Hermeneutics of Poetic Sense

by Mario Valdes,
ISBN: 0802042430

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Brief Reviews - Culture
by D Sloboda

"The critic can only help the reader to clarify his or her own reactions, to understand the event of reading as, at one and the same time, an alteration of world view and a transformation of self-understanding. Added to this confrontation between contemporaries is that between generations of readers." (Paul Ricoeur)

The philosophy of long-time partner in dialogue Paul Ricoeur serves as the bedrock for Mario J. Valdés's phenomenological hermeneutic approach to literary criticism. In his latest book, Hermeneutics of Poetic Sense: Critical Studies of Literature, Cinema, and Cultural History (University of Toronto Press, 169 pages, no price listed), Valdés delves into a impressive array of cultural articulations to unravel, what he calls, "the imaginative configuration of the world, the cultural phenomenon of making sense, poetic sense, of life."

The starting point is a review of the problem of meaning-namely, the question of how we make sense of human experience, and how our cultural artefacts are both a reflection of and provocation for that process. Valdés confronts semiotics, hermeneutics, and experimental physics in his examination of key issues in contemporary literary theory: indeterminacy of meaning, serendipity, non-linear thinking, and the role of the imagination in the human quest to create order; the complex, self-reflexive relationship between audience and text, and the definition of the self as a member of a cultural community; parody and game theory; postmodernity and the processes involved in the construction of a literary history. As befits a scholar of the hermeneutic persuasion, Valdés's underlying theme is the role of the reader in generating meaning: meaning is understood, not as a pre-given content that must be wrested from the text, but rather as, in part, a function of the personal experiences and of the socio-politico-cultural context that have gone into shaping the reader's consciousness and that the reader necessarily brings to the task of interpretation.

Each chapter begins with a synopsis of leading philosophical and theoretical views on the subject at hand. Valdés then positions himself within the debates and provides a detailed analysis of specific cultural works. Examples are drawn from the works of poets and novelists as diverse as Marcel Proust, Gabriel García Márquez, e.e. cummings, Dylan Thomas, John Updike, Miguel de Unamuno, and Octavio Paz, and from films such as Frida, Casablanca, and Play It Again, Sam. As reflects the author's special area of expertise, the majority of the sources are Hispanic, and so students of the field will find his meticulous and incisive analyses particularly enlightening. However, by turning to the (non-Ibero) European and North American traditions as well, he astutely sets his project in the context of a collusion of cultures.

While the book's target audience is the specialist in literary theory, there is something in this "philosophically-informed response to culture" for a general reader interested and versed in issues around interculturalism. One of the major agendas, which is here sketched out, is the reconceptualization of literary history. This reconceptualization polemicizes with the notion of linguistic isolation, and examines of the process of continual cultural interchange. That many of his examples are drawn from Latin America, then, is only fitting, given that for 500 years Latin America has been the site of an unprecedented, massive, and intensive colonization by, and imposition of Iberian political and cultural models on, the native geography and peoples of South America. What I found particularly useful and promising for understanding this fascinating problem of how cultures interact is Valdés's highly tenable explication of identity, not as fixed and impervious to outside influences, but rather as "dynamic": there is, he explains, a "centre", but that centre is constantly moving and changing because cultural identity is "above all, a living set of ideas about the self, and the self's community...that are [continually being] proposed, contested, accepted, or negated". 

D. A. Sloboda


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