Readers' Affect: Two W&B Principles and Some Interpretive Problems They Raise
Wimsatt and Beardsley use the Affective Fallacy ("AF") to attack only ill-considered, unjustified substitutions of a report of an individual reader's affect for an analysis of the text, itself. However, their explanation of AF can be taken to exclude all consideration of affect, or emotional response, which was not their intent. The affect that matters to them is one attached specifically to combinations of words, specifically words considered in their historical context of the author's time and language. By adding the level of historical awareness of socio-linguistic change to the analyst's tool-kit, they rescue New Criticism from historical anachronism, taking a step along the road to E. D. Hirsch's "Objective Interpretation."
Other problems remain, however.
". . . affective theory has often been less a scientific view of literature than a prerogative--that of the soul adventuring among masterpieces, the contagious teacher, the poetic radiator"; "The report of some readers . . . that a poem or story induces in them vivid images, intense feelings, or heightened consciousness, is neither anything which can be refuted nor anything which it is possible for the objective critic to take into account."--Oddly enough, scientific research has begun to show that the minds of readers reading have quite distinct emotional responses to events they read about, responses which cause the firing of the same portions of the brain as those which fired when they first experienced the events described. The time may be coming when actual scientific studies can be done on numerous readers of a work of literature in order to investigate what parts of the brain are being moved by it, and what its affective components mean to those readers. Is this a direction you would want to pursue in the study of literature, or would it be a grave mistake?
"We have psychological theories of aesthetic distance, detachment, or disinterestedness. A criticism on these principles has already taken important steps towards objectivity."--W and B do not make clear whether they believe these three terms are synonyms, or merely alternative states of mind which the analysis of literature demands. In either case, is it possible, and if it were possible, would it be desirable to read literature while remaining unmoved by its emotional effects? Long ago, Sir Philip Sidney ("A Defense of Poesy") argued that poetry was superior to philosophy because, while both might aim to improve the mind and soul of their readers, the poets could move readers' emotions with pleasure and pain so as to make the lesson effective and likely to produce actions: "[A]s Aristotle saith, it is not gnosis [knowing] but praxis [doing] must be the fruit [of teaching]. And how praxis can be, without being moved to practice, it is no hard matter to consider. The philosopher showeth you the way . . . But this to no man but to him that will read him, and read him with attentive studious painfulness [ . . . ] Now therein of all sciences . . . is our poet the monarch. For he doth not only show the way, but giveth so sweet a prospect to the way, as will entice any man to enter into it. [ . . . ] He beginneth not with obscure definitions, which must blur the margin with interpretations, and load the memory with doubtfulness, but he cometh to you with words set in delightful proportion, either accompanied with, or prepared for, the sweet enchanting skill of music; and with a tale forsooth he cometh unto you, with a tale which holdeth children from play, and old men from the chimney corner. And, pretending no more, doth intend the winning of the mind from wickedness to virtue" ([Norton Vol. 1, 7th edition] 942). If "disinterested reading" is possible, the disinterested critic might miss the moral or ethical effect of the lesson and thereby become or remain immoral or unethical. If such a reading is impossible, the critic who pretends to do it could be unaware of the work's motive power. Worse still, if New Criticism succeeds in demonstrating that literature is disconnected from the world of practical effects, we run the risk of seeing literature called irrelevant to serious study, a mere recreation or game without cultural significance. If that is true, you can say good-bye to the English Department as anything other than a composition program, and the students in Writing Option would have the same social significance as designers of video games or Barbie outfits. (Want to claim that as a virtue? See Cultural Criticism.)
"A structure of emotive objects so complex and so reliable as to have been taken for great poetry by any past age will never . . . so wane with the waning of human culture as not to be recoverable at least by a willing student. . .. "--Whole languages have passed out of existence, rendering their texts unreadable even for their literal sense. What is there to stop meanings, especially emotive meanings of words, from leaking away or being misdirected by later developments until entire works of literature can never again be re-experienced? W and B, as apostles of New Criticism's secular religion of poetic virtue, here encounter the problem of recuperating long-ago meanings from the divine text, much like the early Christian church's patriarch's when translating the Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek texts of their Bible, or the rabbis of the great "Midrashic" tradition that continuously re-explicates Judaism's holy scriptures in debate with generations of long-dead scholars about the significance of the primary text, itself. What if the meaning of the Divine Word, once uttered, is ultimately unrecoverable? For the New Critic, this philosophical puzzle is less soul-destroying than something that guarantees job security, because, like theologians of successive generations, there will always be a market for This Year's Model Interpretation of the Sacred Truth. Each year acknowledges the previous ones with a nod, and then precedes to cover them up with another layer of newly produced meaning. This tendency in the medieval English Christian church produced the "Glossa Ordinaria," a text of the Bible thoroughly glossed above, below, and in both side margins, with interlinked commentaries on what the holy text meant. (The linked text is a glossed manuscript leaf from Book I of the "Decretals" or Papal decrees of Pope Gregory IX, a foundational document of the early Christian Church whose manuscripts were commonly reproduced with massive marginal interpretations of every passage's significance by later scholars.) By the fourteenth century, popular suspicion of those glosses being substituted for the Holy Word, Itself, led to the common fourteenth-century usage "to gloss" or "to gloze" as a synonym for "to lie." Modern analytical criticism which refers too infrequently to primary source evidence, and which engages almost entirely in conversations with and about theory, is in danger of suffering the same fate. Are you ready to engage in a struggle "'Gainst death, and all-oblivious enmity" to preserve great literature and the art of its interpretation?