Zhang Zhengwen:Source of the Meanings of Literary Texts: Creation by Authors, Reading by Readers and Criticism by Critics By Zhang Zhengwen
Created On : 2018-01-24    Views : 331

Source: Social Science Front

A major symptom of the spiritual crisis facing contemporary Western literature theories is that they negate authors’ relations with readers and critics, and claim the “death of authors”. With the focus shifted from authors to works, readers and theories in the literature production and consumption world, they make theories the only role in the world of literature, and change literature production and consumption into a monodrama about theories. Professor Zhang Jiang said, “Since the mid-20th century, contemporary Western literature theories have tended to negate the existence of authors and their intentions, negate the meanings of intentions to interpretation, interpret literature in a way that meets the purposes of critics, and lead contemporary interpretation research onto the road to relativism and nihilism.” The cultural fields for literary activities are the presence of literature consisting of the intentions of authors, readers, and critics. Since their emergence in the literature world about 2,000 years ago, critics have provided the public with the path, approaches, and value guidance to literature interpretation. It has been an indisputable fact and belief that critics have helped readers identify themselves, enjoy life, care about mankind and take a free road to inspiring social development through literature reading. So, the description of the internal relations among creation, reading and criticism is aimed to reiterate the presence of the intentions of authors, readers and critics, and the literary experience jointly built up by authors, readers and critics is the source of the meanings of literature.     

1. Creation by Authors and Knowledge Interpretation of Texts

Authors are the original creators of texts. Driven by the impulse to create, authors use a specific language and, based on character rules and aesthetic requirements, change their insight into society, understanding of life, joys and sorrows, as well as dreams and fantasies into a linguistic and symbolic system that can be read, appreciated and commented on by the public, and that system is called literary works. In the system, authors’ understanding of the external world and the experience about life are both reflected in literary works, and that is the intention of authors in creation. 

As interpreted by Marx, literary works are the results of authors’ creative activities and the confirmation of authors’ subjective awareness. Authors’ creative activities are a form of production, with the products as literary works. Literary works are the foundation and carrier of literary texts, and become literary texts during literature reading, appreciation and criticism. Literary works are independent of authors. While objectifying the subjective world of authors, they also become objectively independent texts that can no longer be controlled or changed by authors. In theoretical physics, everything in the large-scale universe that runs at a speed slower than 300,000 km per second is in the inertial physical system. Closed and evenly distributed inside, the inertial physical system sees every movement unidirectional and irreversible. In this regard, the universe, social history and literary texts are all processes of dissipation, as they appear and disappear rather than stand still with the original contents and forms. However, the relativity theory raised by Einstein tells us, that time and space in the same reference frame cannot be separated. A specific spatial point must have a corresponding time point, and vice versa. The intentions of authors reflected in realistic literary works, after entering literary texts, cannot go back into the time course of creation, but are left in the symbolic space of literary texts. So, the presence of authors’ intentions is an indubitable fact. Apparently, the question is not about the presence of authors’ intentions, but about how readers will find the authors’ intentions and how critics will reveal authors’ intentions. This is the foundation of reading, as well as the precondition for critics’ comments to be generally accepted by the public. So, Professor Zhang Jiang said, “The penetration and deciding force of intentions is seen in the whole process of text understanding and interpretation. Whether you accept it or not, it is always there.”

Understanding the living background, writing context and intentions of authors and the meanings of words is the precondition for reading and criticism, as well as the foundation for converting works into literary texts that go beyond the intentions of authors and works in interpretation. In this sense, the intentions of authors need to be identified in both reading and criticism, and that is an important approach to correctly and effectively understanding and interpreting literary texts. Kant noted that after the presence is perceived and structured into cognitive objects, subjects use logical abilities to judge cognitive objects and further develop the judgment into common cognition about objects, which is called knowledge. Readers develop the reading experience about texts through understanding the intentions of authors; critics develop the knowledge about concrete literary works through rationally revealing and interpreting the intentions of authors, and such knowledge forms the foundation and main resources of the knowledge system for the history of literature and the theoretical system of literature. Therefore, it’s reasonable to view the understanding of readers and critics towards the intentions of authors as a special cognitive activity intended to identify cultural facts and a concrete process in which literature knowledge takes shape. This requires readers and critics to be accurate, objective and independent as much as possible when understanding the intentions of authors.

