EUREKA: The Interpretation of Tom Jones. Some Remarks Concerning Interpretation
A Reply to Lothar Cerny

Reference: Connotations: A Journal of Critical Debate. Selected Debates: The Reader in Fielding

Lothar Cerny's essay on "Reader Participation and Rationalism in Fielding's Tom Jones"(1) has triggered a lively discussion, to which Bernard Harrison(2) and Leona Toker(3) have made substantial contributions. As some of my statements regarding reader response have been focused on and indeed attacked in this debate, it may not be inappropriate to highlight the implications of Cerny's claim that he knows what Fielding really meant when using the word "sagacity" in Tom Jones. Although "sagacity" is differently contextualized in Fielding's novel - to which Leona Toker has drawn attention(4) - it nevertheless has a fixed meaning for Cerny, and he sticks to this assertion in spite of the fact that he once quotes Wittgenstein, from whom he might have learned that the meaning of a word is its use which, of course, varies. Shades of meaning, however, are not Cerny's concern, perhaps because they might subvert his claim to know exactly what was in Fielding's mind.

Such a type of interpretation calls for scrutiny, and as I do not want to provide another interpretation of Tom Jones, I should like to raise a couple of issues that seem to have been overlooked in Cerny's essay: namely, why interpretation is frequently a matter of dispute, and what the difference is between methods of interpretation and theory.

Every interpretation transposes something into a different register that is not part of the subject matter to be interpreted. Therefore, each interpretation is an act of translation, in the course of which something is shifted into what it is not. In the case under discussion, a literary text is translated into a cognitive discourse, which makes any such act into a two-tiered operation. The literary discourse is the subject matter, and the cognitive discourse provides the parameters within which it is to be understood.

Comprehending Tom Jones could be directed towards ascertaining what the novel is about, what it means, what it intends, what it represents,what impact it exercises, what responses it elicits, what its representation aims at, and so on. There is a wide potential range of registers into which the literary discourse may be translated. Such a two-tiered operation brings the inherent duality of the register to the fore. All the viewpoints listed - and one can think of many more - decide what is important for the respective interpretation. As the viewpoints are selective, they give each interpretation a particular slant. The problem, however, is that the cognitive terms of the register are partial, and so the register actually molds the subject matter to the shape of its own interest.

This inherent duality makes it impossible to claim full knowledge of the text to be interpreted. Hence any such claim can only mean - in the case under consideration - to identify Tom Jones with the stance adopted for grasping the novel. This is strikingly illustrated by what Cerny claims to have found - namely, the intention Fielding is supposed to have pursued in Tom Jones, summed up by the statement: "Just as he expresses his belief in a dialectical unity of erotic love and charity, he equally looks to the unity of reason and feeling in wisdom."(157) How can "unity" be the guiding intention of someone who announces in his "Bill of Fare to the Feast" that the "Provision" for him "is no other than H U M AN N A T U R E, " whose importance is emphasized by spaced capital letters, and which is of "such prodigious Variety, that a Cook will have sooner gone through all the several Species of animal and vegetable Food in the World, than an author will be able to exhaust so extensive a Subject."(5)

Interpretation is bound to go awry when the following considerations are not sufficiently heeded: First, the ineluctable partiality of the terms set by the register, and second - even more importantly - the space opened up by any act of interpretation between the subject matter and the register into which the latter is transposed. This space cannot be ignored, but has to be negotiated, otherwise the inherent stances of the cognitive discourse are just superimposed on the literary discourse. Now, Cerny's claim that "unity" is to be considered the hallmark of human nature clearly shows the partiality of his interpretation: a set of assumptions is elevated to the status of reality. Negotiation, however, implies going back and forth between one's assumptions and the text, thus developing a hermeneutic circularity that acknowledges the space opened up by any interpretation, and simultaneously brings under scrutiny one's assumptions which, when focused upon, will not stay the same.

This is almost exactly the kind of repair that Harrison carries out on Cerny's claim to know that Fielding strove for "unity"; he highlights the interplay between " Reason" and "Appetite", whose oxymoronic relationship - according to Harrison - Fielding unfolds in kaleidoscopically shifting patterns, which both shatter and rebuild reader expectations. "He has constructed, with extreme detail and verisimilitude, an array of cases in which Appetite wields the scepter of Principle, passion turns out to lie at the heart of goodness, morality turns out to demand worldliness (in a certain sense) of us, and unworldliness (in a certain sense) stands under moral condemnation. All this may indeed stagger the reader; but if it does, the expectations it staggers are not introduced for the first time to the reader through his hermeneutic struggles with the text, but ones insinuated by presumptions, fore-understandings, which while they are not, in fact, essential to the preservation of a common understanding of terms in the language in which the text is written, are sufficiently engrained and habitual within the cultural milieu addressed by the text as to seem so."(162)

In the final analysis, a claim to knowledge is alien to interpretation, which would be redundant if one knew the 'true' nature of the matter to be explored. For interpretation is an attempt to understand what is beyond knowing. Therefore negotiation is the guiding principle of interpretation, not least because any claim to knowing colonizes the very space between object and register that interpretation itself has opened up.

