Matt McGinnis

English 490

Dan White
October 12, 1999

Memory and the Moment:

Plato, Stanley Fish, and Temporality in Literary Interpretation


Homer begins the Iliad with an invocation to the Goddess:

Mhnin aeide, Jea, Phliadew Acilhos,

oulomenhn, h muri Axaiois alge eqhken...

(Iliad, 1.1-2)

The translator Robert Fagles, on the other hand, begins his recent version of the Iliad with the word "rage:" Rage—Goddess, sing the rage of Peleus’ son Achilles,

murderous, doomed, that cost the Achaeans countless losses…

(Iliad, trans. Fagles, 1.1-2)

The difference, while minor (mhnis is usually translated as "wrath" or "anger"), may say something about Fagles’ readers. "Rage," after all, does have a particularly modern significance, with phrases like "road rage" in current usage. One could argue that the appearance of this word in a new translation of Homer draws on contemporary usages of the term, or, rather, depends on a community of readers familiar with phrases like "road rage." But the actual experience of reading Fagles’ translation, as Stanley Fish would argue, still depends heavily on the "temporal dimension" ("Interpreting" 983), that is, the shape and meaning of the word in the Iliad, and not just in one’s memory. Plato likewise emphasizes this temporality by refusing to distinguish qualitatively between the poet and the rhapsode; the temporal performance of a poem becomes, for Plato, the listener’s only encounter with the "text" (My use of "text" here, unless otherwise noted, is meant to include both oral and written forms of literature.). This temporality in Plato and Fish, moreover, relies on the "contemporary conditions" ("Interpreting" 984) of the text rather than the text itself. That is, it still depends on those conditions that define one’s experience with the text, whether it be the oral performance, the class, the author, or the title. Both Plato and Fish also depend upon the role of memory in defining this moment. It is this tension between memory, or the accumulation of past meanings and interpretations, and temporality that signifies the artistic experience for Plato and Fish; the temporal experience of reading or hearing a text becomes a reaction, revision, and revaluation of one’s individual or collective memory.

This tension between memory and temporality, however, begins with Plato and Fish’s explicit concern with one’s temporal experience with a text. Plato emphasizes this temporality when noting the irrational nature of poetry: "in the soul of each man…the imitative poet implants an evil constitution, for he indulges the irrational nature which has no discernment of greater and less" (27). Poetry is dangerous for Plato precisely because it acts on the souls of the audience, and affects their perception of truth. Similarly, the act of reading for Fish is really the act of transferring meaning to the reader. Furthermore, the activity echoes the moral language of Plato’s critique: "this, then, is the structure of the reader’s experience—the transferring of a moral label from a thing to those who appropriate it" ("Interpreting" 983). The act of interpreting becomes a transfer of responsibility from the text to the reader, while Plato’s emphasis on the poet or rhapsode collapses in Fish into the written text.

By pinpointing the precise moment of transfer and interpretation, Plato and Fish emphasize the inherent temporal quality of interpretation. This quality, however, necessarily differs because of the important distinction between orality and literacy. For Plato, the poetic experience can only occur in time as a function of sound. Because poetry was known primarily through oral performance, the "text" of the poem was fleeting, temporal. As Walter J. Ong writes, "sound exists only when it is going out of existence" (32). Sound, furthermore, cannot be stopped; a performance of Homer could not retreat to earlier books or repeat lines, but continued regardless of whether the audience heard every detail. Our interpretation of these lines occurs in the same moment of listening, and is, as Fish claims, "responsible for the shape the fact immediately has" ("Text?" 307). While the text disappears in sound, the interpretation remains in the mind of the listener, and is thus the product of the temporal experience.

The advent of writing and literacy, however, de-emphasized the orality of poetry and made possible a different response to the temporality of the text. For Fish, art unfolds not in time as a function of sound, as with Plato, but rather in time as a function of reading. The words, in this case, do not disappear, but are merely relocated away from the focus of our mind. In place of this temporal text, the act of reading becomes, in relation to the interpretative structure, dependent upon the "temporal dimension" ("Interpreting" 983). One must hazard interpretation, retract, revise, and restate opinions, all within the continuum of one reading. What Fish accomplishes here, then, is a deliberate conflict of the "timeless stability of the [written] text" ("Interpreting" 989) and the temporal instability of the reader. This conflict almost suggests a relationship between the literate and oral word: one permanent, timeless, and consistent in its presentation of the text; the other impermanent, fleeting, and constantly varying. The relationship evolves from the tension between a text and its context, or, rather, between an utterance and its "contemporary conditions" ("Interpreting" 984). The text and the utterance are given temporal significance by their placement in a contemporary moment, where meaning is embedded in the surrounding context.

