Culture Magazine

An Open Letter to Dan Everett About Literary Criticism

By Bbenzon @bbenzon

If you've heard of Dan Everett at all, most likely you've heard about his work among the Pirahã and his battle with Noam Chomsky and the generative grammarians. He went into the Amazon to live among the Pirahã in the mid-1970s with the intention of learning their language, translating the Bible into it, and converting them to Christianity. Things didn't work out that way. Yes, he learned their language, and managed to translate a bit of the Bible into it. But, no, he didn't convert them. They converted him, as it were, so he is now an atheist.

Not only did Everett learn Pirahã, but he compiled a grammar and reached the conclusion - a bit reluctantly at first - that it lacks recursion. And recursion is the property that Chomsky believes is irreducibly intrinsic to human language. And so Everett found himself in pitched battle with Chomsky, the man whose work revolutionized linguistics in the mid-1950s. If that interests you, well you can run a search on something like "Everett Chomsky recursion" (don't type the quotes into the search box) and get more hits than you can shake a stick at.

I've never met Dan face-to-face, but I know him on Facebook where I'm one him one of 10 to 20 folks who chat with him on intellectual matters. Not so long ago I reviewed his most recent book, Dark Matter of the Mind, over at 3 Quarks Daily. I thus know him, after a fashion.

And so I thought I'd address an open letter to him on my current hobbyhorse: What's up with literary criticism?

I've been trying to make sense of literary criticism for a long time. In particular, I've been trying to figure out why literary critics give so little descriptive attention to the formal properties of literary texts. I don't expect you to answer the question for me but, who knows, as an outsider to the discipline with an interest in language and culture, perhaps you might have an idea or two.

I figured I'd start by quoting a fellow linguist, one moreover with an affection for Brazil, Haj Ross. Then I look at Shakespeare as a window into the practice of literary criticism. I introduce the emic/etic distinction in that discussion. After that we'll take a look at Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness in the course of which I introduce the question, What would I teach in a first level undergraduate class? I find that to be a very useful way of thinking about the discipline; I figure that might also appeal to you as a Dean and Acting Provost. I conclude by returning to the abstractosphere by distinguishing between naturalist and ethical criticism. Alas, it's a long way through, so you might want to pour yourself a scotch.

Haj's Problem: Interpretation and Poetics

Let's start with the opening paragraphs from a letter that Haj Ross has posted to Of course you know who Haj is, but I think it's useful to note that, back in the 1960s when he was getting a degree in linguistics under Chomsky at MIT, he was also studying poetics under Roman Jakobson at Harvard, and that, over the years, he has produced a significant body of descriptive work on poetry that, for the most part, exists 'between the cracks' in the world of academic publication. The letter is dated November 30, 1989 and it was written when Haj was in Brazil at Departamento de Lingüística, Universidade Federal de Minas Gerais, Belo Horizonte [1]. He's not sure whom he wrote it to, but thinks it was one Bill Darden. He posted it with the title "Kinds of meanings for poetic architectures" and with a one-line abstract: "How number can become the fabric on which the light of the poem can be projected". Here's the opening two paragraphs:

You correctly point out that I don't have any theory of how all these structures that I find connect to what/how the poem means. You say that one should start with a discussion of meaning first.

That kind of discussion, which I have not heard much of, but already enough for me, I think, seems to be what people in literature departments are quite content to engage in for hours. What I want to know, however, is: what do we do when disputes arise as to what two people think something means? This is not a straw question - I have heard Freudians ram Freudian interpretations down poems' throats, and I think also Marxists, etc., and somehow, just as most discussions among Western philosophers leave me between cold and impatient, so do these literary ones. So, for that matter, do purely theoretical, exampleless linguistic discussions. Armies may march on their stomachs; I march on examples. So I would much rather hear how the [p]'s in a poem are arrayed than about how the latent Oedipal etc., etc. In the former case, I know where to begin to make comments, in the latter, ich verstumme.

You'll have to read the whole letter to find out what he meant by that one-line abstract, but I assure you that it's both naïve and deep at one and the same time, mentioning, among other things, the "joy of babbling" and the role of the tamboura in Indian classical music. At the moment I'm interested in just those two opening paragraphs.

While I got my degree in literary criticism and understand the drive/will to meaning, I also understand Haj's attraction to verifiable pattern/structures and his willingness to pursue that even though he cannot connect it to meaning. Yes, meaning is the primary objective of academic literary criticism and, yes, justifying proposed meanings is (deeply) problematic. I also know that the academic discipline of literary criticism was NOT founded on the activity of interpreting texts. It was founded in the late 19th century on philology, literary history, and editing - that is, editing the canonical literary works for study by students and scholars. Roughly speaking, the interest in interpretation dates back to the second quarter of the 20th century, but it didn't become firmly institutionalized until the third quarter of the century. You can see that institutionalization in this Ngram search on the phrase "close reading", which is a term of art for interpretive analysis:

An Open Letter to Dan Everett about Literary Criticism

Figure 1: "Close reading"

And that's when things became interesting. As more and more critics came to focus on interpretation, the profession became acutely aware of a problem: different critics produced different interpretations, which is the correct interpretation? Some critics even began to wonder whether or not there was such a thing as the correct interpretation. We are now well within the scope of the problem that bothered Haj: How do you justify one interpretation over another?

That's the issue that was in play when I entered Johns Hopkins as a freshman in 1965. Though I had declared an interest in psychology once I'd been accepted I gravitated toward literature. Which means that, even as I was working as hard as I could to figure out how to interpret a literary text, I was also party to conversations about the problematic nature of interpretation. As I have written elsewhere about those years at Hopkins [2] there's no need to recount them here. The important point is simply that literary critics were acutely aware of the problematic nature of interpretation and devoted considerable effort to resolving the problem.

