Interpretive Difficulty

Edited by Johanna Winant

Introduction to the Interpretive Difficulty Cluster:
What to Know

Johanna Winant

Pessoa and Other Coincidences

Johanna Winant

My Interdisciplinary Uncanny Valley

Lisa Siraganian

A Friend, An Enemy

Joshua Kotin

Paradise: On-Earthly Dilemmas

Rebecca Ariel Porte

Suffer a Sea Change
Into Something Rich and Strange

Karen Zumhagen-Yekplé

The Lucid Stillness of His Style

Emily Ogden

Come Slowly — Eden —

Michelle A. Taylor

For Inscrutability

Rivky Mondal


Know that the essays were difficult for their authors to write. You'll see discussion of their struggles writing the essays in the essays themselves. Maybe this should have been expected the topic of this cluster is, after all, "interpretive difficulty" but to some extent it took each of us by surprise. We are all practiced at interpretation: at shedding light and focusing, at fitting pieces together or reframing them. Scholarly books and articles, though they might not always feel this way, are the stories of our triumphs.

But what are the stories we don't tell? Sometimes, surely, the light doesn't focus and pieces won't fit. (We may find this hard to admit even to ourselves: I came up with this idea for a cluster and got as far as reading everyone else's drafts before figuring out what I was trying to learn about my own thinking and finally beginning my essay.) Can we think and write at greater length about the edges of our interpretations and even what lies beyond them? I don't mean stepping away from critique. But I chose interpretation as our key term deliberately: I was interested in sense-making and how it works and when it doesn't. This cluster doubles-down on reasoning; these essays reason about where reasoning gives way.

So, then, know that these essays aren't stories of success. But it wouldn't be correct to describe these essays as stories of failure either. In many cases, the authors of these essays are writing about the same texts and ideas about which they wrote truly incredible articles and books. Their difficulties here lie alongside their glories; actually, they are entangled. In my prompt I described desiring an account of "the indigestible grain that provokes the pearl's creation, and remains within the pearl, but also isn't the pearl." The scholarly books that we write may come from our problems or questions, but our books don't entirely solve them. And how could they? Literary texts don't always or necessarily get easier, not even over hundreds or thousands of years, no matter how many brilliant interpretations we have. Interpretations don't erase difficulty. And we, like oysters, are sometimes irritated by something hard that gets inside us and stays there, and we respond luminously, beautifully. But what was that hard thing? And have we really dissolved it? If so, it probably wasn't all that hard in the first place. But what if it were truly hard? What is truly difficult?

Finally, know that these essays are a pleasure to read and a privilege to think alongside. The scholars who contributed to this cluster are notably brilliant interpreters; that's why I wanted to read what they had to say about "when interpretation spins out, stalls out, or gets stuck." And while, of course, there are large bibliographies on difficulty and on interpretation, I asked the contributors to write from their own experience: their impossible texts, intractable questions, and fruitless journeys.

Rereading and sorting the eight essays by what they think obstructs interpretation, I find that I can pair the essays into four rough categories of truly hard things, though many cross categories and other pairings are possible: love (Ogden and Taylor), obscurity (Mondal and Zumhagen-Yekplé), other people (Kotin and Siraganian), and oneself (Porte and Winant).

Johanna Winant (@johannawinant) is Assistant Professor of English at West Virginia University. She’s completing a book on modern American poetry and philosophy titled Lyric Logic, and her writing has been published in Poetics Today, JML, Paideuma, James Joyce Quarterly, Slate, ASAP/J, Avidly, and elsewhere. 

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