Do You Know What You Know?

The field of English literature is more subjective than other academic disciplines and as such, people in other disciplines can perceive the study of literature as personal opinions constructed by the reader apart from the text. Often, the opinions and conclusions of literary scholars seem out of reach of their academic peers in other disciplines because they have a deeper knowledge of historical concepts and biographical information, which cannot be entirely relied upon yet not entirely discredited. A.S. Byatt’s novel “Possession” explores questions about academic and personal reading processes. By exploring this question through the example of Christabel Lamotte, I argue that our “knowledge” of background information to texts can colour our readings to the point where it can alter the textual meaning and can become supplementary to the text itself. I further posit that research, although not perfect, is the most effective way of gaining new knowledge.

Much of the basis for study in English literature can lie in historical context; biographical contexts can also contribute to a richer understanding. How does our previous knowledge or the things we know colour our readings of texts? To what extent do we ascribe our own interpretations to a text? This dilemma is illustrated in the character of Christabel Lamotte, specifically what was known about her by scholars like Maud Bailey and how that could have influenced interpretation. The very thought of LaMotte being involved in an affair with R.H. Ash at first seems uncharacteristic of her and Maud Bailey completely discredits the idea from the beginning (42). With further research and looking for specific examples that could be interpreted to support the claim of an affair between the two authors, more evidence is found. This leads to more questions about what we can find in texts if we are looking for it; would the same evidence exist if it was not being diligently searched for?

As English majors, it is our job to find what is relevant and prove it thus with textual and historical references. As stated previously, these references can be initially tainted with subjectivity and personal interpretations so the only way to strengthen an argument is to question its very basis even further. When Maud and Roland cautiously accept the notion that there may have been an affair between their favourite authors, the evidence they find changes what they thought they knew. Can new information lead to a reformation of previous thought or will it be shaped to fit what was already assumed about the subject? The fact that new information is being gathered from personal letters is significant to note. These letters were written to specific readers; how accurate can a reading of the letters be by someone who was not intended to read them? (131)

It is not my intent to bash the literary research process but merely to draw attention to how we as readers can construct textual meanings outside of the text itself because of our own knowledge and subjective experiences. The information we have about authors is important to note and can be significant at times to understanding the meaning; it is also important to keep in mind where the information comes from and that although it may be correct, there may be more to the background of the work, the author, and the circumstance than originally thought. It is only through research and questioning what we believe we know that we are able to find what we don’t know and come to know more things.

Discussion Questions:

Do you have any personal examples for when your previous knowledge has accurately/inaccurately coloured your reading of a specific text?

What effect do the series of personal letters have on objective understanding of facts?

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2 Responses to Do You Know What You Know?

  1. tobiasma says:

    Dear Allison,
    Your perspective is interesting because it slices to the heart of what makes Possession stand out as a novel. I have often wondered what sort of people are behind the crisp, chilly tone of the endless theoretical or research papers we have had to read. Do they engage in affairs, eat shrimp or have feelings? Possession is both compelling and entertaining because it breaks down the barriers between textual analysis and fun (not that such barriers ever existed for me). The novel reminds us that beneath a scholastic veneer the academic world is directed by people with sexual proclivities, personality disorders and financial woes. Your example of Maud Bailey doubting the affair’s evidence hits the novel’s point about subjectivity on the head because it exposes the multiple layers we have to cut through when reading an interpretation. My initial assumption was that Maud is uninterested because steamy affairs are distasteful to her feminist inclinations. I was inclined to agree, but it is later implied that she resists the idea in part because of her own discomfort with sexuality; the guilt of a fling with the odious Fergus clearly haunts her (64). Drama!
    One could certainly question whether a previous love affair was even relevant to a reading of the text, even though the fictional Ash appears to be one of those dead poets for whom the great critical ideas have unfortunately been dried up. Inferring that our two detectives are questing in the 1980’s – they must have been familiar with Barthes’s “Death of the Author” concept or at least the school of American New Criticism that preceded it. Roland and Maud seem interested in deconstructing Ash’s intentions however, and in that case the letters turn out to more important than titillating as they shed light on the lovers’ views on religion and the human condition, a good example beginning on page 195. Still, I remember getting blasted apart over a psychoanalytic paper I wrote on Napoleon’s letters to his wife during History 201.
    It’s impossible to disagree that research is essential for any sort of intelligent plumbing of a subject. But I think a great question, given the limited hours my patience has for reading academic journals, is what to research and why? As readers, we should ask ourselves if it is genuinely important to know that Ash had an affair with an insightful wallflower, or what inconsiderate gestures were made that separated them eventually. I am not a postmodern scholar but I suspect that this aspect of Ash’s personal life would not prove terribly useful to that field since author intention does not always matter. In refutation, Possession demonstrates the step-by-step of how Ash and LaMotte’s correspondence affects Ash’s poetry (Swammerdam on 221). I got the impression that Byatt was attempting to broaden the appeal of literary theory by re-igniting the human, “subjective” elements of textual analysis which is what makes the arts so attractive. Roland and Maud are both attached to their bygone counterparts (284) and as they are also authorities it is obvious their future work will be affected by the illicit knowledge, which will be handed down many filters later like wisdom of the gods to students like us. Beyond the references and flavour text, will that approach be useful (whatever ‘useful’ means)? Possession’s emotional thrust seems to agree: everything is personal and it is impossible to separate the author’s life from their text.