In the course of that problematic thrashing about, literary critics turned to philosophy, mostly Continental (though not entirely), and linguistics, mostly structuralist linguistics. In 1975 Jonathan Culler published Structuralist Poetics, which garnered him speaking invitations all over America and made his career. For Culler, and for American academia, structuralism was mostly French: Saussure, Jakobson (not French, obviously), Greimas, Barthes, and Lévi-Strauss, among others. But Culler also wrote of literary competence, clearly modeled on Chomsky's notion of linguistic competence, and even deep structure. At this point literary critics, not just Culler, were interested in linguistics.

Here's a paragraph from Culler's preface (xiv-xv):

The type of literary study which structuralism helps one to envisage would not be primarily interpretive; it would not offer a method which, when applied to literary works, produced new and hitherto unexpected meanings. Rather than a criticism which discovers or assigns meanings, it would be a poetics which strives to define the conditions of meaning. Granting new attention to the activity of reading, it would attempt to specify how we go about making sense of texts, what are the interpretive operations on which literature itself, as an institution, is based. Just as the speaker of a language has assimilated a complex grammar which enables him to read a series of sounds or letters as a sentence with a meaning, so the reader of literature has acquired, through his encounters with literary works, implicit mastery of various semiotic conventions which enable him to read series of sentences as poems or novels endowed with shape and meaning. The study of literature, as opposed to the perusal and discussion of individual works, would become an attempt to understand the conventions which make literature possible. The major purpose of this book is to show how such a poetics emerges from structuralism, to indicate what it has already achieved, and to sketch what it might become.

However much critics may have been interested in this book, that interest did not produce a flourishing poetics. Even Culler himself abandoned poetics after this book. Interpretation had become firmly established as the profession's focus.

As for the problem of justifying one interpretation over another, deconstructive critics argued that the meaning of texts was indeterminate and so, ultimately, there is no justification. Reader response critics produced a similar result by different means. The issue was debated into the 1990s and then more or less put on the shelf without having been resolved.

I have no quarrel with that. I think the basic problem is that literary texts of whatever kind - lyric or narrative poetry, drama, prose fiction - are different in kind from the discursive texts written to explicate them. There is no well-formed way of translating meaning from a literary to a discursive text. When you further consider that different critics may have different values, the problem becomes more intractable. Interpretation cannot, in principle, be strongly determined.

What, you might ask, what about the meaning that exists in a reader's mind prior to any attempt at interpretation? Good question. But how do we get at THAT? It simply is not available for inspection.

What happens, though, when you give up the search for meaning? Or, if not give up, you at least bracket it and subordinate it to an interest in pattern and structure as intrinsic properties of texts? Is a poetics possible? Let's set that aside for awhile and take a detour though the profession's treatment of The Bard, William Shakespeare, son of a glover and London actor.

Will the Real Shakespeare Stand Up

Shakespeare is at the center of the Anglophone literary universe. While there was undoubtedly a real William Shakespeare back in the 16th and 17th centuries, the exalted author, The Bard, is a cultural construction of considerable sophistication and complexity. That complexity exceeds my knowledge, but I want to at least indicate its outlines.

So, imagine you attend a performance of some Shakespeare play. This performance is a "standard" performance, no Shakespeare in modern dress, no avant-garde scenery, no fancy lighting. Just Shakespeare the "old-fashioned" way. The text, though, will be spoken with modern pronunciation, not Elizabethan, which would be something of a specialty item in any event, so special that it would likely qualify as avant-garde. Moreover, whatever edition the director chooses is likely to have bits cut here and there. Why? Because most Shakespeare plays run a bit long and it's standard to cut parts out. Moreover, it's likely to have scenery, which will, in turn, require breaks to change it. The Elizabethan theater didn't use scenery, hence no breaks for changes, and things moved along at a quicker pace. Thus whatever you see is not going to be what played in Shakespeare's London.

Where did those Hamlet texts come from? Here I'm not thinking about the fact that the Hamlet story is older than Shakespeare. I have something different in mind. When a modern playwright writes a play, they do so with the intention that it will be performed by whoever pays the licensing fee. Shakespeare - the London actor and glover's son - didn't work that way. He wrote for the company he was attached to (and in which he owned shares). He knew who was going to act the parts.

Do you think, then, that he would have suited the parts, not to some ideal actor, but to the real actors in his company? Is it even possible that those actors may have suggested things to him that he then incorporated into his script? Is it further possible that the published texts might reflect improvisations the actors offered up during performance and that Shakespeare incorporated into the text that he sent off to the printer? We don't really know.

In making this last round of remarks I'm thinking of a rather different and more recent artist, Duke Ellington. Ellington didn't write for any band in general; he wrote specifically for his band. His personnel were relatively stable, as those things went, with some musicians staying with him for decades. And we know that he took ideas from his musicians - and some have complained bitterly about it. It's not unreasonable to speculate that Shakespeare might have done the same.

My point, then, is that when you attend a performance of Shakespeare, the lines you're listening to were created by a committee, albeit one spread out in space and time. There is little doubt that the glover's son was the chief and by far the most important and influential member of that committee, but other hands and other minds have been messing with the text.

At this point you might be thinking that these Shakespeare texts are almost as mystified as the Bible. The Biblical texts of course are much older, and we know considerably less about the circumstances of their creation, assembly, and transmission. Thus our best accounts of these texts are at one and the same time more elaborate and less definitive than our accounts of the Shakespeare texts. But in both cases there comes a point where the cultural apparatus we've built around the texts simply disappears. If you will, it sinks into the dark matter of society's mind and becomes invisible. What remains visible is, in one case, the powerful though mortal word of The Bard, and in the other case, the sacred and immortal Word of God.

Let me push this just one step further. Shakespeare as we know him today is an emic construction created by a tribe of academic specialists working from a somewhat limited collection of ( etic) objects - early editions of the plays plus a variety of other documentary and artifactual materials - and employing an ever evolving conceptual and methodological apparatus. As I understand it the emic/etic distinction originated in the distinction between phonemics and phonetics within linguistics and has become generalized within anthropology, starting with Kenneth Pike, where it is generally glossed as the insider's view of a culture, emic, versus the outsider's view, etic. In the typical case where a Western educated anthropologist is studying a preliterate society somewhere in the world, the anthropologist is clearly the outsider. In that case the force of the distinction is to make the investigator acutely aware of the difference between their views of the world and the views of the people they're studying.

