In my article “Gestalt” which came out two weeks ago, I mentioned that there were two college lectures I remembered from a course in Literary Theory that I remember and still draw lessons from to this day. I only had space and time to cover one that week, and instead of continuing that train of thought last week, I wrote about something else.
My good friend Jon-jon then tells me he’s still waiting for the other lecture, and was disappointed it didn’t come out last week. Well, I hate to disappoint you, Jon-jon, so this one’s for you.
The second lecture dealt with the meaning of a text and who determines it. Is it the author who determines the meaning or is it the reader? If the author intended one meaning but the reader got another meaning out of it, who is correct? Or is there even such a thing as a “correct” meaning? Both could be equally valid, after all.
To answer this question, our teacher told a story of another literature teacher whose doctoral dissertation was about a novel by this Filipino author. A major part of that dissertation was devoted to analyzing why the author used a certain name, and then delved on its meaning and symbolism and how that was crucial to properly framing and understanding the entire story.
A short time after getting her Ph.D., this teacher happened to meet the author at a party and they had a casual conversation about that particular story. The teacher related to the author her admiration for how he weaved the symbol and meaning of the name into the story. After hearing her out, the author smiled and said, “You know, your theory is very interesting but to tell you the truth, I only used that name because that was the name of my aunt who always dropped by our house and I remembered her when I was writing the story.”
Now, does that fact totally destroy the teacher’s brilliant analysis? After all, we have it straight from the author’s mouth that there was no intentional symbolism on his part. Should the teacher’s dissertation then be thrown into the wastebasket, as its major point had been invalidated by the author’s revelation? Is the meaning of a text then determined solely by authorial intent?
One, the author could simply be lying, for whatever reason.
Two, as we have experienced in life, intent is not always evident in actual action. How many times have we heard the phrase, “But that is not what I meant” or “That is not what I intended?” If you say some things that hurt your friend, even if you did not intend to, that does not invalidate the hurt she feels. If you tell a driver to “turn right” (when you really wanted him to turn left), and he turns right and meets an accident because that happened a one-way street, is your intention really a valid interpretation of “turn right?”
Intentions are often misread and misunderstood. That is where a lot of arguments and quarrels begin.
Three, the author may be unavailable to give his opinion on the matter, or worse he may be long dead. So, unless he left some notes discussing why he wrote or said certain things (which is not often the case), it would be virtually impossible to determine his original intention.
For these reasons, we cannot simply say that the meaning of the text is determined by what the author says she intended. Then what place does the author’s voice have in determining meaning? What a lot of literary experts suggest is that the author is also a reader — although with a slightly privileged status — much like the parents of an adult. You do not hold the parents accountable for everything their adult son or daughter does, but they can give you valuable insight into understanding their character.
In the same way, author’s intention should not be taken as the be-all and end-all of meaning, but should be taken as an insight on how the text is supposed to be read. But whether or not it achieves its goal of communicating that meaning clearly is another matter.
Is meaning then determined by the reader? Can the reader then take any piece of literature and then make it mean whatever she wants it to mean? The answer is of course, no, because if you could make anything mean whatever you want, then that would render any text irrelevant. Anyone’s opinion on what a text means could be just as valid as anyone else’s, no matter how absurd.
And that in itself is absurd.
So if meaning does not reside with the author, nor is it determined by the reader, where then can it be found? How can it be determined? And is there a definitive authority who can say what that meaning really is?
The answers to these…next week. Enough nosebleed for today.
Originally published in Sunstar Davao.