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What It Means

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I know I said I was going to talk about the way various cultures/religions/philosophies/Sunday afternoon bridge clubs deined what it means to be “human,” and how that affects everything from moral codes to murder mysteries to chocolate cake, but I want to backtrack a little yet again and address something brought up by Robert and applauded by Nancy back in the comments there somewhere.

I’m beginning to think that the entire life of a blog is backtracing, but that’s something else.

Anyway, Robert said, and Nancy concurred, that the meaning of a literary text will be at least largely determined by the person reading it, that we all bring our experiences and personalities and historical times and whatever to what we read, and those things change what we perceive the work to “mean.”

I think we could expand this to include all kinds of art, and not just literature, good or bad.  When we hear music, or look at paintings, we bring all our baggage with us.   It’s like we wear filters over all five of our sense.

The reason  I’m not jumping on the bandwagon here is that I’m a prisoner of my own historical times and personal experiences, and these include a far too close acquaintance with deconstruction and structualism as literary theories.

If you’re reading this and have no idea what these are, good for you.  You’ve saved yourself a lot of entirely useless trouble.  The rest of you probably have at least a vague idea that university departments of literature have, over the last couple of decades, indulged in a positive orgy of “unpacking” “texts.”   It doesn’t matter what the author wanted to say.   It doesn’t even matter what it looks like he did say.   Reader response is everything, and a “text” means whatever the reader perceives it to mean.



Sometimes the reader is wrong.

I think there are probably three things that a work of art “means,” and I would apply them to all kinds of art, not just literature.

1) First is what the writer/artist/composer actually meant to say, or do.  Most artists have intentions.   Most artists try very hard to realize those intentions in their finished works of art.  Those intentions might be n othing more elaborate than “scare the hell out of the audience” or even “make a BIG pile of money,” but they might also be more elaborate and focussed.  John Milton wasn’t just trying to recreate parts of Genesis and parts of Revelation in Paradise Lost, he was trying to bring his readers closer to God, if they already knew Him, or to God, if they didn’t.  Andre Gide was often trying to bring his readers closer to Communism. 

2) Second is what the writer/artist/composer actually said.  You’d think that this point and the one before it would be the same, but they aren’t always.  There’s that little problem with Paradise Lost, reconized by everybody who reads it, the fact that the most vivid and attractive character in the piece just happens to be Lucifer.  Writers do not always achieve what they sent out to achieve.  Sometimes, they have subconcious motives that take over when they think they’re doing something else.  

3)  And third, there is what the audience–collectively and each as individuals–perceives the artist to mean. 

The thing is, you cannot simply reduce “what it means” to number three.  For one thing, there’s the problem of the audience.  Who is the audience for the work of art?  Byron probably did not perceive his audience to be you and me, and Homer certainly didn’t.

In some eras, for some art forms, the audience is restricted.  Sir Philip Sidney and Ben Jonson thought of their audience as educated members of the British upper class.  Finnegan’s Wake was not written with an eye to what the garage mechanics in  Dubuque would think of it. 

In other eras, for other art forms, the audience is broad.  The Homeroi–if not Homer himself–expected the audience for The Iliad and The Odyssey to be all people who spoke Greek, even those who could not read, because the epics would be recited in public or at private household gatherings, ensuring that even slaves and illiterates (and women!) would “know” them.  The great religious paintings of the late Middle Ages through the High Renaissances were composed under the assumption that they would be viewed by all classes of people, educated and not, and aimed to teach the story of Christianity to anybody who bothered to stop and look at them.

None of this, of course, erases the fact that every member of the audience brings with him a load of baggage that he cannot simply give up because he is engaging with a work of art, and that that baggage will definitely and irrevocably filter his understanding of what the work “means.” 

So why don’t I just give up here and say that only number three, above, matters, that the audience determines what a work of art “means?”

There are two reasons, really, and they come down to two different kinds of not-ideal readers:  the truly stupid and the ideologically fanatical.

When  I say “truly stupid” in reference to the audience–to the reader, in this case, since we’re mostly discussing what people think literature to be–I don’t mean the mentally handicapped.  I mean people who truly seem to have a very difficult time making connections between ideas. 

