Wednesday, January 7, 2009

All This Useless Beauty

From Wyatt Mason's blog:

Listening to writers explain themselves can be disconcerting. Often, what is said about their work is not very illuminating. Elvis Costello said in concert many years ago, as he strummed the introductory chords to a song, that he had been asked by a reporter what the lyrics in that song meant. Costello said he told the reporter that if he had meant for the song to mean anything other than the words he had written for it, he would have written a different song. Less a stance than a pose, Costello’s answer only goes so far. What I do like about it, though, is its idea that the questions we might ask of poetry, or of prose, are better directed at the made thing than its maker.

What Wyatt Mason and Elvis Costello are both rejecting here is called the intentional fallacy by New Critics: the belief that the author's intentions have primary significance in understanding the meaning of a work of art. 

It's something that I think about as a high school English teacher, because I think students innately believe this fallacy. I remember feeling it as a high school student myself: Did the author really intend these things, really encode them for my teachers to spin out with such intricacy? 

Not till college and graduate school did I realize that it doesn't matter, and it's impossible to say anyway. It's the difference between finding meaning and making meaning as a reader. It's why I shy away from questions like, "What do you think Homer is trying to say here?" and from words like "symbolizes." Instead, I like to use the word "suggests."

Who is to say what Mark Twain intended in this or that chapter of Huckleberry Finn? A work of literature is so complex, its implications so wide-ranging and multifarious, that it would be impossible for an author to have control of them all. And that's part of what makes literature so exciting. A reader's job is not to deduce what sort of meaning the author intended, but to use the details of the work to construct a coherent meaning that is grounded in the work itself. That's why I like the word "suggests"; especially to students, "symbolizes" implies authorial intent, whereas "suggests" is, in a sense, a judgment by the reader. 

My favorite book is The Tender Land, by Kathleen Finneran. Over the years, as I've taught it, I've slipped interpretations and little pieces of writing about the book to Kathleen, and she has sometimes responded with surprise and pleasure to ways of thinking about the book that have never occurred to her. Does that mean that she is a sloppy writer? Not at all: it means that the subconscious mind is powerfully at work during the process of writing, imbuing the text with pattern. It means that a good work of art has layers of complexity that can be explored and stretched and reconfigured. It means that such works have a kind of artistic integrity that can support multiple interpretations and that can nourish thought.

Mason is quite right to say that questions about the meaning of a work are better directed at the thing itself than at its maker. Elvis's point should not be taken as a dismissal of the project of interpretation (though that's the lesson many a high school student, frustrated by the difficulties of reading well, would like to draw). Instead, his point is simply that his own work is done. He's written the song, given us the pleasure of listening to it, experiencing it. We're responsible for whatever meaning we choose to make of it.

The Elvis reference, by the way, is to the version of "All This Useless Beauty" on Costello & Nieve, a boxed set of five discs, live recordings from the first tour Elvis and Steve (the brilliant piano player from the Attractions) did together as a duo. It's great stuff, stripped down versions of songs from Elvis's vast back catalog. I saw the two of them at the American Theater in St. Louis on their second tour together, and I have a bootleg recording of the show, which can still give me shivers when I listen to it. 

The song's refrain, now that I think of it, seems like the perennial question that art prompts:

"What shall we do, what shall we do, with all this useless beauty?"

Here's Elvis and Steve doing the song:


meyermeyer said...

Maybe I've just gotten lazier in my attempts to defend my purpose as a teacher, I usually cut them off before they have a chance to ask the question (or maybe it says something about my students versus yours that mine don't bother even to ask the question), but I can't believe that some things aren't intentional--Shakespeare's consistent demon and plant mentions, Faulkner's name of Joe Christmas, Fitzgerald's eyes in Gatsby. Of course, that's not to say that teachers don't come up with some seriously brilliant observations about literature that the author never intended, but with some modicum of intentionality, I'm going to say calling author's intention a fallacy is a step too far. I like your term of "suggest" rather than "mean" or "symbolize." But I also think things can be a bit more concrete concluded given the evidence. At least, that's what I tell myself before I sleep at night.

framiko said...

I'm not saying that writers are savants who produce brilliant works without any awareness of what they're doing. I'm just saying that the writer is not the ultimate authority on the meaning of his or her work. You might construct an interpretation of The Great Gatsby that makes sense and illuminates the meaning of the novel but Fitzgerald would never have thought of it that way. That wouldn't make your idea any less valid.

The fallacy is not that authors have intentions; it's that those intentions are of primary importance.

meyermeyer said...

I agree wholeheartedly. I'm just in a disagreeable mood. My intention was to raise some hackles. That was my primary importance.

Do you think that if the reader does miss a writer's primary intention, though (the stuff he put there on purpose), that such a reading is false or lesser than a reading that includes such investigation?

Kids often want to resort to the "If that's what I got out of it, then that's enough" strategy. Particularly with poetry. That seems like lazy reading, lazy investigation. Author's intention is not of primary importance, I agree--the versatility of our language and the multiplicity of meaning takes care of that--but if readers don't get the author's point or overlook details that don't cohere with their personal interpretation, their reading is flawed, or at least incomplete.

(Let me add that the word verification for this comment was "moderist"--not a word but it damn well should be, as in the following sentence: "As a moderist, Eric thought that both sides had valid and arguable points, but should nonetheless be torn to pieces by rabid wolverines.") A moderist is someone who sees both sides of an argument, but doesn't care anyway.)

framiko said...

I think the key is your point about bad readers' overlooking details that don't cohere with their personal interpretation. I see the goal less as getting the author's point and more as saying something that is compelling and convincing about a work, something that can be supported with reference to its details (as you describe in your moderist's way).

rfrankly said...

My buddy Mary once stepped into a conversation on this topic and said that the pattern of meaning generated by a literary work was more likely to be profound if it were not the product of intention.

It's kind of a Jungian idea but without the elaborate architecture of Jung: perhaps our experience—or maybe our unconscious processing of that experience—generates story and character and image in ways that make it intelligible to others despite the absence of our intention. If so, that meaning comes from some place beyond our awareness; the meaning comes from unmediated experience itself.

When my students ask about intention, I ask them if they've ever had meaningful dreams or found themselves singing songs whose meanings they didn't intend. If so, that meaning comes from some place deep and unmediated by consciousness. If that's true, I argue, then these questions about intention may be irrelevant.

I think, though, that artists range from those who have these signifying dreams and then find and obsessively reinforce the patterns (Updike, for example) to those that may not mess much with the stories they've dreamed (Picasso and Garcia-Marquez, perhaps). And then there's Shakespeare and maybe Faulkner who seem freakishly (and divinely) able to do both at the same time.