18 OCTOBER 1997

Meaning and the Mode of Existence of "Works": A Response to Robert J. Griffin, "The Mode of Existence of Shelley's 'The Devil's Walk'"
Terence Hoagwood
Texas A&M University

Impressively, Robert J. Griffin's paper "The Mode of Existence of Shelley's 'The Devil's Walk'" raises with clarity issues that are vitally important in connection with this poem, with this textual presentation of the poem in Romantic Circles, and indeed (I'm tempted to say) everywhere in literary study. Questioning whether the poem should be placed among Shelley's "greatest works," and questioning even whether there would be reason to be interested in it without our prior interest in Shelley, Griffin goes on to consider "a work of art's 'mode of existence'" not in terms of the material text but rather in connection with the issue of different readerships' interest in the work, including Shelley's own apparent understanding of his poem as "an intervention in contemporary politics." Accepting Neil Fraistat's argument that any edition of Shelley has bibliographical and linguistic codes that constitute "a rhetoric of Shelley, a cultural performance locating the textual space of the edition within the particularized social space of its production and reception," Griffin finds Rene Wellek's description of a text's ontology idealistic because "according to Wellek, a printed version of a poem is nothing more than a materialization of an object whose actual existence transcends its own materiality." Wondering how or why "The Devil's Walk" might interest us, since its references and urgencies are gone, Griffin suggests that the poem "will need to undergo a process of allegorization in order to take on significance in a different time and place." I would suggest that the electronic edition of the poem by Reiman and Fraistat gives us a wonderfully specific occasion to think about the three issues raised in Griffin's paper: (1) the mode of existence of a literary work (what exactly is the "it" that is here when we say of a poem that "it is in the book" or "it is available online"?); (2) the question of readerly use or desire, as opposed to the ontology of the work as object; (3) the very troubled relationships between those two things.

In his important internet essay, "The Rationale of Hypertext," Jerome McGann points out scholarly advantages of hypertextual media, not chiefly in terms of increasing the availability of works but rather in raising to a higher order the possible scholarly vantages on literary materials: because a literary hypertext is a medium of a different order from that which it studies (the codex), it enhances exponentially the scholarly possibilities. But "my remarks here apply only to textual works that are instruments of scientific knowledge. The poet's view of text is necessarily very different. . . . But for the scientist and scholar, the media of expression are primarily conceptual utilities." Like Griffin's paper, those remarks by McGann call attention to the difference between sciential and aesthetic enterprises, the knowledge industry and the entertainment industry, the truth-function of scholarship and the pleasure-principle of consumerism. These categories can help to define the different senses of what "The Devil's Walk" is, and therefore what it means.

In a verbal universe composed principally of advertising--the society of the sales pitch--it would be hard for many to understand why A. E. Housman, one of the finer minds ever to make textual criticism his profession, decided to make his principal life's work an edition of poetry by Manilius (M. Manilii Astronomicon Liber Primus, 1903, through Liber Quintus, 1930), poetry that Housman judged to be of little value even while he was making the decision to devote his life's work to it. It will be equally hard for many to make practical sense of Housman's remark that "the desire of knowledge does not need, nor could it possibly possess, any higher or more authentic sanction than the happiness which attends its gratification" ("Introductory Lecture" as Professor of Latin, University College, University of London; in The Name and Nature of Poetry and Other Selected Prose, ed. John Carter [1961], 17): he refers to knowledge itself, and not to any pleasing features of that which is known. "It may be urged on the contrary that the pursuit of truth in some directions is even injurious to happiness, because it compels us to take leave of delusions which were pleasant while they lasted" (19). Instead, in a society of the sales pitch people want objects, including texts, to pertain to them, to appeal to them, to become pleasures in their own subjectivities, or at least to help to arrange their affairs more pleasingly. The otherness of any object will dissolve in the sensations of customer satisfaction, or the customer will go elsewhere and the recalcitrant object will crumble in desuetude like a statue of Ozymandias.

In the profession of marketing, it is a principle that one sells not the product but what is sometimes called the "meta-product": a set of feelings and mental images that people associate with the object. People are taught to confuse the object (a commodity) with their own feeling- state about it--the pleasure, that is, that they seek from it, and not it, really, at all. People are taught to forget the difference. When the object is a poem, a document printed on a large sheet in three columns of ten stanzas each, people trained thus by their society of advertisement might mistake the printed work for some meaning(s) which can and should pertain to (and please) them. To shift from this mind-set of customer satisfaction to an objective register--and ideas can be objects of knowledge--is one of the advantages of analytical bibliography and textual criticism.