Focusing on the intentions of authors is an important tradition for the appreciation and criticism of Chinese literature. There was the “theory about reviewing people and the world” and the “theory about meaning not fully expressible in words” in the pre-Qin period, the “theory about expression of aspirations” and the “theory about being assiduous in book writing” in the Han Dynasty, the “theory about the style of writing” and the “theory about emotions” in the Wei and Jin Dynasties, the “theory about interest” and the “theory about artistic conception” in the Tang Dynasties, the “theory about acting with intentions” and the “theory about comprehension” in the Song Dynasty, the “theory about childishness” and the “theory about intelligence” in the Ming Dynasty, the “theory about romantic charm” and the “theory about spirituality” in the Qing Dynasty and the “theory about realm” by Wang Guowei in modern times. So, the core standards and mainstream concepts for the reading and criticism of ancient Chinese literature, which sprouted in the pre-Qin period, took shape in the Western and Eastern Han Dynasties, developed in the Tang and Song Dynasties and flourished in the Ming and Qing Dynasties, are all about the understanding of the intentions of authors and how they are expressed. Led by the core standards and mainstream concepts, the appreciation and criticism of traditional Chinese literature focuses on verification of the deeds, acts and thoughts of authors and figures in works. To verify the intentions of texts, great efforts are made, and lots of notes, comments, correspondences, ancient records, chronicles and cultural relics are accumulated. That reveals that the intentions of authors of many literary works that have long been textually silent in reading and criticism, makes great contribution to the extension of the Chinese civilization, and becomes the most respected and famous school.

However, finding the intentions of authors and how they are expressed is just the foundation of reading; revealing the intentions of authors and how they are expressed is no more than a precondition for criticism, to be accepted by the public and recognized as part of the meanings of texts. Textual intentions just form the knowledge form of concrete literary works, rather than all the meanings of literary texts. In the book entitled Cultural Science and Natural Science, Rickert highlighted two basic spiritual activities of humans, i.e. cultural activities and scientific activities. The two forms of cultural activities must differ from each other, or they will lose independence. In nature, literary reading and literary criticism are the spiritual and cultural activities of humans. Literary texts are not natural phenomena governed by objective laws, but aesthetic texts created by authors. Unlike purely objective natural phenomena, literary texts are generated from authors’ aesthetic activities. Despite original objectiveness, they are fundamentally the objectification and contextualization of authors’ subjective cognition. The subjects and objects of scientific cognition are both independent, and only constitute thinking identity at the cognitive level. In the thinking identity, cognitive subjects cognize objects, and weave cognitive results into natural science. In scientific cognition activities, cognitive subjects have subjective awareness and abilities, but the more they can avoid the interference of subjectivity in the cognitive process, the more accurate they will cognize the truth. That is the special attribute of subjectivity in humans’ scientific cognitive activities. Literary texts are the objectification and contextualization of authors’ subjective aesthetic awareness, and cannot be separated from authors. Literary reading and literary criticism must be cognized and comprehended by readers and critics and develop into interpretation of literary texts. In other words, only after being comprehended by readers and judged by critics can literary texts be truly and reliably understood and interpreted and be generally recognized by the public and be part of the public life; only in that way can literary texts generate richer, more public and more universal textual meanings based on the textual intentions of authors. The objects of literary reading, literary criticism and scientific cognition are relatively independent and objective. However, in terms of paths and approaches, scientific cognition relies on assumption, observation, experiment and calculation, while literary reading and criticism depends on feeling, comprehension and writing for the cognition of literary texts. So, interpretations of literary texts by readers and critics can’t be cliché. We can say that the interpretations of authors’ intentions by readers and critics must be accompanied by the expression about textual meanings, and the expressive function is the intrinsic rule of literary reading and criticism. When revealing the intentions of authors and how they are expressed, readers and critics need to express richer and broader textual meanings. However, in the post-modern reading and criticism era that highlights the “death of authors”, “focus on theories” and “compulsory interpretation”, we need to focus more on the finding and revealing of authors’ intentions in reading and criticism, so as to underline how informative, public, and generally effective literary reading and criticism is, and better carry forward the tradition of the Chinese people in reading and criticism. We believe the tradition is bound to become the mainstream culture once it enters the current literary field.

2. Reading and Readers’ Personal Understanding of Texts 

Literary works are the products of creation by authors. Only after being separated from authors, becoming a public object in the consumption process and being understood by readers can works truly become literary texts. Literary texts are different from literary works. Literary texts are based on literary works and finalized in reading. Literary texts contain the textual intentions of authors, and grow and extend in reading. So, the textual intentions of literature are not confined to the textual intentions of authors; the intentions of readers and critics may be the main part of the textual intentions of literature as public cultural consumer goods. 

