An Acerbic Opinion

TFB comme Frenchman

Moi comme un Gentilhomme de la Belle Nation

The other day in my Introduction to Literary Criticism course, I contested a student’s objection to my thesis that, whereas there might be many plausible interpretations of John Keats’ poem “Ode on a Grecian urn,” it would nevertheless not be the case that every interpretation of “Ode on a Grecian urn” was equally plausible or even plausible at all.  Furthermore, I reasoned, the range of interpretations might be graded according to their plausibility, from least to most, in a hierarchy.  The student’s agitated insistence was that, “everybody has his own opinion.”* (As if no one had ever heard that before.)  I immediately responded that “opinion” was an irrelevant category; and that, in any case, where it concerns any particular topic, the number of opinions is strictly limited.  In respect of Topic X, there are probably only two opinions, or at most three.  The claim that “everybody has his own opinion” is therefore absurd.  To put it in plausible English, one would have to say that, “In respect of X, everyone has one opinion or another, of a limited set.”  One of the definitions of “opinion” is that an opinion is a freely circulating, conformist view about a topic, entirely unoriginal and non-proprietary.  People never have opinions; they borrow or endorse them, at which point the opinions have them.

A non-conformist student, thinking by association, remarked that “opinionism” seems to go hand in hand with relativism.  I answered, “Yes – absolutely.”  I went on to say that in a college or university environment relativism was, by an unresolved and unresolvable contradiction, required or dogmatic.  The non-conformist student (whose background is Estonian, an ex-USSR fact that might be relevant to the exchange), added that, in another of his English courses, the professor, a dogmatic relativist, had issued instructions for a term paper in which the contestable contention that, “it is impossible to know the intention of an author,” and therefore to ascribe that intention to a text, was made an unconditional condition of the assignment.  (It is just as likely, in other words, that Dusty Old Yevsky was arguing the Grand Inquisitor’s position rather than his own, the likelihood of which, of course, we couldn’t possibly discern.)  I said, “Pardon me, but that’s bullshit.”  I said, “You should ask that professor whether, in 1924, it would have been possible, on the basis of the text, to discern Adolf Hitler’s intention from Mein Kampf.”  “Good point,” the dissenting student said.

The moral injunction that “it is impossible to know the intention of an author” belongs to a professorial school known as the “New Criticism.”  I read a book once, twenty-five years ago, and I might even have reviewed it, that argued that Deconstruction had an important precursor in the New Criticism – precisely in the New Criticism’s totally implausible claim that ascribing intention to a text, and via the text to an author, was, not exactly implausible, because the question of plausibility was never discussed, but forbidden.  I agreed with the author, having plausibly discerned his intention.  To forbid the discernment of intention is absurd, but more than an absurdity, it is a moral enormity, which renders reason mute, human nature obliterated, and the facts hors de combat, so that the combat might be claimed by those who scorn reason and have no facts.  In the age of “microaggressions” and “hate-facts,” facts, obviously inconvenience those whose obsession is victory in the combat.  If the SWJ’s are unable to discern intention in utterances or texts, how is it that they perpetually discover in utterances and texts – or in glances or the assumption of so-called privileges – “racism,” “sexism,” “Islamophobia,” “homophobia,” and everything else?  In a deconstructed epistemology, none of these discoveries is possible.  There would only be “opinion,” each one the egalitarian equal of all the others.

I grimace acerbically at “opinion.”

Votre serviteur, le non-WASP, Thomas Félix Bertonneau

PS. On the cover of a blue-book, in which students wrote their responses to a midterm examination, in the blank space where the name of the instructor was solicited, one student wrote: “Tom.”  I wrote in red ink, Le docteur Bertonneau!

*In fact, the student said, “everybody has their own opinion,” a statement, which in my judgment (not “opinion”), violates grammar and is uncivilized.

27 thoughts on “An Acerbic Opinion

  1. Pingback: An Acerbic Opinion | @the_arv

  2. I wonder what that professor intended when he made that utterance that intentions are unknowable. Presumably he could not object to the student responding to his inscrutable utterance by, say, drinking a pint of Jack Daniels or swimming across Lake Ontario to Kingston. But then the aforementioned professor could never know if the binge or swim was intended as an answer to his utterly indeterminate question.

  3. Almost certainly not “he,” but “she,” even if she were a he. (Use whatever bathroom you want at Target.)

    By the way, I’ll swim from Oswego to Kingston for 1K Euros, as long as you’ll accept anyone’s opinion that I’ve swum so. There’s an excellent Greek restaurant in Kingston that serves a grilled octopus dinner that’s to die for. In a hungry mood, I’d die for it.

    • For 200 Euros I would be happy to render an opinion on the prowess and occasion of your swimming. In case you run into one of those nasty people who need a second opinion because they find you somehow – usually as a rule, rather than a personal insult – untrustworthy.

      • Among my preferred epithets are “godlike,” “of many turns,” and “slightly over five-foot-and-six wielder of the bronze.”

  4. Pingback: An Acerbic Opinion | Reaction Times

  5. I may not be the most qualified person to levy an opinion, but it seems the “everyone has an opinion” trope might be how a text is read by most people today. They read a book thinking it means this or that without someone politely saying that it’s implausible. When I hear NPR call in shows, which I enjoy listening to, talk about books the callers give so many different ideas about what the text means. Every now and then someone will respectfully disagree but they never say that something is not found in the text. I know you are aware of my interest in Roland Barthes but its not based on his “Death of the Author” essay.

    P.S. I would stick with the Starfleet uniform so you can call Captain Sisko on the Defiant to take you to Kingston instead of swimming.