    Thanks for your post.

  2. tobiasma says:

    WITHOUT THE WALL OF TEXT (never copy and paste)

    Dear Allison,

    Your perspective is interesting because it slices to the heart of what makes Possession stand out as a novel. I have often wondered what sort of people are behind the crisp, chilly tone of the endless theoretical or research papers we have had to read. Do they engage in affairs, eat shrimp or have feelings? Possession is both compelling and entertaining because it breaks down the barriers between textual analysis and fun (not that such barriers ever existed for me). The novel reminds us that beneath a scholastic veneer the academic world is directed by people with sexual proclivities, personality disorders and financial woes. Your example of Maud Bailey doubting the affair’s evidence hits the novel’s point about subjectivity on the head because it exposes the multiple layers we have to cut through when reading an interpretation. My initial assumption was that Maud is uninterested because steamy affairs are distasteful to her feminist inclinations. I was inclined to agree, but it is later implied that she resists the idea in part because of her own discomfort with sexuality; the guilt of a fling with the odious Fergus clearly haunts her (64). Drama!

    One could certainly question whether a previous love affair was even relevant to a reading of the text, even though the fictional Ash appears to be one of those dead poets for whom the great critical ideas have unfortunately been dried up. Inferring that our two detectives are questing in the 1980’s – they must have been familiar with Barthes’s “Death of the Author” concept or at least the school of American New Criticism that preceded it. Roland and Maud seem interested in deconstructing Ash’s intentions however, and in that case the letters turn out to more important than titillating as they shed light on the lovers’ views on religion and the human condition, a good example beginning on page 195. Still, I remember getting blasted apart over a psychoanalytic paper I wrote on Napoleon’s letters to his wife during History 201.

    It’s impossible to disagree that research is essential for any sort of intelligent plumbing of a subject. But I think a great question, given the limited hours my patience has for reading academic journals, is what to research and why? As readers, we should ask ourselves if it is genuinely important to know that Ash had an affair with an insightful wallflower, or what inconsiderate gestures were made that separated them eventually. I am not a postmodern scholar but I suspect that this aspect of Ash’s personal life would not prove terribly useful to that field since author intention does not always matter. In refutation, Possession demonstrates the step-by-step of how Ash and LaMotte’s correspondence affects Ash’s poetry (Swammerdam on 221). I got the impression that Byatt was attempting to broaden the appeal of literary theory by re-igniting the human, “subjective” elements of textual analysis which is what makes the arts so attractive. Roland and Maud are both attached to their bygone counterparts (284) and as they are also authorities it is obvious their future work will be affected by the illicit knowledge, which will be handed down many filters later like wisdom of the gods to students like us. Beyond the references and flavour text, will that approach be useful (whatever ‘useful’ means)? Possession’s emotional thrust seems to agree: everything is personal and it is impossible to separate the author’s life from their text.

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