Notes on ‘Phenomonology, Hermeneutics, Reception Theory’ from Eagleton’s ‘Literary Theory’

Edmund Husserl:

Phenomenology ‘back to the things themselves’ seeks to explore ‘human consciousness’ believing that through this we can study universal aspects of ‘phenomena’. Phenomena only exist as parts of consciousness, but phenomenology attempts to study their universal essence. Borne of the post WW1 crisis it attempts to revive the human mind as the ‘centre and origin of all meaning’ (Seldon 1985).

Eagleton claims this is not far from the contemporary attempts of Leavis to return to the concrete.

Phenomenological lit crit influenced the Geneva school Poulet, Starokinski, Rousset). The text is a ‘pure embodiemnt of the author’s consciousness’, has deep structures found in recurrent themes etc. and these reveal how the writer “‘lived’ his world”.

Criticism: non-evaluative, complete objectivity. The point is to ‘enter’ the world of the literary work and this to experience the author’s consciousness. For phenomenologists, language is an expression of the text’s inner meanings. Meaning is centred on a ‘transcendental subject’ – the author.

Martin Heidegger breaks with Husserl, reflects on the ‘irreducible Dasein (givenness) of human existence’.

consciousness is constituted by ‘being-in-the-world’ as much as consciousness contitutes the world.

Language pre-exists the individual subject (cf. Structualism)

Central to Heidegger then is not any individual subject but Being. Man is subservient to Being.

Thinking is always situated in an historical. However, for Heidegger history is not social, external, but inward and personal.

Heidegger – ‘hermeneutic of Being’. His philosophy is referred to as ‘hermeneutic phenomenology’, concentrating on an historical interpretation.

Hans-Georg Gadamer applied this to lit crit. Meaning depends on the historical situation of the interpreter. Interpretation of a literary work is a dialogue between past and present.

Understanding is productive. The present is only understandable through the past. linking together in a continuum called ‘tradition’ (cf Eliot)

Understanding is a ‘fusion of past and present’. We make a journey into the past, but only understand it by taking the present with us.




Nuer scales

The work of E.E Evans-Pritchard, the now somewhat old-fashioned, but utterly meticulous and detailed anthropologist, and I, have crossed but once. As an undergraduate I studied the first of his books from his fieldwork with the Nuer, a people of the Nile Valley

What follows are fragments of notes I took at the time.
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Heaney’s ‘Bog Oak’

Since I mentioned my University days on Tuesday, I thought a relic of that time, on Seamus Heaney, who would have turned 80 last week, worth airing. I couldn’t bear to let this go, however, with all the undergraduate prose intact, so I’ve improved the grammar and tone. The essay attempts to see how Heaney brings ‘modern Irish problems into relationship with images from the past’ in the poem Bog Oak, which I reproduce below:

Bog Oak
A carter's trophy
Split for rafters,
a cobwebbed, black,
long-seasoned rib

under the first thatch.
I might tarry
with the moustached
dead, the creel-fillers,

or eavesdrop on
their hopeless wisdom
as a blow-down of smoke
struggles over the half-door

and mizzling rain
blurs the far end
of the cart track.
The softening ruts
lead back to no
'oak groves', no
cutters of mistletoe
in the green clearings.

Perhaps I just make out
Edmund Spenser,
dreaming sunlight,
encroached upon by

geniuses who creep
'out of every corner
of the woodes and glenne'
towards watercress and carrion.

Seamus Heaney’s Bog Oak came into the world at a crucial point in Heaney’s career and in Irish history. An early poem from Wintering Out, Heaney’s first collection since the beginning of the Troubles, and also Heaney’s first since moving away from Ulster. It looks back to the past for images for a new poetry and also I think back to Ulster in an attempt, as Ronald Tamplin (1989) suggests, to glimpse a new reality of Irish identity, a reading supported by Heaney’s oft-quoted view of poetry as “divination…as restoration of culture to itself”(1974) .

The reference to Edmund Spenser appears to set the poem in sixteenth century Munster, but that the poem concerns Ulster 1969 is clear: the final word ‘carrion’ guides such a reading. The description of the oak in the first stanza then becomes somewhat loaded: for instance, ‘split’ takes on obvious connotations. ‘Carrion’ is excellent, evoking not just death but horror, waste and decay. Heaney gazes homeward in loss and separation, mourning and sorrow.

A subtle manipulation of time through precise language seems to occur. The oak, ‘toughened survivor from Ireland’s pastcarries the longevity of trees; so as Heaney traces the oak, ‘long seasoned’, backwards through time and space, he turns to the past to try and discover poetry suitable – ‘adequate’ as he put it- to the present Troubles. The images he finds there are mostly inadequate- the wisdom of the dead seems ‘hopeless’ and these old fashioned representations of Ireland, rural carters and creel fillers, seem irrelevant.

In the third stanza Heaney is outdoors now (‘a blow down of smoke/ struggles over the half door’) and he looks back along the cart track, attempting to trace the oak all the way back to its roots.  But, ‘mizzling rain’ obscures his view just as time itself obscures our view of the past. Time meaning a changing culture which always constructs the past. The final three stanzas are full of these romanticised images of the past:

lead back to no
‘oak groves’, no
cutters of mistletoe
in the green clearings.

