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On the Best of Intentions (or the Worst)

26 June, 2015 - 14:54

Intentions are a problem in studying literature. One complication is easily dispensed with. Teachers should never ask, "What was the author trying to say here?" The question, of course, implies that the author was an incompetent who was so unsuccessful in making a point that student readers have to decipher it. The real question is something like "What do these words say?" You may notice the phrasing of that question, which does not ask, "What does the author mean?" or "What does the author intend?"

The reason for that phrasing is that we cannot know (or we have to pretend that we cannot know) what the author intended. When we read literature, our focus has to be on what the words say, not on what the author intended. One reason that we have to take this stance is that an author's words, even an author who is totally in control of those words, inevitably say more than the author intended. It even happens that the words may mean something that the author did not intend. I once attended a poetry reading, at the end of which someone asked the poet, "Why do you have so many images of flayed animals and animal skins in your poems?" to which the poet replied, "Do I?" After rereading his poems, he said, "Yes, I see that I do," and he then tried to find a reason for those images, but clearly he was taken by surprise at what he himself had written.

Another reason to avoid focusing on the author's intention is that if we know (or even think we know) what the author intended, we might cease our own interpretive activities. The author's understanding of his or her work might be important, but strangely enough, it is only one understanding and might not be the best one. To use an analogy from music, Igor Stravinsky conducted many of his own compositions for recordings. Those versions are good, and they are surely important, but they are not the best interpretations of his own music.

Furthermore, we can never really know what an author intended, even if the author tells us. For one thing, authors are cagey creatures and might lie to us. For another, the author might not always know what his or her intention was. After all, how often do we really know our full intentions when we do or say something? And authors frequently use speakers in their works who are not themselves. If one of Shakespeare's characters says something, we have to remember that we are listening to a character, not to Shakespeare. So, too, with poets and storytellers. Jonathan Swift's Lemuel Gulliver tells us many things that Swift himself would never have believed. So focus on the words, not on the author. Furthermore, even if we think we know what the author intended, we must remember that the author's reading of a work is still only one among many possibilities.