[As published in The Experience of Reading: Louise Rosenblatt and Reader-Response Theory, ed. John Clifford. 105-126. Portsmouth, New Hampshire: Boynton / Cook Heinemann, 1991.]
These days, I can think of at least four quite different ways in which one might read it. It's an excerpt from a book published anonymously in London in the year 1726. In it, a world traveler who identifies himself as one Lemuel Gulliver describes a custom he's observed in one country he visited. He calls the participants "Rope-Dancers":
This Diversion is only practised by those Persons who are Candidates for great Employments, and high Favour, at Court. They are trained in this Art from their Youth, and are not always of noble Birth, or liberal Education. When a great Office is vacant either by Death or Disgrace (which often happens), five or six of those Candidates petition the Emperor to entertain his Majesty and the Court with a Dance on the Rope, and whoever jumps the highest without falling, succeeds in the Office. Very often the chief Ministers themselves are commanded to shew their Skill, and to convince the Emperor that they have not lost their Faculty. Flimnap, the Treasurer, is allowed to cut a Caper on the strait Rope, at least an inch higher than any other Lord in the whole Empire. I have seen him do the Summerset several times together upon a Trencher fixed on the Rope, which is no thicker than a common Packthread in England. My friend Reldresal, principal Secretary for private Affairs, is, in my opinion, if I am not partial, the second after the Treasurer; the rest of the great Officers are much upon a Par. (Davis 39)In an article in College English in 1987, William Dowling, a respected scholar of eighteenth-century literature, pointed out that when he studied Swift in university, this -- in part -- is what was offered by the notes on that passage in the text he used (it was also the one I used when I studied Swift as an undergraduate):
Flimnap represents the famous Whig statesman, Sir Robert Walpole, head of the government from 1715 to 1717 and from 1721 to 1742. His political dexterity is here satirized. Swift disliked him both as a man and a politician. . . . Reldresal [is] possibly Lord Carteret, Secretary of State in 1721 and later Lord-Lieutenant of Ireland; . . . Also suggested as Reldresal: Lord Townshend, Secretary of State and a chief ally of Walpole. (Landa 504)Now, Dowling can't for the life of him understand -- nor can I -- how we ever came to like the eighteenth century and its literature in the face of the assumptions about reading that seem to be implicit in that note. As Dowling phrases it, "The most unrepentant biographical-historical critic who ever lived might see, one supposes, the sense in which this sort of thing spells death in the classroom" (526). It is clear, though, that Louis Landa, who wrote the notes to that edition, believed -- and we must agree that the reasons he believed it were not trivial ones -- that it was important for students to follow the complex political and social allegory of Gulliver's visit to Lilliput.
Still, it is apparent that that note invites you to read as though the text were primarily a source of information about the eighteenth century, an example of literary history, or evidence about the author's life. Looking at Gulliver in Lilliput in such a way you are likely to find interpretations like this appropriate: Gulliver represents Lord Bolingbroke, "tied down" (politically immobilized) by a legion of (morally or intellectually) tiny bureaucrats and packthread laws. Lilliput is England, and Blefescu, across the channel, is France. The Emperor of Lilliput is George I. (One of the problems with this sort of allegorizing is exemplified by Arthur Case's classic footnote: "The Emperor represents George I, although much of the description of his physical and mental characteristics is inconsistent with the facts" [14-15]]. Any student must wonder, as I did, if the description were so inconsistent with "the facts," how anyone ever recognized the allegory.)
It was, of course, true that most teachers agreed with Landa that knowing about all those obscure details of the history of English parliamentary politics was justified because it helped us enjoy Swift. And as it turned out, Dowling and I, and a few other people, must have enjoyed him: we apparently did, in fact, go on to read lots of other eighteenth-century texts, and build up our knowledge of the background, and sometimes even became experts on the political allegory of Gulliver's Travels and professors of eighteenth-century literature. Most people, though, responded exactly as you might expect. Dowling phrases it this way: "The dense circumstantiality of so much eighteenth-century poetry and prose, the relentless allusion to people and places and acts of Parliament one never heard of, puts off the inquiring undergraduate student" (524). And, even for those of us whom it didn't put off, it certainly tended to render Swift a writer whose concerns seemed far distant from our own.
One important problem with that sort of focus on information is the way in which it affected how I and other students actually read and responded to Swift and other writers. At the time, of course, none of us knew that Louise Rosenblatt, in 1938, in Literature as Exploration -- a book hardly anyone in traditional university English studies was to notice until the seventies (cf. Suleiman and Crosman, and Clifford) -- had distinguished between two kinds of reading one might do with literary texts. She called one of them efferent -- meaning that you wanted to take something away from the reading with you to remember -- and the other aesthetic -- meaning that you wanted to live through an experience with the text. That distinction -- and even more basically, the important idea that reading might not be a unitary, unproblematic phenomenon, but different things entirely in different situations -- allows me now to think more clearly about the reading I was doing then. It was possible to read the Flimnap and Reldresal passage aesthetically with Landa's footnote staring you in the face, but it wasn't easy. And since eighteenth-century literature was so circumstantial anyway, and thus more difficult to begin with, it was pretty easy to lose sight of what Rosenblatt called the aesthetic, the "lived-through experience," and just find a way to rejoice efferently in the biographical, historical, and political details. (Or, of course, to give up on Swift altogether, which is what most people did.)