Before I started teaching, I never believed that there were people who really couldn’t do this, who just could not work with abstractions and concepts in any way whatsoever.  Having now met a few–some of whom have been very nice people otherwise–all I can say is that such people have only a tenuous experience of art of any kind.  They may be momentarily amused by something or the other that they see or hear or read, but it goes no further than that.   And if you ask them what something “means,” they’re as likely to come up with something completely the opposite of what the work was actually saying as to come up with what it said. 

My guess is that 90% of the people who looked up at the Sistine ceiling and saw God stretch out his arm to touch Adam’s finger had no problem at all “getting” the idea that what was being represented was man being created in God’s image.   They’d heard about it in church.  They’d make the connection.

The other 10% would not, however, and furthermore would not understand why the rest of us did make it.  Some people seem simply not to have the capacity to understand, and I can’t see my way to saying that the work of art “means,” in any sense, what they think it to mean.  For one thing, they don’t really think it to mean anything.  The only time you start thinking about meaning is when you ask them about it.

Some of the people who are very stupid about art–or about some particular form of art–are not at all stupid about anything else.   They deal with abstractions and concepts just fine, as long as the abstractions and concepts are presented as quadratic equations or syllogisms.  It’s imagery and alusion they don’t understand.  It’s almost as if they’re tone deaf.  They have no “ear” for story.  El Greco’s magnificient Crucifixion is gory and disproportioned and says nothing about anything or anybody.

Of coure, there is another kind of reader, one who is not stupid about art, who needs to go here as a subset, and that is the reader who is largely ignorant of the allusions and references the work employs.  Both literature and painting (and sculpture) employ many such references, and at least some music employs them, too.

There would be no art of any kind in the world at all if artists could not expect their audiences to “simply know” a whole host of things.   If the artist understands his audience, if he has accurately gauged what they do and do not know, there’s nothing wrong with this.  In fact, such assumptions are indispensible.  A book that had to spel out every single reference would get boring as hell by page three. 

Unfortunately, not every member of an audience with “get” all the references, and some won’t even get the most obvious ones.

Back in the first book I ever had published, I described the crown given to the woman designated Queen of Hearts at a romance writer’s convention, which was made of real roses and their stems, as “looking like the Crown of Thorns would have if it had been subjected to Miracle Gro and a good watering.”

The copyeditor flagged the line and demanded, “Crown of Thorns? Do you mean the plant?”

A reader who doesn’t understand what the Crown of  Thorns is can’t understand the line I wrote, and it wasn’t a difficult line.  And think of my students, from back at the beginning of these posts.  They often have no context at all in any meaningful sense.  If you make reference to anything that happened even a few years ago, they probably won’t understand it.  And even if the reference you make is to something that happened yesterday, they might not understand it, if it happens to be a reference about politics or world affairs or classical music or even science.

Yes, of course, when people limited in this way read literature, they will still have their own interpretations of it, it will still “mean” something to them.  I just have a problem pronouncing their “meanings” to be “just as legitimate” as those of people who read well, who are not tone deaf to story, who “get” the references.

It’s why simple popularity, in and of itself, cannot determine the intrinsic worth of a work of art, literary or otherwise, and why I reject the idea that all judgments of artistic worth are “subjective.”  There will certainly always be a subjective element to them.   We’re not dealing with a Taylor Series or the behavior of E. coli bacteria when they meet with the proper antibiotic (or no antibiotic at all). 

But there’s a big difference between saying that there’s a subjective element to judgments of artistic merit and saying that such judgments are entirely subjective.

And there’s an even bigger difference between saying that every reader brings baggage to a work and that his interpretation of that work will be affected by that baggage, and saying that the work “means” whatever the baggage says it means.

In the end, the writer/artist/composer had an intention, and tried to carry it out.  He produced a work whose elements can be defined and analyzed.  Those things count more than the reader and his baggage in determining what the work “means.”  

That’s especially important when we get to our second class of bad reader, the ideologically fanatical.

But I think I’ll leave that until tomorrow.

Written by janeh

October 11th, 2008 at 9:55 am

Posted in Uncategorized

2 Responses to 'What It Means'

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  1. I never meant to imply that one man’s interpretation was as good as another’s, much less to make a case for the pig-headed, ignorant and obtuse. But the earlier “definitions” of man–wretched sinner, blend of beast and God, blend of wild and civilized–are only some of many ways to describe and characterize people. They are not mutually exclusive. We use different ways at different times in our life, and even for different purposes. A two-dimensional character may virtually disappear if looked at from an odd angle, but if an artist creates something more like a real person, he can be seen in the many ways a real person can be seen.