  6. James, could you forgo the recent usage “text,” please, when writing here? Consider using “short story,” “novella,” “novel,” “movie,” etc. The usage “text” is, in itself, innocent, but, for the present commenter at least, has overtones of modish theory that has not served well the interests of humane readers. With respect and all best wishes to you.

    • I will be more than happy to use the terms above in this forum and move away from using the word “text”.

    • I would ask one question which may seem kind of odd with asking this question What is the reason you call the use of “text” a modish theory. I am familiar with the Post Structuralists ideas about the text. My knowledge isn’t as deep as other’s knowledge in this forum. That is the reason I ask for you reason and ideas about your statement. I like to know other people’s ideas and thoughts so this is the reason I ask.

      • “Text” comes out of a bogus egalitarianism. The idea is that we don’t focus on canonical poems, novels, plays etc but that we examine how “texts” encode the privileges of white males and suppress the “voices” of women, homosexuals, members of groups that have been ethnic minorities in the US and western Europe, etc. We also are supposed to talk about hearing the “voices” of marginalized people. Thus a wealthy lesbian may have her body tattooed or cut herself for an artistic performance, and her body is a text. A comic book is a text. A popular TV series provides texts. And so on. Thus there’s an enormous scattering of attention away from classic works, which the English major may, now, largely skip, and read pulp thrillers instead. At best there’s a colossal waste of precious time at university, but it’s a worse matter than that

        I may say that I see this in my colleagues in the English department. It’s saddening.

  7. When there are 2 Estonians in the room, there are at least 3 opinions: both have their own opinion and both think that the other one is wrong.

  8. If the SWJ’s are unable to discern intention in utterances or texts, how is it that they perpetually discover in utterances and texts – or in glances or the assumption of so-called privileges – “racism,” “sexism,” “Islamophobia,” “homophobia,” and everything else?

    By PC fatwa.

  9. If the SWJ’s are unable to discern intention in utterances or texts, how is it that they perpetually discover in utterances and texts – or in glances or the assumption of so-called privileges – “racism,” “sexism,” “Islamophobia,” “homophobia,” and everything else? In a deconstructed epistemology, none of these discoveries is possible.

    There is no nihilism, only shielding skepticism. Relativism, shielding skepticism and the like always favor the powerful. It must be decided which things the guns of relativism shall be aimed at, and it’s much more rewarding to aim them at things the king dislikes.

    • Actually, a case could be made that the leftists are being consistent, since for them lack of an intention to offend is never a valid defense. For literature and for microaggressions, meaning is entirely in the mind of the audience.

      • Indeed, consider the success we have had in eradicating the “cracker” word or in driving from the stage those performers who consider whites uptight.

  10. It seems personalizing the reading of a poem, short story, and especially a novel plays into our natural impulse. If the “everybody has an opinion” approach to reading a piece of literature lacks a set of boundaries, I agree the piece of literature will be open to many ridiculous interpretations. Yet, that impulse is still there and encouraged even more beyond the academy by groups such as book clubs.

    • Jim: One of my points was that no one has his own opinion because opinions in relation to any topic are few and people are many. Someone who claims to have his own (the word is invariably) “unique” interpretation of, say “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” is deluding himself. He is deluding himself, moreover, in an adolescent and narcissistic way, which is painful to witness. Art guides us to the revelation of reality, including the reality of our own, fallen nature – our own imitative wretchedness. The con-artists who tell you that there is no human nature because there is no truth, and therefore also no fixed reality, and therefore again that there is an indefinite number of equally brilliant interpretations of anything and everything, are asking you to participate in a lie. The same con-artists expect you to buy into the lie because the lie flatters you. The lie claims that all interpretations – or rather opinions – are equally supreme, but equal supremacy is an oxymoron. The aim is to gain power over you by making you think that their authority (those vicious morons actually do believe in their authority) is your authority and that the order of being, being non-existent, has no authority whatever. (Best to you – Tom)

      P.S. I always perform the same experiment on the first day of the semester in Freshman Composition. I ask, “Who here regards himself as unique.” Every hand goes up. With an acerbic observation, the discussion begins…

      P.P.S. Another commentator objects to the use of the word “text” (a usage of which I too am guilty in the post at the top of this thread). That commentator makes his objection quite correctly because he grasps that the term “text” and the term “opinion,” the second of the two as deployed in the alluring but false phrase that “everyone has his own opinion,” belong by connivance to the same “con.” Once we reduce everything to the meaningless category of “text,” then the Gospel “is just another myth” and the Constitution is “a living document.” And by “living,” the people who utter that utterance gleefully mean “stone dead.”

      • So basically equal supremacy falls into the same area as false equivalencies. My comment was more about our nature to internalize what we read and the boundaries needed to keep those internalizations from getting to outlandish. outlandish. What can we do to push against this in say a book club or discussion group?

  11. @Kristor: “The Norwegians are worse.”

    Through my mother (may she rest in peace), I have Swedish, Norwegian, and Frisian ancestors (the Van Westens). In re those Frisians — be on your guard!

    My great-uncle David Van Westen, who combined Frisian and Norwegian ancestry, and under whose avuncular and benevolent influence I became an inveterate collector of classical-music recordings in various formats since forty-five years ago — I say, my Uncle Dave, latterly a resident of Los Osos, California, used to recite this rhyme: “Ten thousand Swedes ran through the weeds, pursued by one Norwegian.”

    • Yeah, that’s how those Norse love to talk. The Swedes do, too, of course.

      When I was growing up, my Swedish grandfather used to love to tell Sven and Oly jokes. How he would shake, wheeze and weep at them! Sven and Oly were incomprehensibly stupid. He used to say that to the Swedes, Sven and Oly were Norse; to the Norse, they were Swedes.

      Similar sentiments divide and unite the Czechs and the Slovaks.


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