What I now suspect was particularly important about reading in this way was that it was a distancing procedure. Once I had mastered it, I could read Swift without being directly involved at all; I could admire his skill, even gasp at his rhetorical brilliance, and still hold myself quite aloof from the implications of his ideas. Thus I never understood at all why so many nineteenth-century literary figures -- the most well known was William Makepeace Thackeray -- were so outraged, even angry, at Swift for being cynical and occasionally obscene and outrageously skeptical about human dignity. I thought of myself and my colleagues as pretty enlightened and tolerant to be able to read Swift with a cool appreciation of his brilliance.
All this was a long time ago, and in another country. Though many of us graduate students weren't exactly aware of it then, a revolution was not only underway, but had in most circles long before been won (and in fact the new regime was already under counterattack). Among people who argued and cared about literary theory and criticism, the critical approach that had come to be called New Criticism had long before swept the field, and the fruits of that revolution were already apparent in many classrooms. (It is not entirely irrelevant, by the way, that the dominance of the New Critical defense of literature as something approaching an "objective science" was one of the main reasons so few people knew of the existence of Literature as Exploration.) Among lots of other changes, the New Critics offered us a new way to read Gulliver.
It's no simple matter to describe exactly the difference New Criticism made to the classrooms of the late fifties and early sixties. It's difficult partly because so much of what it proposed became so widely accepted that soon we didn't know we believed it any more: it became almost immediately the new common sense. Dowling presents an excellent description of the impact of New Criticism on the way he (and I) taught Swift and the other eighteenth-century writers. At the same time it suggests something more general about what the New Criticism was.
What New Criticism said, in a word, was that this episode wasn't about Robert Walpole, head of the government from 1721 to 1742: it was about politicians, who are still there, walking tightropes, in this morning's New York Times. Flimnap was a politician, but he was not Walpole; he was, as Fielding says about the lawyer in Joseph Andrews, someone who has been alive these four thousand years. (526)Though New Criticism said, of course, quite a lot more than that, what is relevant here is the way it convinced us all that the historical origins of a work of literature, or what you might find out about what its author thought he meant to do in it or through it, or with it, couldn't tell you what the work actually did: only the work could tell you that. The result of believing that was that all the work those generations of scholars had done in identifying Flimnap, and Reldresal -- and even the cushion that Gulliver says once kept Flimnap from breaking his neck (Queen Caroline) -- was rendered, apparently, irrelevant to the classroom. What mattered now was what the work meant, said, and did, in and of itself. This led us toward designating as our central critical and pedagogical activity what we called then -- what we still call -- "close reading of the text." Rather than trying to look through the text to what might lie behind it -- what it might tell you about Swift's political opinions, or the character of the age he lived in, or even about Swift's psychological adjustment or lack of it we were to look at "the text itself."
This had some good effects and some bad ones. At the time, most of us who were teaching undergraduate courses in eighteenth-century literature thought the results were pretty much all to the good. Now, we thought, we could ask our students to read Gulliver in the faith that the text would make everything clear if only we all just read it hard enough -- we wouldn't have to go through that long, distracting, boring period of preparation, of filling in historical and social background, before our students would be "ready" to read Swift. If you read the Flimnap and Reldresal passage carefully and closely enough, we said, it just sort of "automatically" became a comment on politicians in general. What else could it possibly mean?
Another effect of buying into New Criticism was that we focused our attention on different kinds of passages (and, in fact, often even on different works altogether -- as, for instance, Donne's poetry replaced Milton's as the central work of the seventeenth century). In the case of Gulliver, for example, different events and passages became central. Klaus Zöllner has shown how the choices of passages that scholars quoted from Gulliver to prove their various contentions changed over the course of this period -- how, for instance, passages concerned with text gradually replaced passages concerned with philosophy. For us as teachers, the Flimnap and Reldresal passages became more like background, and they were replaced in the center of our lens by passages like the wonderful, ironic attack on war, when Gulliver explains to the poor, dumb king of Brobdingnag why he ought to be happy to have the secret of gunpowder. Poor Gulliver doesn't understand the king's appalled response.
The King was struck with Horror at the Description I had given of those terrible Engines and the Proposal I had made. He was amazed how so impotent and groveling an Insect as I (these were his Expressions) could entertain such inhuman Ideas, and in so familiar a Manner as to appear wholly unmoved at all the Scenes of Blood and Desolation, which I had painted . . .What New Criticism did with a passage like that, of course, was to direct our attention to its exquisite and elegant irony -- to the facts, for instance, that Gulliver had just previously betrayed himself to the king as a member of what the king now called "the most pernicious Race of little odious Vermin that Nature ever suffered to crawl upon the Surface of the Earth" (Davis 132), and that Gulliver himself clearly has not the least idea why the king is beloved by his people, or what makes him an excellent king. Teaching this, then, we didn't have to bother with the historical background -- the fact, for example, that gunpowder had been a common example of the evils of technology in the arguments between traditionalists and progressives ("Ancients" and "Moderns"), arguments that Swift had been engaged in most of his adult life. We could skip all that background and get right to the literature. Dowling says this "appeared to scholars and teachers of my generation as a kind of classroom salvation" (525).
