Today I received a rejection of my essay on Molly Bloom. The letter enclosed what seemed to be a cut-up version of one reader's report. Most of the specific objections to the argument don't amount to anything more than cavils: matters that could easily be downplayed, or statements that could be altered in revision. But for two points:
My effort to sustain a workable version of what polysemous reading is -- based on three different systematic approaches to fourfold interpretation (Dante's, Frye's, Jameson's) is dismissed by "wow, what a Melvillian crew that is!!" -- an interesting figure that suggests that all three are "aboard" at once, rather than recognizing that each of the systemizers captures a certain cultural nexus, each providing a way of discussing what it means to interpret a truly polysemous work like Ulysses. Which is to say it requires holding, for my purposes, four different fourfold schemes in mind at once to see how they interrelate (the first being the Bible which is always at the back of this kind of exegesis). I'm told the argument "begins to read like a personal hobby horse." And there I plead guilty, bearing in mind dear Uncle Toby, and conceding that this material is part of a longer argument that got shoe-horned into the Molly paper. Though I contend that literary criticism is nothing if not a hobby horse anyway, I can accept that my particular version isn't worth riding.
But this brings me to the most insightful bit of criticism in the whole harangue: The lead-off comment that this is "a thoughtful and sometimes penetrating essay. It is also at times a wild and infuriating one, and the writer has to get serious now about his/her problems in getting ideas into prose."
The hobby horse of the thing, really, is something in the tone of the essay itself, I surmise, a sense that it isn't "serious," that, in fact, it is ironic toward its own effort to enunciate this interpretation and that quality is "infuriating" to this reader. I can accept that, though I had aimed at entertaining the reader, albeit a reader who would appreciate its irony.
Later, I was reading Andrew Shields' blog about a Robert Frost poem which contains this line: "all the fun's in how you say a thing." Andrew argued that this "fun" is the basis of poetry, which is true and which is at least part of what Frost is saying, but what do we mean by poetry? To my mind, some aspect of poetry entails "saying what is not." In other words, poetry is the supreme fiction, it is speaking "as if" what is being said is true of a world outside the poem, when in fact the poem only "applies" to the world of the poem. The poem is a world configured in its own terms, and so "the fun" of how you say a thing is the whole purpose of writing poetry.
But to admit that "fun" into other forms of writing is to create irony. An irony toward both the world "as in itself it is" (whatever that may be) and toward any world language constructs. To say that what I say of Ulysses is true of Ulysses is to me insipid, because it fails to do justice to what is simply too slippery about the relation of any reader to Joyce's language. Anything I can say is only true "in a manner of speaking" about Molly's manner of "speaking." My Melvillian crew steps in to help delineate what has happened at various times in the ongoing allegory that is literary interpretation, and that may be too much for the essay to sustain, but I think what ultimately tabled the argument is some sense that irony is being brought to bear on the argument itself, or on the venture of literary interpretation in general. Infuriating.
And I take that criticism to heart because its insight that I don't take the venture seriously -- or put another way, that so much of literary criticism forgoes any "fun" -- says a lot about why it's such a chore to write and read the stuff in the first place.
But, by'r Lady, 'a must build churches then, or else shall 'a suffer not thinking on, with the hobby-horse, whose epitaph is "For O, for O, the hobby-horse is forgot!"--Hamlet