But, while we, you and I, qualify as sophisticated Western-educated investigators, the cultural tradition we've been examining in this letter happens to be our own. So how could the emic/etic distinction possibly be relevant? Well, perhaps it isn't. But that's the tool I've got, so I'm going to use it. And if it breaks, well, that's OK.

In the first place I note that we live in an enormously complex society containing many subcultures and that each of us participates in several of these subcultures to one degree or another. The tribe of academic Shakespeareans is one such subculture. They have various duties and produce various things, among them, editions of Shakespeare texts. While some of those editions are intended primarily for other members of their tribe, many are intended for the public at large.

Jamil and Jeanette Q. Public know little or nothing about the Academic Shakespeareans. When they see Denzel Washington, Kenneth Branagh, and Emma Thompson dancing around on the screen in a movie version of Much Ado About Nothing, they likely think they're watching something more or less created by The Bard Hisownself, albeit with a little help from Hollywood. They know nothing about what the tribe of Shakespeareans had to do to come up with the words at the heart of the shooting script for that film (nor do most of them know much about shooting scripts).

But, let me ask you, when the Shakespeareans regularize and modernize the spelling they find in those old texts, aren't they doing that because there is something foreign, something alien about them? Even the most casual Penguin paperback edition of a Shakespeare play will have its pages weighted down with footnotes glossing the meanings of words. Why? Because those words no longer exist in the language; they are foreign words that belong to a somewhat foreign language that is, however, a recognizable relative of modern English.

And the culture, Elizabethan England is a very different culture in a very different society. It was a monarchy and the monarch did double-duty as head of the church. No democracy, no separation of church and state. It was a world where the difference between an aristocrat and a commoner was conceived of as a difference in kind, not merely of material circumstance and history. It was also a world in which capital punishment and torture were legitimate and common, on occasion even the focus of public spectacle. And so on for a long list of differences. The differences are so substantial that in the 1980s the tribes of literary critics created something called the New Historicism to deal with that kind of difference.

Now, there's nothing esoteric or hidden about these things. I'm not breaking any tribal oaths in telling you these things. Heck, I'm not myself a member of the Academic Shakespearians, though I've studied with some of them and read their books and articles. There's little in this story that's controversial.

But, and here's the point, these are the people who are telling Haj Ross to put meaning first, that the patterns that so engage him aren't important unless he can relate them to a poem's meaning. Moreover, remember that for most of their history those Shakespeare plays made their way in the world without benefit of the interpretive commentary that has becoming the focus of literary criticism since World War II. Those critical readings, our interpretations of those oh so carefully 'laundered' texts, are they emic or etic? Does it make sense to say that, with respect to Shakespeare and his contemporaries they cannot but be etic, the work of outsiders? With respect to us, that is, those of us not of the tribe of Shakespeare critics, they are emic, but they work best in that function to the extent that we forget about the apparatus that's constructed them.

Thus, when critics talk of "reading" a text, more often than not they mean, "produce a written interpretation" of a text. Sometime in the 1960s and 70s, I believe, literary critics began eliding the distinction between reading in the ordinary sense, where it's one of the three Rs, and interpretive reading, which is something one learns through a multiyear apprenticeship among the tribes of literary critics. The effect of that elision is to disappear the critical apparatus into the mind's dark matter.

When literary critics complain that Haj isn't concerned about meaning they are, ipso facto, complaining that he's stepping outside the circle of mystification. When linguists work as linguists they step outside of language and examine it as an etic object, even when working on their own language. When working on their native language they may call on their emic intuitions, but their basic intellectual stance is that of an outsider. And that's what Haj does when he's working on poetry. For the most part he works on English poetry, generally fairly recent poetry, and he calls on his emic intuitions as a speaker of English, but his basic stance is that of a linguist, an outsider. As far as literary critics are concerned, he's sinning.

Meaning in Conrad's Heart of Darkness

Now I want to look at a particular text, Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, which is one of the texts most frequently taught in undergraduate courses. Why is it so popular? Well, it's relatively short, 40,000 words, which is a consideration, albeit a minor one. Surely it's popular for its subject matter - roughly, European imperialism in Africa ¬- and, secondarily, Conrad's impressionist style. Still, why, why do those things matter?

Let's look at a short statement by J. Hillis Miller, a senior and very respected literary critic. He is old enough to have gotten his degree at Harvard at a time when, in his view, few in the English Department there were much good at interpreting texts. Moreover he is one in the first generation of deconstructive critics. Shortly after the turn of the millennium the Association of Departments of English honored him for his fifty years in the profession. Of his early days as a faculty member at Johns Hopkins, the 1950s and 1960s, Miller tells us:

English literature was taken for granted as the primary repository of the ethos and the values of United States citizens, even though it was the literature of a foreign country we had defeated almost two hundred years earlier in a war of independence. That little oddness did not seem to occur to anyone. As the primary repository of our national values, English literature from Beowulf on was a good thing to teach. [3]

Which is to say, literature is taught as a vehicle for cultural indoctrination. Of course you know that; you don't need Hillis Miller to tell you that. But I just wanted to get the idea explicitly on the record along with that little (emic) irony about English literature in the United States - Miller had earlier pointed out that, at the time, American literature was marginal in the academy, at least at Hopkins. And what I'm wondering is if the original impetus behind interpretive criticism wasn't cultural anxiety: Just who are we and what are our values? Let's set that aside for the moment, though I'll return to it at the end of this section.

Just a bit more about Heart of Darkness, which is a relatively straight-forward story. A pilot, Charles Marlow, needs a gig. He calls on an aunt who gets him an interview with a continental firm which hires him to pilot a steamer up the Congo River to a trading station that has gone incommunicado. Marlow's job is make contact with the station agent, who is regarded as a real up-and-comer. Marlow is to recover the ivory that Kurtz has, presumably, been accumulating. Marlow is our narrator. Actually, he tells the story to an unnamed third party, who then tells it to us, but we can skip that detail. That third party presents the bulk of the story to us as Marlow's own words. Marlow's steamer is crewed by native Africans and, in addition to personnel from the trading company, there are pilgrims on board.

