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In Praise of Depth: or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Hidden

Journal Article
New Literary History

In recent years, some prominent scholars have been making a surprising claim: examining literary texts for hidden depths is overblown, misguided, or indeed downright dangerous. Such examination, they've warned us, may lead to the loss of world Heidegger warned of (Gumbrecht), to the world-denying metaphysics Nietzsche warned of (Nehamas), or to the suspicious form of hermeneutics Ricoeur warned of (Best, Marcus, Moi). This paper seeks to suggest that, though the concerns are understandable, there's ultimately nothing to worry about. The fact that Nietzsche himself happily used metaphors of surface and depth suggests that they are not, in fact, metaphysically fraught. The fact that it's possible to appreciate surfaces at the same time as depths means that there's no real danger of losing the world. And as for depth-talk turning us into suspicious hermeneuts, that would happen only if we made two fallacious assumptions: first, that all depths are meanings; second, that all hidden features are in a text by accident. But since plenty of authors hide things deliberately, and since what's hidden often has nothing to do with propositional content, both assumptions are profoundly mistaken. Meanwhile, the surface/depth metaphor is the only thing that adequately captures the phenomenology of reading, especially when it comes to misdirection-based, hermetic, enigmatic, ironic, or satirical texts, where special activity on our part prompts a sudden leap to a radically different mode of understanding. And unlike its rivals, the surface/depth metaphor reflects a real asymmetry: depths explain surfaces, but not vice versa; surfaces are available without depths, but not the other way around. We need the metaphor, and we need to stay open to hidden depths as we read. As long as we don't come in with terrible assumptions, nothing bad will happen to us, and plenty of good things will. It's perfectly safe to go back in the water.

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