The Intentional Necessity?

Last semester, in my English class we read and discussed Wimsatt and Beardsley’s, “The Intentional Fallacy.” From the very moment I finished the essay I was indignant. How could anyone possibly condone deliberate neglect of the author’s existence in a piece of writing?! So, needless to say, I was overjoyed after reading “Joseph Frank’s Dostoyevsky.” Finally there was someone responding to Wimsatt and Beardsley. But, in the interview with Larry McCaffery, Wallace’s position on the Intentional Fallacy becomes less transparent. So I ask, what does DFW really think about the Intentional Fallacy?

As Wimsatt and Beardsley explain, “the design or intention of the author is neither available nor desirable as a standard for judging the success of a work of literary art” (IF, 3). Wallace’s sincere praise for Joseph Frank’s work on Dostoyevsky (work which has not only committed, but has deliberately ignored the intentional fallacy), makes clear that Wallace condones and even commends a commitment of the intentional fallacy. Wallace argues the necessity of taking the author into account, for “a comprehensive reading of Dostoyevsky’s fiction is impossible without a detailed understanding of the cultural circumstances in which the books were conceived and to which they were meant to contribute” (JFD, 258). We simply can’t ignore the “external” (IF, 10) evidence of a work, for in doing so we are “[treating] and author’s books hermetically, ignoring facts about the author’s circumstances and beliefs that can help explain…what his work is about” (JFD, 260).

Though Wallace asserts his resistance to Wimsatt and Beardsley in “Joseph Frank’s Dostoyevsky,” while talking to Larry McCaffrey, Wallace seems to make a complete turn: “once I’m done with the thing   [the writing], I’m basically dead, and probably the text’s dead; it becomes simply language, and language lives not just in but through the reader” (McCaffrey, 141). Wallace now agrees with Wimsatt and Beardsley that a work of writing belongs neither to the critic nor the author, but it “belongs to the public” (IF, 5). What happened to understanding the author’s beliefs and circumstances in order to more fully comprehend a work?

In attempting to reconcile Wallace’s two seemingly opposing views, I began to think that the discrepancy might arise out of the difference between an older and more historical work, such as a Dostoyevsky novel, and a piece of fiction coming from the age of post (or post-post) modernism. In the McCaffrey interview, Wallace says, “I think it’s important for art-fiction to antagonize the reader’s sense that what she’s experiencing as she reads is mediated through a human consciousness, one with an agenda not necessarily coincident with her own (McCaffrey, 138). Wallace never wants the reader to forget that she’s receiving mediated text. Now, this sounds awfully like committing the intentional fallacy, to me.

I think that ultimately Wallace does truly condone and even might encourage commitment of the intentional fallacy. But, the key is that such a fallacy is different for works from different ages. A Dostoyevsky novel necessitates probing into Dostoyevsky’s life and historical time in order to gain the knowledge necessary to fully understand his work. On the other hand, in the age of self-referencing and meta-fiction, the intentional fallacy is essentially already committed by the authors themselves. The author has already done the probing for the reader, so the reader doesn’t necessarily have to do any extra work. Wallace wants us to commit the fallacy, he wants us to recognize the presence of the author and the author’s agenda in a work, and so he purposely antagonizes the reader in such a way that makes the mediation obvious. Whereas we have to go elsewhere to gain insight into Dostoyevsky’s work, the necessary fallacy is built right into Wallace’s own text.

Does this mean that in our present age of the self-referencing and self-conscious loop, the intentional fallacy is merely a moot point? Any thoughts?

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