On Tuesday, September 3, 2002, at 12:10 PM, Nagy Gergely wrote:
>> There are many ways to get at authorial intention. First and foremost
>> would be to study the author's commentary on his own works.
> I don't see how the author's commentary would go any closer to the
> 'meaning' of a text than any other commentator's, who is sufficiently
> aware of the contexts inside which the text stands. That is to say, I
> discount authorial intention because even if it was recoverable (which
> I still do not quite believe-- what if an author errs in commenting,
> e.g. Tolkien, in talking about the Lost Tales in, say, 1970,
> misremembers or simply doesn't remember what he 'intended'?)
As I said earlier today, all evidence must be weighed against other
evidence, not just accepted blindly. But that fact does not render all
evidence worthless. I simply cannot agree that an author _cannot_ know
his intention and meaning better than anyone else, though I will agree
that it is possible that an author cannot or will not adequately convey
either intent or meaning in their commentary (though I think that a
rare case, where an author chooses to comment at all).
> I most emphatically protest that the only things the text says would
> be what the author _wanted it to_.
I would too. We all have personal associations with the things we read,
that obviously cannot have been intended by the author. (Whenever I
hear Beethoven's "Pathtique" sonata, I think of the decline of
Tolkien's Elves. But neither Beethoven nor Tolkien created or intended
that association. It exists in me, and probably only me, because a) it
is fittingly somber and yet hopeful; and b) it was featured at the
beginning of Carl Haas's radio show on the station that preceded the
BBC "Lord of the Rings" radioplay when it first aired on my local
station. I know this, but the association remains and is nonetheless
powerful _for me_. But I wouldn't expect anyone else to share the
association, or even to find it meaningful or suitable.) But meanings
derived by individual readers are not to be "privileged" (to use a
snippet of "theory" jargon) over the author's in criticism designed to
explicate a text. Nor are such idiosyncratic meanings necessarily of
interest or even coherent to anyone other than that individual reader,
and should not necessarily (I should think, very rarely) be accorded
> Meaning is not 'infused into a text' by the author, who then can
> recount in different
> words 'what it was that he was saying' (this defeats the purpose of
> the author's commentary itself: why say what you wanted to say when
> you said in in your text anyway? or else, your text is not _really_
> saying it if you have to say it again), but created by the interaction
> of the text and its interpreter (here comes reader-response for you),
> both of which have frameworks and contexts that determine them.
I disagree with your assertions. Authors do indeed infuse meaning in
their texts; whether that meaning is understood by all readers is a
function of the reader, not of any lack of authorial intent. An author
chooses to express that meaning in one way and not another because to
him, as an artist, it seems the best way to express what he wants to
express. That does not mean that it is the only way to express it: and
thus, the fact that an author can comment on his work in a different
manner in no way reflects upon the artistic expression. In other words,
if a tree falls in the forest and no one is around to hear it, it does
in fact still make a sound.
> The fact remains that the author is not the sole source of meaning in
> the text,
I agree. But there's meaning and then there's meaning. As a reader of
criticism, I want to know what a critic thinks the author intended and
means, based on evidence from the author's text, commentary, and life;
and I am certainly _not_ interested in whatever purely personal,
idiosyncratic meanings they might derive from their reading.
> and therefore his/her commentary is only more knowledgeable in terms
> of the writing process, not in terms of the 'meaning' of the text.
I disagree most emphatically, and this attitude is one of my big
sticking points with "theory".
> What follows from this is that Tolkien 'intended' something which even
> Lewis misunderstood-- but should we then discount entirely the
> similarity of
> Tolkien's text to medieval romance (for example, Malory), because he
> snarled at the comparison?
Not at all. I didn't say we should blindly accept every word an author
writes about their work. (Particularly an author like Tolkien, who we
know was given to snarling at times! But the fact that we know that is
the result of his commentary and correspondence, and allows us to
weight his words against each other.) But neither should we simply
ignore what an author has to say. And neither does that mean that all
other commentators are necessarily on equal footing with an author.
After all, other commentators are given to snarling as well....
> Unless you are prepared to defend that a work of art has one and only
> one meaning, that intended by the author,
No, I don't believe that. I don't believe that most authors themselves
intend only one meaning. But neither do I believe that an author does
not know his meanings better than others, or that all meanings derived
by others are equally valuable or insightful, or even worth knowing
> I really do not
> see what is the problem with discounting that intention, and looking
> for meaning(s) which are constructed largely in the same contexts that
> you are speaking of but are independent of the author's will.
In short, what is wrong is that you are throwing away evidence (and,
most often, the best available evidence) without even evaluating it.
Doing so will _inevitably_ bias the results of your study.
> By this standard, I expect, you consider only the finished Tolkien
> texts to be meaningful
Most certainly not. I consider everything Tolkien wrote to be
meaningful. I further consider that, as such, a rigorous, scholarly
treatment of Tolkien as an author _requires_ that the scholar be
familiar with everything Tolkien wrote, and take everything into
> what they show is not the author's intention but the trace of the
But that "trace of the composition" is mostly shaped by the author's
choices, choices made not simply arbitrarily, but in order to better
express whatever it is that the author is trying to express. And that
goes to intention, and to meaning. So I disagree with your assertion.
> I think that we cannot get to the author's intention in any way, and
> that it does not matter very much.
I disagree. Strongly. And I think, frankly, that this is , well, a lazy
attitude. Which is another beef I have with modern "theory".
> neither am I
> willing to discount all critical theory _on principle_ that you seem
> to do.
I am not discounting "all critical theory _on principle_". I am
discounting unprincipled pseudo-theory. ;)
> these things in Tate Modern definitely didn't give me the _aesthetic
> pleasure_ I am used to expect from works of art.
Yes, indeed. You see what I mean. Though I would say that much of this
art does not _in itself_ provide either aesthetic pleasure _or_
meaning. I used to be very much of the thought that art, to be
considered art, should stand on its own, that it should not require any
extra knowledge of intent or context; but I've come to see that that is
not the case. But that fact that I can consider a piece of art devoid
of pleasure or meaning before I know anything more about it or the
artist, and then consider it brilliant afterwards, demonstrates that an
artist's intent and meaning are both not only discoverable, but
sometimes even essential.
> Maybe I'm hopelessly anachronistic and essentialist
I think we are neither. Rather, we are human: we likes what we likes,
and we wants to know more about it.
> I myself, in some moments, enjoy Andy Warhol's images,
As Homer Simpson observed: "These people are geniuses. I could never
think of stuff like pencils and soup cans."
> The problem is, I think, not with theory par excellence, but with
> _certain theories_ which claim to be all-powerful--
>> But how can any such thing be considered to have _any_ meaning at
>> all, _if the
>> intent of the artist is dismissed as unknowable_?
> This brings out very pregnantly that meaning and the artist's
> intention are not the same thing.
But it also shows that meaning can depend utterly on what the author
intends and/or means.
> Yes, you very much have a point there too-- many contemporary critical
> schools appear to be lauding texts which were apparently written _for_
Ugh, yes! Don't get me started... ;)
> I hope I have not been too aggressive or offensive;
Not at all. I've enjoyed this discussion immensely. It's nice to have a
forum like this that is thankfully almost entirely free from all
"theory" and the attendant jargon, and just say what we think -- and