A strange Effect of narrow Principles and short Views! that a Prince possessed of every Quality which produces Veneration, Love and Esteem; of strong Parts, great Wisdom and profound Learning, endued with admirable Talents for Government, and almost adored by his Subjects, should from a nice unnecessary Scruple, whereof in Europe we can have no Conception, let slip an Opportunity put into his Hands, that would have made him absolute Master of the Lives, the Liberties, and the Fortunes of his People. Neither do I say this with the least Intention to detract from the many Virtues of that excellent King, whose character I am sensible will on this Account be very much lessened in the Opinion of an English Reader. (Davis 134-35)
But, as it turned out, we weren't to be so readily saved. I now think we were deluding ourselves. That we weren't conscious of our historical and social background didn't mean it wasn't conditioning and determining how (and what) we read. It did, however, mean that when we told students that it was "just them and the text," when we assured them that if they just read closely enough they'd get it, what we really did was to make it seem like magic to most of them. We made reading seem, even more than it had, something that only the really brilliant, the inexplicably initiated, could do. The students simply didn't have access to the contextual information we were tacitly bringing to bear on our reading -- and, moreover, didn't have any way to know that that was the problem. So, just as a previous generation had done, they relied on us to tell them what the text said -- and, now, even to tell them what it did. The New Criticism, though it was embraced by many of us in the sixties as a method of liberating students from the domination of specialized knowledge, a way to free literature from its bondage as the private possession of a small, initiated group of highly trained specialists, didn't ultimately do that at all. What it did was to change the nature of the required training and give authority to a new group of initiated and sophisticated specialists: ourselves.
Again, let me come back to reading Swift here to make a little clearer what I mean. What happened was that a new way to read the book was substituted for the old one. The new one asked us to be aware of irony and paradox and ambiguity rather than to know or learn about historical background, and it thus asked a reader to make a quite different set of connections among elements of the text. Instead of asking students to connect Flimnap with Jonathan Swift's specific political and social context -- with Robert Walpole -- we asked them to connect him with the narrator's and the ironist's views, with Reldresal and the king and with other elements within the book. (At the same time, it was at least in part the specialist knowledge of Walpole and of Swift's social context that made it possible for us to see what kinds of connections were likely to be fruitful, although most of us were not aware of it.)
As a teacher, I found this New Critical stance a lot more comfortable, but I have never seen any convincing evidence that my students thought it was such a wonderful advance, or that they were more likely to leave my classes convinced that Swift and the other eighteenth-century writers spoke to them as well as to the ages. I thought they enjoyed the classes a little more, but they didn't seem to enjoy Swift more. I met, ten years later, one of the brightest students I'd had in the mid-sixties, and he told me that he'd really liked the classes and the discussions of politics and morality, but he'd hated Swift and Johnson then, hadn't looked at them since, and couldn't remember anything they'd written. If I'd known of it, of course, Literature as Exploration might have suggested a good deal of what was wrong -- but of course I did not.
Another way to say this, perhaps, is that the New Critical assault had not really touched at all the citadel of the old historicism, the ability of the reader coolly and judiciously to distance herself from the text. Our distancing strategies were different, but their effect was the same: I still didn't understand why Thackeray could have been so angry.
There were a lot of other reasons why we all began to question our New Critical principles in the later sixties and seventies, and many of them didn't seem to have much to do with teaching or with Swift.
One, for example, had to do with the growing interest in different kinds of texts from those -- predominantly, lyric poems of the seventeenth or twentieth century -- with which New Criticism had seemed to work reasonably well. For longer narratives, for long poems, for the novel, for texts like Gulliver -- which, when you come right down to it, doesn't have a lot of internal coherence -- New Criticism didn't really get us much of anywhere. After all, Flimnap and Reldresal and the rope dancing only appear once in the text: even the notion of parliamentary democracy is a preoccupation that really only occurs in Book One, and I (and many readers) have a very difficult time connecting it with the rest of Gulliver. It's the same with the King of Brobdingnag and the gunpowder: Swift's skepticism about technology does come up elsewhere, but you'd hardly call it the controlling theme of the book -- unless, of course, you were writing an article and trying to gain tenure or promotion.
But another problem was more generally important: New Criticism had called on us to disconnect writings from their authors (we weren't to ask what the author intended, or said he intended: this was Wimsatt and Beardsley's "intentional fallacy") and from their readers (we weren't to be concerned with how real readers now actually reacted: this was their "affective fallacy"). The text was all there was, and it was our job to see the real nature of each text in and of itself, to see how it attained its own unity and coherence and balance. This New Critical disconnection of the text from writer and reader -- as Frank Lentricchia and Terry Eagleton, among many others, have pointed out -- rendered literature ideologically and practically innocuous, made it seem to have little or nothing to do with real history or the real world.
