I began this article last week by asking the question, how do we determine the meaning of a text? Is it dependent on what the author really wants to say, in other words, his intention? Or is meaning up to the reader to interpret as she sees fit?
I then gave three reasons why authorial intent cannot be taken as the absolute source of meaning:
- The author could be lying when he explains the text;
- One’s intent does not always translate to clarity of execution. In other words, I may intend one thing but the execution, the actual writing, may be so faulty that it is difficult to determine what I really mean;
- The author could be dead and so be unable to explain his intent.
You can look at it this way, that once an author releases the text, it is akin to giving birth. The child takes on a life of its own apart from the parent, and sometimes it takes a completely different and unexpected personality.
My longtime reader, Charlie5, wrote to me about this saying,
“In college, I got put into advanced placement English, and they wanted me to read 500 pages a week of English literature I wasn’t interested in, and write papers, so I thought I’d make it interesting, and come up with a unique and rather psychotic interpretation that I was sure was unique and out of left field, and write that up as my paper, but when the teacher read it he said, “No, that’s not how you are supposed to interpret it, we told you in class how to interpret it, rewrite the paper and interpret it the way we taught you to.” This led to me dropping out of college, looking it as a dangerous ‘thought prison’… I learned a colorful phrase from 19th century Germany writings, ‘a flung stone is the devil’s’, meaning once you compose your speech and have your say, you have no more control over how it’s going to be interpreted, it’s just out there for anyone to use in any way they see fit, unless you’re in ‘thought prison.’”
He then makes an interesting analogy:
“Writing, I think, is like a cook making stew, (or a witch her broth), putting the elements into the pot according to a grand mystical scheme, confident it’ll be good but having no way of knowing exactly how it’ll taste to each eater.”
So is meaning then fully dependent on how the reader wants to interpret the text? Is it a purely subjective affair? Last week, I said no, but the more accurate answer is yes and no. When a reader approaches a text, she always does so in the context of her own experiences and outlook in life. That is the subjective part. But the objective part, which keeps the exercise of interpretation from turning into a free-for-all, is the text itself.
To use Charlie’s cooking example, if I throw in ingredients such as chili peppers, lemon and garlic into my stew, different eaters may vary in opinion as to how spicy it is or how sour it is. They may argue about what kind of pepper or how much lemon was used. However, if someone says the stew tastes very sweet, like pure honey, then you know either that person is lying or something is wrong with his taste buds. One can refute his claims by showing the ingredients list, or getting a chemical breakdown of the stew, and showing that none of the ingredients can produce a “sweet as honey” taste, and so on.
So there is range of interpretation (our teacher used the phrase “field of meaning”) that is acceptable and defensible and one can make arguments based on the text itself. If I were the teacher in Charlie’s story, I wouldn’t tell him “No, you don’t interpret it that way.”
I would instead try to dissect his arguments, showing from the text how his interpretation was off the mark, or why his arguments were weak (I am assuming, for the sake of this example, that they were weak as Charlie himself admitted he deliberately gave a far-out interpretation). I would show where his analogies break down, and why the more “conventional” interpretation is more on target because paragraph so-and-so supports it, and so on.
In other words, interpreting a text is akin to a lawyer defending her position in court. She needs to show evidence and produce witnesses to make her case. The stronger the evidence, the better her case looks. But what if the opposing side uses the same evidence and yet comes up with a different interpretation? Well that’s where the fun begins and each side has to try their best to win the jury over with their arguments. So that is where we see the delectable tension between subjectivity and objectivity — the field of meaning from which we can draw our conclusions or argue about them.
Works that are considered classics, such as those of Shakespeare, Byron, Machiavelli, Dante, and so on, are such because they have stood the test of time and continue to be meaningful even though the context and environment have changed drastically from the time they were written. They still provide useful insight into the human condition with people finding interpretations beyond what the authors intended, but still valid nonetheless.
That is a testament to the depth and richness of the text.
Originally published in Sunstar Davao.