As customers, we screen the objects of knowledge through the filter of our own temporary desires or needs. In this role, we do not want to know the textual object, really; we want to enjoy it (or sell it). We are interested in its value to us--not in it. If a codex or a broadside refuses to surrender to our desire or need, if its truth includes its alterity from our desire, we might even be unable to undestand why it would be good to study it. I refer to the decisions we make when we read under the guidance of the pleasure principle, or when our reading is instrumental to a purpose or a cause on which we are intent, or even when we are trying to cause people to continue enrolling in our classes, or to respond favorably to them. In a society of customers, attention is transferred from the object (commodity) to the feeling-state (interest, or satisfaction).

A film might make a good example of the difference among conceptions of the mode of existence of a literary work: (A) Jurassic Park (or its sequel, The Lost World, which works in the same way but adds more minutes of simulated violence) is not the same and does not include (B) the thrill and fear of people being eaten by monstrous dinosaurs. The dinosaurs aren't here, they aren't there (on the set), they aren't anywhere; they are digital programs engineered into video simulations of dinosaurs that are then mixed with film footage. Jurassic Park is in one sense (A) the engineered footage. But people do not want to rent film footage, really; they want to rent (B) the thrill and the fear. McGann's essay suggests that hypertexts are machines of knowledge about (A). Griffin's essay asks about value in the form of felt appreciation--(B).

The importance of that distinction for the discipline of textual criticism (and therefore literary study) can and will be illustrated by the excellent display of "The Devil's Walk" that Fraistat and Reiman have prepared. A much easier example might be a useful preliminary: in Great Books (1996), David Denby discusses his reading of Plato's Republic, saying, among many other things, that "piercing the vale, going beyond the world of appearances is our scientific method" (103). Evidently the slogan should be spelled "piercing the veil"--a standard expression, after Greek apocalypse ("unveil"); Shelleyans know the expression well ("Tear the veil!" in Prometheus Unbound, I.539; "The veil has fallen" in Prometheus Unbound II.iv.2). Or perhaps in Great Books "piercing the vale" means "getting through or past a low region," and the homonym is worked with wit. Or maybe it means more than that: maybe it means that a popular book about great books is written by someone who does not know the correct spelling of a very old slogan. That would be a meaningful circumstance. Or maybe it means something entirely different from that: maybe it means that the publishing company, Simon and Schuster, owns or rents a machinery of copy-editors and proofreaders but the machine isn't working perfectly. That meaning would be imporant, too. Maybe it means something larger still: the materiality of language and therefore of thought causes there to be these accidents, these ideas traceable to the meaningless confusion of sounds. (For another example: by homonymic accident, "underway" is mixed up in folk etymology with "under weigh," a nautical term). If language and therefore thought are determined by meaningless accidents of materiality, that is something important to know about human language and life. If we found the phrase "pierce the vale" while trying to edit Denby's Great Books, a century hence, should we emend it, and prefer "veil" to "vale"? Would it not be a loss to erase those meanings which the apparent mistake represents? Or should we content ourselves with re-allegorizing the book in some way that will cause it to match our own desire or need? "The Devil's Walk" as it is edited by Fraistat and Reiman furnishes more and probably better examples.

The headnote entitled "Printing and Attempting to Circulate 'The Devil's Walk'" tells us that the printer's name was apparently cut off the pages of copies of "A Letter to Lord Ellenborough," printed at Barnstaple like "The Devil's Walk" but apparently in July (whereas "The Devil's Walk" was apparently printed in August). In contrast, "The Devil's Walk," according to the editors, "never did have a colophon listing the printer's name and address, as the law required." Further, "some egregious errors in the text (noted in the collation and commented upon [in the headnote]) suggest either great haste or an amateur hand [perhaps Shelley's own] involved in the typesetting." These facts--not a part of the New-Critical text-itself, and certainly no part of any appeal to our pleasure--change and even help constitute the meaning of the work, if the "work" can be understood in a materialist sense. The urgency, covertness, and danger of a criminal act are meant by those features of the document--features of the work, materialistically conceived. In this sense, the work entitled "The Devil's Walk" is not a record of an inspiration or even of a thought; it is a record of a conflict and a struggle and of features of the now-vanished life in the world in England in 1812: work was shaped and determined (not by pleasure, edification, prodesse et delectare) but by relations of power and material acts of resistance. Only when the work is considered (for a moment at least) as a material thing can it reveal these meanings.

I am aware that the sense of "work" that I am proposing differs from the traditional view that "the medium of literature is abstract" and "literary works therefore cannot exist in physical form," but textual critics should instead be concerned with "the texts of a work as they existed in the mind" (G. Thomas Tanselle, A Rationale of Textual Criticism [1989], 15, 17, 69). I am agreeing with Tanselle's observation that "we must use the totality of evidence each document carries with it" (42), but I am broadening the reference of that remark: it is not only in textual criticism, in the determination of which among alternative words or spellings to prefer, but in literary criticism, in our concept of what a literary work is, that the principle is important. And I am suggesting that the broadside text of "The Devil's Walk" and its reproduction in the elecronic edition can help us to understand the work (not merely the document, but also the work, in a better sense of that word). Its meanings are much more than merely mental events.

