In essence, the Intentional Fallacy holds that an author's intent in writing a work of literary art is irrelevant to any endeavor to understand or interpret that work. The work itself — what literary critics who buy into this view tend, somewhat irritatingly, to refer to as "the text"2 — is all that matters.
This makes perfect sense to me. I buy entirely into the viewpoint embodied in the Intentional Fallacy. For we can't always know what an author intended. We, for example, have no idea what Shakespeare allegedly intended when he wrote his plays because if he ever said anything about his intents or wrote about what they were, those thoughts and documents have not survived. In all likelihood, he never did: His plays and poems speak for themselves, as should all works of art, not just literature.
But even if we did know what Shakespeare claimed to be his intent, who cares? Authors tend to be horrible literary critics in general3, but are especially bad when it comes to trying to interpret their own works, either because they lack the ability to distance themselves from their works or because the skills that makes one a great creator of art are, if not incompatible with the skills that make one a good critic of literary art, then at least are not part and parcel of whatever talent it is that makes one creative. (Among other possible explanations, of course.) One can be a creative genius but just a horrendous critic; and one can be a tremendous critic or interpreter of art but categorically inept at anything creative. To wit: Allegedly, a student in one of William Faulkner's classes at the U. of VA once asked Faulkner what he meant by his obvious attempt to make Benjy Compson, in The Sound and the Fury, a Christ Figure, what with, you know, Benjy's being born on Christmas and the novel's ending 33 years later on Easter with Benjy in torment. To which Faulkner's response was: "It does?" — Faulkner implying, perhaps mendaciously, that that was not his conscious intent4.
I don't think author pronouncements are entirely out-of-bounds when it comes to trying to elucidate their works; but it should all be grounded in the text. If an author says his work is about gophers and you, as interpreter, try to sell this view that his work is about gophers, you had fucking well better be able to point at some actual gophers in the author's work; because if all you have is the author's claim, you have exactly nothing. You have the non-privileged view (because the author's view of his own work is not inherently any better than anyone else's) of a poor interpreter, of an inferior critic.
All this being said, you will find (and if you go back into the archives of this blog, you'll see you already have found) me saying things such as, "Shakespeare believes x" or "In this scene, Shakespeare intentionally does y" — but this is mere shorthand. I find writing that says "the text does x" or "the text suggests y" to be off-putting and antiseptic and ugly. I also don't totally buy into the whole death-of-the-author thing. There was a Shakespeare and he wrote those plays and so it's okay for me to attribute the lines in those play to Shakespeare because "the text" is not god, it is not self-caused, it didn't write itself, for the love of Sweet Baby Jebus!
So don't call "Bullshit!" on me when I invoke "what Shakespeare does in this play"; call "Bullshit!" when I don't back it up with textual evidence.
This post is long and boring and ponderous and sophomoric and self-indulgent and for those reasons I'm pretty sure that virtually no one will read it all the way through or even past the first footnote which, let's face it, is a trial in-and-of itself. And that's kinda sad because that means no one will ever read this:
Which is that yesterday, Teh 'Bride tells me, "Next time you update your blog, be sure to tell everyone that" — and this is a direct quote from Teh 'Bride — "we are officially the laziest effin pussies in the world because we're letting our leaves be raked up by a 90-year-old man and we're not even paying him5."
And it's true, but here's how that happened.
This old guy, Mr. Y., just loves sweeping up the whole street and you can find him doing it just about every single day. It seems he also just can't get enough of raking come autumn and the leaves on his own lawn just aren't enough for him. And Ian also loves raking leaves and he was outside raking ours yesterday and Ian and Mr. Y. get along great because they have this shared love of lawn-care. And so the next thing we know, Ian and Mr. Y. are raking our leaves together and using a tarp to drag them out to the curb where Vacuum Vic, the leaf-eating truck, will suck them all up on Monday (that's what she said!).
And so Teh 'Bride is all, "I should really get Mr. Y. something for doing this but I don't know what he likes." And I'm all, "Well, seemingly he likes raking so why not get him a rake? Plus, it looks as though he could use a new one because I see he missed a few leaves out there. Hey! Mr. Y.! Try to be a bit more efficient when you rake my lawn for free, would ya! Because you missed at least five leaves! Please don't make me hafta be the first 50-year-old to tell a 90-year-old: Get offa my lawn!1!"
