(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Interpretation and Overinterpretation is based on the 1990 Tanner Lectures delivered by novelist and literary theorist Umberto Eco at Clare Hall, Cambridge. Eco was joined by respondents Christine Brooke-Rose, a novelist-critic; deconstructionist Jonathan Culler; and pragmatist philosopher Richard Rorty. Eco is professor of semiotics at the University of Bologna and the best-selling author of Il nome della rosa (1980; The Name of the Rose, 1983) and Il pendolo di Foucault(1988; Foucault’s Pendulum, 1989). Interpretation and Overinterpretationpresents revised versions of Eco’s three lectures, the papers delivered by each of the three seminar participants, and Eco’s response. Stefan Collini, University Lecturer in English and Fellow of Clare Hall, introduces the proceedings with a helpful twenty-one-page overview.

In the course of his three lectures, Eco expounds on his contention that

between the intention of the author (very difficult to find out and frequently irrelevant for the interpretation of a text) and the intention of the interpreter who (to quote Richard Rorty) simply “beats the text into a shape which will serve for his purpose,” there is a third possibility. There is an intention of the text.

In his introduction, Collini observes that Eco has grown increasingly ill at ease “at the way some of the leading strands of contemporary critical thought…appear to him to license the reader to produce a limitless, uncheckable flow of ‘readings.’” What provides a limit, says Eco, is neither the author nor the interpreter, but the text itself. Eco’s lectures are attempts to show the reasonableness of his proposal without at the same time opening himself to a charge of authoritarianism by telling an interpreter that he or she has gone too far.

Eco’s first lecture charts the tortuous course of the history of ancient gnosticism and hermeticism, and the belief that certain texts contain secret meanings hidden to all those who lack the interpretive key. The similarity to contemporary reader-oriented criticism is, in Eco’s mind, disquieting. If the number of possible meanings is endless, and endlessly acceptable (Eco’s definition of “overinterpretation”), the notion of communal norms on which to base reasonable interpretations and reject absurd interpretations collapses. For the modern reader under the sway of deconstruction, says Eco, every line of text is under suspicion; “the glory of the reader is to discover that texts can say everything, except what their author wanted them to mean.…”

In his second lecture, Eco argues that overinterpretation of a text can be recognized even if one does not believe there is only one correct understanding of that text. The intent of a given text, he says, is to produce what he calls the “model reader.” This model reader takes the appropriate cues from the text so that, even if multiple interpretations are produced, certain overinterpretations are discarded as preposterous. Just how the text and reader are related involves reference to the so-called “hermeneutic circle,” in which one’s understanding of the parts of a text can come only as one understands the whole; but the understanding of the whole is modified simultaneously by one’s understanding of the parts. As Eco writes, “the text is an object that the interpretation builds up in the course of the circular effort of validating itself on the basis of what it makes up as its result.” That is, the model reader asks the ap- propriate questions about the parts and the whole of a text based on what the model reader determines is the intention (or intentions) of the text. A text may begin as a standard fairy tale, says Eco, but the model reader may discover later on that the intent of the text is for the fairy tale to be read ironically. Nevertheless, the first impression, later modified, is part of the reader’s understanding of what the text intended.

This appears to leave out the intention of the “empirical author,” the human writer. In his third lecture, Eco takes up the question of what or how much authority the empirical author has over the created text; and the answer, he believes, is “very little.” Sometimes readers of Eco’s works will find a connection that “makes sense” in the overall textual strategy, but a connection Eco the empirical author never “intended.” A character named Casaubon in Foucault’s Pendulum was not, asserts Eco, named after the Casaubon who appears in Middlemarch: A Study of Provincial Life (1871-1872) by George Eliot, and there are words to that effect in Eco’s novel; yet in response to a reader who pointed out that Eliot’s Casaubon was writing a book called A Key to All Mythologies, which is precisely the context of Foucault’s Pendulum, Eco says it is “too bad for the empirical author who was not as...

(The entire section is 2012 words.)