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Surprise Me If You Can

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  23 October 2020


Hey! Whatcha readin' for?

—Bill Hicks, comedian, Sane Man (1989)

Miller Reads So the Chinese (and Young, Western Computer Gamers) Don't Have To

In August 2010, I Attended a Lecture that J. Hillis Miller Gave at the Shanghai jiao Tong University on the Challenge of Reading world literature. The lecture argued that in a globalizing world, traveling literature grows distant from its linguistic milieu, local readership, and aesthetic context, making it our challenge to find a reading method that could safeguard these endangered aspects of the text's specificity. To do this, he proposed to imagine himself as a Chinese anthologist who, wishing to include a translation of William Butler Yeats's poem “The Cold Heaven” in a Chinese anthology of world literature, must ask himself, “Just what would I need to tell Chinese readers to make them the best possible readers of this poem?” Miller concluded that, as that anthologist, he would need to give them the facts about Yeats's life and works, an account of the generic rules of the poem's verse form, a note on the broad recurrence of “sudden” and “suddenly” in Yeats's oeuvre, information about “[w]hat sort of bird the rook is and why they are delighted by cold weather,” a clarification of the differing connotations of “heaven” and “skies” for Christian readers familiar with “The Lord's Prayer,” an explanation of what the oxymoron “burning ice” has meant in the Western poetic tradition, a pointer to the allusion in the word “crossed” to Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, and some sense of the embedded subtext of Yeats's failure to woo Maud Gonne (256). For, according to Miller (citing David Damrosch), when culturally distant readers are not made aware of the “vast substratum beneath” a poem, they are “likely to impose domestic literary values on the foreign work” (254). In short, a respectful reading method must ensure that such readers are guided through the text, in the light of its original context.

theories and methodologies
Copyright © Modern Language Association of America, 2016

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