    Lord Peter Wimsey is the Great Detective, it’s true: but he’s also a younger son of the British aristocracy, a graduate of Oxford University, a diplomat and intelligence officer, a communicant of the Church of England, and a veteran of the Western Front who has not altogether recovered from his time in the trenches. Sayers made him all these things, but how I use them to interpret and judge his actions must depend in large measure on my experience and beliefs. Sayers’ success in creating a plausible human being makes possible views of him with which she might not agree. Lord Peter 2008 feels to me more fragile, and to have more of a spiritual life, than Lord Peter 1988.

    If you make the Great Detective cardboard, he may be the Thinking Machine and no more. But if you build a real person, others may see the sinner, or the blend of beast and God. How we see real people will affect how we view fictional people. That’s not the same thing as missing a critical passage or not having the background to understand a comment.

    But it is probably why I can never understand what Colonel Brandon sees in that idiot Marianne Dashwood.


    12 Oct 08 at 12:04 am

  2. [Jane felt the long version was worth sharing–R]

    When I first read GAUDY NIGHT I pretty well accepted Harriet Vane’s appraisal of Wimsey at face value: Wimsey of Baliol with his double Firsts, demonstrating the scholarly mind. But that has to have been 30 years or more ago, and a scholar was pretty much all I had been. Now I also see the MI officer going through Harriet’s “briefing book” extracting the salient points and briefing them to his parties–in this case the SCR–carefully giving due credit to his sources, and, as Harriet herself notes, tailoring his brief to his audience. This is also good MI form, and Harriet never seems to reflect that Lord Peter’s briefing may be tailored to fit her preconceptions as well.

    Does the one exclude the other? Probably not. Should one have primacy over the other? More interesting point. Sayers of Sommerville is, of course, very close to Harriet Vane in her point of view. But she knew officers of that vintage–was married to one, in fact–and–why I use Lord Peter as an example and not Dr Gideon Fell–the parts of Wimsey’s life fit. Sayers didn’t make his regiment the Rifle Brigade at random. It’s the very place for an aristocrat and scholar.

    (If I’m completely out of your territory, the Rifle Brigade, more lately the Royal Greenjackets, is descended from the “Bloody Fighting 95th” of the Napoleonic era. The green of the uniforms is so dark and the regiment so clannish, they’re known in some circles as “the Black Mafia.” They generally contain more peers and sons of peers than anything else not Household troops, and the British phrase “too clever by half” seems designed for them. And yes, Sayers would have known this, and expected her audience to as well.)

    But this gets us back to your definition of man–a human being who thinks? Yes, certainly. But the unapologetic animal once “owned” the finest lyric soprano in Europe, offers testimonials from previous lovers, and faults Harriet’s previous lover for his technique. The blend of beast and god is about to break the arm of Reggie Pomfret–bigger than Lord Peter and half his age–and is a cricket blue and a superb horseman. The blend of the civilized and the untamed is at home in the City, collects incunabula, wears a scholars gown at Oxford and has fought two quite illegal duels. The more you build a real person, the more subject he is to being seen from different perspectives.

    In the words of Robert Parker “no one should be just one thing.”

    It works with whole books too, or at least some of them, and I’m sure you’ve seen it. John Carter of Mars and the Incomprable Dejah Thoris are unchanging, as is Brigadier Gerard–though that terrible scene at the review (“How the Brigadier Rode to Minsk”) cuts a little deeper every few years. But last year or this I picked up Niven and Pournelle’s OATH OF FEALTY again. It’s a “near future” SF novel published in 1981, and centers on an “arcology” which is a box two miles on a side and a hundred stories tall, home to a quarter million people, and with an environmentalist group determined to make such a lifestyle impossible. Early in the novel one of the arcology officials kills intruders he believes to be terrorists, and most of the novel deals with the repercussions. With the best will in the world, with the greatest of respect for the words and intentions of two authors I respect and enjoy, the book doesn’t read the same way it did before 9-11. It never will again.

    A book which is a thrill ride may always be a thrill ride. A book which demands more of its readership will appear differently to readers of different knowledge and beliefs. In a way it’s the price of success.

    Which does not make the deconstructionists any less idiotic and unhelpful, of course.


    12 Oct 08 at 8:19 pm

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