Cover Story: Science and Faith

On the Erroneous Belief in Objectivity

By Maurizio Pirro

Why in literary criticism persuasion is everything.

Anyone searching for objectivity in literary criticism soon encounters obstacles, not least as it is an attempt to define an object that can basically only be understood subjectively. Nothing can challenge my right to see Goethe’s “Wahlverwandtschaften” (English: “Elective Affinities”) or Schiller’s “Wallenstein” as a ragbag of absurdities, even though hordes of teachers and critics, adopting an air of superlative expertise, never cease to aver that these works both recognise and address unfathomable essential questions of modernity in a way that makes them just as interesting and relevant today as they were 200 years ago.

The object is not to employ authoritative gesture and select phraseology to differentiate the beautiful from the banal, but to uncover the differences which transform a plain piece of writing into an aesthetically relevant one. It is a question of aesthetic difference, of the fundamental experience upon which interpretation of art is based – the experience of style.

So what can be said about a science the foundations of which are so loosely based on discourse and so strongly on intuition? Style cannot, after all, be standardised and objectivised, it only voices itself in the course of production. Does this mean that literary interpretation is actually pursuing some profane metaphysics? No, absolutely not. It is precisely the avoidance of objectively provable paradigms that determines the specific character and cohesiveness of the hermeneutic approach to works of art. This is especially true since style is actually the universal element in aesthetic judgements, because it does not require the reader to have knowledge of content-related aspects of a political, social or cultural-historical nature in order to achieve profound understanding. It is in the indefinite space around which textual interpretation revolves that the reason for the discursive power of works of art is to be found, or if you like, for their lasting success. The fact that style is subjective and not reproducible allows the reader to get closer to other subjects, and turns the creation of meaning into a bonding activity resting on solidarity. In the course of tireless hermeneutics the recognition of what is shared develops from the understanding of what is individual.

Persuasion by suggestion

“What can be said about a science the foundations of which are so loosely based on discourse and so strongly on intuition?”

In teaching, too, we are frequently confronted with a lot of subjective convictions when it comes to literary criticism. Of course, the focus of such work is on argumentative structures. As a mediator of texts I rely on my ability to imbue these structures with clarity and the power of persuasion. But this is impossible without a certain degree of suggestiveness. What the Zürich theoretician, Johann Jakob Breitinger, claimed to be the main task of the artist in 1740, “to capture the reader’s imagination and take possession of his mind with well-turned and salutary depictions,” is essentially true for professional text interpretation, too. The act of teaching is determined by the situation and seldom predictable. It also draws on fascination and charisma. And successful teaching does not shy away from a bit of playacting and imposture either, although the difference between the passionate teacher and the base swindler is that he has to win credibility without being able to resort to superstition, stupidity or simple human weakness.

Clearly, we are treading uncertain ground where proof is impossible and belief is everything. And I have to have faith in this if I want to have any chance of believing that I am fulfilling the spirit and purpose of my work: to awaken in young students the wish to grapple with literary texts and the desire to make independent judgements.

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Maurizio Pirro Maurizio Pirro

Dr. Maurizio Pirro teaches modern German literary theory at the University of Bari, Italy. He has been a Humboldt Research Fellow at Bielefeld University since September 2008.

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