The literal irony: Should intentions matter?

In a New York Times opinion piece two authors discussed whether an author’s intentions should matter, i.e. whether an author’s words in the author’s work are set in stone, or whether there is open season for interpreting any work. Like every single time that we are presented with a sliding-scale continuum of this-or-that way or seeing things, the answer usually lies somewhere within the continuum, which is to say that the answer lies completely outside of the continuum, which is to say that the continuum itself and not any point on it is the answer, which is to say that there is no answer at all. Confused? That’s because the authors ironically forgot to ask the important question about literature, which is the important question about thinking, speaking, and acting: Should intentions matter at all?

image3047What do the Bible, the Qur’an, the US Constitution, Capital, The Wealth of Nations, Capital in the Twenty-First Century, Paradise Lost, Hamlet, 1984, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, The Lord of the Rings, Ender’s Game, Fantastic Mr. Fox, A Short History of Time, Elements, Principia Mathematica, The Origin of Species, Chaos, A People’s History of the United States, and Why Don’t Zebra’s Get Ulcers? all have in common?

That’s right they’re all things that have been written down. And like all things [that are written down], they are up for interpretation.

Sometimes the debate around this interpretation is heated, for people put a lot of stake in what the author’s said. Just look at the Bible, Qur’an, US Constitution, Capital, The Wealth of Natures, and Capital in the Twenty-First Century. For many they are the base texts, “the Bibles”, of an entire creed or way of thinking or seeing the world, the authors’ are, in other words, shaping our interpretations and abilities to interpret. For others they are at best incomplete works, at worst fairytales, ripe for interpretation and improvement, for laughter and damnation. And for still others they are recognized as a summation of what has been said before or what must be said. Look at the many versions and translations of the Bible. Look at the controversy about certain aspects of the US Constitution. Look at the conflict between communists and capitalists tracing their origin respectively (and ironically) to Capital and The Wealth of Nations, where all evidence suggests the authors would agreed (and did agree) on many points of interpretation. The same surely holds for all works.

Sometimes the debate around this interpretation is heated, but merely intellectual, academic — and people nonetheless put a lot at stake in it, but also realize the folly of taking things too far. Just look at Paradise Lost, Hamlet, 1984, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, The Lord of the Rings, Ender’s Game and Fantastic Ms. Fox. For many these are the stories we grew grew up with. They also shaped how we look at the world, but we often love to go back and read them again and again, because we have experienced and read other things, and there is always something new to see in old familiar covers. Did you notice that I used “Sorcerer’s Stone” instead of “Philosopher’s Stone”? That’s because the former American version was the one I read, but not the original. Did you notice that I wrote “Fantastic Ms. Fox” instead of “Fantastic Mr. Fox”? That’s because, as much as I loved the book as a child, I would like to see something different, something that goes beyond what has already been written.

Sometimes the debate around this interpretation is heated, but that heatedness is the heatedness of scientists and philosophers reading and interpreting and reforming and bettering what once was. Just look at A Brief History of Time, Elements, Principia Mathematica, The Origin of Species, Chaos, A People’s History of the United States, and Why Don’t Zebra’s Get Ulcers. Books on highly scientific or academic subjects, with explicit or implicit knowledge on the part of the authors that they are built upon the works others. Did you notice that I had previously written “A Short History of Time”? What would the implications be of this title change? We most certainly do put a lot at stake in scientific and academic writing, since our material world is built on the principles laid down in them, but that does not stop scientists and academics from rereading previous works, improving on them, elucidating or discarding what has been written based on what is, or has not yet been, written.

Then we remember that scientists and philosophers read the Bible and Harry Potter, too. And surely there have been priests and politicians who have read Hamlet and The Origin of Species, and surely there have been Trekkies and English Lit. majors who have read Capital and Chaos. All of these people surely interpret everything they have read, and all of these people surely continue to interpret based on what they have read, for everything was an influence. No one disputes this.

Then why do we dispute the other side? That the scientists and philosophers, the priests and politicians, and the Trekkies and English Lits who wrote these works in the first place aren’t already interpreting as they write? Some of them may be unaware of it, others might be very sensitive to the fact, and still others might be highly conscious of it but not necessarily savvy enough to foresee all the possible interpretations (the present author readily admits this latter point, and wishes all other authors would as well, though that is his own pet peeve).

Surely these scientists and philosophers, priests and politicians, Trekkies and English Lits put a lot of stake into what they are writing with full knowledge that they both interpreters and the interpreted. One difference between writing and speech acts is that the former has the possibility to transcend both geographies and generations, where the latter is stuck in the moment and place of its utterance, even if written down, recorded, or burned into memory. One similarity between the two is that, so long as the originator, the author or utterer, is still alive and in good mental standing, that person can be asked for clarification. In the question itself there is therefore already an interpretation of what has been, and there is already the expectation that the answer will be an interpretation as well. What binds the two together is also what sets them apart: They are both media of conversation, the one fluid but fleeting, the other concrete but elastic, and there is no point in saying which is which because both are both.

Then we remember that writing, and language itself, is the intermediary, the transcendent factor between thought and action, for language is both thought and action. If a computer can be seen as the concrete, external form of thought, and a tool or machine can be seen as the concrete, external form of action, then it is easier to see how writing is one external, concrete form of language. But it is also easier to see how all of these things, concrete and abstract, external and internal, interact with one another — the computer is a machine and the computer has a written language. Humans, too, have a written language, a programming in a sense, but what separates us from machines is that that programming can to some extent be separated from the actions it is meant to generate, and part of that separation involves communicating with other people, both interpreting our actions and theirs as well as explaining our thoughts and hearing theirs. The separation between thought and action therefore exists only with language as its bridge, its transcendent medium, because language is both thought and action, both the programming and the mechanical workings of our minds and bodies.

Just as the good writer goes into a work as a scientist and philosopher, a priest and a politician, and a Trekkie and an English Lit, so should all readers go into reading a work. We should engage each work like a conversation, both allowing the other person to have a say, but also bringing in our own point of view. Where the other conversant [sic – the author meant this] is no longer around to have a say, we do our best both to interpret and to understand what was actually intended. This an obvious but often forgotten law of discourse and common decency — that it has been forgotten is made clear in the comment section of webpages, where very few readers are interested in having a conversation and asking questions, and virtually no authors are interested in responding to criticism or praise for fear of the troll lurking underneath the bridge of transcendent language.

– R.P.W.

Robert Pyotr Wolff

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