Tuesday, October 5, 2010

From Brooks to Fish (and back)

So I got an 'A' on my very first paper as a graduate student, and in that paper I applied Fish by picking apart Brooks. For me this was blasphemy, but I had to be Fish for this assignment. What better way to explain a critic I don't know much about than by pitting him against a critic I know well? And isn't there knowledge to be gained by challenging one's own critical stance? (Brooks's = mine, usually.)

Two weeks ago I compared Brooks with Bateson, and Brooks came out on top because of what I saw as his heightening of the paradoxes in the text, a Wordsworth poem. Next week, in comes Fish, and he says some of the same things about Brooks (well, about formalists anyway) that I had said about Bateson! In the first section of "Interpreting the Variorum," Fish takes on formalist interpretations of Milton, on whom he is an expert, and shows how the formalists fall flat. They flatten out the paradoxes in the text (I had accused Bateson of that, while attesting to the formalist's paradoxical prowess!) and remove the delight of the indeterminate meanings. Most importantly for Fish, and perhaps this is what I was getting at all along when I was looking for "the critical climax" (and probably projected that onto Brooks as I read him, Fish would argue) , the formalists completely miss that (part of) the meaning of the text is in our moment of hesitation, in the experience of textual confusions, in the experience of the overwhelmingness of the possibilities of meaning! I think I've been reading Brooks affectively, and not very analytically.

Brooks does point out textual cruxes and formal features that I find exciting, but it is perhaps my actual reading of Brooks, as it unfolds in time (flitting back to the text, back to Brooks, back to the text...) that is most exciting for me. You can see how Fish has planted the reader-response seed in my brain (I'm not sure if it's sprouting or festering now), and how I am flinging myself out onto that temporal axis of criticism, where I had once sworn allegiance only to the textual, the spatial. When I presented my paper my excitement about meaning-in-reading was catching -- students thought me a Fish fanatic! But, Fish aside, I can't deny that I have begun to read criticism like it is literature (isn't it?), and interpret and respond to it as such. In a way, I've never been looking for the most rigorous theory or the most provocative argument, but for who can tell the best story.

The way I chose to do this exercise paid off in spades. I come away with a new appreciation for a certain brand (species?) of Fish, and with a refreshed and revised view of what Brooks does to those texts with which the formalists claim a peculiar intimate relationship. I still cleave to formalism pretty tenaciously, but Fish's early reader-response work (forget "interpretive communities" for now -- I'm only talking individual reader's response) helped me to see outside the box (for in our textbook's diagram, the formalists really do live in a box) and look more critically at what Brooks actually does, and at how I read him and the rest.

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