Marlow is presented as a brilliant and talented man who went to Africa to earn enough money to make him worthy of his Intended; we don't learn this last detail until late in the story, nor are we ever told her name. We're also led to believe that Kurtz has gone mad, setting himself up as a demi-god to the natives and taking a native mistress. As for those natives, it is clear that they have been very badly treated by the Europeans.

Whatever else is going on, Heart of Darkness is an indictment of European imperialism in Africa. And yet in 1975 Chinua Achibe, the Nigerian novelist, set off bombshells when he delivered a lecture, "An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad's Heart of Darkness" [4]. How could Heart of Darkness be racist, people objected, when the text obviously condemns imperialism? Easy, goes the rejoinder, for Conrad deprives Africans of agency, depicts them only as victims, and never has even one of them speak. Now, NOW, we've got something to think and talk about. Heart of Darkness may be over a century old, but the issues it embodies are very much alive in this, the 21st century.

Let's shift our focus. Toward the end of his meditation on the profession, Miller observes:

In the fifty years since I joined the Johns Hopkins English department, we have gradually, and now with increasing rapidity, moved out of the print age into the age of electronic media. Radio, cinema, television, DVDs, MP3 music, and the Internet now play more and more the role literature once played as the chief interpellator of citizens' ethos and values. During's literary subjectivity is becoming rarer and rarer among our citizens. They go to movies or watch television. [...] the changes I have named in English departments-the New Criticism; the rise of theory; the development of cultural studies, global English studies, film studies, studies of popular culture, and so on-can be seen as spontaneous attempts to find again the social utility that is being lost for the study of canonical works of English literature. [p. 65]

Thus I note that Bentley doesn't have an English Department, but a Department of English and Media Studies, which is a natural for a small college and thoroughly consistent with how the study of literature diversified into the study of media, though media study has other roots as well.

Why not add a third text into the mix? Seiho Takizawa has drawn and written a manga version that owes debts both to Conrad's novella and Coppola's film [7]. Like Apocalypse Now it's set in Southeast Asia; but it's during World War II and it's a Japanese colonel who's gone rogue. Moreover, over the last two decades manga and anime have become popular in the United States (and throughout the world generally) so there's likely to be a student population familiar with the form. Now we've got three texts and three different media (prose, film, manga - aka Japanese comic book).

How about a fourth text? I'm thinking of the "Congo" episode of Anthony Bourdain's Parts Unknown video series [8]. As you may know, Bourdain is a chef turned I-don't-quite-know-what, but he travels the world eating the local food and using that as a vehicle to introduce us to the local culture. In this episode he journeys to the Congo River and, in his voice-over, he explicitly references Heart of Darkness. The sound track uses quasi-Doors rock reminiscent of the "The End", which Walter Murch used in the opening montage for Coppola's Apocalypse Now, and at one point Bourdain "dubs" (his word) a boat the "Captain Willard" (from Apocalypse Now).

We're now so deep in the inner workings of culture that I'm all but lost. We're dealing with a story written by a Pole, Józef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski, writing in British English as Joseph Conrad, as translated into film by an Italian-American film-maker, Francis Ford Coppola, both of whom have impressed themselves on the imagination of an American-born chef of a somewhat privileged background [9]. How do we distinguish between mine and thine? Moreover, anxiety about cultural 'appropriation' seems to be running rampant. Whatever this cultural process is, it is certainly worth serious thought.

In the large, of course, it's (just) culture. More particularly we're dealing with American culture. But, you know, in Conrad's text, the Africans don't speak. In Bourdain's text they most certainly do, some in African tongues, and some in English.

Now we've got material for a course. For that's what I've got in the back of my mind as I write this, courses. What do you teach in a first level undergraduate course in English literature? Sure, you can teach Heart of Darkness. Give it a week, maybe two (I have no idea what reading lists are like these days), for there are other texts to teach. In THAT course you're never going to get to these other texts, Coppola's film, Takizawa's manga, or Bourdain's episode of culinary adventure. Maybe you can fit all four of these texts into a more specialized upper-level undergraduate course. But you could also incorporate those texts, and more [10] into a professional monograph. Which is to say, the kind of approach to Conrad's text that is appropriate to an entry-level undergraduate course can, in one way or another, also be extended to a specialized monograph for a relatively small professional audience. And that approach centers on meaning: What is the meaning of these images and motifs as they are used and reused in various contexts? Why are they being used?

When Hillis Miller started teaching back in the 1950s Conrad's text was the only one of these four that existed. Even if the others had existed, they wouldn't have been taught because the conceptual matrix that would enable and justify them didn't exist. Heart of Darkness would have been taught as one of the great texts of Western literature, which it is. The implicit contract is that, in reading and thinking about this text, the students will be internalizing important cultural values and attitudes.

The world in which Chinua Achebe could assail Heart of Darkness as racist was rapidly becoming a different world, post-Civil Rights, post-Vietnam, African-American and feminist studies on the rise, and the Western canon was being questioned. Remember the canon wars? When we teach Achebe's critique we may not be asking students to internalize it, but we're certainly asking them to internalize values that recognizes its validity. Apocalypse Now doesn't really change the ethical landscape nor, I think, does Bourdain's show, though I reserve judgment on that, as I've not really thought much about it.

We're now in a world where English departments are beginning to examine popular culture and to teach it. More and more humanists would talk of "cultural studies", which is not, as I'm sure you know, quite what the term itself suggests. Cultural studies is not simply the study of culture; rather, it's the study of certain kinds of culture from a certain, more or less, Marxist point of view. When cultural studies is good, it is, well, it is just that, good.