Reading is an extremely complicated activity related to spiritual consciousness and language use. In creative production, works and authors are in a one-to-one relationship, although the one-to-one relationship is extremely complex. In reading, works and readers are in a one-to-many relationship, the description of which is only meaningful in the statistical sense. So, there is just one Hamlet in an author’s eyes, but there are a thousand Hamlets in a thousand readers’ eyes. During reading, the readers’ spiritual consciousness is diversified, open and changeable, and the direction, trend, mode, and structure of spiritual change is not completely controlled by the causal reaction of stimulus response. The individuals’ feelings and comprehension, knowledge and experience, stance and values, ability and skill, freely constructs the understanding relationship with the text, and differs from the cognition of the natural world and the grasp over social life. Reading features mental choices by individuals and subjective freedom. Readers’ subjective freedom makes every reading of a literary work unique and unrepeatable. We can even say the same literary work may give rise to different interpretations by readers. Unlike realistic physical space, the space of readers’ spiritual consciousness is non-Euclidean, uneven, changeable, and multi-dimensional. The time of spiritual consciousness is non-uniform in velocity and reversible. Martin Heidegger classified time into two categories, i.e. the clock time that is quantitative, objective and scientifically measurable, and the subjective time that is qualitative, human and care laden. “Quantitative time is understood as a ‘present’ flow that is endless, elapsing, irreversible, abstract, and objective…qualitative time or existential time is understood as a captivated unity”. The famous contemporary hermeneutics ideologist Gadamer also classified time experience into two categories, i.e. normal and pragmatic time, and artistic and festive time. While the former refers to a daily sense of time, the latter is a sense of time that is non-instrumental and linked with the life experience of individuals and group identity. So, both the time and space of readers’ spiritual consciousness are free, and the essays in the pre-Qin Period and Han Dynasty can be the realistic literary templates for the readers in the Tang Dynasty. Similarly, German enlightenment thinkers interpreted the cultural life in ancient Greece as modernistic social ideals. In a word, before readers meet works, works are free, closed and silent; after that, readers and works are in the inter-subjective relationship for interpretation. During the inter-subjective process, the literary texts of authors’ intentions are instilled into works by readers, that is, only after they are read can works become conscious, open, and speakable. During reading, authors become alive and meet with readers, and works change from historical characters into realistic literary texts. Reading is the only path for readers to enter the world of literary texts. In the textual context, readers comprehend texts and project their inner life in texts. The integration between comprehension and projection gives rise to the interpretation of texts. So, the process of reading and interpretation is filled with the subjectivity of readers. Readers’ values and stances, thoughts and motives, ideas and sentiments, knowledge and experience directly determine the understanding of the contents of literary works and the choice of meanings. The key to converting literary works to public texts lies in whether the works are read, what is read, and how they are read. Reading determines whether the works of authors can become literary texts. In the eyes of readers, the works being read are about the life experience written by authors, and reading is about interpreting the life into the consciousness that readers can understand. Unlike the works only related to authors, everything in texts revives in the readers’ mind in the current form, and, just as Heidegger said, texts belong to the being. Only by understanding the way in which the being exists is it possible to understand the texts belonging to the present. Literary reading is an activity of text interpretation instead of a general cognitive activity, because authors’ past life experience can be interpreted by readers as the meanings of life at present. During reading, the life of authors and the life created by authors realize not only cognitive exchanges, but also confirmation of meanings. Text reading becomes readers’ finding of meanings, and text interpretation is changed into the descriptions of the life of readers. So, during reading, texts are about the life experience of authors experienced by readers, as well as the life experience of readers experienced by readers themselves. Through reading, readers and authors develop a textual dialogue through the work. In this kind of dialogue relationship, readers put themselves into the textual world to discover the intention of authors through reading, and put texts in the current cultural field through interpreting the intention of authors. That makes authors revive and speak in the current cultural field, and turns texts into reality under the current cultural background. This means that in reading, readers change the authors and works in an endless unfolding into the present culture.

