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This review appeared in Volume 5 (3) of The Semiotic Review of Books.

The Readers' Order

By Tara Collington

World-Making: The Literary Truth-Claim and the Interpretation of Texts. By Mario J. Valdés. Toronto: University of Toronto Press 1992, 178 p. ISBN 0-8020-6847-2.

World-Making: The Literary Truth-Claim and the Interpretation of Texts completes what could be described as a triptych of phenomenological approaches to literature begun in Shadows in the Cave: A Phenomenological Approach to Literary Criticism Based on Hispanic Texts (1982). In the second work, Phenomenological Hermeneutics and the Study of Literature (1987), Valdés traces a history of literary theory in the tradition of Vico, Unamuno, Croce, Gadamer and Ricoeur (with a detour through Derridian deconstruction), and describes his project in the following manner:

To speak a language in Vico's terms is to have a world, to go beyond the physical limitations of the body and its needs. The successors to Vico have added...that to have a world one must have an attitude or point of view towards the world. Thus the basic philosophical problem emerges of how an individual world-view can lead to a shared view of the world. (26).
The four core chapters of Phenomenological Hermeneutics discuss the philosophical nature and implications of this assertion, without treating the actual literary and rhetorical mechanisms which might produce this "shared view of the world" (26). World-Making elaborates on this project by examining how the truth-claim specifically contributes to this process of "world-making". Shadows in the Cave deals almost exclusively with Hispanic texts while the critical commentaries in Phenomenological Hermeneutics examine Octavio Paz and Jorge Luis Borges, although non-Hispanic works are dealt with briefly. Similarly, World-Making reflects Valdés's expertise as a Hispanist, with a chapter devoted to the historical study of truth claims in Hispanic literature, along with Valdés's own translations of passages cited from Spanish Texts. This latest work does, however, deal with a wider variety of texts, including extended commentaries on Virginia Woolf's Jacob's Room and Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman. As in his two previous works, Valdés clearly situates his own unique historical and critical perspective, mentioning in the preface his contact with Ricoeur during 1988 as he was drafting the final version of this book.

Comparisons of the truth-claim to metaphor (19, 138), and references to the "game of world making" (4) or to the "dialectic of explanation and understanding" (5), demonstrate the profound influence of Ricoeur's Phenomenological Hermeneutics and of Gadamer's Truth and Method on Valdés's inquiry.

The first short chapter, "A Phenomenological Approach to the Aporia of Truth in Literature", serves as an introduction. The main focus of the book constitutes an examination of the truth claim, defined here as any statement which the reader must accept as true in order to go on reading. Valdés's approach to the truth-claim is two-fold: textual semantics or "what the truth claim is about", and hermeneutic interpretation or "what the readers are to make of it (the truth claim)" (3). This dialectic of formal and hermeneutic criticism hinges on the relationship between language and its ability to generate a particular perspective of the world. In Truth and Method, Gadamer asserts that "a language-view is a world-view", and elaborates:

Language is not just one of man's possessions in the world: rather on it depends the fact that man has a world at all. The world as world exists for man as for no other creature that is in the world. But this world is verbal in nature. (442-3)(his italics).
Following Gadamer, Valdés stresses that all knowledge of events is made possible through the reader's construction of a world constituted through language. The goal of World-Making is therefore to "bring out the relations of readers to texts in the general process of world-making that is at the root of all reading" (4). This chapter also contains a brief definition of explanation (rendering an object familiar) and understanding (the process of contextualization which produces meaning). Valdés stresses that an interpretative approach which rejects the explanative pole of this dialectic is doomed to what he terms "self-indulgent and intellectualized impressionism" (10). Valdés emphasizes that the inclusion of explanation as a hermeneutic understanding which rejects the examination of the system of signs within a text ignores the textual imperatives directed towards the reader. Furthermore, in calling attention to this system of signs, explanation can furnish the common ground shared by diverse readers.

Thus, the encounter between socially oriented explanation and individually oriented understanding produces interpretation: "Making sense of a text is the first step towards understanding; making sense of a text for others is the first step to explanation; and moving between explanation and understanding is the first step towards interpretation" (12-12).

