Hermeneutics of Poetic Sense: Critical Studies of Literature, Cinema, and Cultural History


169 pages
Contains Bibliography, Index
ISBN 0-8020-4243-0
DDC 801'.95




Reviewed by Peter Babiak

Peter Babiak teaches English at the University of British Columbia.


It is tempting to call Valdes’s book onerous, but it would be more
fitting to say that it displays the radically patient attention to
theoretical minutiae that, for better or worse, characterizes writing
among literary theorists and cultural studies enthusiasts today. The
first chapter moves from a consideration of “order” in
poststructuralist philosophy to an argument on the relation of
literature to science in our experiences of making sense of the world.
Valdes offers a “comparative enquiry into an ecosystem and the reading
of a poem” as an example.

The relation lies in how we come to terms with the “randomness”
that underpins both “living dynamic systems.” In a poem, readers
confront “the semantic impertinence of metaphor”—words whose loose
meanings force us to create possible “as if” meanings for
them—just as in an experiment a scientist draws on imagination “to
create a ‘what if’ world in the laboratory.” The argument is that
scientific insight requires the same mental activity, a “figuration”
or tentative imposition of order, that we use when reading a poetic
metaphor; in this, Valdes follows a long line of thinkers from Isaac
Newton to Jacob Bronowski.

The “hermeneutics of making sense,” particularly the role of memory
in constructing personal identity, occupies Chapter 2, and this is
followed by a sustained consideration of “what it is that we mean when
we say that a poetic text means this or really means something else”
in Chapter 3. Here Valdes replaces contemporary critical attitudes to
texts as objects with a dynamic approach—a “phenomenological
hermeneutics” borrowed from Paul Ricouer—that says the meaning of a
text comes from “the experience of reading,” which is—to
repeat—analogous to what a scientist does when “describing a chaotic
turbulent fluid movement.” When Valdes “proves” this theory in the
final chapter on Latin America, he concludes that “the referent Latin
America ... cannot in itself constitute the basis for a comprehensive
study of the literary production of the area as a distinct world
category,” which is at once true (since there are many different
people and cultures living there) and painfully obvious (for the same
reason). There is a tendency to coagulated prose elsewhere in the
book—“Chaos is the law of ideas, of improvisations, of singularity,
of insight breaking out to challenge the dominant authority”—but
thankfully this chaos grinds itself into compatibility with the helpful
Glossary of Specialized Terms.


Valdes, Mario J., “Hermeneutics of Poetic Sense: Critical Studies of Literature, Cinema, and Cultural History,” Canadian Book Review Annual Online, accessed April 22, 2024, https://cbra.library.utoronto.ca/items/show/3102.