While this context is usually defined by its temporal quality, what also should be clear is that Plato and Fish include memory as an important aspect of defining context. By memory I do not necessarily mean memorization (as may be thought when dealing with oral performance), although that is most surely one aspect of it. I refer instead to memory as an accumulation of past meanings and events that are taken into the present. Take, for example, Fish’s consideration of the phrase "the air is crisp." While the speaker (or writer) depends upon listeners (or readers) knowing the same meaning he attaches to his words, Fish makes it clear that our own individual reading or hearing of those lines draws from our memory of past moments, and the meaning we have attached to those moments: " ‘Crisp air reminds me of my childhood in Vermont’" ("Text?" 307). Thus, the meaning in the temporal moment draws from the inherited meanings in memory, but also adds to those meanings. Temporality and memory are drawn into conflict, and any interpretation thus reflects both concerns.

Plato, too, acknowledges this power of memory, albeit in a negative context. For him, the artistic experience is the starting point; while the poem itself may exist only in sound, the memory of such an event is ultimately harmful to its listeners. Plato offers as an example a citizen who attends a performance of a comedy: "on the comic stage, or indeed in private, when you hear them, you are greatly amused by them, and are not at all disgusted at their unseemliness…and having stimulated the risible faculty at the theater, you are betrayed unconsciously to yourself into playing the comic poet at home" (28). Plato suggests the tremendous influence memory may have on later actions; the memory of the comic performances surfaces unexpectedly, and defines those later experiences.

What is more important about these experiences, moreover, is that they are, for both Plato and Fish, shared. Their concept of memory, while existing primarily in the individual mind, focuses on those aspects of memory that individuals have in common. This strategy of shared memory is suggested by Fish’s use of "interpretative communities" ("Interpreting" 989), which attempt to define the possibility of a "shared and normative verbal meaning" ("Text?" 309) for the individual members of a community. Fagles’ use of the word "rage," then, depends upon an interpretative community that shares an understanding of "rage," but is willing to compare this understanding with the specific context of Fagles’ Iliad. What defines this understanding for Fish is memory, and the possibility that this memory may be shared by the larger community.

Plato, on the other hand, uses memory both to define the moment of artistic experience and to suggest its negative effects. The context of the poetic performance, which Plato suggests to be most often "at a public festival when a promiscuous crowd is assembled in a theater" (27), requires a certain number of shared assumptions on the part of the audience. What are these assumptions? Plato suggests that the audience’s reception of poetry is rooted in the metrical, and as a result syntactical, form of poetry, and not necessarily the independent meaning. He notes, "I am sure that you know what a poor appearance the works of poets make when stripped of the colors which art puts upon them, and recited in simple prose" (24-5). What poems are implicitly stripped of is meter, for meter defines both the memorization and performance of poetry, and the audience’s expectation and experience of a poem. In Fish’s words, the meter of a poem is "responsible for the shape the fact immediately has" ("Text?" 307). When this meter and poetic form are removed from the poet, very little meaning, according to Plato, is left. Fish acknowledges this when he claims, " a system of differences…must be imposed before it can be recognized; the pattern the ear hears are the patterns its perceptual habits make available" ("Interpreting" 986). These perceptual habits, or the ability and willingness of the Greek ear to recognize and remember metrical beats, thus form the assumptions and expectations of a listener going into a performance, and define Plato’s concern with context.

The implementation of these perceptual habits highlights the role of memory in defining the temporal interpretation of a text. Plato and Stanley Fish, reflecting the differences between a primarily oral and literate culture, conceive of memory as a means of focusing on perception, whether it occurs through hearing or reading. The move from individual perception to shared perception, moreover, ensures that neither system of criticism results in total chaos, but can instead find as its focus the common series of moments that define the present. By drawing on both temporality and memory in their conceptions of the artistic experience, Plato and Fish highlight the perpetual tension of past and present meanings in language, and offer systems of criticism that acknowledge the influence of time in human perception.

Works Cited

Fagles, Robert. Trans. The Iliad of Homer. New York: Penguin, 1990.

Fish, Stanley. "Interpreting the Variorum." The Critical Tradition. Ed. David H. Richter.

Boston: Bedford Books, 1998. 977-989.

Fish, Stanley. "Is There a Text in this Class?" Is There a Text in this Class? The Authority

of Interpretative Communities. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1980. 303-21.

Ong, Walter J. Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word. London: Routledge,


Plato. "Republic, Book X." Trans. Benjamin Jowett. The Critical Tradition. Ed. David H.

Richter. Boston: Bedford Books, 1998. 21-29.