To make the point Heaney specifies that these images are not there. It is precisely these kinds of representations that are false and perhaps dangerous, an argument redolent of Brian Friel’s Making History. Heaney does discern a classic Romantic image – the sensitive male poet, ‘dreaming sunlight’, the phrase accurately and concisely invoking the false image of the poet constructed in the popular imagination unwittingly by the likes of Spenser, Wordsworth, (perhaps) Oscar Wilde, and the mass media.

Seamus Heaney as a young manInterestingly, at this point Heaney’s time-travelling stops in suspension then reverses into a forward direction by way of ‘encroached’,’creep’ and ‘towards’ (lines 24,25 and 28); now Heaney is looking forward to the future of Ireland. But why Edmund Spenser? Well, the reality of Spenser is very different from the image Heaney presents. Spenser’s non-literary career was as an agent of the Crown in Ireland as Lord Deputy. He also wrote a ‘View of the Present State of Ireland’, which, according to Garry Waller

argues for a vigorous programme of final conquest and subjugation of Ireland and the Irish, [and attacks] the ‘Old’ English preference for a degree of accommodation with the Irish chieftans, [describes the Irish as] barabarians, licentious, and while there were certain admirable or charming aspects of ancient Irish life (Spenser’s interest in Irish poetry and song is often mentioned by defenders of the View in this context), nothing short of force and thorough rooting out of Irish identity would allow the rule of English law to be permanently established


The above seems pertinent. Spenser the poet’s interest in ancient Ireland and Spenser the public servant’s advocacy of genocide is just the kind of conflict which interests Heaney. So you see how the romantic image in the poem (‘dreaming sunlight – kissing carrion’) arrests the reader who knows Spenser’s position.

To return to the image of the bog oak, Irish identity has survived the threat posed by Spenser but not escaped unscathed or unaltered by history; the ‘rape’ of Ireland and conversion to Protestantism evoked in Heaney’s later ‘Act of Union’ are what has led to the divided situation in the Ulster counties and its horrific consequences. In the poem, Spenser is ‘encroached upon by geniuses’, the days of the English are numbered as the forces of nationalism rise. Nationalism however, because of the complexity and unpredictability of history will play its part in the creation of the Troubles, creeping ‘towards watercress and carrion’. Heaney is aware, like Dennis Potter, of the subtlety of the problem of evil, that ‘a good act can lead to evil consequences’.

In conclusion, this clever poem follows lyrical conventions and subverts them, The final line creates an emotionally charged transcendent moment but, perversely and aptly it is one of death, sadness, and loss. The mood at the end of the poem I judge to be pessimistic in seeing Irish identity set back. The bleak, terse ‘Watercress and carrion’ suggest language cannot yet cope with the situation. But the insertion of ‘watercress’ is hopeful, yet at the same time suggests fragility. As if these two constituents of Irish identity in the context of the Troubles exist side by side, the first constantly threatened by the second. A poem of national mourning then (Heaney from Munster showing grief for the events in another part of his country), how far has Heaney come in these twenty-eight lines in his search for poetry suitable for the times?

Despite its evocative and complex nature I don’t find the poem a total success; the identity of the ‘geniuses’ is as uncertain as the relevance of ‘watercress’ until analysed. This uncertainty is to some extent the whole point but but the poem seems to come to an awkward stop. Anyway, if Heaney has not yet found the right poetic images and words to represent the times, he has certainly in his rejection of Romanticism demonstrated intelligently what is not appropriate or propitiate. Spenser’s presence achieves this especially well, ensuring the poem goes beyond Ireland. We may argue Heaney cannot assume an audience who would be aware of Spenser’s advocacy of the art of persuasion, but Tamplin resolves this for us: ‘a poet creates and leads a readership…it is not unreasonable that [Heaney] should hope that an audience might acquaint themselves [with the history] either from wanting to be in touch, or because they want to extend the knowledge they themselves can bring to their reading. The knowledge is good in itself…some have it before they first read the poem and others catch up…some of the audience is assumed and some acquired’. In this case, the Spenser effect is simply and starkly to show that a particular popular image is false and misleading. At the same time he has powerfully evoked the mood of a troubled place and people. Given recent events in Ulster we look forward to Heaney’s future work with excitement. If Heaney can catch this wave, as the Beach Boys might put it, he’d be sitting on top of the world.


Heaney 1972 Wintering Out

Tamplin 1989 Seamus Heaney

Waller 1994 Edmund Spenser: a literary life

Opiatic For The People

On becoming an undergraduate, I soon looked up Karl Marx’s well-known, and often quoted remark on religion: the opium of the people.

Nuance and subtlety drift over time. We may assume Marx dismisses religion as a soothing crutch, or more pejoratively as a harmful addiction. But we can assume nothing from one out of context quotation. For Marx and his world in 1844, opium’s connotations would have been so different from ours, it seemed to my new undergraduate brain trite and naive to assume anything at all about Marx’s remark. Besides, Karl’s pipe was tobacco-laden. It’s just a metaphor. I wanted to look at the whole text of the remark, and to understand, without prejudice, the whole argument.

The remark comes from Marx’s Introduction to his Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right (1844), which begins:

For Germany, the criticism of religion has been essentially completed, and the criticism of religion is the prerequisite of all criticism.

Two bold claims. Let’s see if we can unpack this.

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