortality (Immortality comically standing to the principals in the same relation as the Holy Ghost does to the Father and Son). This fissiparity generates a merrily awkward threesome for a courtship ride sequence which demands a twosome. Immortality is like the little brother tagging along when his big sister goes for a drive with a date, a light comedy motif in the movies of the forties, the erotic variant of two's company,three'sa crowd. Immortality is the comical terzo incommodoin a tete-a-t te on lovers' lane. The courtship ride should not be taken too seriously. Nor can we take seriously its opposite, the funereal version, the one called the last ride, where lovers and chaperon wear death masks. Fusing together the two versions derived from ride could indeed be an appallingly nightmarish symbol. But, from the beginning, there is banter in this outing that makes the ghosts into light-comedy characters. We are closer to the laughter that since the medieval danse macabre has served to defuse Death's awesome presence, than we are to the ghastly postmortem hymen of the other Miss EmilyFaulkner's. There is no way we can conclude with McGann that the poem teaches us that "Death can be contemplated not merely without fear but . . . with feelings of civilized affection."'2 There is no way we can see, as he does, Emily Dickinson reading a kind of sermon "like some Christian Blessed Damozel from New England." Nor can we take to the letter that the poem's ideology makes it "a work of Christian consolation" (129). The poem could be all that, if humor here were based on historical references to American realities and stereotypes. McGann insists that there transpires in these lines an implicit emotion, which he attributes to the location of the Dickinson homestead in Amherst: from her windows, Miss Emily could watch the hearses go by. McGann again goes so far as to explain Death's civility as reminiscent of the nineteenth-century conventional portrait of the soothing undertaker, and he quotes HuckleberryFinn to bolster his argument. The substitutability rule indicates, on the contrary, that humor is

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inseparable from the given, from what could have been the poem's title, the euphemistic cliche, the last ride. The given here is transformed by the togetherness of a couple, whereas normally the hearse is a single-occupancy carriage. This transformation is confirmed by an intertext in which the words the last ride are spelled out, in the title where, more revealingly still, they are followed by together.This is a poem which indeed tells of a lover hoping for a last ride that could become eternal bliss. The poem is by Robert Browning:" in it, a rejected suitor pleads for a last ride with his beloved before they part. He muses about the life together (or is it eternal life?) this ride could have symbolized: What if we still ride on, we two With life for ever old yet new, Changed not in kind but in degree, The instant made eternity(11.105-8) This last line is a metaphor in Browning, literal in Dickinson's last stanza, a word-play on eternal bliss, a phrase which applies as well to after-life as it does to the married life that concludes fairy tales: Since then-'tis Centuries-and yet Feels shorter than the Day I first surmised the Horses' Heads Were toward Eternity(11.21-24) Now suppose this intertext lost, and indeed Robert Browning's place in the canon is hardly more than a jump seat nowadays. Or suppose Dickinson had never read Browning's poem. Its existence would still demonstrate the generative power of last ride. First, the euphemism has, within itself, the somber/comical ambiguity which both poems develop. Second, the addition of together (or rather, in Browning and Dickinson, the substitution for it of a detailed narrative of togetherness) is the transformed version of the given needed to produce the two parallel and antithetical derivations, courtship ride/ last ride not unlike the two panels of a diptych. The two interface, as obverse and reverse on each side of a symbolic, transparent border so that the same words can be read as a funeral procession parodying an epithalamium, or as an epithalamium parodying a funeral. For this interface no philosophical stance is necessary, no

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content. This is a game of words, a trope, a conceit. Thus the empty form, without historical background, without ideology there and then (both gone and forgotten anyway), can generate a content, a symbolic scene with overtones of mild cynicism tempered with word play, a smiling coming-to-terms with the indifference of life and death. It is not by chance that I have chosen for my examples instances of the simple mechanical devices of verbal humor, where form signifies rather than content. It was to show quickly that literature can provide the humanities with the lessons they need in a language impervious to the ravages of time. But I could have sought my examples at random, without ever finding cases where literary significance, the flesh and blood of humanism, would depend on referentiality, on references to reality, rather than on structures. It is true that the tropes and symbols that actualize the structure of the lyric, and the diegesis actualizing narrative structures, are all referential, rooted in mores, in ideologies--rooted in history. But since these representations can serve as illustrative lessons for the humanities only so long as they remain valid for all times and all seasons, it is only through the structures they flesh out that the teleological arrangement is found that confers to literary contents their intentionality and their exemplarity. Only structures give contents the demonstrative hierarchy, valid only within the limits of the literary text that imposes this exemplarity onto readers. It is not illogical therefore to propose that theory, which exists only in timelessness and abstraction, is the approach most likely to provide the humanities with the means to find in language the permanent foundation without which they could not endure.
COLUMBIA UNIVERSITY

NOTES 1 See, among other symptoms of the allergy to theory, the papers collected in Against Theory:LiteraryStudies and the New Pragmatism, ed. W. J. T. Mitchell (Chicago, 1985); and Paul de Man, The Resistance to Theory (Minneapolis, 1986). 2 Hans-Georg Gadamer, Truth and Method, ed. Garrett Barden and John Cumming (New York, 1975), pp. 274-305. 3 On the need for a concept of literariness and for its being separable from the historical dimension, see my paper on "Relevance of Theory/Theory of Relevance," YaleJournal of Criticism, 1, No. 2 (Spring 1988), 163-76; and in the same issue, the responses of Paul H. Fry, "Non-Construction: History, Structure, and the Occasion of the Literary," 45-64; and Barbara Johnson, "Response," 177-78. 4 This essay was published twice, the second time in much revised form in Fredric Jameson, The Political Unconscious(Ithaca, 1981), pp. 151-64; hereafter cited in text.

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5 Terry Eagleton, Literary Theory:An Introduction (Minneapolis, 1983), pp. 74-77. 6 Dannoe vs. sozdannoe: the Russian allows for a neat imagistic play between two words with the same root-one without, one with, a prefix (see Tzvetan Todorov, Mikhail Bakhtine: le principe dialogique [Paris, 1981], pp. 79 ff.). 7 Emily Dickinson, "Because I could not stop for Death," in The CompletePoems of Emily Dickinson, ed. Thomas H. Johnson (Boston, 1960), p. 350, #712. 8 Eunice Glenn, "Emily Dickinson's Poetry: A Revaluation," Sewanee Review, 57 (1943), 586; Jerome McGann, The Beauty of Inflections (Oxford, 1985), p. 126. See the following biblical texts: "if the goodman of the house had known in what watch the thief would come, he . . . would not have suffered his house to be broken up. Therefore be ye also ready: for in such an hour as ye think not the Son of man cometh" (Matt. 24:43-44); and "the day of the Lord so cometh as a thief in the night" (1 Thess. 5:2). 9 Sigmund Freud, Der Witz (Frankfurt am Main, 1958), p. 49. 10 Allen Tate, "New England Culture and Emily Dickinson," in The Recognition of Emily Dickinson, ed. Caesar R. Blake and Carlton F. Wells (Ann Arbor, 1964), pp. 153-67. 11 Harold Bloom, A Map of Misreading (Oxford, 1975), p. 186. 12 McGann, p. 127; hereafter cited in text. 13 Robert Browning, "The Last Ride Together," in RobertBrowning: The Poems, ed. John Pettigrew (New Haven, 1981), I, 608-11.