This continues my conversation with Reginald Shepherd regarding his recent post on Harriet. Of course, there they are mixed in with all sorts of commentary from other readers, so I’m culling the latest installments of our conversation for presentation here.
Thanks for your thoughtful and eloquent comment. I think that we do in fact disagree, but I will try to clarify my position. (How odd, to have “positions.” But I guess I do.)
I don’t want to engage in a ridiculous comparison, but whatever the author’s intention, mine or Shakespeare’s, if it’s not manifested in the work it doesn’t exist, not for a reader, not in any literary and not merely biographical sense. The work of art is, in part, an objectification of intention, and to the extent that the intention is objectified, it’s no longer the author’s. There’s also an intentionality to language, to the work, because of the accretion of previous writing has its own existence that invariably conditions whatever new work is written—and the new work, in turn, modifies what comes before it, or at least how we read it. (This is part of Eliot’s argument in “Tradition and the Individual Talent.”) I think that every writer has had the experience, sometimes frustrating, often exhilarating, of the work taking off in a completely different direction than that which he or she “intended.” As Jack Spicer said in the Vancouver lectures, you might start out wanting to write a poem about the Vietnam War and you end writing a poem about skiing in Vermont. I prefer to trust the poem’s intentions over my own, because language knows better than me, knows more than I do.
Shakespeare is a particularly bad example to point to if one is arguing for authorial intention as central to the work, since his plays are so various, contain so many disparate personalities and viewpoints and whole realms of experience, that it would be impossible, and pointless, to say anything more than “Shakespeare’s intention was to show us an incredibly wide range of human experience and human behavior.” And understanding historical context, which can be helpful, is not the same thing as understanding the author or his intentions.
So I must disagree when you write that the main purpose of reading is to fathom the author’s intentions. If that were the case, one could and should simply bypass the text and go ask the author, if possible. But presumably the author writes in order to create things that are not himself or herself. I obsess over my poems in order to make them as close to perfect aesthetic objects as I can, not in order to make my intentions as clear as possible. A lot of writing for me is about swerving away from myself (perhaps a version of Eliot’s escape from personality, an idea with which I know you disagree), about trying to connect to something larger than myself. I want my poems to exist independently of me, to be new objects in the world, like paintings or sculptures, not expressions of myself or my intentions. Obviously my self, my feelings, my thoughts, and, yes, my intentions are part of the material that makes up those objects. But if the poem is successful, they are just that: artistic material. If the poem is not successful, then it becomes a mere personal document. In that case, perhaps, authorial intention is the main interest, but that is the worst case scenario.
Looking at texts this way, as texts, as aesthetic objects, isn’t frivolous at all. My interest in a poem isn’t in the author (though certainly some authors have led lives that were interesting in themselves, sometimes more interesting than the work, in general we only care about an author’s life because we care about the author’s work), and an author’s biography won’t explain his or her work. If it does, that indicates a failure in the work: it’s not fully realized if it needs to be completed by biography. In work that lasts, what lasts is what remains after things like the author’s intentions have faded away. As you point out, it’s hard to fathom the intentions of the author(s) of The Epic of Gilgamesh. And yet we can still read it, historical and textual lacanue and all.
I was perhaps being cagey when I wrote that I hadn’t specified what the text communicates through time, but it was in the interests of avoiding the idea Henry Gould attributes to me of the poem as a vessel or a vehicle of a static and predetermined, let alone “eternal,” meaning. I do think that how and what a text speaks does change over time. I also think, as I wrote, that there are limits to that process, limits inherent in the text itself.
Take good care, and thanks for reading and commenting.
peace and poetry,
Reginald wrote: “I prefer to trust the poem’s intentions over my own, because language knows better than me, knows more than I do.”
This statement puzzled me because I’ve said the same thing to students about “trusting the poem.” But I’ve never gone so far as to say that “language knows better than” the writer—which goes to the heart of our disagreement about authorial intention. Aside from the implicit deification of language, which I think is groundless (language doesn’t “know” anything and can’t have intentions), this idea robs the writer of a reason to write—unless one simply enjoys taking dictation for Language (or the Muse, or the Archons, or the Archetypes, or one’s Thetan, or…).
Regardless of French-fried philosophy’s attempt to erase the author, writers pick up the pen in order to express their feelings and ideas. (At least the writers I care about.) Of course, unconscious feelings and ideas get expressed as well, and it’s perfectly legitimate to engage those as we read; but as I wrote in my earlier post, they are still part of the author’s intention, broadly construed. There may be many other good reasons to read, but I don’t see how any reader can pretend that the author’s intentions are irrelevant. They are always the substance and the structuring motive behind the work.
Which brings me back to my initial puzzlement. It has led me to realize that “trust the poem” is misleading advice. Better advice would be: “Trust your intentions—all of them, conscious and unconscious.” Is this not the foundation of all artistic creation? And if it is, why shouldn’t it be the basis of all creative reading? Not the end-all and be-all of reading, of course—but surely the foundation….
Thanks as ever for your challenging thoughts!
I believe we’ve agreed to simply disagree, which is fine, of course. But if anyone else would care to comment here on the question of authorial intent, please do! I’d especially love to hear from writers who write without intention!