Before the Trenches

A Mapping of Problems in Literary Interpretation

by Ricardo Namora (Author)
©2017 Monographs 130 Pages
Series: Literary and Cultural Theory, Volume 53


Throughout much of the 20th century, literary theory came to be considered the queen discipline of literary studies. It failed, though, to deliver the promises it carried from its onset as an academic field of inquiry and, came to be shrunk and side-lined in the last three or four decades. The author describes and discusses 20th century literary theory and its appeal to scientific methodology. His aim is to depict the intrinsic motives of its downfall. The book focuses on the appeal to scientific methods and epistemology, the status and nature of literary meaning and the role of authorial intention in interpretation.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Table of Contents
  • Introduction
  • 1. Anchors and ghosts
  • 2. Making sense
  • 3. The anxiety of evidence
  • 4. The wheat and the chaff
  • 5. Sedation or seduction?
  • Works Cited
  • Series Index

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One of the odd things about research and scholarship is that people find themselves unable to grasp all the relevant texts in their respective fields. So, knowledge is always partial and opinion is, more often than not, biased. But since its structures have historically evolved and its methods perfected, it is safe to presume that the “incompleteness” feature may, after all, be a consistent trait of scientific endeavour. For my part, I was very sorry not to come across Frank Kermode’s extraordinary essay “Institutional Control of Interpretation” some years sooner. Fortunately, perhaps, the essay (first published in 1979) confirmed a set of intuitions I had been building for years – but couldn’t quite elaborate upon. In his description of “interpretation”, Kermode suggests (among other things) that: the tag “interpreter” applies only to people who either explain texts in a detailed fashion or, in his words, “punish” them; literary interpretation becomes meaningful only within a narrow, intellectual and institutional clique which imposes severe restrictions on individual interpretations; the critical institution operates by means of sanctions and organizes a corpus of opinion; the institution’s development inevitably leads to the establishment of a “paradigm” (oddly akin to the notion’s description by famous science historian Thomas Kuhn); restrictions may be canonical (what should be interpreted) or hermeneutic (which means are legitimate to interpret); and, finally, that interpretation equals truth, and truth refers back to a broad consensus among pairs (an idea endorsed by Davidson, among others).

Kermode further argues that we live (or, were living by the time he wrote the essay) both a pre- and post-paradigm age, but, still, we cannot escape the institution and its rule-setting, something which seems to govern particular interpretations from a vantage point. Nevertheless, he contends that none of this is as sad or restrictive as one might originally suspect: at the bottom, interpretive grades of freedom result precisely from the curbs, rules and tacit bodies of knowledge fostered and conveyed by the institution itself. Towards the end of the essay, though, Kermode gently backpedals into a position much more akin to Popper’s than Kuhn’s, championing an idea of science based on incremental knowledge. At this juncture, I would be inclined to disagree with him and subscribe a more Kuhnian view of literary interpretation. Still, his general argument is acceptable: we cannot really elude institutional control over interpretation. I do not believe, however, that something special or transcendent follows from the fact. Or that we are entitled, like Kermode did, to compare literary interpretation ← 7 | 8 → with religious institutions – partly because no one, within the literary apparatus, possesses sufficient coercive power to excommunicate elusive practitioners: “heretics” are well tolerated, it seems. The problem with institutions seems to be that, when governed by a similar body for decades, it creates the illusion that there is nothing beyond the established paradigm. And that is partially why literary theory, in a large portion of the 20th century the queen of literary studies, has shrunk into a mere sideshow nobody seriously wants to carry on.

Literary theory failed to deliver its promises. For most of the last century, it has insisted on transforming interpretation’s universal claims into a circumscribed “art of reading” literature and, especially, poetry. And so, failed miserably in answering the questions from which it departed and had established it as a stalemate of humanistic thought and education. We are still, to a large extent, at odds with the putative differences between humanistic and scientific epistemologies; not sure of what literary meaning is (should there be such a thing); if biographical inference is valid as interpretive tool; or if a literary work is liable for having multiple meanings and, accordingly, many different interpretations. On account of the persistent inability of correctly positing these and other questions, literary theory was relentlessly torpedoed from (roughly) the 1970’s on. Again, it failed to understand that the world was changing and the generations of well-trained specialists in rhymes and internal structures it had educated were unable to rescue it. Other disciplines and fields, relying on the performative side of the pursuit of knowledge, invaded the landscape and converted literary theory into an umbrella version (plainly, “theory”) which prompted a major shift within literary studies. Instead of wondering about iambic pentameters or rationally arguing against interpreting Poe’s works under the light of him being an orphan, practitioners were now championing minorities and looking for traces of jazz, chess or bicycle races in literature. So, we went from one edge of the spectrum to the other in just under a couple of decades.

I am not interested in finding out who is to blame or, even, if there are any real culprits for that matter. Just the same way, I am not convinced that literary theory’s comparatively minor role in the academic landscape of the day is, in itself, regrettable. The main argument of this book is that, instead of leaping forward in a confused, multifarious, even gaudy way, we need to take several steps back and rationally concentrate on a limited set of fundamental questions which have not been fully exhausted by theory’s 20th century obsession with rhymes, associations and internal properties of literary texts. This means, perhaps, that whenever we jump onto a text in order to interpret it, we must be aware of the implications our methods, assumptions and beliefs have upon the hermeneutic construction ← 8 | 9 → of literary objects. So, positing certain questions the right way helps (even if we are unable to always provide definitive answers to them) fostering the idea that literary theory is, indeed, a rational endeavour. And though this obviousness is plain within Kermode’s institution, it remains unclear to me if so-called “common” readers are to be brushed off the equation. In the end, it seems, stating “I like this book” or writing a 700-page study of an unknown medieval poet from Nepal are instances of one and the same activity. Of course, they differ in length, sophistication and detail, but there is no substantive reason to suppose a difference in kind is at stake. Interpretation, it turns out, is universal – common to all rational, culturally-conditioned people.

Now, if the reader allows me to, I’ll wrap up with a biographical note. I decided to pursue literary theory around the turn of the century, and for two main reasons. The first was a poor grade received in an American Literature course after attempting at a biographical reading of a couple of Poe’s criminal short-stories. The professor, who came to be a friend afterwards, adamantly refused my arguments for the possibility of engaging in such a hermeneutic stance – a resolute formalist, he simply did not allow students to cross over into the biographical mode. The second was having discovered literary theory around 1999, in a course delivered by Stephen D. Wilson, the man I blame for all my subsequent academic ventures. After graduating, I naturally followed up my interest and took an MA in literary theory. The dissertation, presented in 2004 at the University of Lisbon (Portugal), lead to a revised text which constitutes this book. I wish to thank my supervisor, António M. Feijó, who also went on to be my Ph.D. supervisor, along with Miguel Tamen, some years later. I would also like to thank Ute Winkelkötter and Michael Rücker at Peter Lang, for all the effort put into this project, and Professor Wojciech Kalaga, General Editor of the Literary and Cultural Theory series, for all the acceptance and encouragement. I am deeply grateful to all.

Ricardo Namora, June 2017 ← 9 | 10 →


ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2018 (September)
Literary Theory Literary Criticism Interpretation Text-immanence Authorial intention Literary meaning
Frankfurt am Main, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Warszawa, Wien, 2017. 130 pp.

Biographical notes

Ricardo Namora (Author)

Ricardo Namora studied Modern Languages and Literatures (French and English Studies) and Portuguese Literature at the University of Coimbra (Portugal). He holds a Ph.D. in Literary Theory from the University of Lisbon (Portugal). His research focuses on studies in the history of Hermeneutics.


Title: Before the Trenches