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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Ó hÉighnigh?

Since I mentioned my University days on Tuesday, I thought of a fragment of that time, on Seamus Heaney, who would have turned 80 last week, might be worth airing . Attempting to discuss the way he brings ‘modern Irish problems into relationship with images from the past’, or something, this is the first part of what I came up with. I couldn’t bear to let this go, however, with all the undergraduate prose intact, so I’ve improved the grammar a bit. You’ll have to look up the references yourself, but you can find the Wikipedia page on the book in question.

Seamus Heaney’s Bog Oak1 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 south, to the Republic, 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 suggests2, 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”3.

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 reading4. 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: loss and separation, mourning and sorrow.

A subtle manipulation of time through precise language seems to occur. The oak, ‘toughened survivor from Ireland’s past’5; carries the longevity of trees, great symbols; 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 as 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 History6. 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

Beyond that I don’t recall much about it other than people seemed to like it.

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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