As Dowling phrases it, "The same New Critical magic that made Dryden's and Pope's poetry [and Swift's prose] universal also rendered it in a curious sense bodiless, robbed it of the rootedness in human history that allows it to speak about history in a way no literature more openly engaged with cosmic or universal issues can do" (527). In other words, if Swift was really about politics as an abstract idea, he somehow didn't seem nearly as interesting as he would have seemed to someone -- a contemporary, perhaps, or a carefully and fully informed and educated modern reader -- who knew and cared about Walpole and parliamentary history. He wasn't really the same Swift any more. No wonder my student hadn't been as turned on by Swift and Johnson and Pope as I was: he hadn't read the same writers. He'd read writers who were going the long way round to make abstract points about politics in general -- points we could have made just as well by ourselves, with current examples. Surely it would be more powerful, if you wanted to make an abstract political point, to use the examples of deputy ministers in the reader's own capital city leaping up and down from their tightropes for their jobs after an election.
It should hardly be a surprise, then, that many teachers of eighteenth-century literature (among others) began to look for new ways to help other people share their conviction that writers like Swift were worth spending some time with.
In recent years, one of the most important of those new ways has arisen out of a critical movement which has come to be called the New Historicism. For some people, this has meant going back to talking about Walpole and Bolingbroke and Queen Caroline, but for others it has offered what seems a new way to reconnect Swift's work with his -- and our -- real concerns. The new reading that such an approach would recommend asks different questions of the text. It doesn't ask the traditional historical questions: "What do we need to know to understand this text?" or "What does this text tell us about the age?" -- the ones Rosenblatt made fun of in her article title: "What Facts Does This Poem Teach You?" Nor does it ask the New Critical questions: "What is this text, in and of itself? How does it work and what holds it together?" The question it asks is something more like this: "What was Swift actually getting at"? If, in other words, we see Swift in his historical context, can we understand what he was actually using Flimnap and Reldresal and the King of Brobdingnag for?
As I rethought my own teaching and understanding of Swift under the impetus of this set of ideas, a number of things seemed more important to me than they had before. One of them, for example, was the fact that Swift was an Irishman. I'd known that before, of course, but it hadn't seemed very significant. Most of Swift's major works were really written in English contexts, so they didn't tell you much about Ireland, nor did you need to know much about Ireland to identify Flimnap. And if Gulliver was really about abstract ideas, and if Swift's intentions were irrelevant to a reading of the text, it didn't much matter what nationality Swift was.
But, in fact, it now began to seem to me that it did make a difference. Describing that difference may illustrate some of the ways in which this new approach might make "what we do with Swift" different. Let me try to explain how much difference it made to me to read Swift in this new way.
If you ask most people where Swift was born, or grew up, or where he wrote Gulliver, they'd probably answer, "England, of course." But, of course, it's not so. Swift was born in Ireland, spent virtually all his life there, wrote most of his masterpieces there, and died in Dublin a national hero.
To call Swift English and teach his works as masterpieces of English literature makes about as much sense as calling Nathaniel Hawthorne English because he lived for some time in London, or Joyce Carol Oates Canadian because she taught at the University of Windsor. But with the sort of natural, effortless imperialism whereby England in the nineteenth century always assumed that anything fine must really be English at bottom, Swift simply got appropriated. He's been taken over so thoroughly that textbooks that include his work rarely make much of the fact that Swift's birth and upbringing made him something quite different from a typical Englishman of the eighteenth century -- or of any time, for that matter. They don't often suggest that he might have become the greatest satirist ever to write the English language precisely because he spent his childhood in a society alienated from and colonized by England, surrounded by Irish attitudes toward life, humor, and language. They don't give you much reason to guess that a great deal of the power of his satire might come from the same springs that produced Oliver Goldsmith and George Bernard Shaw, Oscar Wilde and James Joyce and Samuel Beckett, Sean O'Casey and Brendan Behan and Flann O'Brien.
It was under the influence of such a New Historicist viewpoint that I began to understand the peculiarity of Swift's position, and that of many Irish writers. He'd been raised an Anglican in a Catholic country; he was a member of an economically privileged colonial ruling class who, almost within living memory, had been imposed on Irish society from outside, by military conquest; he'd lived in a middle-class enclave surrounded by the most abject kind of poverty, the kind we might see now only in a particularly disadvantaged third world country. These things affected Swift and everything he wrote in profound ways.
Among other things, knowing this helped me feel the depth of Swift's contempt for that political rope dancing, or why he might have thought of having the pompous little Englishman, Gulliver, offer the King of Brobdingnag the gunpowder that would have made him absolute master of the lives, the liberties, and the fortunes of his people.
Now there may not seem to be much difference between reading Swift as an eighteenth-century Irishman and reading him as an eighteenth-century Englishman, at least in terms of the reading itself. In my view, though, the difference seemed dramatic. When the New Critics argued against the old historical approaches to literature, they did so on the grounds -- I thought they were correct then, and I think so still -- that such approaches tended to make literature into a kind of inferior history, and tended to lose track of what makes literature itself important. In their view, what made literature so important was its form, its internal perfection, its status as a timeless achievement of permanent beauty.
