Culture Magazine

The Hermeneutic Hairball: Intuition, Tracking, and Sniffing out Patterns

By Bbenzon @bbenzon
This post serves three purposes: 1) It’s an elaboration on the middle section of a post from last month, Still, why do literary critics find it so difficult to focus on form? 2) It continues my reflections on intuition. 3) It’s push-back on the idea that the humanities are valuable as a means of teaching critical thinking.
On the last, gimme a break! What learning doesn’t require critical thinking skills? But you have to find something on which to ground your criticism, something to pull it from the sludge. That’s what this post is about.
What was so good about Derrida?
Let’s start with some observations J. Hillis Miller made almost a decade ago in an interview with Jeffrey Williams in the minnesota review [1]:
I learned a lot from myth criticism [referring to Northrup Frye], especially the way little details in a Shakespeare play can link up to indicate an “underthought” of reference to some myth or other. It was something I had learned in a different way from Burke. Burke came to Harvard when I was a graduate student and gave a lecture about indexing. What he was talking about was how you read. I had never heard anybody talk about this. He said what you do is notice things that recur in the text, though perhaps in some unostentatious way. If something appears four or five times in the same text, you think it's probably important. That leads you on a kind of hermeneutical circle: you ask questions, you come back to the text and get some answers, and you go around, and pretty soon you may have a reading.
That’s it, noticing patterns in texts, unostentatious patterns. That’s where the good stuff is.
Derrida was good at it as well. Referring to a passage in Remembrance of Things Past:
What Derrida did that I never would have thought of was to notice that the whole passage is based on words in pris: apprendre, comprendre, prendre. Those words are perfectly translatable, but lose their play on pris—I understood: j'ai compris. Derrida noticed these words and their recurrence in a way that helps you to understand the way the passage is put together and the meaning it has. Derrida was a genius in doing that sort of reading. That's why Derrida for me is even more important for his way of reading than for his invention of big concepts like différance.
There’s that notion again, “recurrence”. And why would Miller think Derrida’s ability to spot such patterns is more important that his ability to invent “big concepts”? Could it be that (at least some of) those big concepts are about what you uncover as you come to terms those unobtrusive patterns. If you’re out to deconstruct something, if that’s your critical game, those patterns tell you where to start pulling on the threads to unravel the cloth.
But how do you LEARN to do that, notice interesting things, diagnostic signs, in texts? Surely you learn it by doing it. A teacher works though it in lecture, and prods and nudges during class discussion. You read examples. You write your own examples, getting feedback from teachers and more experienced students. Getting good at it takes years. There are no shortcuts.
Markings and patterns
And that’s what I was doing, largely for myself, during those months and years working on “Kubla Khan” decades ago at Johns Hopkins. By that time I had had four years of undergraduate instruction in various subjects, including literature. I’d written, say, a dozen or more critical papers, and gotten them critiqued. I had the example of what Lévi-Strauss had done with myth, in The Raw and the Cooked, and in various essays, including one on some Winnebago myths. And there was some essays about poems as well, by Lévi-Strauss, Roman Jakobson, and Michael Riffaterre. But it was mostly Lévi-Strauss on myth.
That got me started. But it wasn’t enough to bring me home. I made worksheets, worksheet after worksheet. I’d type out the text of “Kubla Khan” in double-space or triple-space and then mark it up. I must have done that half a dozen times or so. Here’s a fragment from one such sheet:
Notice that I’ve numbered the lines (down the left edge) and that I’ve made various kinds of notations in three, maybe four colors of in, black, blue, red, and I believe green (running vertically in the left margin). I’ve underlined and circles various words and phrases, used various lines and brackets to connect things across lines – in this I was inspired by an illustration in the notes to “Kubla Khan” in the edition I was working from, edited I believe by Kathleen Coburn. And I’ve written various kinds of comments all over the place. Some comments seem descriptive: “spatial limitation” (line 6), “enclosing fertility” (7), “water” (8), “radiating” (9), and “earth” (10). Others are more interpretive: “music takes one down & away” (to the right of ll. 3 & 4), “Nature” (on the rightmost red bracket), and “Man as object” (line 1). Notice, though, that the interpretation is rather “shallow”. I’m not trying to decode symbols. I’m classifying and organizing. I’m looking for patterns.
I produced sheets and sheets of this kind of stuff over a period of some months. But things weren’t coming together, not like in the examples that had inspired me, Lévi-Strauss on myth. And yes, I put a stop to this and pulled things together, but not in the way I’d been looking for. Just how I did that, though, is secondary to my current line of thought. Set it aside.
What’s important is that I covered sheets and sheets of paper with those kinds of markings, comments, underlining & circling, connecting lines of various scope, and in various colors. What was building up in my mind as I did all that, the physical process of making the marks as well as the process of seeing them? I’m thinking it must have been some detailed sense of how bits and pieces in a text connected with one another in various ways and over various scales, immediate adjacency, several lines away, half a poem away. You’ve heard of the hermeneutic circle, the idea that a part gets its meaning from its context in the whole and the meaning of the whole is, in turn, constructed from the meaning of the parts. Interpretation thus requires you to move back and forth between part and whole, part and whole, round and round. What I was riding was more like a tangled hairball of meaning, following the threads here, there and every which way.