Why should someone who 'knows' what Fielding's enterprise was, deem it necessary to debunk the statements of those who are not in line with his thinking? Why should he pay any attention at all to those who are wrong, especially if he 'knows' that they started out from false presuppositions anyway, and thus were bound to go astray?

Well, no premiss of interpretation is self-evident in view of what it is meant to achieve. The short cut to justifying one's own premiss, therefore, is to single out opponents and tear them to pieces, implying, of course, that this is already sufficient evidence for the validity of one's own assumptions. The more vehement the attack, the more the assumptions depend on constant reminders of the opponent's failure. If the opponent has to be caricatured to the verge of simple-mindedness, the effect can only be to divert attention from the premiss on which the attack is based. It is, after all, no proof of strength to say that the position attacked is weak.

Cerny's interpretive strategies make one thing quite clear: he does not consider his premiss to be a heuristic assumption; assumptions initiate and develop trial runs, and since they can never cover all eventualities, some of their features must be exposed to change. Furthermore, Cerny does not reflect on what is inherent in his premiss - and why should he, in view of his certainty that he is right? Such an attitude is sadly reminiscent of those outmoded brands of explanation which laid claim to a monopoly on interpretation. The proponents of such claims inspected only other people's premisses, but never their own, which for them had a self-proclaimed authority. However, they too were dependent on opponents, whose different starting points had to be distorted in order to provide negative support for the would-be indisputable.

I have obviously also been tailored in such a manner, and thereby converted into a foundational element of Cerny's interpretive enterprise.That he needs me urgently is borne out by the fact that even when replying to Harrison's criticism, he calls me up as his whipping-boy. It is flattering to be so indispensable, though a little disconcerting to be seen as simple-minded. I am used to my work being regarded as too abstract, sometimes too difficult, even too complicated, but now suddenly, according to Cerny, it is simplistic: "In his attempt to establish a place for reader participation, Iser knows only one alternative, either didacticism or vacant spaces, tertium non datur."(143)(6) If only I had known this earlier, I could have saved myself hundreds of pages. My Cernyian mask of simplisim did not last long, as both Bernard Harrison and Leona Toker swiftly pulled it off. Harrison explained very succinctly the phenomenologically conceived text processing that I had advanced, and even stressed the fact that in the reading process the "noetic-noematic constitution" requires a "continuous adjustment of anticipations in the light of their fulfilment."(150) Of course, this adjustment will apply to the text-processing of Tom Jones, as each reader brings different anticipations to bear, just as each interpreter has preferences for his or her chosen assumptions. Cerny bridles this, and begins his rebuttal of Harrison's criticism by stating: "He (Harrison) has given us, in fact, a theory of reader response which he, rather too modestly, claims to be a modification of Iser's theory only." (7) Well, why not? And isn't modification integral to our common pursuit of exploring issues and addressing problems in literary criticism? At least it is more productive than the currently fashionable victimary discourse.

Leona Toker has given an exhaustive analysis of my attempts to conceptualize the different lacunae in the text, thus providing an impressive demonstration of why the register of any interpretation should be examined first, as it forestalls a rush to judgment in the conflict of interpretation. "Reading the Instructions" - as she puts it - means inspecting the register into which the subject matter is translated. Such an inspection is all the more pertinent as the register not only molds the subject matter, but also translates it into a contemporary context. In other words, the register is conditioned by the context out of which it has arisen, and its fashioning of the subject matter is essential if the latter is to be translated into terms of contemporary understanding. In the two-tiered structure of interpretation, the register itself is dual by nature, as it simultaneously gives a perspective to the subject matter, and transmits it into the parameters of a particular intellectual environment.

This is a basic reason why interpretation has to come under scrutiny. For a long time, it was just an activity carried out without much attention to what it actually entailed. It was tacitly assumed that interpretation was something that came naturally, not least as human beings live by constantly interpreting. However, what does not come naturally are the forms interpretation takes. And as these forms structure the acts of interpretation to a large extent, it is important to study them, not least as the structures will reveal what the respective interpretive agenda is designed to achieve.

This is all the more essential with a prevailing type of interpretation that predicates and judges what in actual fact has to be understood. Understanding entails opening up the issues to be explored, whereas predication and judgment provide closure, thus pointing to a transcendental stance which decrees what the subject matter has to be. The critic, however, as T.S. Eliot once remarked, "must not coerce, and he must not make judgments of worse or better. He must simply elucidate: the reader will form the correct judgment for himself."(8) Otherwise, we might add, interpretation is merely decision-making, and as such stands in need of deconstruction, since it reifies either individual or contingent preferences, which more often than not block the road to an historically and situationally conditioned understanding.

