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

14 June 2017; 1600-1800

Paul Hirst Room, 10 Gower Street


All of a sudden, people are telling literary scholars to ditch the metaphor of depth. Brilliant people, too, like Alexander Nehamas, Toril Moi, and Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht. Why? What’s wrong with calling a reading “superficial,” and thinking it’s the worse for that?

In this paper I attempt to figure out (a) what the bathwater is and (b) what babies are being thrown out along with it. I offer a hypothesis for why some people think we need to stop talking about depth (hint: it may in some cases have to do with a relentless focus on “messages”). I talk a bit about Pride and Prejudice and Shamela and Mallarmé and Holbein, and suggest that deep readings don’t need to be either message-based or suspiciously hermeneutic. I try to explain what I think we mean when we talk about depth in the context of art (hint: it may have to do with differences in kind and shifts in strategy), and I generally attempt to talk everyone down from the ledge.