However, and this may be pushing things a bit, it seems to me that the world of cultural studies is still a world that is dominated by canonical high culture literary texts. Yes, that canon is in question, other texts have been added, and we now examine movies, television shows, comic books, video games, and so forth. But in one way, shape, or form the central issue is that of complicity with, capitulation to, or resistance to (white patriarchal capitalist) hegemonic power. The student of cultural studies is, in part, descended from the Old Testament prophets - which is not a trope I've invented [11].

For myself, if I were to write a monograph covering those four texts - Conrad's novella, Coppola's film, Takizawa's manga, or Bourdain's one-hour video - I'd frame it, not as cultural studies, but as media anthropology [12]. Conducting an anthropological investigation of your own culture is very different from interpreting the sacred texts of your culture. Very different. But that, more or less, is where literary criticism has been heading over last half-century. At the beginning of that period it was the devoted to the somewhat mystified interpretation of quasi-sacred high culture texts - the critic as priest. While that activity still remains, it has somehow managed to elaborate itself into something approaching the investigation of your own culture as though you were a Martian ethnographer with no direct existential stake in the outcome of the investigation. The only thing keeping it from being anthropological is insisting on the insider's stance of critique.

What's happened to the great works of the Western world? What happened to furnishing young minds with the values appropriate to American citizens? Those questions are both real and rhetorical, but I don't ask them out of a sense the bottom is falling out of Western civilization - though, in view of the results of the last Presidential election, we've gotten a bit closer to that.

And this brings us back to the idea that I hazarded at the beginning of this section, that interpretive criticism arose in the American academy out of general anxiety about culture. The strongest single impetus behind interpretive criticism came from a group known as the New Critics [13]. They were largely Christian, agrarian, and Southern. It's not hard to see how that configuration of characteristics would lead to anxiety in the increasingly urban and industrial world of the 20th century with the arrival of technology-mediated mass culture (radio, movies, records). And if that's what drove the emergence of interpretive criticism, well, interpretive has certainly had issues of cultural identity front-and-center for the last four or five decades.

Now, I wouldn't at the moment put too much stock in that idea. Why? Because it just now occurred to me. And I've not done the research needed to back it up. But it sure makes sense.

Independently of that, I'll say it again: it's high time we step back, put the whole business at arm's length, and ask, in all humility: What are we doing?

Pattern in Conrad's Heart of Darkness

Let's now set that aside and come at Heart of Darkness in a different way, a way that's closer to what Haj does with poems. Forget about meaning. It's there and, yes, we will have to attend to it, but it's not the focus of our investigation.

Back in 2011 I'd spent most of July and a bit of August writing a series of substantial posts on Apocalypse Now. Of course I watched the film itself over and over, stepping through some sequences almost frame by frame, but I also listened to the director's commentary. After having listened to Coppola mention Heart of Darkness time and again I decided that it was high time I read it. I checked it out of the library, read it, and began blogging about it. But I also, more or less on principle, downloaded a copy of the text from Project Gutenberg. I didn't have anything in particular in mind, but I figured that, who knows? I might want to annotate a passage or two.

As we've seen, the story is narrated by Charles Marlow, who's piloting a steamer up the Congo River. He tells his story in default order. The first item in the story is the first thing that happened, the second item in the story is the second thing that happened, and so forth. He follows that pattern until he gets to a certain point, where he begins to jump around in time. All of a sudden I found myself reading about things that must have happened after the point we had gotten to in the story, but also before. And all of this was happening within one very long paragraph. "I wonder if this is the longest paragraph in the text?" thought I to myself. And so I decided to check.

If this had been the old days I wouldn't have checked. Counting the words by hand would have been too tedious, even for a novella of 40,000 words; and whether or not that paragraph was the longest didn't seem like much of an issue. But, it's not the old days. I had an electronic text on hand and I had a way of semi-automating the count. I used the word-count function in MSWord to count the words in each paragraph, entered the results into a spreadsheet, and ran up a chart.

An Open Letter to Dan Everett about Literary Criticism

Figure 2: Paragraph Length in Heart of Darkness

Each bar in the chart represents a single paragraph of Heart of Darkness. The length of the bar is proportional to the number of words in the paragraph. The left-to-right order of the bars is the beginning-to-end order of the text. The number of words per paragraph ranges between two and, I believe, 1532.

There, in the middle, that 1532 word paragraph is the one I'd been examining. It's longer than any other paragraph by a significant margin. Moreover, while the distribution is quite spiky, it does seem to have an overall pyramidal form, which I've indicated in red.

Where'd THAT come from? Is it real? For years one of the major issues in literary criticism has been whether or not the meaning a critic finds in a text really is in the text, or just placed there by the critic. Well, that graph is not about meaning, and, given the way I created that chart, it's hard to see how I could have foisted that shape on the text. All I was looking for was to determine whether or not a certain paragraph was the longest one in the text. That pyramidal shape was a complete surprise.

Do we know anything about paragraph length in texts? I didn't know, but I figured there might be someone hanging out at Language Log blog who does know. As soon as I'd posted my 'discovery' at New Savanna I sent a link to Mark Liberman at Language Log, who in turn did a post on the topic [14]. The post generated a long, interesting, and somewhat contentious discussion. From that discussion it seems that not much is known about paragraph length in documents. That is, the population of people who post and comment there didn't come up with any work on the topic. That doesn't mean there is no work, but given the interests of the people who post and comment there, it's a pretty good indication that paragraph length is a prominent topic of investigation.

Mark was kind enough to do a bit of sleuthing on his own. He did the same chart for Conrad's Nostromo (Figure 2). It's a longer text, over 2000 paragraphs vs. 193; and Mark plotted lengths with dots rather than bars.

An Open Letter to Dan Everett about Literary Criticism

Figure 3: Paragraph Length in Nostromo

There are two very long paragraphs, over 800 words long, and a bunch between 400 and 800 words long. But there doesn't seem to be any overall shape to the distribution. If the Heart of Darkness distribution had been more like this, that would have ended my interest in it.