Chapter two, "The Truth-Claim and Literature", begins with a discussion of the function of denotation and connotation with regard to the truth-claim. Without addressing what he deems the "hopelessly naive distinction between fiction and non-fiction", Valdés explains that his choice of texts will include only those which go beyond the limits of denotation; that is, literary texts (14). A discussion of the nature of the literary text follows, in which three distinct dimensions are described:

first, the prefigurative, in which it (the text) is rooted, that is, the world of action regulated by the conventions, norms, and institutions of the linguistic community; second, the configurative, which is the intentional activity of organization and composition that transforms the linguistic diversity into a whole, into a text; and third, the retigurative, which is the dimension of the reader's actualization of the textual codes into the experiential reality that is the only reality in art. (14).
It is this refigurative dimension which interests Valdés. Faced with a statement of purported truth in a text, the reader is faced with several choices. He/she can accept the claim as valid; reject the claim as false; or suspend judgement until further evidence is provided. It follows then that there are three possible outcomes: further evidence may substantiate the truth-claim or may prove it false; or further evidence may never materialize. Valdés thus concludes that there are two types of truth-claims, verifiable and nonverifiable. Those which are verifiable depend upon an appeal to empirical, analogical or historical evidence, while the non-verifiable truth-claim appeals to the authority of the enunciating voice or to the reader's own judgement, since "Truth in literature is primarily a matter of the action of appropriation, which at all times calls for judgement" (19).

From this analysis emerges Valdés's classification of truth-claims into five major types. 1) The truth-claim of referential empirical fact contains an explicit reference to the world outside the text, which the reader verifies by drawing upon his/her own experience. 2) The truth-claim of verisimilar representation is "true to life" in the sense that, even if the reader has no direct empirical experience of the situation described, it seems plausible to him/her. 3) The truth-claim of historical understanding involves both the accurate depiction of recorded events and the historical plausibility of events, thus integrating the world-making process into the reader's historical context. 4) The truth-claim of textual authority communicates the truth of the general situation of the textual world, and relies on the authority of the enunciating voice to sustain it. 5) The truth-claim of the self's own sense of order is based on the presupposition that shared experience makes up part of the reader's reality and is at the core of the reading experience. The acceptance of this fifth truth-claim indicates the reader's willingness to participate in the process of world-making, and is "an imperative to reflect on what it is that we have constructed" through the process of appropriation (34).

The third chapter, "The Analysis of the Truth Claim in Literary Discourse", entails a detailed examination of each truth-claim in turn, illustrated by examples taken from such diverse literary texts as Middlemarch, The French Lieutenant's Woman, Remembrance of Things Past and Don Quixote. Valdés also turns his attention to a number of poems (including Robert Lowell's "Mexico", Wallace Steven's "The Emperor of Ice Cream", and Dylan Thomas's "And Death Shall Have No Dominion"), demonstrating that the truth-claim is not limited to the novel.

Valdés changes his tack in the fourth chapter, "The Textual Function of Truth-Claims", turning to a more in-depth examination of three texts in order to determine how the truth-claim functions in the construction of a narrative world. Valdés argues that the truth-claims in Jacob's Room fall into two distinct types, those relating to representational perception, and those relating to analogical perception. On the one hand, the representational category includes empirical, historical and verisimilar truth-claims, which present the characters in the context of their fictional community and specific cultural outlook (British upper-class), as well as their place in a specific period of British history (immediately preceding World War One).

On the other hand, the pattern of analogical perception comprises truth-claims of authority and of the self's sense of order, allowing for speculation and judgement on the part of the narrator. Valdés asserts that it is on this level of analogical perception that the narrator appeals directly to the reader with rhetorical questions and speculative digressions. Turning to Death of a Salesman, Valdés explains the role of empirical truth-claims (such as the claim that Willy Loman drives a battered old Studebaker) in the theatre, asserting that they function on three levels: 1) the recognition of the specific object; 2) the possibility of class-substitution (even if we are not familiar with the model, we can imagine a generic car in poor condition); 3) the isomorphic extension of this object to its counterpart in the real world. The empirical truth-claim thus establishes a common ground between the action on-stage (or on the page) and the spectator's or reader's sense of action in the world. The truth-claim of verisimilitude in the play is multifaceted, as the difficult task of rendering the characters believable is compounded by the complex nature of Willy Loman's personality: his dialogue, manner of speaking and actions must portray him as victim, dreamer, household bully, subverted representative of the American dream, etc. Since neither Willy's actions nor other character's portraits of him remain consistent, the primary concern of the reader/spectator becomes the establishment of a world-view which accommodates these various contradictory perspectives. The truth-claim of the self's own sense of order thus becomes the most important truth-claim governing this text. Valdés rounds out this chapter with a short commentary on Jose Emilio Pacheco's "Prose of Death's Head", in which all five types of truth-claims operate. The truth-claims function together in drawing the reader's attention to his/her own mortality, and the futility of wasting this life in preparing for an after-life. Once again, the predominant truth-claim is that of the self, as the poet encourages self-reflection. The poem alternates between verifiable and non-verifiable truth-claims (no more than four consecutive stanzas in each mode), and Valdés evocatively describes this structure as "a weaving of the fabric of the indeterminate status of death" (102).

