What is "Interpreting the Variorum" by literary critic Stanley Fİsh?

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Karen P.L. Hardison eNotes educator| Certified Educator

"Variorum" is a Latin word denoting a volume laying out in parallel format all or many editions and versions of a single work or a collection of works. The Bible and Shakespearean plays are often published in parallel variorum format. To illustrate, many have see the New Testament Gospels laid out in a parallel edition with four translations side by side on facing pages; this is a variorum format in a variorum edition. The purpose of variorums is to allow scholars of a text or a collection of texts to study the variations in minute detail with the greatest ease. Which variorum edition is Stanley Fish interpreting?

We are told in line one of "interpreting the Variorum" that he is referring to the variorum edition of Milton's collected works referring in the first paragraph to L'Allelgro, Comus, and Lycidas:

The first two volumes of the Milton Variorum Commentary have now appeared and I find them endlessly fascinating. (2)

The word "commentary" in the title of Milton's variorum signifies that it is a commentary volume in which various critics, scholars and editors have analyzed and debated Milton's work, especially for particular problems. Fish says that it these particular problems that interest him the most because, try as hard as the collected critics may, certain problems and questions cannot be solved and answered. Fish gives the example of an unidentified someone who comes to a window in L'Allegro who defies identification despite all the minds set to work on the problem:

there is a persuasive champion for every proper noun within a radius of ten lines--and the editorial procedure always ends either in the graceful throwing up of hands, or in the recording of a disagreement.... (2)

The conclusion of the essay summarizes Fish's theoretical interest in the Milton variorum, which is that it brings to light discussion of stable texts, interpretive communities, and stable interpretations. Fish makes the point that interpretive communities have versions, or editions, of a given text that they consider authoritative though these authoritative texts, editions, may differ one from the other in various interpretive communities. Because of these differences, there will always be interpretive discussion and interpretive disagreement, though there will also be instances where all texts make any answer impossible, like who comes to the window in L'Allegro.

This signifies that while a text may be stable in an interpretive community, it is not universally stable and the community stability is compromised when community members shift to other communities. Fish suggests that this shifting textual stability brings the text into doubt and tends to rest interpretive meaning with the interpretive community. There is much room for disagreement with his conclusions--how can text be ultimately so unstable as to disappear if there is stability enough for universally unresolved problems--nonetheless Fish's theoretical premises lead him to these conclusions.

For if there are no fixed texts, but only interpretive strategies making them; and if interpretive strategies are not matural, but learned ... [then] once again I have made the text disappear,.... (21-22)

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