I'd suggest that such a New Historicist reading of Gulliver -- which asks, among other things, who its author was and whom he was writing to -- takes still another view of what makes literature so special. I think it's saying that what makes literature worth paying attention to is that it is through literature that human beings have used the power of written language to speak to other human beings about things that genuinely mattered, to writers and to readers, and that by overhearing those frozen conversations, by thawing and participating in them, we can come to understand them, both the readers and the writers, and become ourselves better participants in that long-standing conversation -- which is, after all, our civilization. To read Swift as the Irish outsider this new perspective made him seem, passionately attacking attitudes and practices whose consequences he knew and had witnessed and suffered, is, it seems to me, to participate in that conversation in a way that using him as a door to history, or as an example of delicate and perfect ironic patterns, could never do. It is to call for this kind of historically coherent understanding of the context in which Swift (and other writers) wrote that Dowling wrote the article I began by quoting.
But such a New Historicist approach is only a third way of reading Swift. I said at the beginning that I knew of at least four.
My last kind of reading really depends on, or arises out of, the attempt to see Swift as a real figure, acting in a real historical situation. My involvement in empirical research on reading over the past few years has made me think that there is a kind or mode of reading regularly used by people who are attempting to engage themselves with texts like Gulliver, that has not been much considered by literary theorists or played much role in pedagogical thinking or practice.
As I have already noted, the very idea that there may be quite different kinds of reading, and that some are promoted by educational institutions and others ignored or marginalized, is one we owe primarily to Rosenblatt's illuminating and important distinction between efferent and aesthetic reading (see especially The Reader, The Text, The Poem).
As we have tried to think through the implications of this insight my colleagues in reading research and I have come to think that you can -- and that many people do -- also read in another way, one that looks like something a little different again from either of the kinds that Rosenblatt described, although it is entirely consistent with her argument that what is central is the idea of reading as a "transaction." (See below for a discussion of the importance of this concept.) You can, it seems to us, read as though your central purpose were to "make contact" with another human being (Vipond and Hunt, "Point Driven Understanding" and "Shunting Information"). This may, in fact (as Rosenblatt has suggested in a personal communication of 1985) be a subcategory of aesthetic reading; we believe, however, it's important to distinguish it from the larger category, which includes reading for the vicarious experience afforded by the text, but without attention to author, purpose, or significance -- ignoring, that is, what one might call the status of the language as social discourse.
In a casual conversation, the sort of contact we're talking about is made through the sharing or exchange of "evaluations." as they are defined in sociolinguistic analyses of conversational storytelling by, for example, William Labov or Livia Polanyi. Evaluations, which can be conveyed either directly (a narrator might overtly comment, "I was never so scared in my life") or indirectly (for instance, by a striking metaphor or unexpected detail or other "departure from the local norm of the text"), seem to invite the reader to share fundamental values with the narrator, and thus allow for the narrative to be understood in such a way that it seems meaningful, significant, potentially relevant to the hearer's immediate social context.
Although all the participants in such a conversation might not agree on any given formulation of what "the point" of a successful story might be, or on what the motives or character of the teller were, they would agree that it wasn't "pointless" (this is what it means to say it was "successful"). The auditors wouldn't, in Labov's terms, be tempted to ask the teller, "So what? Why did you tell us that story?" It's important to stress that "points" aren't exactly equivalent to "meanings" or "gists" or even "purposes." Nor are they something that can be found "in" stories. They are a function of the story's relationship to its social situation, and they are much more accurately described as a social consensus about relevance than as any set of textual features. A story in one situation might afford the creation of a quite different set of "points" than in another, and in the same situation might seem to be making different points to different readers. Often, as Polanyi has pointed out, the construction of a point or points for a story can become a social process in its own right.
Some of the readers we have studied seem to be reading in a way that is closely analogous to this way of listening; for instance, they are particularly likely to notice opportunities to construct evaluations (Hunt and Vipond, "Evaluations"). They are also more likely to make connections between their experience of reading and their own immediate situations, or to take into account peripheral information about the physical presentation of the text (Vipond, Hunt, Jewett, and Reither). Whether a reader reads in this way (or focuses mainly on acquiring information from text, or on immersion in a vicarious fictional experience), is influenced by the reader's own experience, preferences, and expectations; by what sorts of reading the text seems to the reader to afford; and by the situation in which the reading occurs (see Hunt and Vipond, "Crash-Testing," and Vipond and Hunt, "Literary Processing").