Mark did another book, Henry James' The Golden Bowl. Different author, but same time period (turn of the century). Here's the distribution:

An Open Letter to Dan Everett about Literary Criticism

Figure 4: Paragraph Length in The Golden Bowl

Again, we notice a few very long paragraphs. Moreover, as Mark observed, there does seem to be some clusters consisting of paragraphs over 200 words long. So Mark took a closer look at paragraphs 500 to 700:

An Open Letter to Dan Everett about Literary Criticism

Figure 5: Close-Up: Paragraph Length in The Golden Bowl

That's quite clear. Something's going on. Though I've not read The Golden Bowl, I've taken a quick look through the text. The book is divided into six main sections each of which opens with a stretch of conspicuously long paragraph. That second chart spans the opening of the second section and those long paragraphs - roughly 300 to 1000 words long - are at that point in the text. James appears to open these major sections with a different prose rhythm and that likely accounts for much of the clustering that appears in the first chart.

I further note that I have just found out about some work published by a group of Polish scholars in 2015. They looked a sentence length in 113 literary texts in seven languages [15]. Sentences and paragraphs, of course, are different textual units; but they are same kind of thing, a string of words, and sentences are constituents of paragraphs. Sentence-length variability was not random, but rather displayed fractal-like patterns. The math is beyond me, alas, though I have some general familiarity with fractals. But some of the charts in the article have the spikiness we see in Figure 2, though without the overall pyramidal envelope.

Something appears to be going on, but just what, that's not at all clear.

Let's return to Heart of Darkness. As I indicated at the outset I was attracted to that particular paragraph because it violated the otherwise progressive order of events. But there's more going on than just that.

The story takes us on a journey up the Congo River to reestablish contact with a trading station that has gone silent. Marlow is to recover the ivory that, presumably, has been accumulating there and retrieve the head of the station, Mr. Kurtz. For the first half of the text Kurtz is little more than a mystery attached to name. This longest paragraph just happens to be the first time we learn much of anything about Kurtz. It's a précis of his personal history. The paragraph is not only very long, but also contains crucial information. Hence I've come to call it the nexus.

At this point in the story the steamer is only a couple hours away from Kurtz's trading post. All of a sudden the ship is attacked by natives on the shore. They're shooting arrows and throwing spears. One of the spears catches Marlow's helmsman in the chest - if you've seen Apocalypse Now, you'll remember a scene in the movie modeled on this one in Heart of Darkness. The helmsman drops to the deck, bleeding profusely. It's at this point Marlow interrupts his narrative to give us Marlow's capsule history. When he's finished with that history, what does he do? He returns to his helmsman bleeding out on the deck and pushes him overboard. This nexus paragraph is thus very strongly marked. I find it hard to think of this confluence of features - longest paragraph, centrally situated, personal history of central character, flanked by a bloody death - as being accidental. Whatever process is at work here strikes me as being deliberate, albeit most likely beneath consciousness.

Let's look at the last few lines of this paragraph:

No; I can't forget him [Kurtz], though I am not prepared to affirm the fellow was exactly worth the life we lost in getting to him. I missed my late helmsman awfully,-I missed him even while his body was still lying in the pilot-house. Perhaps you will think it passing strange this regret for a savage who was no more account than a grain of sand in a black Sahara. Well, don't you see, he had done something, he had steered; for months I had him at my back-a help-an instrument. It was a kind of partnership. He steered for me-I had to look after him, I worried about his deficiencies, and thus a subtle bond had been created, of which I only became aware when it was suddenly broken. And the intimate profundity of that look he gave me when he received his hurt remains to this day in my memory-like a claim of distant kinship affirmed in a supreme moment.

Marlow is weighing Kurtz's (European) life against that of the (African) helmsman. One could argue that, to the very large extent that Heart of Darkness is about European imperialism in Africa, those lines constitute the moral fulcrum of the story.

I could say more about the pattern of paragraph lengths in Figure 2. I've got some thoughts about the run of short paragraph at the very end (to the right), which is a conversation between Marlow and Kurtz's fiancé, and I've recently had an idea about the second and third longest paragraphs, the ones that flank that longest paragraph. I've also taken a look the distribution of the name "Kurtz" in the text, which appears to be periodic. Let's set all that aside [16].

Let's just think about the fact that we've got this strongly marked thematically important paragraph at the structural center of this narrative. When I saw that chart (Figure 2) I recognized it as a possible indicator of something I'd seen before: ring-composition. I learned about ring-composition while corresponding with the late Mary Douglas, who wrote a short book on the subject: Thinking in Circles: An Essay in Ring-Composition (Yale 2007). These are narratives of the form

A, B, C ... X ... C', B', A'

where X is the structural center and the other elements are symmetrically deployed about that center. Notice, however, that while the symmetry is obvious in visual display, narratives don't exist that way. They move from the beginning, though the middle, to the end and there is no way to "step back" from the ongoing story so that you can "take in" the symmetry "at a glance." That's what makes it so interesting, and puzzling. What kind of temporal process is structured like that?

Ring composition, often known as chiasmus, has been mostly investigated in Biblical texts and in classical texts. Douglas spent the last years of her career working on the Old Testament, but thought that ring-composition must exist in more recent texts. I'm reasonably convinced she's right about that. Obama's eulogy for Clementa Pinckney just happens to be one such text; but so is the 1954 Japanese film Gojira (reworked and released as Godzilla, King of the Monsters in America in 1956), three episodes of Disney's Fantasia, maybe Apocalypse Now, and who knows what else - I've got more examples [17]. I'd originally argued that Heart of Darkness was a ring composition, after all it does have a prominent structural center, and the whole story is framed at the beginning and end by remarks by that third party narrator I'd mentioned above. Like this:

1 Frame, 2 Main Tale, 3 Nexus, 2' Main tale, 1' Frame.

But I'm not sure I believe that. I'm pretty sure of the structural significance of the nexus paragraph though.

I want more examples so I can compare them. I see no reason why center loading should take only one form. The only way to find out is to consider a variety of examples and that, for better or worse, is an open-ended job that could easily absorb the attention of many critics over a period of years, if not decades.