And that’s how I build the core of my intuitive matrix, if I may call it that. It’s that matrix that I float out over a text as I try to spot unobtrusive patterns. I’ll go so far as to say that matrix, that hermeneutic hairball, is about slots and fillers, about how patterns are created by the multi-level multi-scale mapping of slots into fillers. It’s about the many ways one can project similarity from the paradigmatic to the syntagmatic axis of language, to use Jakobson’s formulation [2, 3].
Yes, I need to say more about that. But not now. Now I must plow ahead.
I wrapped up that initial work on “Kubla Khan” late in 1972 and headed to SUNY Buffalo in the fall of 1973 where I began course-work for my Ph.D. I signed up for a course on the traditional narrative taught by Bruce Jackson and read Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (for the second time, I’d been through it as an undergraduate as well). I latched on to the Third Fit and did a structuralist analysis of it. That analysis was in fact much more like the models I’d had before me in my work on “Kubla Khan”.
The Third Fit consisted of three sections, one of the events of each of three days. Each day followed the same four part pattern: 1) Bertilak goes out for a hunt, 2) Gawain prowls the castle, 3) Bertilak finishes his hunt, and 4) Bertilak and Gawain meet at the end of the day an exchange their ‘winnings’. There you have it, slots and fillers on several scales.
0) The text as a whole: (four slots (Fits). 1) The Third Fit as a whole: three slots (days). 2) Each day fills one of those slots: four slots (hunt, castle, hunt, exchange)
That’s two scales. Each hunt has a slot for the animal hunted: deer on the first day, wild boar on the second, and fox on the third. There are other slots and other fillers at that level, and so forth.
My point is that all that work on “Kubla Khan” had given me the ability to spot such patterns in an almost perceptual way, like seeing apples and oranges in a fruit bowl. In this case, the trick was to figure out what was peculiar about the fillers for the slots on the third day. But I’m not going to explain that here. If you’re curious, read the essay [4].
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight was a different kind of text from “Kubla Khan”. “Kubla Khan” was a 54-line lyric; Sir Gawain was a narrative poem of some 3000 lines and 21,000 words. It’s one thing to spot unobtrusive patterns in a texts you can see in a single sweep of the eyes, like “Kubla Khan”. That’s not possible with a 3000 line narrative, even if you’re only concentrating on a quarter of that narrative (c. 750 lines). I am of course talking about the physical problem of running your mind over the whole thing, of gathering it into a net, the HERMENEUTIC HAIRBALL, and somehow grasping it whole. Until that physical problem is solved, you’ve got nothing to interpret.
How’d I solve it? I don’t know. I certainly marked up my text, and likely in different colors too (it’s currently in storage, so I can’t check). But I assure you, I didn’t type out the whole thing time after time. However I did it, I was building on what I had done with “Kubla Khan” (where I was in turn building on four years of undergraduate study). Whatever it was that I did, it extended the range of my tangled descriptive net.
Question for digital humanists: Got any tools that make it easier to get intuitive physical-perceptual control over novel length texts?
Other versions
The Third Fit of Sir Gawain involves three hunts. Though I’ve never done, I figure that animal tracking must involve a similar intuitive process. You go out in the wild and look for signs that animals have passed. If the ground is soft and free of grass and other vegetation, and the animal’s been through recently, you’ll see clean footprints. Alas, the ground isn’t always soft and clear, and maybe the animal passed through a couple of days ago. Then the signs won’t be so distinct, they won’t “hail” you so loudly (to use I term I have from Louis Althusser by way of Michael Bérubé). But to the experienced eye, and ear, and nose, there will be signs. A broken twig, the chirping of birds, or their unaccustomed silence, little things, all signs of what’s been by.
On the one had you need to know what you’re looking for, that takes experience. But you must also be open to the land before you, and behind, beside, the sky above. If you look too intently for one or three things, you may miss other important signs. You’ve got to float your mind out over the world. Fill it with knowledge and give it a toss.
Sherlock Holms was in the same business. What Watson always natters on about is how Holms rationalizes those clues. He leaves the big mystery untouched, no? How’d Holms spot clues in the first place? How’d he learn to see?
Conan Doyle is said to have been inspired by an expert medical diagnostician, the surgeon Joseph Bell [5]. Bell had his version of the hermeneutic hairball, fine tuned for physical ailments. Theodore Reik made the same point about psychoanalysis in his 1948 book, Listening with the Third Ear: The inner experience of a psychoanalyst, which I read in my late teens.
It’s a general cognitive skill, this business of intuitive discovery. But it’s got to be fine-tuned for each domain. Literary study tunes it for a certain body of texts. It’s up to the student to then extend the net over other bodies of texts.
But without it, there’s nothing to think critically about. Nothing.
[1] Jeffrey J. Williams, Bellwether: An Interview with J. Hillis Miller, the minnesota review 2009 Volume 2009, Number 71-72: 25-46. doi: 10.1215/00265667-2009-71-72-25
[2] Roman Jakobson, “Linguistics and Poetics,” in Thomas Sebeok, ed., Style in Language (Cambridge, Ma.: MIT Press,1960), 350-77.
[3] William Benzon, Jakobson’s Poetic Function and Textual Closure, New Savanna, blog post, December 25, 2017,
[4] William Benzon, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and the Semiotics of Ontology, Semiotica, 3/4, 1977, 267-293.
[5] Wikipedia, Sherlock Holmes,

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