2007 Northeast Modern Language Association Panels
1-4 March, 2007
Baltimore, Maryland

Peter Kerry Powers
Messiah College

Fidelity and the Possibility of Creative Reading”


Do not cite without permission of the author.

As the questions attending the call for papers to this panel suggest, fidelity is a troubled concept in the modern theoretical lexicon. No where is this more evident than in our understanding of reading. The idea that a reading might be “faithful” to the text or to the author's intention, common notions of an earlier period of scholarly reading, now seem either epistemologically quant—“no such reading is possible because all reading is theory-laden”—or frankly repressive, requiring the reader to submit the free play of his or her imagination to the prior constraints of the author's purpose, or at least the constraints of literary form itself. At most, it would seem, we are required to be faithful to oneself or perhaps more abstractly to the concept of imaginative freedom; faithfulness to anything else is a sign of the reader's failure at the task of self-realization, or at least a sure sign of dullness. At the opposite end of the theoretical spectrum, an older form of criticism holds to this binary, while insisting that the failure achieve a faithful reading is at best a mode of narcissism. To this degree, ideas about reading replay other conceptions—some popular others theoretical—that consistently oppose creativity, freedom and desire to fidelity, submission, and obligation.

The burden of this essay is to critique the binaries outlined above, and to suggest that fidelity and creativity cannot rightly be thought of in opposition but necessarily condition each other's realization. Creative response to a work of art can be understood as a necessary act of allegiance, extending and exfoliating the possibilities of a prior human act of creativity. In this sense fidelity cannot be thought of in terms of mere repetition as it is often conceived by its proponents and opponents alike. Similarly, fidelity requires and assumes the extension of the self beyond one's own priorities and horizons. This act does not so much result in self-abnegation as in self-expansion; in seeking to form oneself through and in response to the prior creativity of another, the reader is provisionally freed from the constraint of merely repeating the reader's self and her own priorities. In this sense, fidelity is a liberatory discourse rather than a repressive discourse and is a precondition for creativity at all.