The fifth chapter, "The Historical Study of Truth-Claims", examines the historicity of the truth-claim in the context of the Spanish literary tradition. The influence of Gadamer seems stronger in this chapter, as Valdés begins by describing the creation of meaning as the fusion of historical horizons. Truth-claims are significant to any historical study as they are the indicators of a past reality. Although there is little change in the way in which truth-claims are posited in texts, generic forms governing the use of truth-claims do change, as does aesthetic perception - defined here as a relation of difference between three historicities, that of the commentator, the text and the author. Since aesthetic perspective changes over the course of time, the meaning of a truth-claim is relative, changing from one period to another although the fundamental construction of the truth-claim remains the same. The subsequent study considers truth-claims surrounding the topic of death over a five-hundred year period in the Spanish literary tradition (medieval period to the twentieth century), culminating in a reading of Garcia Lorca's quartet of poems "Llanto por Ignacio Sanchez Mejias". Valdés seeks above all to contrast the medieval and twentieth century perspectives on death, whose differences may be resumed in the dichotomy of an exterior vs. an interior view of death, and to stress the importance of truth-claims in rendering the Spanish world-view unique through its conceptualization of death.

In chapter six, "The Phenomenology of the Truth-Claim", Valdés summarizes the "doublebind" in which the truth-claim functions (both within the closed system of the text and in relation to the world of action), and draws our attention to the affinity of this concept with Ricoeur's definition of the "split reference of metaphor" (138). Valdés then posits three primary characteristics of truth-claim and their corresponding functions in the act of reading: meaning - the "recognition of the descriptive purport of a statement"; verification - the "ensuring validity granted the developing textual configuration"; and reader commitment - the "appropriation of the textual feature into the reader's world-making process" (138). From this starting point, he seeks to elaborate a theory of truth-claim in literature. A series of three schematizations follows. The first depicts the relationships between text, language, reader and enunciating voice, while the second places the various types of truth-claims into their proper areas of operation. Thus, empirical and historical truth-claims fall into the region governed by the relationship text/language; verisimilar truth-claims are located in the area of the language/reader relationship; truth-claims of the self's own sense of order fall within the sphere of the reader/voice relationship; and finally, truth-claims of textual authority are governed by the voice/text relationship. The third diagram locates various types of aesthetic perspective (mimetic, didactic, participatory, and metaphorical) in each of the aforementioned areas of operation. These diagrams depict a movement between the text in the reader's experience (configuration) and the reader as a participant in the text (refiguration). At the center of this movement one finds the truth-claim, since, Valdés argues, the recognition and acceptance of the truth-claim and subsequent participation in the act of world-making lie at the heart of reading. The chapter then turns to textual analysis, considering Middlemarch and One Hundred Years of Solitude, in order to determine the ontological status of truth-claims, defined here as the "disclosure of human identity at the level of reflection on the reading experience" or refiguration (152). Valdés then concludes that despite the polysemy which characterizes literary discourse and generates a plurality of possible meanings (hence possible disorder), truth in literature does not depend on the verification of any one particular meaning. Rather, it stems from the order created by this process of refiguration that occurs between text and reader.

World-Making is marred somewhat by the repetitiveness of Valdés's argument and his extensive use of quotations. Chapter two's illustrations of truth-claims using literary examples seems redundant, as such a classification is undertaken in chapter three using some of the same works. In chapter three, Valdés discusses the operation of the empirical truth-claim using a passage from Middlemarch to demonstrate how various descriptive details integrate purely empirical data (i.e., the description of Dorothea's appearance), and details which serve as configurative coordinates in the process of world making (i.e., the observation that Dorothea's severe hair-style reflects her asceticism). While the point is valid, the method seems contrived. Valdés first reproduces the passage suppressing all but empirical data--proper names replaced by "Mr. (X)" and "(Y)" - while ellipses render the text piecemeal (41).The subsequent analysis of the reconstituted version seems laborious. Similarly, the extensive use of quotation in the commentary on Death of a Salesman seems unnecessary, as this is probably the most familiar of the three texts studied. Placed end to end, the extracts would take up more than three of the ten pages devoted to this work.

Aside from these organizational objections, I would like to consider the methodology of Valdés's approach. Throughout Truth and Method, Gadamer emphasizes that the human sciences have traditionally been torn between the compulsion to follow a scientific (and therefore implicitly rigorous) method of analysis, and the desire to set themselves apart from the natural sciences. In terms of literary studies, this dual impulse has been translated by the split between text-oriented criticism and reader oriented criticism. In calling for an interpretative approach which integrates explanation and understanding (formal and hermeneutic criticism), Valdés capitalizes on these two contrary impulses. World-Making includes the kind of rigorous classifications and use of schematizations which might be identified with a formal approach, while dealing primarily with the reader's response to different types of truth claims. This dual focus again reflects the influence of Ricoeur, who, in Interpretation Theory, suggests that "it would be possible to locate explanation and understanding" at two different stages of a unique hermeneutical arc" (87).

