Fore Grounding & Interpretation By NazmaPresentation Transcript
Foregrounding and Interpretation This chapter answers the question: how the apparently unnatural, aberrant, even nonsensical, is justified by significance at some deeper level of interpretation?
Foregrounding in Art and Elsewhere
It is a very general principle of artistic communication that a work of art in some way deviates from norms which we, as members of society, have learnt to expect in the medium used. A painting that is representational does not simply reproduce the visual stimuli an observer would receive if he were looking at the scene it depicts: what is artistically interesting is how it deviates from photographic accuracy , from simply being a ‘copy of nature’.
In music there are expected patterns-of melody, rhythm, harmonic progression, abstract form, etc., and a composer’s skill lies not in mechanically reproducing these, but in introducing unexpected departures from them. As a general rule, anyone who wishes to investigate the significance and value of a work of art must concentrate on the element of interest and surprise, rather than on the automatic pattern. Such deviations from linguistic or other socially accepted norms have been given the special name of ‘foregrounding’. The artistic deviation ‘sticks out’ from its background, the automatic system, like a figure in the foreground of a visual field.
The application of this concept to poetry
is obvious. The foregrounding figure is the linguistic deviation, and the background is the language. Just as the eye picks out the figure as the important and meaningful element in its field of vision, so the reader of poetry picks out the linguistic deviation in such a phrase as ‘a grief ago’ as significant part of the message. The rules of the English language as a unity are not the only standard of normality: the English of poetry has its own set of norms, so that ‘routine licenses’ which are odd in the context of English as a whole are not foregrounded,but rather expected, when they occur in a poem. The unique creative innovations of poetry not the routine deviations, are what we must chiefly have in mind in this discussion of foregrounding.
Deliberate linguistic foregrounding is not confined to poetry, but is found, for example, in joking speech and in children’s games. Literature is distinguished, as the Czech scholar Mukarovsky says, by the ‘consistency and systematic character of foregrounding’, but even so, in some non-literary writing, such as comic ‘nonsense prose’, foregrounding may be just as pervasive and as violent as it is in most poetry. It is difficult to analyze what is meant by foregrounding being ‘systematic’, but the notion is intuitively clear in the feeling we have that there is some method in a poet’s madness.
A convincing illustration of the power of foregrounding to suggest latent significance if furnished by those modern poets (especially Pound and Eliot) who make use of the stylistic device of transposing pieces of ordinary, non- poetic language into a poetic context. A famous example of this kind of register – borrowing is the bar-parlour monologue in ‘A Game of Chess’ [The Waste Land, III]
when Lil’s husband got demobbed, I said
I didn’ t mince my words, I said to her myself,
Now Albert’s coming back make yourself a bit smart
He’ll want to know what you done with that money he gave you
To get yourself some teeth. He did, I was there------
poetic foregrounding presupposes some motivation on the part of the writer and some explanation on the pat of the reader. A question mark accompanies each foreground feature; consciously or unconsciously, we ask: ‘What is the point?’ of course, they may be no point at all; but the appreciative reader, by act of faith, assumes that there is one, or at least tends to give the poet the benefit of the doubt. The problem we now have to consider is the problem which stands astride the gap between linguistic analysis and literary appreciation: When is a linguistic deviation (artistically) significant?
The Subjectivity of Interpretation:
Answer: When it (i.e the deviation) communicates something. According to this definition of significance, practically all deviation is significant. Consider the following :
Like you plays?
The Houwe(sic) of commons.
The linguistic abnormalities in these examples are most likely to be taken as errors, as trivial hindrances to communication. But unintentionally, they may convey quite a bit of information.
In the first example, the ungrammaticality probably suggests that its author is a foreigner with an imperfect command of English. The second example, occurring in a printed text, informs us that the printer has made a mistake, that the author is a careless proof-reader, etc. such mistake may, be deliberately imitated for artistic or comic effect.
However it is clear that even the most trivial and unmotivated deviation may communicate information of a kind.
Answer: When it communicates what was intended by its author. This definition insists that a deviation is significant only when deliberate. But the one main difficulty about this answer is that the intention of the author is in practice inaccessible. If he is dead, his intention must remain forever unknown, unless he happens to have recorded it; and even a living poet is usually shy of explaining ‘what he meant’ when he wrote a given poem. There is, moreover, a widely held view that what a poem signifies lies within itself and cannot be added to by extraneous commentary.
Answer: when it is judged or felt by the reader to be significant. This answer, merely says that the significance of a poem lies ultimately in the min of the reader, just as beauty is said to lie in the eye of the beholder. We are forced back on this definition by the failure of the other two to circumscribe what people in practice take to be significant in a poem. We may go further, and say that not only whether a deviation has a sensible interpretation, but what interpretation it is to be given, is a subjective matter.
This conclusion, teaches us that linguistics and literary criticism, in so far as they both deal with poetic language, are complementary not competing activities. Where the two meet is above all in the study of foregrounding.