Teh 'Bride didn't think that last part was too funny.
_________________Okay so yesterday I went for a 7.79-mile run, at the end of which I decided, for some reason, to run up Teh Schmatterhorne for the first time in years. I nearly made it running, but I had to stop and walk for about a minute. Despite that, I managed a 9:35 pace, which doesn't quite suck, considering.
That meant that if I wanted to make it to 100 miles for the month, I had to run just over 2.7 miles today. And so today I went out and ran 5.79 miles in 52:40, which is a 9:05 pace. And so here are the October Numbers:
Running miles: 103.08
Walking miles: 35.92
Biking miles: 0 (because Morrissey, my pussy-@$$ recumbent exercise bike, is still broken and we have to take him to Art's welding next weekend because we forgot again this weekend)
Total miles: 139
Yearly Running total: 903.11
1 I should say, "much-maligned Wikipedia", because in my work as a librarian, I see and hear Wikipedia being condemned as inferior and untrustworthy just all of the time and I really don't understand why that should be the case, other than a knee-jerk prejudice among teachers, librarians and other information professionals in favor of supposed "authoritative" writing. The only semi-methodical study of Wikipedia's accuracy that I am aware of (there are probably others by now, I know) is one that was conducted by the journal Nature back in 2005 that stacked Wikipedia up against the Encyclopedia Britannica1a; Wikipedia held its own in this competition.
This was unsurprising, to me at least, because I had always found Wikipedia to be generally reliable and far more so than many of the Intertubal sites people depend on for information. On the issue of political accuracy, Wikipedia would beat the fucking pants off of, say, Faux News. That's not surprising. But it would probably be more accurate than CNN, too.
And yet when I'm on QandA-NJ answering homework questions, if I send the kid a Wikipedia article, I will almost invariably hear back, "My teacher says I can't use Wikipedia." (In these cases, I usually just send the kid one of the links that the Wikipedia article (Wikipedia is pretty scrupulous about citing sources by name, which is more than can be said for, say, the NYT) cites as a source for its entry on the topic the kid is doing his report on; which source site invariably turns out to be acceptable to the kid's teacher.)
Still, virtually every time I go to a QandA-NJ Project Managers' Meeting, I hear a couple of the other PMs just bashing Wikipedia, and then turning around and citing today's New York Times as a credible source. This would be the same Times that assured us that Saddam Hussein had Weapons of Mass Destruction and was actively seeking uranium yellow cake from Niger — and one of the Times' main sources for this claim?
The trustworthy and unimpeachable Dick Cheney.
Yet if you were to say that the Times is generally an unreliable source of information for students (or anyone else), you'd probably be looked at as a kook by anyone other than Dr. Nic and the Teabaggers1b.
When I was in library school, one of my assignments for some course or other was to pick a subject that was covered in both the 1889 Encyclopaedia Britannica and this 1971 edition of some 4 volume encyclopedia whose name escapes me and evaluate how each dealt with the topic. I picked "Satire"; and the entry for "Satire" in the 1889 EB was about as horrendous as you might expect it to be, the author of the entry keeping the topic at arm's length, as though it had just suffered a highly contagious irruption of syphilitic sores to which the author felt he had to avoid any physical propinquity lest he himself become infected; the author viewing satire as the lowest form of writing, barely worthy of the designation "literary", and, okay, there was Jonathan Swift, the author'd concede that Swift was a force to be reckoned with, but other than that? Satire was the playhouse of scoundrels and blackguards, essentially, and you got the feeling that the author of this entry probably boiled both his pen and his hand in water to cleanse them after they were forced to write about that lowest of literary forms, Satire.