One example I'm considering is, guess what? Shakespeare's Hamlet. Back in 1972 one Mark Rose had published a slender volume, Shakespearean Design (Harvard UP), in which he examines Shakespeare's dramaturgy. He's not interested in what the plays mean, but in how scenes play against one another, how they run in parallel or echo one another. Rose devotes a chapter to Hamlet and in effect demonstrates that the play is a ring composition. He doesn't make that assertion, but R. G. Peterson did a couple of years later in a literature review, "Critical Calculations: Measure and Symmetry in Literature" ( PMLA 91, 3, May 1976: 367-375). He mentions Rose's book in the course of discussing ring-composition and points out that Rose's analysis amounts to an assertion that Hamlet exhibits ring-form. Until quite recently no critics had attempted to verify that description, despite the fact that Shakespeare is at the center of the Anglophone literary canon and that Hamlet is at the center of the Shakespeare oeuvre.

Late last year, however, James E. Ryan published Shakespeare's Symmetries: The Mirrored Structure of Action in the Plays (McFarland 2016), in which he argues that not only Hamlet, but 25 other plays exhibit ring-composition. He cites Rose of course, but there's really no one else to cite on this particular point. I now own the book, and have glanced through it here and there, but I hesitate to read it. Why, given that I am biased in favor of this thesis? Because it's been years since I've read Shakespeare's plays. Without having the plays fresh in my mind, I cannot reasonably judge Ryan's analyses, and, for various reasons, I'm not at the moment interested in re-reading that much Shakespeare. It's a bit too early for reviews to appear in the formal literature, but I'm not holding my breath.

But, as I said, I'm considering taking a look at Hamlet? Why? Not simply because it's an important play, but because it exists in three significantly different versions. Does each exhibit ring-composition? I don't know. From my point of view the existence of three versions is an opportunity to learn something. That is a contrast with standard critical practice, where it presents a problem for the rather Platonic notion that texts have one best form, and that Ideal Form the proper object of our critical attention.

What do I expect to learn from the study of ring-composition? In the first place I don't think that ring-composition is the only thing worth looking at. I'm looking at it because it is something that has both been identified in the literature and has, at the same time, been neglected. Ring-composition is a fairly specific thing to look for - Mary Douglas has even identified diagnostic criteria ( Thinking in Circles, pp. 35-38). I am interested generally in literary form (morphology) and published a long essay on the subject about a decade ago [18]. So, I'm generally interested in describing the formal features of literary texts. Ring-composition is just one identifiable feature, one that exists in an interesting range of examples. I study it because it is convenient to do so, which, for example, is why geneticists study fruit flies.

Ultimately I'm interested in the mechanisms of the literary mind. But, as you know all too well, mental mechanisms cannot be examined directly. Early in my career I had discovered a complex and symmetrical structure in Coleridge's "Kubla Khan" [19]. By that time I knew something about generative grammar, but I'd also taken a course in computer programming, where I had practical experience in a domain where the difference between, say, a comma and a colon, implied a difference in some process. There were aspects of that structure in "Kubla Khan" that just "smelled" like computation. And so I went off to get a degree in English at Buffalo and found that the department would allow me to apprentice myself to David Hays in the Linguistics Department. Through Hays and his students I learned about computational semantics. I learned enough to examine a Shakespeare sonnet [20], but not enough for "Kubla Khan". As far as I know, that knowledge doesn't (yet) exist.

We're going to need to know a lot more about the mind before we can understand the mechanisms underlying literature. I don't see how we're going to get there unless we have better descriptions of literary texts. There's little point in proposing mechanisms to account for some phenomenon unless you have good descriptions of that phenomenon. We need better descriptions of the patterns in literary texts. That's what Haj Ross is interested in. That's what I'm interested in. There are a few others, but not many.

Contexts of Understanding: Naturalist Criticism and Ethical Criticism

Let's return to the undergraduate classroom. I'm imagining that I'm teaching a first level literature course where Heart of Darkness is one of the texts. Do I introduce that chart in Figure 2, Paragraph Length in Heart of Darkness? It's easy to explain and it's easy to point out that longest paragraph, the one I've called the nexus, in the text. Beyond that, though, what would be the point?

You don't need that figure to draw students' attention to the nexus. And once they're examining that paragraph, they're attention is ipso facto called to the general outline of Kurtz's story. Nor do you need that figure to point out that the nexus is inserted into the text as a digression within the death and disposition of the body of the native helmsman. Given that we are examining that paragraph, there two things we can do. On the one hand we can continue talking about what's going on in the story, a vignette of white colonialism in action. But we can also segue into a discussion of Conrad's craft. How very clever of Conrad, why'd he do it? What's the effect?

Here it seems to me that the basic context of understanding is and must be the world at large: life. That's why we read books and watch movies, to get an experience of/about life that is somehow illuminating. And the basic conversation must be, in one way or another: How does this text illuminate life? I don't see that the pattern of paragraph lengths contributes much to that conversation. In that conversation, that chart is just an odd fact that hangs there like the filament of broken light bulb. No illumination.

However, by the time I'd stumbled into that chart I'd spent years thinking about language as language, rather than using language to communicate with others. I'd spent years studying perceptual, cognitive, and neuro-psychology. And I'd spent years thinking about literature as language and as a manifestation of the mind's power to shape experience. And that's different from thinking about literature as a means of illuminating life. In the latter case you're looking at life. In the former not only are you looking at the mind, but you're assuming that the mind has intrinsic powers grounded in its nature, whatever that is. Whatever you may think of Chomsky's language acquisition device, it's a strong hypothesis about the mind's intrinsic powers and it's stated in terms that didn't exist prior to mid-century work in mathematical logic. While I no longer believe in Chomsky's generative grammar, I still look at language, and literary texts, as a source of clues about the mind's intrinsic powers, and I do so in (more or less) mechanistic terms. I believe that those intrinsic powers require mathematical explication, though I'm not going to be doing that myself.

