Reginald Shepherd has put a thought-provoking post on his Harriet blog, which you should read here before going on. I thought I should aggregate the exchanges that followed between Reginald and me, if only because it’s fund (for some people) to experience writers thinking “out loud.”
Here’s my initial reply:
Reginald writes: “Art emerges from and is conditioned by its social context, but it isn’t determined by it. If it were, we could never read the work of other periods or other cultures.”
The first sentence contains an idea I’ve expressed myself, Reginald, and I do think it’s true—up to a point. My reservations are based on wondering if the difference between “conditioned” and “determined” isn’t one of degree rather than kind. Your second sentence treats it as one of kind: “we could never read” the work of previous generations if it were “determined” by social context. This is simply false. With access to enough information about the society (let me be more expansive and say “the culture”) in which any work was produced, we can read it and probably understand it. That does not make the work artistically valuable, of course.
My reservations on this issue affect the way I understand your assertion that lasting art “speaks across barriers of time and class and race and gender.” I wonder if it does; that is, I wonder if it does in terms of the artist’s intention. I happen to love Shakespeare, but I often wonder if I’m grasping Shakespeare’s intentions. The more I know about Elizabethan England, its political and religious conflicts, its language(s), and the cultural references commonly understood by its people, no doubt the better I understand what Shakespeare meant to mean. And yet…: Readers in every period since Shakespeare have understood him differently. (Is this not true?) So—are the earlier understandings invalid? Do our understandings of writers evolve into ever finer, ever more accurate readings, or merely change depending on the color of spectacles each period provides for its people to read through?
Or is there something “eternal” in a great work of art that “speaks” to everyone, everywhere, in every time?
I would like to share your confidence in that eternal something, but my sense of history tells me that understandings evolve (but do not necessarily improve) according to the cultural context particular readers inhabit. The fact that great art not only survives but thrives on that evolutionary change is what makes it great. Beyond the artist’s cultural context, beyond even his or her own intentions, the great work of art manages somehow to be radically open. You’re right that it can’t mean just anything, but it is essentially fluid. Somewhere A. R. Ammons writes that “water runs / but the ripple / dwells.” A great work of art is a ripple, not a marble monument; it doesn’t persist as itself, but reaches beyond its author’s experience and intentions: it is a flexible lens that lets us see into unexpected depths of our own experience. How it does so is as much a mystery to the author as it is to the reader.
Thanks for your comment. I don’t think that we are in disagreement. I do think, however, that you have misread much of what I wrote.
I never so much as mentioned the author’s intentions; I never mentioned authors at all, only texts. I have neither the desire nor the ability to discern an author’s intentions. I care about what the author wrote, not what the author thought he or she was writing, or what the author thought about that. Certainly, I can’t imagine how I could fathom Shakespeare’s intentions, or how, if I could, that would usefully illuminate his plays. In Keats’s words, the poet is no one.
As I wrote, I return to the text itself. I agree that to fully understand a Shakespeare play (if such a “full” undersanding is even possible, which is questionable), one must at the least understand what the words in the play meant at the time and to understand the literary, cultural, and historical allusions and references. But again, that is a matter of the text, not the author.
As for the work speaking across barriers of time, race, and gender, I never specified what it speaks. That will, of course, change from context to context. As I wrote, the text is always an interaction between the reader and the text, and to a certain extent the text is recreated in each interaction, on both the individual and the social level. But there are bounds to that transformation. Macbeth will never be a play about the joys of fox-hunting, nor will Moby Dick ever be a novel about the domestic tribulations of an unhappily married couple.
And I never used the word “eternal,” nor would I. I don’t know why people keep bringing it up.
Thanks again for writing, and take good care.
My second response—a bit of a mea culpa:
Reginald, I must have been very unclear in my response. I was reacting to nothing more than the two sentences I cited and the idea of “speaking across time.” More than anything I meant to add my thoughts to yours. But since you’ve decided to fuzz up the idea of a text speaking across time — “I never specified what speaks” is kind of cagey, don’t you think? — let me just try to clarify what my sense of things. And let me advocate for the author’s intention.
It seems to me clear that a great poem (let’s narrow the field here) does speak across time. As a result of cultural evolution (including language, social norms, shared historical and artistic knowledge, and shared assumptions about the world), its intended meanings may become blurred or inaccessible. There are parts of Gilgamesh whose original sense has been lost; there are whole traditions utterly lost, as Richard Wilbur notes:
TO THE ETRUSCAN POETS
Dream fluently, still brothers, who when young
Took with your mother’s milk the mother tongue,
In which pure matrix, joining world and mind,
You strove to leave some line of verse behind
Like still fresh tracks across a field of snow,
Not reckoning that all could melt and go.
Talk about the impact of history! Nevertheless, the great poem that survives does speak. Where its language no longer speaks (nobody speaks Sumerian or Akkadian, or Old English, for that matter), its structure does — and I mean its “deep structure”: the complex of images, tropes, musical and narrative gestures, etc. that the author embedded in the text. (The author can only embed the elements made available by his or her culture, of course.) Like stones on the river bottom that create Ammons’s ripple, these deep structures are more permanent than the onrush of evolving human cultures within which the poem takes shape for each reader. They are what “speak across time,” through the veils of translation and the thickets of scholarship.
I should add that I think these structures themselves are affected by the currents of time, and some—like the poems of the Etruscans—are obliterated by it. So nothing is “eternal” — a word I regret using in my response.
So. Let me return to the author’s intention.
I mean “intention” in its broadest sense—that is, it comprises both conscious and unconscious aims. You say we can’t “fathom Shakespeare’s intentions,” and if we could, doing so wouldn’t “usefully illuminate his plays.” Surely you don’t believe this. Surely the primary purpose of reading any work is to understand its author’s intention (again, broadly conceived), in the hope of better understanding our own. If you do honestly believe what you’re saying, then I’d like you to explain why you bother to write your poems; more to the point, why do you revise them, obsess over them, feel haunted by them, until you’ve worked them into an adequate form? That, at least, is how my own poems develop.
Anyway, I’d merely argue that we owe the authors we care about the duty of intentional engagement. If they’re going to speak to us, we have to bring them our questions: we have to inquire about their intentions and look to their texts, their lives, and their historical periods — and, of course, our own honest responses to their work — for help. Otherwise it’s all just a frivolous game.