But the 1971 Encyclopedia's entry on "Satire", while far more fair and appreciative of the art of good satire, was itself infused with, to put it mildly, some dubious attitudes of the time and circumstances in in which it was written; because the dude who wrote it was a Yale prof (whose name escapes me) and he states as fact something along the lines of (what follows is a paraphrasing): "Satire, while embodying a challenge to authority, always basically stops short of trying to undermine it, because the great practitioners of this art knew that authority is necessary and they, in the end, respected Authority and worked to sustain the Status Quo and to affirm human endeavors in general." And I'm thinking, Spoken like a true authority figure there, Mr. Yale English Professor. Because circa-1971 was a time when many students were first questioning, and actively trying to undermine, the authority of their leaders — political, cultural and educational; they did not assume that just because you had power, you deserved it and were necessarily working toward the Overall Good. And so here, in this 1971 Encyclopedia, we have an entry for "Satire" written by a prof evidently on the run from this youthquake that he doesn't quite trust or understand because it is questioning the authority of people like, well ... him, and his mistrust of those who question authority spills over into his definition of Satire; because where in the works of, say, Swift do you find this alleged faith in the Essential Goodness of Our Leaders (or people in general) or this belief in the Sanctity of the Status Quo? Short answer: You don't, unless you project your own prejudices on to Swift's works.
At the end of Gulliver's Travels, Gulliver expresses his utter contempt for the "yahoos", whose very smell he can no longer abide, and asks that they — "they" being all human beings — stay far, far away from him:
I began last week to permit my wife to sit at dinner with me, at the farthest end of a long table; and to answer (but with the utmost brevity) the few questions I asked her. Yet, the smell of a Yahoo continuing very offensive, I always keep my nose well stopped with rue, lavender, or tobacco leaves. And, although it be hard for a man late in life to remove old habits, I am not altogether out of hopes, in some time, to suffer a neighbour Yahoo in my company, without the apprehensions I am yet under of his teeth or his claws.
My reconcilement to the Yahoo kind in general might not be so difficult, if they would be content with those vices and follies only which nature has entitled them to. I am not in the least provoked at the sight of a lawyer, a pickpocket, a colonel, a fool, a lord, a gamester, a politician, a whoremonger, a physician, an evidence, a suborner, an attorney, a traitor, or the like; this is all according to the due course of things: but when I behold a lump of deformity and diseases, both in body and mind, smitten with pride, it immediately breaks all the measures of my patience; neither shall I be ever able to comprehend how such an animal, and such a vice, could tally together. The wise and virtuous Houyhnhnms, who abound in all excellences that can adorn a rational creature, have no name for this vice in their language, which has no terms to express any thing that is evil, except those whereby they describe the detestable qualities of their Yahoos, among which they were not able to distinguish this of pride, for want of thoroughly understanding human nature, as it shows itself in other countries where that animal presides. But I, who had more experience, could plainly observe some rudiments of it among the wild Yahoos.
But the Houyhnhnms, who live under the government of reason, are no more proud of the good qualities they possess, than I should be for not wanting a leg or an arm; which no man in his wits would boast of, although he must be miserable without them. I dwell the longer upon this subject from the desire I have to make the society of an English Yahoo by any means not insupportable; and therefore I here entreat those who have any tincture of this absurd vice, that they will not presume to come in my sight.Gulliver would rather be back in the land of the Houyhnhnms, the rational horses. That's how much he hates humanity.
My point here is not to contend that Wikipedia is better than these other reference resources; but rather to stress that sometimes the irrational search for some kind of Unquestionably Trustworthy Authority leads even very intelligent and normally skeptical-minded people to trust — or, as the case may be, mistrust — sources for no really good or defensible reason.
1a N.B.: The study compared the two resources on the issue of accuracy with regard to "a broad swath of the scientific spectrum" only, i.e., on a bunch of science topics.
1b Who, by the way, had a regional (Mid-Western states) #1 hit with their country-flavored song "Mainstream Media? Lamestream Media!"
New York Times we hates yer 'news'
(And not just cos you're run by Jews
We're not some stupid heartland saps
Some of our best friends wear skully caps)
The reason we're against ya wailin'
Has more to do with Sarah Palin
You wonder "Are we out to getcha?"
To quote S. Palin: "O, you betcha!"
It's kinda catchy. You won't be able to keep yourself from tapping the butt of your AK-47 on the ground to its funky whiteboy beat. (<-- NOT a slur! Some of my best friends are whiteboys. Um, in fact? They all are. Hmmm ... ZOMG!1! Does that make me a teabagger?)
O, Dr. Nic! Is it my fault that the Good Lord made you so easily and so eminently kertwangable? I'd apologize, but if you think about it, I'm really just doing His work.
On second thought, let Him do His own work!
I apologize, Dr. Nic, which is way easier to do since I know you'll never read this. No one will! Hahahahahahahaha!