There is a final point to be touched upon briefly: the distinction between method and theory of which, to put it mildly, Cerny seems unaware in his magisterial interpretation.He starts out his first essay by saying: "Fielding's novels, therefore, do not just serve Iser as examples to illustrate his theory but actually provide the patterns or substrata on which it is based."(137) And he has another dig at me in his second essay, maintaining that "a theory" cannot "be convincing which does not really meet its chosen empirical subject."(314) Irrespective of whether a theory is convincing or not, it is certainly not a method of interpretation.

In the past I have already tried to explain the difference between theory and method, and for argument's sake, I am afraid I have to quote myself: "Theories generally provide premises, which lay the foundation for the framework of categories, whereas methods provide the tools for processes of interpretation. Thus the phenomenological theory, for instance, explores the mode of existence of the artwork; the hermeneutic theory is concerned with the observer's understanding of himself when confronted with the work; the gestalt theory focuses on the perceptive faculties of the observer as brought into play by the work.(...) Distinctive assumptions are made which reveal a particular mode of access to the work of art, although they do not represent a technique of interpretation. Theories must undergo a definite transformation if they are to function as interpretative techniques. Thus the bases laid down by the three theories above must be transformed into (a) the strata model, (b) question-and-answer logic, and (c) the concepts of schema and correction. There is, in fact, a hermeneutic relationship between theory and method. Every theory embodies an abstraction of the material it is seeking to categorize. If the degree of abstraction is the precondition for the success of categorization, then, clearly, the theory tends to screen off the individuality of the material, whereas it is the central function of interpretative methods to bring out and elucidate this very individuality. Thus the theory provides a framework of categories, while the method, in turn, provides the conditions whereby the basic assumptions underlying the theory will be differentiated by the results emerging from individual analysis."(9)

A theory of aesthetic response, as I tried to conceive it, follows the very same lines, i.e. it has to be transformed, if a method of interpretation is to be derived from it. (10) However, when a theory is taken for a method of interpretation, either confusion or redundancy ensue: Confusion insofar as the comparatively abstract frameworks of a theory tend to distort the text when used as guidelines for interpretation; redundancy insofar as texts are turned into documentation when used to bear out a theory that really does not need such evidence. In each instance, the hermeneutic interrelationship between theory and method is lost to view. If theory furnishes the focus for a method, the latter in turn can feed its findings back into the theory, which is thus fine-tuned.

At a historic juncture in literary studies, this circularity became paramount in order to dispel the smokescreen arising from an impressionistic type of interpretation that took the emotion aroused by the art work for its intrinsic structure. This is reason enough for observing the distinction between theory and method, and this is exactly what Leona Toker has stressed in her contribution, to which, by way of conclusion, I can unreservedly subscribe. "A literary example can partially illustrate but not bear out a theory, since, as noted above, a literary text is a testing ground rather than a tribune for ideas, a field which only partly overlaps with the theory one superimposes on it. It is richer than a theory in some ways and poorer in others (less numerous); and it will necessarily indicate the insufficiencies of this theory while failing to do justice to its extensions."(160)

University of Constance /

University of California, Irvine

  1. Connotations 2 (1992), pp. 137-162.

  2. Bernard Harrison, "Gaps and Stumbling-Blocks in Fielding: A Response to Cerny, Hammond and Hudson", Connotations 3 (1993/94), pp. 147-172.

  3. Leona Toker, "If Everything Else Fails, Read the Instructions: Further Echoes of the Reception-Theory Debate", Connotations 4 (1994/95), pp. 151-164.

  4. Cf. ibid., p. 154.

  5. Henry Fielding, The History of Tom Jones A Foundling, I (The Wesleyan Edition of the Works of Henry Fielding), ed. by Fredson Bowers, Oxford UP. 1975, pp. 31f.

  6. Cerny's way of arguing can be illustrated by just one example. He tries to highlight one of my many failures by quoting the following passage: "This typical appeal to the reader's 'sagacity' aims at arousing a sense of discernment.....Here we have a clear outline of the role of the reader, which is fulfilled through the continual instigation of attitudes and reflections on those attitudes." Cerny takes this statement to be yet another indication of my blindness. But then on the opposite page, with my own quote still in view, he writes: "Fielding does not altogether dispense with teaching. On the contrary, he wants to teach in a less obvious and more effective way. He makes the reader learn on his own, not by telling him what he thinks is right but by letting him discover sense and nonsense for himself." (143)

  7. Lothar Cerny, "'But the poet...never affirmeth': A Reply to Bernard Harrison" Connotations 3 (1993/94), p. 312.

  8. T. S. Eliot, "The Perfect Critic", in The Sacred Wood. Essays on Poetry and Criticism, London (1960), p. 11; the essay was originally published in 1928.

  9. Wolfgang Iser, "The Current Situation of Literary Theory: Key Concepts and the Imaginary", New Literary History 11 (1979), p. 5. It should be added that theories are also conceived to explore issues which may not have anything to do with providing parameters for interpreting literary texts, such as those which focus on the function of literature, or on what literature may reveal of the human makeup.

  10. I have tried to make such a transformation myself in my book on Shakespeares Historien. Genesis und Geltung, Konstanz 1988; but I certainly did not do so in my essay on Fielding.