In other words, reading is a transaction. Used in this way, the term is, of course, Rosenblatt's ("Towards a Transactional Theory," "Transaction Versus Interaction," "Writing and Reading"; see also Vipond and Hunt, "Literary Processing"), and was originally drawn from Dewey and Bentley. To consider an event a transaction is to make no rigid separation of object (text) from subject (reader), but to see that the two together, each participating and each being affected, produce -- or, rather, are -- an "event" (a poem). Perhaps even more important, the transaction -- as Dewey and Bentley particularly insisted -- does not take place in a vacuum, in some grey, bracketed-out experimental space, but rather in the world, and thus in the case of reading must seen as integrally involved with the immediate social experience readers and writers -- indeed, cannot be understood without taking that situation into account. Dewey and Bentley argued in 1949 that it was already becoming clear that we cannot understand even the most classically mechanical physical processes if we abstract the process from the observer and the specific situation in which it occurs, or if try to understand the objects as they are "in themselves," outside the transaction or the situation in some unimaginable isolation. In just this way, Rosenblatt makes clear that the richer, more complex phenomenon of reading cannot be understood except as a contextualized whole. Our research has supported and perhaps extended this view.
In general, we have found that the readers who seem most engaged in, and who feel most satisfied with, their readings (of these texts, in these situations) appear to act as though the purpose predominating in their reading were to make social contact, by sharing evaluations, with a narrator or author who is assumed to be somehow "behind" or "implicit in" the text. Using Bakhtin's terminology, one might say that they are taking the text as an "utterance," with all the rich dialogic connections with preceding and succeeding and concurrent utterances that that implies. It is of course true that traditional literary theories -- e.g., Wimsatt and Beardsley -- suggest that readers should not be doing that (or, alternatively, that they should attempting to ascertain exactly what the historical author intended, as argued by E. D. Hirsch). Still, our observation suggests that many readers -- often those who apparently feel most comfortable in dealing with "literary" texts -- do it anyway (and on the other hand show little interest in investigating the opinions or aims of the historical author).
All this work leads me back to some speculations on the reading of Gulliver's Travels. What might it mean to "make social contact" with the implicit author of Gulliver's Travels? In what ways might a reader connect Gulliver with the immediate social context of her reading, and with the larger society in which the reading occurs? It is tempting to suggest that such "literary" contact is exactly similar to the sorts of contact we make in conversation, but that it can potentially run much deeper and entail more complicated kinds of sharing of more sophisticated evaluations -- and with people like the author of Gulliver's Travels.
It may be important to remember here that we do not normally participate in conversations in order to produce new interpretations -- or to voice, like Randall Jarrell's mockingbird (see also Hunt, "Lots of Holes"), condescending and "helpful" approval of the contributions of others. Nor is it usual to "respond" to conversational story or statement by voicing, to a third party, an interpretation or explanatory restatement of what has been said. If someone in a conversation had "made social contact" (or failed to make it) with the author of Gulliver's Travels, she would probably not turn to explain to someone else what he had said or to expatiate on its brilliance -- or, if she did, such an act would constitute changing the subject and potentially derailing the conversation. (On the other hand, it might, of course, become necessary to "negotiate" an appropriate social relevance among those readers present, the way the group in Polanyi ["So What's the Point?"] describes negotiating "a point" to help their friend save her story about "fainting on the subway.")
What we normally do, when a story or piece of discourse -- a conversational turn, an utterance -- is successful, is to express our response (e.g., by laughing) or to tell a new story that responds to the original, elaborates on it or connects with it in some way, to retell the story in a new context. Or perhaps we adopt the story's metaphor and terms to deal with our own later experiences. In general, we use what the story has given us. Emerson points out that Bakhtin has made the powerful argument that it is only by assimilating the word of others -- "retelling" -- that we can originate anything, and that it is this struggle between the language of others and our need to internalize it that we "recognize as intellectual and moral growth" (31). (It is of course, also true that we may, especially if we're professional critics, try to account for the success of the story to ourselves and to others. But we can't do that until it's had that success.
I would suggest that it is in order to do that sort of thing, in order to participate in such dialogue, that we read writers like Jonathan Swift. I read Swift, as I converse with a friend who's important to me, in order that he might change my life, and in order, perhaps, to internalize his story and retell it to someone else (literature teaching is one important way in which this is done). If he tries to change my life in unacceptable ways it's okay for me to be angry. Reading Swift in such a way makes him matter. It's this that makes it potentially important to know about Swift's Irish context, but the only reason that valuable to know about is if I think Swift has the potential to change my thinking, my relationship to the world around me and other people: to change what I do.
Now, there can be many Jonathan Swifts, just as there are many individuals in each of the people we converse with every day. My Jonathan Swift, this year, in the current situation of my own life, happens to be a passionate Irishman, who has things to say to me about the current troubles in Ulster and the Irish heritage of eastern Canada, where I now live. A few years ago, however, he was a skeptical Anglican rationalist, who spoke to me about my interests in the history of the Church of England and my wife's involvement in the Canadian Anglican church. Before that, he was a profoundly committed political and social conservative and journalist, with whom I argued about the political convictions with which I was struggling, and about which I was writing. At the very beginning, he was a childlike fantasist who (as Dr. Johnson put it) "thought of big men and little men," and spoke to my fascination with science fiction and various kinds of logical extrapolation.