2 Full disclosure: I myself do this and you are quite free to feel irritated or alienated by it when I do. It sound pretentious and precious but it's not meant to. Or, to put it another way: Fuck you.
3 But of course not always. Henry James, for example, wrote extensively on Nathaniel Hawthorne and others and his criticisms and interpretations tended to be very illuminating.
4 Keep in mind that Faulkner used to call himself "a fictioneer, which is to say, a congenital liar" and so there's no reason to believe that Bill F. was actually unaware of when Benjy was born or what day TSatF ends on. It may have been an act. It sounds like utter bullshit to me that he didn't realize this, but Faulkner, like many authors, was perverse and derived enjoyment from playing the country rube-savant, as it were4a. But this anecdote touches on one of the possible reasons that authors tend to be such bad interpreters of their own works, which is they are sometimes intentionally disingenuous about their supposed intent or, years later, they actually do forget what their intent was; and in the latter case, they sometimes even try to supply a latter-day "intent" that just could not possibly have been the original one and is often manifestly incompatible with a competent reading of the text. You have the famous instance of Robert Browning's being asked by a female admirer exactly what he'd meant by a particular line of his poetry, a line he'd penned years earlier. "Madame," Browning replied (probably truthfully), "when I wrote that line, God and I knew what I meant. Now ... only God knows." Browning, at least, was honest enough to answer that he no longer knew. Some authors claim, years after the fact, that they remember what their original intent was, when it's clear they are either lying or winging it or just plain deluded.
And so an author's intent, it should now be clear, is a very thorny issue and entirely unreliable as a key to unlocking a work's "meaning", however you want to define that word, because his alleged intent is frequently at odds with the far more palpable solidity and stubbornness of — sorry! — the text of the work itself; and when it is, the text should win, should be what you trust. Not to mention that, over the years, the same author will give wildly divergent explanations of just what his "intent" was in writing a specific literary piece. Some authors will even try to re-interpret their earlier writings in light of their present beliefs, instead of the beliefs they held at the time that they wrote the earlier pieces, as John Dos Passos — a young leftist firebrand in his early career who became increasingly conservative as he grew older, to the point that, at the end of his life, he went so far as to opine that the shooting of unarmed students at Kent State was justified — tried to do with his USA Trilogy.
Authors can be shockingly inept interpreters of their own works; and that is not the paradox that it may at first blush appear to be.
4a It is also worth noting here what Faulkner said in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech:
I decline to accept the end of man. It is easy enough to say that man is immortal simply because he will endure: that when the last dingdong of doom has clanged and faded from the last worthless rock hanging tideless in the last red and dying evening, that even then there will still be one more sound: that of his puny inexhaustible voice, still talking. I refuse to accept this. I believe that man will not merely endure: he will prevail. He is immortal, not because he alone among creatures has an inexhaustible voice, but because he has a soul, a spirit capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance. The poet's, the writer's, duty is to write about these things. It is his privilege to help man endure by lifting his heart, by reminding him of the courage and honor and hope and pride and compassion and pity and sacrifice which have been the glory of his past. The poet's voice need not merely be the record of man, it can be one of the props, the pillars to help him endure and prevail.This is, without a doubt, extremely inspiring and uplifting rhetoric. And these words perfectly capture a view of humanity that you most assuredly do not get from any of Faulkner's novels. I went through a prolonged Faulkner period and read just about all of his Yoknapatawpha County novels — many of them multiple times —and the best you get from Faulkner is that someone might endure. There simply is no "prevail" in a typical Faulkner novel, and if Faulkner himself thought he'd imbued his works with a sense of The Triumph of Human Spirit, he was sadly deluded in that belief, because you just don't get that anywhere. That's why The Sound and The Fury is the perfect title for Faulkner's (arguably) greatest novel, because it comes from the famous MacBeth speech:
Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Because there's just a ton of sound and fury seemingly signifying nothing in Faulkner, but virtually no prevailing of the human spirit. Don't misunderstand me: These are absolutely great, albeit despairing, novels, and William Faulkner is one of my favorite novelists of all time precisely because of his fearlessness in this regard. But his novels do not chronicle The Triumph of the Human Spirit — far from it.
5 (Don't bother calling ICE, Dr, Nic: He's not an illegal.)