That's the context in which I saw that chart. That's a context that simply doesn't exist for freshmen and sophomores. With that background that chart is one more clue to some underlying mental process. Without such a background, that chart is just an oddity.

Now, if we actually knew about those mental processes, one could use them as subject matter in a course. But that course wouldn't be a basic literature course. Rather, it would be an upper division course about the mechanisms of the literary mind for lit majors, psych majors, or for others 'with instructor's permission'. Literature as mental mechanism is a very different subject from literature as equipment for living (the latter phrase, incidentally, is the title of a classic pre-WWII essay by Kenneth Burke).

We're now back at J. Hillis Miller and his reflections on the profession [3]. He talks of the humanities as being "especially charged with the combination of Bildung and Wissenschaft, ethical education and pure knowledge" [p. 65]. I rather suspect that, for Miller, literary criticism is a one and the same time both Bildung and Wissenschaft. I don't think that's tenable anymore. Both are important. But the contexts are different.

When we require undergraduates to take literature courses we do so for ethical reasons, where I mean "ethical" in the broadest sense, ethos, a way of life. How should we live? - that's the question. In THAT context all the questions I raised about Shakespeare's texts are niggling details. It really doesn't matter much just which Shakespeare texts 1st or 2nd year undergraduates read, nor does it matter that they know about the issues surrounding those texts. It matters that those texts have been prepared by competent professionals, sure, but those undergraduates need not know what's entailed by that competence. Otherwise what matters is that they read the texts and (learn how to) think seriously about them.

Now, at this point you need to know that, at least since the 1930s, academic literary criticism has been doing a complex dance with "science". The scare quotes are quite deliberate, for the partner in this dance isn't so much science as it is actually practiced (in such diverse disciplines as physics, biology, or, say, sociology) but some ideologically defined Other. From one point of view literary criticism is emphatically NOT science. From another point of view, literary study is as fully coherent and rigorous AS science. This dance is not quite nonsense, but it's maddening and incoherent.

Bring back explicit statements of value preference, not only about what makes good art, but how one ought to live (obviously, they are closely related). Call it ethical criticism and make it the core of undergraduate instruction in literature and other art forms. The context: how to live one's life - though you need to be careful not to impose one's own values on students. I'm pretty sure that there's a research angle here as well, but that's more than I can assay here. But I note that figuring out just what values are available and how one is to rank them is far from obvious.

At the same time we need to recognize naturalist criticism as a different, well, animal. Here one treats literature as a phenomenon of the natural world on a par with the sun, the oceans, bacteria, and eucalyptus trees. This is where you look at patterns of language in literary texts and seek to describe them. This is where you attempt to figure out how it is that human brains take pleasure in reading such texts. Here the context is not living one's life; it is the intrinsic properties of neural tissue and the imperatives of coherent brain processing.

Now, I'm talking as though there were a categorical division between ethical and naturalist criticism. It's not that simple and neat. And I can hear any number of literary critics violently whispering in one ear or another, but of course we're interested in literature as mental process, you ninny! [21]. Well, yes, they've got a point. And what of the Lacanians? I'm guessing they're no more your cup of tea than they are mine, but you can't say they're not looking at the mind. Or can you?

As this letter has gone on far too long, this is not a discussion I want to entertain [22]. The crucial point, though, is a simple one: Whatever their conception of the literary mind, it is not one that leads critics to undertake careful descriptive study of literary texts. By way of comparison I offer all those journalists who write about their pet peeves about how English is spoken or written. You can't say they're not interested in language. They obviously are. But they're not interested in language in the way a linguist is. The comparison is a bit unfair to the literary critics, but the fact remains that have trouble conceiving of literary texts as linguistic objects with formal properties worthy of their attention.

I offer another comparison, Renaissance astronomy. They managed to keep the geocentric model spinning by adding on epicycles. That's what the literary cognitivists are doing. Their literary mind is a mind that's focused on the world, rather than reveling in the exercise of its own properties. Why can't they attend to those properties and make them the center of their investigation? It's the difference between thinking of the mind's powers as having instrumental value in dealing with the world versus a conception that thinks of the mind as wanting to have fun. Of course, when it comes time to explain things, we need to explain why having fun is so very important to the health of brains and the people who have them. Perhaps having a library of well-described texts will help us understand that.

But you know what, Dan, I hear another chorus of violent whispers: but of course we know that the mind wants to have fun!

I don't believe them, Dan. I don't believe them. Perhaps they know it as private individuals. But as academic professionals, they haven't got a clue.

[2] And if, perchance, you're curious about this controversy, here's a short article: Jumana Farouky, "The Mystery of Shakespeare's Identity", Time, Sept. 13, 2007, URL:,8599,1661619,00.html

[3] J. Hillis Miller, My Fifty years in the Profession, ADE Bulletin, No. 133, Winter 2003, p. 64.

[11] See Geoffrey Hartman, The Fate of Reading, University of Chicago Press, 1975, p. 267:

A great interpreter like Erich Auerbach, a great critic-scholar like E.R. Curtius, a prodigal son like Kenneth Burke, or men of letters like Paul Valéry and Edmund Wilson, who practiced the minor mode of prophecy we call criticism, are not annulled by the fact that they may be explicitly writing about the writing of others.

[14] Mark Liberman, Markov's Heart of Darkness, Language Log (blog), July 18, 2011, URL:

[15] Stanisław Drożdż, Paweł Oświęcimka, Andrzej Kulig, Jarosław Kwapień, Katarzyna Bazarnik, Iwona Grabska-Gradzińska, Jan Rybicki, Marek Stanuszek, Quantifying origin and character of long-range correlations in narrative texts, Information Sciences, 331, 2016: 32-44, DOI: 10.1016/j.ins.2015.10.023

[19] My original work took the form of an unpublished MA thesis at Johns Hopkins. I eventually published that work in two different articles. The most recent one, William Benzon, "Kubla Khan" and the Embodied Mind, PsyArt: A Hyperlink Journal for the Psychological Study of the Arts, November 29, 2003,

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