I guess because I brought so many fresh ideas onto the scene, I always felt like I had to battle with the other popular ideas of the day. Sounds sort of high school, but there you go. Anyway, I just couldn't put my debate with Marxism to rest. See, like Reader-Response, Marxism is a form of historical criticism. It's just not my kind of historical criticism.
I took issue with a lot of Marxist critics, but I always had a soft spot for Walter Benjamin. Sure, he was associated with Marxism, but I felt that he was more than that. He was different because he did not interpret literary history as just a linear story of progress, with each new genre improving on all of the previous ones; and he didn't believe that art served an exclusively political purpose.
I took kindly to Walter's Theses on the Philosophy of History because in this work, he saw reading as an event, and he saw the reception of books as an important part of a book's history.
So, I wrote my dissertation—"Time and Remembrance in Remembrance of Things Past"—on this little French read. Remember, my whole thing was Romance philology, which means I studied the literature, linguistics, and textual criticism of the Romance languages, starting with Latin.
Time and remembrance may all seem like standard criticism when it comes to Proust now, but in 1957, these ideas still had some sizzle. I was the first critic to take a long hard look at form in Proust's seven-volume novel.
Proust really understood the complexity of time and memory, and how the two do not function in a straightforward, linear fashion. Proust saw memory the way it is: as one big, mixed-up blobby mass, not as a sequence of clear events. As I saw it, his book is not about representing life; it's about remembering it. Those are two very different experiences.
Ever read Madame Bovary? Well, you should.
But I'm not here to preach. If you have read that French masterpiece, I'm here to tell you that your experience of the book is quite different from the experience of someone reading it in, say, 1857, when Flaubert was on trial for obscenity. That's right: Madame Bovary was a bit of a scandal back in the day.
Because my thing is Reader Response, I was interested in why readers back then saw the book as so risqué—even threatening. I'm guessing readers don't feel that way today. Miley Cyrus has really upped the ante.
This book brought up big issues around censorship. Don't get me wrong—it's not straight-up erotic literature, so you can calm down. Flaubert manages to create an aesthetically complicated novel with a high erotic quotient. But even those aesthetic innovations made readers perk up. My point? That the very formal structure of Madame Bovary influences the ways that readers receive the book. Because the book does not have a personal narrative style, it did not come across as a confessional and therefore was all the more a moral scandal.
So, way back in the day, Euripides wrote a little play called Iphigenia in Aulis. Think only one person can interpret that play? Not so. First, the French playwright Jean Racine had his run at the play in 1674; then Goethe came along in 1779 and took a stab at it, producing Iphigenia in Tauris. Did readers and audience members receive (or "consume") the two works differently? You betcha. According to yours truly, they had different horizons of expectation.
I'm not interested in the themes of this Greek tragedy—much as I love to discuss ritual sacrifices. I look at these works from a reception-theoretical angle, which mean that I'm not really into which themes are presented; I'm into how the themes are presented.
Okay, I know: you probably haven't read Schiller's classic essay What Is, and to What End Do We Study, Universal History?, written right as the French Revolution was about to go off, but I totally riffed on it by asking why one studies literary history. Sure, that changed the argument somewhat, but the idea that we cannot cut off the present from the past remained the same.
Like Schiller, I believe that historical moments always carry the past with them. We may separate things by eras—like Victorianism vs. Modernism—but these eras overlap and interconnect. The same goes for literature. New books owe a lot to the books that came before them. On the shoulders of giants, right?