Monday, February 17, 2014

Intentional Fallacy

Allow me to be a bit philosophical today.

I have often thought about literary criticism in a philosophical way, mostly because the traps of education have left teachers with the limited tool of "reader-response" theory--the idea that in reading, the reader's response is the only response that matters.  

In education, this tends to be important and easy, but I tend to disagree on its universal importance.  However, I am being philosophical.  I believe that the reader isn't always right.  Interpretations can be off the mark.  Go ahead: disagree with me.  It's okay.

On the other hand--and this is the real crux on which I wish to philosophize today--the matter of authorial intent is a much different matter.  The basic premise of this theory, according to New Criticism,  is that the author's intent doesn't matter.  What matters is what the author has on the page, and the page should speak for itself.

This basic theory seems good, true, and agreeable to me, but the corollary that goes along with the authorial intent is the intentional fallacy, which is the philosophy that seeking meaning about a piece of art through the author has no value.

Now this is where the intentional fallacy falls apart for me.  If studying an artist's life has no value in studying their art, why do we read the biographies?  And no, I don't think that we as readers can presume to understand what an author was intending as they created a work of art, but can't getting glimpses of their life deepen how we see their work?  Certainly, we can't understand their mind, but perhaps we can further appreciate the work?  Anyone's mind is too complicated to understand in reading a simple biography, but can't a glimpse into their mind deepen our understanding of their work?

A couple of examples are in order.

Anyone who has seen a Frida Khalo painting must have a much deeper understanding of her work if they know more about her life.  If the "reader" doesn't know about her life, then the reader might just think she was nuts.

Here's the Graham Greene reference you were waiting for: in reading The Power and the Glory, if you read The Lawless Roads and any of Greene's biographies, the novel itself becomes a much deeper and more powerful exploration of spirituality.

One more example: Anthony Burgess's Clockwork Orange is still shocking and strange forty years after its publication.  With a little research into Burgess's life, you can easily find Burgess's numerology,  military history, complicated love life, spirituality, and language usage steeped in its pages.

This is not to say that we should place the knowledge of the author over the meaning in the work, but I do disagree with the intentional fallacy: knowledge of the author can, and sometimes does, deepen our understanding of the work.

Where does that leave us as writers?  Hang on.  I'll finish this in a minute.  On the off-chance I amount to anything, I'm deleting my hard-drive and burning all my old journals.

1 comment:

  1. NOOOOOOO!!!! Don't do it! Suppose no one ever realized Proust was gay? What fascinating light that sheds on his work. Or that the god of the old testament was a woman!! Context context context!

    The New Critics were scared of their own brainy shadows and fostered the growth of foolish anachronistic interpretations. Let these words stand on their own! ;)