Reading is not about interpretation of one’s own life with classics or acting at will. Kant warned, humans’ cognition is subject to the objects, abilities and conditions of cognition. Reading is controlled by preconception, which refers to the ideology, cultural knowledge, feelings, experience, and linguistic abilities of readers that are already there before reading. During text reading, the preconception directly determines what readers will read, how they will read, what they read, and what they get. Heidegger said, understanding is subject to preconception and can’t be absolutely subjective; Gadamer said, text interpretation can’t be subjective or arbitrary. Texts themselves determine that readers are unable to go beyond the objectivity of texts during text interpretation, which can only be made in texts. Arbitrary reading and irrelevant interpretation of texts by readers will lead to dissipation of texts, forced interpretation and loss of meanings. Nationwide reading and criticism of A Dream of Red Mansions and Outlaws of the Marsh in the 20th century in China is a case in point. Of course, misunderstanding of the textual intentions of authors often occurs. Schleiermacher said, “Where there is misunderstanding, there is hermeneutics.” Actually, readers’ preconception is always different from the intentions of authors. As readers can’t understand all the intentions of authors in an objective way, misunderstanding of the authors’ intentions is inevitable. When viewing misunderstanding from another perspective, we’ll find that the visual scope of readers is determined by their cultural preconception and living context. Similarly, works are created based on authors’ cultural preconception and living context. So, during interpretation by readers, authors and readers have dialogues and works turn into texts. Authors and readers are opened to each other in texts, with the scopes of vision integrated and the preconception interwoven with the current conception about texts. As a result, as the text opens up the underlying meaning of silence, the meaning of the readers’ existence is revealed, and the text is truly presented as state of cultural openness. In such an open state, the text renders the authors intention into the current language of the readers’ interpretation, and the text is no longer a work that belong to the author, but is a text that belongs to the current reader. During reading, readers’ narration turns into their experience, and authors and readers coexist in the moment. Each reading is a revival for authors, a regeneration of texts, and a transcending by readers. Authors and works in the past become topics of contemporary history, subject to interpretation by readers during current reading. 

3. Criticism and Critics’ “Public Interpretation” of Texts

Critics are a special group of readers. They find the intentions of authors in texts and judge the rationality of the intentions. On such a basis, they demonstrate their own intentions, and explain whether the meanings of literary texts exist and how and why they exist, changing a concrete literary work into the cultural presentation of all the meanings and values of life in the past, at present and in the future, making literary texts transcend realistic life and emancipating daily life from the aesthetic perspective. These are the fundamental purposes of text reading and interpretation by critics. To lead reading and base interpretation on publicity is the intrinsic rule for critics, and makes them go beyond readers in the general sense. 

Marx once commented on many literary texts. As a critic, he said, “Every stage in history witnesses certain material results, a certain sum of productivity as well as historically shaped relationships between people and nature and those among people; it also sees much productivity, capital, and environment passed by the previous generation to the next generation, which on one hand is changed by the next generation, but on the other hand predefines the living conditions of the next generation, that in return make it develop and have a special nature.” So, “history is no more than the changes of generations. Each generation uses the materials, funds and productivity left from previous generations. For this reason, each generation, on one hand, continues with the activities they inherit in a totally changed environment, and on the other hand, changes the old environment through totally changed activities”. When commenting on literary phenomena, Marx always made the structural relationship between social existence and social consciousness the basic scope of vision to interpret literary phenomena, and viewed revealing and illustrating the social force behind literary phenomena as the purpose of literary criticism. Marx believed that social existence determines the literary texts as social consciousness. Social existence is subject to the mutual relations between social productivity and social productive relations, which has its objective rules and is reflected as the objective force of mass practice in the evolution of history and culture. So, literary texts are practical and historical and have their rules; they are social activities that conform to both purposes and rules. From the philosophical perspective, literary texts are social texts about human practice, cultural texts about humanized nature and historical texts about the objectification of human nature. So, Marx always proceeded from the practical feature of literary texts in literary criticism, and was very sensitive to the realistic feature of all kinds of social relations in literary texts and how they influence the environment, figures and characters in literary texts. In Marx’s literary criticism, humans were not those in the Western enlightenment thought, but those that are emotional and practical. “They are the sum of all the social relations”. In the capitalist era in which Marx lived, realistic humans were materialized and enslaved individuals, and concrete persons that advanced social development. That is why Marx spoke highly of the achievements of British and French realistic novels in the 19th century. Moreover, based on the principle that the mutual relations between social productivity and social productive relations has its objective rules and is reflected as the objective force of mass practice in the evolution of history and culture, Marx believed that the existence and development of literary texts takes its root in the rules of social practice and the concrete, diversified, and realistic features of social development.

Since the founding of New China, guided by Marxist criticism concepts, methods and criteria, Chinese literary critics have highlighted the social background, historical context and cultural environment of literary texts, focused on the cause-and-effect relations between literary texts and corresponding historical and cultural background, and regarded revealing the internal relations between literary texts and corresponding historical and cultural background as the supreme pursuit of literary criticism. Consequently, China has seen a boom in the field of literary criticism with many excellent outcomes achieved. However, meanwhile, some critical and theoretical practice was affected by Hegel’s logical criticism views to some extent and stuck in the trap of “forced interpretation”, either intentionally or unintentionally.