The materiality of texts and the materiality of minds also emerge as related and explicit themes in Shelley's writings that are related to "The Devil's Walk": for example, in a letter to Godwin Shelley discusses his 1812 experiences among the Irish: "Intemperance and hard labour have reduced them to machines. The oyster that is washed and driven at the mercy of the tides appears to me an animal of almost equal elevation in the scale of intellectual being" (Letters, ed. Jones, 1: 268). Shelley calls the Irish people "one mass of animated filth" (1: 268), and he ascribes the degradation to economic and political problems. In Address to the Irish People (written in January 1812), he makes equally explicit an analysis according to economic class conflict: "The rich command, and the poor obey, and . . . money is only a kind of sign, which shews, that according to government the rich man has a right to command the poor man" (Ingpen and Peck, 235-36). This critique of money is taken into a larger critique, some years later, when Shelley explains the material power of other signifying systems: "the oligarchy of party . . . under colour of administering the executive power lodged in the king, represented in truth the interests of the rich" (A Philosophical View of Reform, in Ingpen and Peck, 7: 24). But even in 1812, in the season of "The Devil's Walk," Shelley explains some relations of literature and power: Daniel Isaac Eaton, having sold Paine's Age of Reason, was tried on 6 March and sentenced (to the pillory and to prison for one year and six months) on 15 May; on 11 June Shelley writes to Godwin: he does not mean to suggest that "the poor bookseller has any characteristics in common with Socrates or Jesus Christ," but "still the spirit which pillories and imprisons him, is the same which brought them to an untimely end" (Letters, 1: 07-8). The recipient of Shelley's letter had entitled a chapter of Political Justice in this way: "the characters of men originate in their external circumstance." Paine had written that "it is the faculty of the human mind to become what it contemplates" (The Rights of Man [Doubleday, 1973], 349).

The materialistic account of mentality had different shapes in Enlightenment France (as in works by Condillac, Cabanis, Helvetius, and Holbach, whose writings were smuggled from Paris to the Netherlands where they were printed as pseudonymous books and then smuggled back to Paris). It had different ancient shapes, as in the works on atomism by Democritus, or in Epicurus's materialism. Economic determinism of mind and heart is the theme of a lyric (6thcentury B.C.) by Theognis, the first writer of record on copyright issues (he wrote that he wanted copies of his poems stamped by a metal seal to prevent unauthorized use of them by others). Much later, in Latin, the materialism of mentality is the theme of Lucretius's De Rerum Natura, and in the generation immediately prior to Shelley's, the foremost English authority on Lucretius was a learned editor, Gilbert Wakefield, who was imprisoned for seditious writing in 1798 simultaneously with his publisher Joseph Johnson.

Thus the materialist conception of minds as well as texts has itself a (material) history. That fact also helps us to interpret meanings in Shelley's writings of 1812, including "The Devil's Walk." The material history of the document and of its materials--including its conceptual materials--can help us to pry those meanings loose from the merely personal, the merely unique, the merely mental. Like works of uncertain attribution, such histories can helpfully lead us to develop ways of reading that are not person-centered, author-centered, self-centered, or merely mentalistic in their points of reference. Meanings, like documents, escape the narrow little limits of personhood and personal control. In his youth, Burke wrote a satire of Bolingbroke's writings which, when printed, was mistaken by many (including William Godwin) as an earnest defense of Bolingbroke's writings. Anti-war movies (The Wild Bunch, dir. Sam Peckinpah, 1969) have been mistaken as advertisements for violence. I once watched a screening of Apocalypse Now (dir. Francis Ford Coppola, 1979) during which the audience cheered and applauded at spectacles of napalm destroying villages.

Meanings, like documents, escape authorial control, and then they belittle the category of authorial control itself. Even if it is a useful tool for a professional editor who must decide among alternative readings somehow, and whose product will be marketed in an author-centered marketplace, the concept of authorial intention shrinks, under an adequate frame of historical reference, to one among many blackbirds in a very noisy tree.

What the text can reveal, therefore--what it means, when its material mode of existence is known and studied--can include far more than the ideational and individualistic stories told by a kind of criticism that was once nourished by the now-obsolete belief that a document is a physical vessel for a (mental) intention that the author once had. Meanings are larger than private heads. And they are larger than our interests, our desires, or our need.

--TH, OCTOBER 1997


Last modified October 1997.