In each case, though, the basis of my engagement -- whether I was aware of it or not -- was my reading Swift as though he were talking to me, as though he were trying to change my mind and my soul -- and I think sometimes, in spite of my training, he succeeded. He has also (more often recently) succeeded in making me angry. (I now think I understand why Thackeray could have been so indignant at Swift. He misunderstood, I think, but he and I would have agreed about one thing: Swift is for us worth caring about, worth engaging ourselves with, worth making contact with. He can make us angry, with reason.)
What all this means, I think, is that people who engage themselves with him and enjoy his work don't normally read Swift in order to produce "the truth" about his meaning, just as we don't do that with conversations. We strive for what will work for us, what we can use, about conversations and about texts, as C. S. Peirce suggested we do about the world. (The question whether there is "a truth" about text -- like the question about truth in general, as Richard Rorty observes -- is not a question about which you'd expect to find many interesting opinions. The important and interesting question is what we can do with it.)
Thus, my discovery of Swift's Irishness isn't very important in itself. For one thing, it hardly counts, in the larger arena, as a discovery at all; it's far from news to most scholars of eighteenth-century literature. One might "discover," in this sense, lots of things about the author of Gulliver's Travels that might make him seem more clearly an engaged, committed, living human intelligence, and one with whom one might engage oneself -- the Irish Swift happens to be the one I currently create. It's that process of creating and recreating and engaging with one's own Swift in one's own world that is central -- and it is not a process for which there's much provision in most university English classes. If we believe with Rosenblatt that the best reading is the most richly transactional, we must ask ourselves how we can create classroom contexts in which such transactions are supported and promoted. It seems to me that they are just as unlikely to be effectively supported by situations in which we focus entirely on meaning (even when we define that meaning as the responsibility of the reader rather than the property of the writer) as they ever were by the situations in which it was our aim to read "through" the text to the historical or biographical information lurking behind it.
It's important to insist, too, that it's a matter of creating situations rather than of explaining things discursively. The classroom situation that already exists, what we might call the "default context," is one which, as Derek Edwards and Neil Mercer make clear, discourse is inevitably centered on the teacher and transactions are mediated by that fact. Anne Freadman has observed that the situation of a class in French means that it is virtually impossible for a text to be seen as anything more than "an example of French"; similarly, it seems to me, literature classes render texts "examples of literature." To change this we must change the situation, not merely tell people how they ought to be reading. The processes by which people make connections with texts -- make them into utterances in an authentic dialogue -- are not so easily or consciously invoked or altered.
What, then, are my alternatives? More generally, what are the alternatives of any literature teacher? Is there a way to teach literature that promotes the kind of reading (of Swift and of other texts) that I'm arguing is appropriate, that does not compel readers to break off the potential conversation, or to change the subject? In fact, some practical alternatives are being developed to the standard classroom pattern, the pattern whereby a fixed text is assigned, read by a group and discussed with the aim of arriving at a consensus (usually, tacitly or overtly, the "right" consensus) about its meaning. Such alternatives are appearing in locations as disparate as South Australia (Homer, Cook, and Nixon); England (Miall); and in Canada at McGill (Dias) and my own university.
To illustrate concretely one way in which the situation might be changed, let me describe briefly how my classes in eighteenth-century literature have been dealing with Swift over the past few years. The basic pedagogical strategy, which is being worked out in collaboration with a number of colleagues in English and other disciplines, is called "collaborative investigation," and full descriptions of its rationale and procedure in this and other disciplines are available elsewhere (see, for instance, Hunt "A Decade of Change," "A Boy Named Shawn"; Hunt, Parkhill, Reither, and Vipond; Parkhill; Reither "Writing and Knowing," "Writing Student as Researcher"; Reither and Vipond). Its basic purpose is to give students the opportunity and the responsibility to create for themselves, and to share with others, the knowledge and understanding that more traditional courses attempt to transmit. (I should make clear that this particular description is based on a two-term course in Restoration and Eighteenth-Century Literature for undergraduate students specializing in English, and usually three weeks can be spent on Swift; parallel strategies can be used at other levels and in other disciplines. I assume here, simply for purposes of making the description concrete, a class of twenty-four; similarly, details can be altered for more or fewer students.) One result of implementing this strategy in a literature class is to give a new social status to texts and to widen the range of possible student activities in connection with them.
In such a class, when we approach Swift, there are a series of assignments, which students usually undertake in ad hoc groups, changed for each new task. The first sends eight groups of three to the library (usually to work during a scheduled class meeting time) to bring back written recommendations for the rest of the class about what works of Swift should be read, and why. As sources (the course has no uniform text or anthology) they use literary histories, textbook anthologies, critical and text editions of Swift, critical and historical work on Swift and the period, general literary references, and so forth. Each group prepares a list and some preliminary written arguments explaining why they believe each work is important. Before class seven photocopies of each report are prepared, and during class each is read and considered by a newly formed group of four students. Each group comes up with a consensus about works that should be read. A representative of each group then puts its list on the blackboard, and the class as a whole decides on a final list.
