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.