Friday, November 2, 2012

Resolving Literature

"'Unlike literary critics, judges cannot merely savor the tensions or revel in the ambiguities inhering in the text--judges must resolve them...'" - Justice William Brennan

   I must admit that Calvin's reason for avoiding math is far more brilliant than any excuse I could think up. I, like Hobbes, had never considered the literary qualities of mathematics, but after stumbling across this wonderful comic, I began to consider the mathematical qualities of literature. These considerations were compounded when I read the intriguing quote above in an essay by Annabel Patterson. Justice Brennan here proposes that the appreciation of literature and the resolution of literature are two mutually exclusive approaches to interpretation.
     So sure. I can savor the power dynamics and balanced conflict of 2+2, perhaps admiring the symmetrical formal aspect of the sentence. But where will all that contemplation get me? Nowhere, really. The same is true of literature. I can examine the racial theories, questions of voice, and rhetorical strategies all I want, maybe even throwing in a psychoanalytic approach to the text's composition, but it doesn't get me anywhere at all. 
    All literature has function. There are some who pride themselves in writing gibberish, tidying it up with some nice rhetoric, and calling it literature. It's not. True literature is always an equation; a means to a meaning. Literature can be as simple as 2+2=x, or as complicated as b - 11 + (-0.2)(-60/2)² = -0.2(x² - 6x + (-60/2)²). We can "appreciate" this equation all we want, but x will continue to loom in the background--a stark reminder of a meaning and truth that the author of the equation has concealed using the tools of addition, division, distribution, rhetoric, and voice.
    And yes. I did just reduce literature to numbers, and yes. The analogy does break down. Interpretation never leads to a single correct answer. There is always uncertainty with complex literature. This does not, however, nullify the fact that there was a concrete "answer" to true literature when it was written; an unknown variable that interpreters should always be in pursuit of. All too often, though, interpreters leave the "solving" to the lawyers and content themselves with how aesthetically impressive or pleasing the literature is. They appreciate or admire the tools of logos, ethos, and pathos, perhaps observing an interesting tie to nationality or canon, but they don't use them to determine true meaning. X marks the spot, but they refuse to dig.

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