A Discussion of the Sources of Meaning of Literary Works

Social Sciences in China (Chinese Edition)

No.5, 2017


A Discussion of the Sources of Meaning of Literary Works



Thomas Pavel, Zhu Liyuan, Heinz Drügh and Gao Nan


20th century Western literary theory and criticism overthrew writers’ monopoly on the meaning of their works through the statements of “death of the author” and the “birth of the reader,” declaring for the reader that it is the reader who constructs literary works and their meanings. This trend has evoked increasing discontent and criticism in academia. As Professor Zhang observes, texts and writers are always unconsciously represented in language, style, textual structure and “unseen” design, and acknowledging the presence of writers and their intentions is a basic premise for properly understanding and interpreting the text and exploring the sources of meaning of literary works. To push this discussion forward, we have organized this written discussion on “Sources of Meaning in Literary Works.” Professor Thomas Pavel from the Department of Comparative Literature at the University of Chicago holds that the cultural and intellectual transition from historicism to the theories of formalism and the new criticism movement exhibits a trend that emphasizes the connection between literature and reality. Reality is admittedly significant for the interpretation of classical and contemporary literary works in accordance with contemporary politics, but its“utilitarianism” will weaken standards for exploring normative literary meaning, the thrust of the text and the author’s original intention. Also, Professor Pavel argues, a work’s meaning has three experiential sources, and the contents of the literary work itself demand full and completely new attention. Professor Zhu Liyuan from the Department of Chinese Language and Literature of Fudan University believes that exploring the meaning of literary works needs to follow the general methodology of hermeneutics represented by Friedrich Schleiermacher and Wilhelm Dilthey, and the ontology of hermeneutics whose outstanding thinkers were Martin Heidegger and HansGeorg Gadamer. He agrees with Professor Zhang’s analysis of Emilio Betti, and thinks that Betti’s methodological hermeneutics avoids both subjectivism and the naivety of historical objectivism and that his interpretation appropriately ascribes the meaning of literary works to the ceaseless generation of the dynamic flow path of writers, texts and readers. Professor Heinz Drügh from Goethe University, Frankfurt, suggests that in interpreting a literary text, one should address the text directly, bringing to life the richness and subtlety evident in its psychological, aesthetic and textual details, in a conscious and procedural departure from the mainstream mode of understanding. To promote an autonomous aesthetic, one must keep well away from the entertainment objectives of the cultural industry, be aware of the hardship of existence and unearth new aesthetic forms that reflect the situation of society. Professor Gao Nan of the College of Liberal Arts, Liaoning University, believes that the meaning of literary works rests in the relationship between the work and its acceptors. Meaning occurs in the process of acceptance, generating multiple forms including representation of consciousness, the universal general and historical continuity.