How Important is the Knowledge of a Works Historical content in Understanding it

This book is a debate between Eco and three of the best-known names in philosophy, literature and criticism. They mainly concentrate on what the title suggests: weather the criticism of literature has gone too far; however there are a lot of very good and valid points throughout the book about the historical background to a text in relation to understanding it. Eco, who writes the majority of the chapters, tends to go along with the idea that a text can be over

interpreted, and in making this point he also makes it clear that he believes a text and its historical context should remain separate. There is in fact a general agreement between the four, Jonathan Culler does argue both ways but seems to conclude in the same way as the others, that New Criticism is the correct way to analyse a book; not so much because everybody should make up their own minds about a book without the help (or hindrance) of history, but because of the fear that to go into the history behind the book might also be to over interpret it.

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Bennett, Andrew and Nicolas Royle, ‘An Introduction to Literature, Criticism and Theory’, 1999 (110-121)

The book is written to cover a number of subjects concerning literature. It is designed for students and so gives the most balanced opinion of all the books I have read on the subject. I am looking at the chapter on history. The chapter begins with four different views on the subject and explains them. It then continues with a New Historian approach and tries to convince the reader that history and literature are not two separate things, as most people believe: ‘History is textual’ (112). By the end of the chapter the two authors have discussed both sides to the argument in detail and then, basically, leaves it to the reader to make their own conclusion.

Rushdie, Salman, Shame, 1985

I found this book through an essay written by Christine Brooke-Rose, it is not written with the subject I am concerned about in mind, not at all in fact, but it does make a few interesting points on the subject. In particular pages 87-88; Rushdie is asking who has the right to rewrite history? However only a little while after, he does exactly that himself which shows that it is very hard to write a book without history in the back of your mind; after all the only part of our lives we have lived is history, so surely a book should be linked with this.

Gallie, W.B, ‘Philosophy and the Historical Understanding’, 1964

Gallie writes, naturally, with a very philosophical approach and so writes on the subject in a way in which I have never really given much thought to. The main point which I picked up on when looking at the book was that we, as individuals and as a race, have been trying to prove for hundreds of years that we are free thinking; if this is the case then surely there is no need to know the history behind a book because it will tie us down with knowledge, therefore opinions that are not truly ours.

Introduction:

This essay will look at the reasons for and against knowing the historical background to a piece of literature. At first thought I assumed that it could only help the reader to have any extra information about a text (or any other piece of work) as possible, but in the essay I intend to show why sometimes that is not the case. It can in fact end up clouding the reader’s judgement of a piece. At the end of the day all that is really important about a book is weather the reader enjoys it or not, and this is very closely linked to understanding it; if a book is not understood then how can it be enjoyed, and this prompts the question: do you need to know the history behind a book to enjoy it?

The idea of New Criticism is exactly this argument, it is no longer necessary to look at a book’s history or even the author’s, but that a text should be read and analysed for what it is. I intend to discuss weather this is the correct approach to a book or not.

Central Argument:

To start with I will concentrate on how the background knowledge to a text can help the reader understand the piece better, and that the knowledge of the authors lifestyle, age and era can also help. In Bennet and Royle, out of the four points they put forward to show the relationship between a text and its history, only one of them goes as far as saying that history should be ignored (‘the historical context…has no bearing on the literary work’ (Bennett and Royle 110). I shall use this to help me put forward the point that surely if the reader knows the background to a book they are able to pick up points that they have made that are only obvious to those that know about the times it was set in.

There is also the point that, in believing that the author intends to put his view across in writing something, which the majority do; then surely those people also have to believe that the period the author chose to set his work in is just as important. If that is the case then the reader needs to know what happened during that period in order to understand firstly why it was set then, and secondly if it was set at that date for a reason then the events of that time must be very important in understanding the book.

I will also make and expand on the point I made earlier; that it is very hard to write a book without any history involved at all because history is such a major part of our lives; so why not look at history when reading literature?

However, can knowing the history of a text spoil the book slightly. There are no limitations to the reader’s mind and interpretation of a text and so why cloud their interpretation with the history of a text. The first out of the four points I mentioned earlier in Bennett and Royle (110) is New Criticism, and this is the view I am looking at here. There is a quote here from R.S. Crane (110) who says that criticism should be based on ‘timeless’ pieces that are fully detached from history. If a reader picks up a point while reading a text then they might ignore it because of the knowledge they already have. For example if they pick up a point that is relevant to the present time but know that the author died, say, fifty years ago then they may think that they have misunderstood the author’s intent. In fact it does not matter what the author meant; old pieces of literature are still about today because they are relevant with the present day.

There should be no relevance between the intention of the author and the intention of the reader – a reader simply ‘beats the text into shape which will serve for his purpose’ (Eco 25). How does this fit into weather the reader should know the historical context behind a book or not? If the reader knows the history behind a text then they are getting closer to the intention of the author, to contradict one of my earlier points; if the reader knows when a text was set and what happened at that time then they are again getting closer to the reason why the text was written. If the reader knows the intention of the author it will cloud their judgement in exactly the same way as if they know the history to the book. ‘Someone could say that a text, once it is separate from its utterer…floats (so to speak) in the vacuum of a potentially infinite range of possible interpretations.’ (Eco 41). I will use this to expand on this point to prove that it is better for the reader to come to their own theories about the book in question.

Umberto Eco says that the modern reader is looking too much behind a book instead of looking it. This returns to New Criticism; there is no need to know the historical context to a piece of work all it will do is manipulate the reader’s own views. People will too easily except what they are told (how, in school, do we know what our history teaches taught us about, say, the French Revolution is true, or even the history books we were given?) when reading a book it is the one chance a person has to judge for themselves and to interpret it to their specifications. If the full historical context behind a book is known then this is not possible. What the author shows as the setting for a book may even be inaccurate; ‘Who commandeered the job of rewriting history?'(Rushdie 88). I will use this to explore that question further, because it is purely based on trust that anybody believes a historical fact; so how do we know that the historical background we are looking at to help us understand a book is even true?

Conclusion:

There is in fact no correct answer to this question. Every book and every reader is different, which means it varies from book to book and from person to person weather or not the historical context behind a book should be known.

Generally the more complicated the book is, then the more likely it is for the history to help the reader because it may reveal parts that would not have been understood otherwise. However perhaps if the author wanted us to know the background to the book, or even to them, then they would write it as an introduction to their work. I do not think that it is all that important to know the historical context because the text itself should be enough for the book to be fully understood; if not then surely ‘…we who can look back across centuries of the continuing struggle for freedom of thought’ (Gallie 138) are intelligent enough to figure it out for ourselves and in doing so draw our own conclusions.

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