German classical philosopher Hegel is obsessed with the role of rationality in thinking, considering only through the positive and negative rotation of rationality can the nature of concepts be revealed, and only after subjective spiritual texts are converted into movements of thoughts can they be mastered by rationality. In Hegel’s theories, rationality is the nature of the existence of the world and the source of literary texts. During movements, rationality defines, realizes and confirms itself. In history, the movements are reflected in the development process from nature to society and then to spirit. That is, development of nature, society and spirit is the movements of rationality, and nature, society, and spirit have the basic rule as the unity of opposites and negation of negation of rationality. First, all the objective things and subjective consciousness, from social and historical existence to literary texts, abandon their irrational parts during the movements of the unity of opposites and negation of negation, while keeping the rational parts in the next stage at a higher level. So, everything including literary texts has the necessity of existence. Second, Hegel highlighted the internal relations among phenomena, and viewed the mutual relations the nature of things and the basis for understanding the nature of things. In his epistemology, to understand the nature of things, one must identify the intrinsic relations within things themselves and the internal relations among things, and change abstract logic into concrete reality. Marx said, Hegel’s “dialectics worships nothing, and, by nature, is critical and revolutionary”. However, Hegel made an obvious mistake of dominating reality with logic and controlling texts with rationality. Just as Marx said, “Dialectics is mystified by Hegel…Dialectics is upside down in his eyes.” China once saw the rationalization of Hegel’s dialectical tools. The critics thought the general rule that dominates the meanings of all the texts is hidden in every literary text, and is seen throughout the history. In the 1950s-1960s, literary critics commented on ancient and modern literary texts both at home and abroad with the class analytic concepts and methods. They considered that literature was the reproduction or expression of realistic life by authors at a specific class; in nature, all the literary texts created since the appearance of the class society were texts about class consciousness, and truly reflected in varying degrees the class struggle of the time. So, class and class struggle have the rules of all the literary texts, and serve as the driver of literary development. The features related to class, nation, people, truth and times hence become the basic concept and general criteria for literary criticism, and that explains the phenomenon of “praising Du Fu and criticizing Li Bai” in the criticism of ancient literature. In the late 20th century and early 21st century, Chinese critics favored the criticism concept of replacing ideology with aesthetic significance. They considered interest-free and purposeless aesthetic appreciation is the nature of literary art, and the rule of literature is the rule of beauty. As a result, a chain of weird phenomena like “belittling Lu Xun and praising Zhou Zuoren” arose, and nihilism was popular. When social rules lose their concrete feature in literary texts and become unconditional and absolute rules, they can’t win the recognition from general literary experience and knowledge, and will lose the cultural rationality, social legality and objective truthfulness for literary texts. Then, they will not be rules. Actually, there aren’t any rules that dominate all the literary texts in the human world, and the general rules of literature and validity of meanings are always relative and conditional. In literature criticism, Hegel’s dominant logical discourse covers the rich meanings of literary texts. In such logical discourse, literary criticism resembles the operation that strips off social ideology. After the intentions of authors and readers are stripped off, only the stances and ideas of critics are left. Then, the meanings of literary texts disappear, and literary criticism becomes a way to convey and express social ideology. Regarding the phenomenon, Soviet Russian critic Bakhtin said, when a culture closes itself and ignores other cultures, it will consider itself as being absolute, sole, and unified; actually, it knows little about itself. So, when interpreting the meanings of literary texts, critics need to be vigilant against the cultural dogmatism which Mr. Lu Xun thought as being cheating, and avoid forced interpretation that’s a mixture of the logic and theories about realistic ideas, just as Professor Zhang Jiang said, “they go against texts, dissolve literary indications, and interpret texts and literature based on their own stance and model and in a way that meets their subjective purposes and conclusions.”

In summary, the meanings of literary texts are formed jointly by authors, readers and critics. Literary works are converted into literary texts in the process, and literary texts become the social meaning and cultural values in the current field of interpretation. Historical works become present texts in current interpretation. Therefore, the inheritance of national literature and reference of foreign literature are not only about discovery, description and explanation, but also about increase of values in current culture and deepening of modern meanings. Literary activities will lead people to move from present to future consciously and endlessly. 

(The author is an academic member of Shanghai Academy, temporary Secretary of the Party Committee and Executive Vice President of the University of CASS, and Vice Dean of the Graduate School of CASS)