The ‘Warranty’ for a Deviation: A linguistic deviation is a disruption of the normal process of communication: it leaves a gap, as it were, in one’s comprehension of the text. The gap can be filled, and the deviation rendered significant, but only if by an effort of his imagination the reader perceives some deeper connection which compensates for the superficial oddity. Donne’s line (the Apparition) , Then the sky taper begin to wink contains two violations of literal meaningfulness. Two violations of literal meaningfulness
idea of taper being sick idea of taper being
capable of winking
Warranty for these deviation lies in
figurative interpretation of
Example ii: Another kind of deviation is illustrated in the unusual word-blend. e.g museyroom, wholebarrow, Gracehaper. Immediate warranty
Apprehension of linguistic to match this linguistic
Linguistic deviation is not the only mechanism of linguistic foregrounding. The effect of obtrusion, of some part of the message being thrust into the foreground of attention, may be attained by other means. A pun, for instance, is a type of foregrounding:
When I am dead, I hope it may be said :
His sins were scarlet, but his books were read’.
This epigram contains no violation of linguistic rules, but we are conscious, at its conclusion, of two simultaneous interpretations ‘read’ and ‘red’. Our attention, that is to say, is focused upon a phonological equivalence which would normally be unobserved.
A type of foregrounding which is in a sense the opposite of deviation, for it consists in the introduction of extra regularities, not irregularities, into the language. This is PARALLELISM in the widest sense of that word.
Parallelism as Foregrounding Regularity:
Regularity is a property of language in general, both inside and outside p0oetry. A text can be analysed as a pattern, on different layers, of repeated similar structures.
To understand the concept of “extra regularities” we take Coleridge’s line
“ the furrow followed free”
(The Ancient Mariner)
A CVCV - CVCV – CVC CCV Syllable structure
B X | /X | / X | / Rhythmic structure
Line A shows the same sequence of sounds as consonants or vowels.
When the sounds are classified in this way, a patterning may be explained by segmenting the sequence into syllables, and specifying the limited range of structures a syllable in English may have as follows:
(c) (c) (c) v (c) (c) (c) (c)
line B symbolizes a second layer of phonological patterning in the line, showing how it breaks down into a sequence of stressed syllables and unstressed syllables.
We see from the above analysis how the phonological patterning of the English language can be described by means of a hierarchy of units
Parallelism in its broad sense is precisely the opposite of deviation, whereas certain range of selection is available in the language, the poet makes a selection beyond this range. With parallelism, where the language allows him a choice, he consistently limits himself to the same option.
How Much Regularity?
Just as there are degrees of foregrounded irregularity, so there are degrees of foregrounded regularity. There is a trivial parallelism in a sentence like
He found his keys and opened the front door
Which contains two consecutive verbal plus object constructions.
But this construction in any case so frequent that we tend not to notice the pattern.
In contrast, a stronger foregrounding of regularity occurs in Othello’s
I kissed thee ere I killed thee
Where the two clauses have:
(1): identical structures (S,V,O)
(2): the exact verbal correspondences of ‘I’ and ‘Thee’.
(3): past tense suffixes
(4): a phonological congruence between kissed and killed
these examples give some idea of what factors enter into the assessment of how strong a parallelism is: whether it extends to both lexical and grammatical choices; whether it involves patterning on both phonological and formal levels.
Patterns of Identity and Contrast:
The importance of parallelism as a feature of poetic language almost rivals that of deviation. It is important to note a difference between parallelism and mechanical repetition. As Roman Jakobson has said, ‘any form of parallelism is an apprtionment of invariants and variables’. In other words, in any parallelistic pattern there must be an element of identity and an element of contrast. The element of identity requires little comment: it is clear that any superimposed pattern sets up a relation of equivalence between two or more neighbouring pieces of a text.
Where wealth accumulates and men decay
……… .. S + V………………..S + V
The interpretation of parallelism
In general foregrounded regularities like foregrounded irregularities, require an interpretation. The assignment of significance to parallelism rests upon a simple principle of equivalence. Every parallelism sets up a relation of equivalence between two or more elements: the elements which are singled out by the pattern as being parallel. Interpreting the parallelism involves appreciating some external connection between these elements. The connection is broadly speaking a connection either of similarity or of contrasts. In Goldsmith’s line ‘ where wealth accumulates and men decay’ - it is one of contrastive connection, in which formal parallelism is combine with an implication of contrast, that the term Antitheses is most readily applied.
Where wealth diminishes and men decay
The connection would have been understood as one of the similarity: the two states of affairs go together, infact the one seems to follow the other.
Phonological and syntactical parallelism
Robert Burns’s to a mouse
The best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men
Gang aft a-gley
The relation of equivalence here is between mice and men, which correspond not only syntactically, but phonologically, in that they are both monosyllables beginning with /m/. The phonological foregrounding of to words in this way is quite a common poetic effect. The reinforcing connection between mice and men is twofold. We firstly appreciate the referential contrast between men, the supreme head of animal creation, and the mouse, one of the tiniest, most inconsequential of creatures.
But secondly help by the conjunction and which links the two words, we appreciate the similarities between men and mouse. What the paralytics bond between the two seems to say is that creatures superficially different are basically the same.