The class then divides up this list of works into eight workable categories or sets of texts, which might range from a selection of poems to The Battle of the Books, from a selection of Examiner essays to the Drapier's letters, from A Digression on Madness to Gulliver. A new set of groups is formed (again randomly) to prepare full reports and to recommend whether their texts, or some portion of them, should be read by the whole class. At the end of the class session these groups decide which sets they wish to report on, and, in a sort of auction, as each group announces its decision the item is crossed off the final list.
Over the next week, groups meet to prepare reports on their individual texts. These reports have typically included descriptions of the work, summaries, quotations of representative passages, and varying amounts of critical, bibliographical, or biographical background material. Reports are limited in length -- a practical limit is what can be photocopied on two or three sheets of paper (eight to twelve pages, if the photocopier uses half-size reduction and the copy is printed on both sides of the page). These reports are prepared over a week in which there are no class meetings (I am in the library for consultation during scheduled class meeting times), and then photocopied and distributed through a "mailbox system" -- usually a set of large envelopes attached to the wall outside my office or the classroom -- which allows the reports to be exchanged and read before class.
During that next class, working in new groups, the class decides on which (or which parts) of the works the whole class should read and which should be the subject of expanded and edited reports, to be included in a permanent "course textbook," photocopied and bound at the end of the term. Groups that recommended the texts the whole class decides to read are assigned the job of making texts available (putting them on reserve in the library, photocopying them, etc.); those that recommended the ones accepted for inclusion in the course book are given the task of editing the final reports.
Finally, class time is set aside for discussion of some of the works to be read by everyone. One common way of conducting such a discussion is for each member of the class to write a page or two of immediate response, as soon as the reading is completed (or even to keep a "reading journal" of in-process responses). This impromptu unrevised (and often anonymous) writing is brought to class and the class begins with everyone reading the writing of at least five or six other people. As they read, they respond to each piece of writing with marks in the margin next to passages that seem to them striking or interesting, and sometimes with accumulating graffiti (those of us developing this teaching strategy call this impromptu transactional writing "inkshedding"). Often the pieces are collected and passages with the most marginal marks transcribed on a word processor printed, duplicated, and distributed at a later class session. Occasionally the class is continued with a further cycle of writing, reading editing, and commenting; on other occasions oral discussion ensues. Occasionally, the "inksheddings" are edited for preservation in the "course textbook"; more usually, they are discarded once everyone has read them.
At least some of the potential general advantages of learning in such a way -- which, I think, go well beyond the usual scope of a course in literature and literary history -- should be clear from this very cursory description. Here, I want to focus on the ways in which such a strategy is consistent with what I am arguing about the nature of reading. Students in such a situation are not reading in order to form interpretations that they can write down for evaluation by an authority whom (rightly or wrongly) they assume already knows anything they might say. They are reading in order to describe texts to people who need descriptions, to persuade others to read them, to share what they read with their peers -- to assimilate the words of others and appropriate them to their own uses, as Bakhtin might say, generating texts that are in a dialogic relationship with each other. Their success or failure in this reading (and writing) is not a matter of judgment by an outside authority, but an immediately and socially perceptible consequence: either others are persuaded by their arguments to read the text or not; others read their description of the text with interest or they don't; others are affected and respond or they aren't and don't.
What is most important for my argument here is the way in which the situation I am describing enables written texts to be taken as utterances, to serve as a basis for dialogue, to become a medium for social transactions among their readers. Because the students are involved in connecting texts to both historical and immediate social contexts for the readings, it becomes more likely that they will recognize the potential of the texts to make a difference to their own lives. Because they are so often engaged in exchanging the texts with, and recommending them to, each other, they are more likely to create relationships between the text and their own practical and immediate concerns. In other words, the situation is one that, more than a conventional interpretation- and teacher-centered course, affords the kind of reading I have been describing. Students are more likely to respond to anomalies, to "departures from the local norm of the text," by attempting to construct evaluations and less likely to dismiss them as meaningless "noise."
A good example, and one that is of course particularly appropriate to the reading of Swift, is the long-standing pedagogic problem of irony. That students so often "miss the point" of metaphoric or (especially) ironic passages is a problem often addressed as though it were a matter of acquiring information, but, as Chamberlain points out, it is much more a matter of attitudes or stances toward texts than of availability of information. Indeed, there is evidence that whether a reader brings any particular information to bear on a text is in large part a matter of such attitudes, and, in turn, of the situation in which the reading occurs (Hunt, "Pragmatic Aspects"). A situation that affords the construction of evaluations is almost by definition one which rhetorical devices like irony and metaphor -- the "literary" embodiments of evaluations -- are likely to find readers appropriately engaged.
Thus, in such a situation, a reader is more likely to respond to the passages about gunpowder or rope jumping in all the four ways I have described: not only as a window on eighteenth-century politics and history, or an example of brilliant ironic text construction, or even a voice speaking out of a personal context of real social suffering and conflict -- but also to engage in dialogue with it, to take it into her own language and society, to respond as though it embodied a voice speaking directly to her. The reader may, that is, take the text as an utterance -- or, to use Rosenblatt's terminology, engage in the kind of transaction with it that is, after all, the whole point of literature.
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