Valdés's study of the truth-claim begins with a stage of explanatory identification and classification. In fact, an inordinate amount of attention seems devoted to this aspect of the project. More interesting is the use of the truth-claim as an interpretive tool. Unfortunately, the sections devoted to textual analysis do not entirely demonstrate the truth-claim's potential as a tool for literary analysis. The section on Jacob's Room is the most developed and most convincing of the three extended commentaries. This first textual analysis undertakes a thoughtful discussion of the treatment and perception of space, time, and objects in Woolf's novel. Valdés demonstrates the interpretive power of an approach through truth-claims, evocatively describing the fusion of horizons between text and reader. Too often, however, Valdés's textual analysis constitutes an enumeration of the various types of truth-claims found in a text, without making a meaningful contribution to our understanding of the work under study.

The commentary on Death of a Salesman is a case in point. That Willy Loman is a man of contradictions, that the various members of his family all have a different perception of him, that he is self-deluded and commits suicide because he can no longer avoid facing the reality of what he is - these are all valid observations, but offer little in the way of new insights into Miller's play.

A broader application of the truth-claim fares little better than this individual commentary. The historical study of truth-claims related to death in Spanish literature seems truncated (condensed into a twenty-three page chapter), while the progression through the centuries seems somewhat uneven. Valdés himself acknowledges that, even limiting his focus to death, such a cursory historical study of truth claims is an ambitious undertaking that yields only generalizations. In short, after reading World-Making I had a clear sense of the various operations of different types of truth-claims, but was not convinced of the interest or innovation offered by the approach in terms of either textual analysis or historical surveys.

Finally, I would like to consider what emerges as a hierarchy of truth-claims. Simply put, some truth-claims are more interesting than others. Those truth-claims which are verifiable (empirical, verisimilar and historical) may be quickly recognized and classified, while the nonverifiable truth-claims pose a greater critical challenge. Again, the organization of the book disappoints: in the chapter treating each individual truth-claim in turn, Valdés devotes the most attention to the empirical truth-claim; or, more precisely, to examining when an empirical description becomes a truth-claim. In terms of the schematizations, the relationships between text language and language/reader seem more evident than those between text/voice and reader/voice. In fact, Valdés called this last the "most intimate dialectic of the I/other expressive capacity of language" (140). It seems to me that the truth-claim of the self's own sense of order is therefore both the most interesting and the most problematic of those elaborated.

In keeping with this suggestion of a hierarchy of truth-claims, the conclusion of chapter four broaches what we might term the paradox of the truth-claim. Returning to the dialectical nature of the truth-claim (true vs. false), Valdés suggests that the assertion of truth is primarily located in the truth-to-claims of authority and the self's sense of order, that is, in non-verifiable truth-claims. Valdés declares that the acceptance of a statement as being true implies the ability to negate its opposite. In other words, "truth-claims of assertion are possible only because the reader can entertain negativity, can say no as well as yes" (112). This chapter ends with the peculiar assertion that only readers "free of dogmatism" and "endowed with personal freedom" can engage these two important truth-claims, since "the experience of truth itself is evidence of the freedom of the mind" (112). Valdés does not specify the nature of this "personal freedom", whether it is political, intellectual, social, or of some other sort. Furthermore, in the initial definition of the various truth-claims, Valdés indicates that the truth-claim of the self's sense of order lies at the core of the reading experience (33). Thus, the suggestion that engagement with this truth-claim relies on "personal freedom" implies that those who are not "free" can not fully participate in the act of reading.


Gadamer, Hans Georg (1989) Truth and Method. Transl. Joel Weinsheimer and Donald G. Marshal. New York: Crossroad Publishing.

Ricoeur, Paul (1976). Interpretation Theory: Discourse and the Surplus of Meaning. Fort Worth: Texas Christian University Press.

Valdés, Mario J. (1982) Shadows in the Cave: A Phenomenological Approach to Literary Criticism Based on Hispanic Texts. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

----,(1987) Phenomenological Hermeneutics and the Study of Literature. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Tara Collington is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department ot French, University of Toronto. Her main area of interest is early twentieth-century French literature. She is currently working on her dissertation. an examination of Bakhtin's chronotope and its applicability within the context of French literary studies.

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