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Journal of Literary Semantics

An International Review

Founded by Eaton, Trevor

Ed. by Toolan, Michael

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Hermeneutic resistance: Four test cases for the notion of literary uninterpretability

Leonard Orr1


Citation Information: Journal of Literary Semantics. Volume 36, Issue 2, Pages 121–134, ISSN (Online) 1613-3838, ISSN (Print) 0341-7638, DOI: 10.1515/JLS.2007.007, October 2007

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What does it mean to say that a given text is uninterpretable? While there are always the examples of accidental uninterpretability (cases of works that have suffered severe physical damage, texts in real languages not known by readers, references and allusions that were not kept alive as intertexts for other groups), this is not the focus of criticism or hermeneutics. There is a long and important history of purposeful obscurity, of authors who, for whatever reasons, made their texts difficult and challenging for any reader they constructed. Others did this without regard for the readers' responses, or so it would seem, following their own private visions, compositional or generative rules and constraints, or because they were in some sense writing-under-the influence (to cover a group from Plato's poets to the mescaline-induced writing and art of Henri Michaux). The test cases for this article will be drawn from works by authors with a developed aesthetics of functional indeterminacy (such as Gertrude Stein, James Joyce's Finnegans Wake, Samuel Beckett's later fiction), practitioners of Dadaism, OULIP0, Surrealism, automatic writing, aleatory approaches, as well as visionary, drug-influenced, and insane authors. My argument will take issue with the idea that any texts remain uninterpretable by critics even if these works have a high degree of indeterminacy or completeness, no matter what rules or motives were being followed by the authors.

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