Once again I find myself thrust into the tempest of what is a college semester. Despite taking just twelves hours this semester, other distractions have kept me from the desired amount of reading that one would strive to keep. Thus, I find myself in between novels and unable to fully engage in the exegesis of the work currently being read. However, against all odds I have found a topic that may be of general interest to avid readers-or perhaps to anyone who may be of philosophical bent.
This semester I am (unfortunately) taking the rather bland and required teaching courses that one takes to finish his B.S.E. degree. The topic of conversation comes from my English methods class. The general consensus among literary folk these days is teaching the text in such a way that each student finds a meaning so as to suite his or her own interpretation. That is, the most important thing about a work of literature is not what is in the work of literature itself or what surrounds it in terms of historical and cultural significance but instead what the reader brings to the table. In other words: what I get out of my reading-and what it supposedly means to me-trumps all else.
Now, I do not have such an issue with this philosophy of reading. Indeed, each person will come away with something different-no two people will (or perhaps should) interpret a text exactly the same. How boring a conversation would it be if we all had the same thoughts and feelings towards Hamlet? Humans by nature are different and thus their interpretations must be different. The problem comes when we define meaning as interpretation. That is, when one’s interpretation becomes what the text actually means. The effect of this appears subtle no doubt and it sounds really good. Asking one what the text meant to them sounds good on the surface-but what are we really doing here? I have here three reasons why meaning cannot mean interpretation.
First, we must recognize the author. If there is an author of the poem, that poem must have an original meaning. Of course, the poet could intentionally be ambiguous (as good poets are), but this also does not mean there can be a high number of meanings. For instance, say the poet was working on symbolism in the poem and decided to purposefully use ambiguous language to convey multiple meanings. That author, however, still has an original intent in his work. That is, the poem at it’s core must mean but one thing, or it becomes obsolete. That he is merely being ambiguous is simply his being a good poet and appropriately using language to create a deeper meaning (though still just one meaning). Of course, I will agree with anyone who would say that we cannot know author’s intent. If the poet has found himself to be buried six feet underground, it is painstakingly difficult to get anything out of that poet not to mention what he originally intended to mean. In any case, our endeavor as readers is to strive to figure out his original intent.
Secondly, we must realize that multiple meanings means all meanings are essentially meaningless. This was touched upon in the last paragraph, but consider a work of literature-say Alexander Pope’s The Rape of the Lock. Let us pretend that Pope’s humorous story has multiple meanings. Does this not make your own meaning incredibly insignificant? Say that of all the people that have ever read The Rape of the Lock each have their own interpretation of the text, and say there are about 1000 individuals who have analyzed this piece of literature throughout the years. This means that there are 1000 equally valid meanings to a text. Well, if that is the case, why bother? There will be thousands more with thousands of other interpretations perhaps which will continue to devalue your own “meaning” of the text.
And at last we come to what is the most important aspect of this: a world without meaning. The idea that there “is not absolute truth” (barring of course that last phrase, thus nullifying the phrase) or that there are multiple truths out there in the world makes hardly any sense, devalues truth, and in the end makes our existence meaningless. While some would argue that our existence is meaningless, I would disagree, but for now will not go there. I will assume that the average person believes their life means something. Otherwise why are we here? Now if we believe our lives have meaning is it more or less significant if there is but one truth in the universe? Take this example for example: Imagine that each person has two significant others. This in effect makes each relationship less significant. Now add about 100 significant others to the equation and each relationship is devalued to that degree. We do this with meaning in our lives as we continue to accept multiple truths in our universe. Much like the pantheists decide that God is in everything. Well if God is in everything and is everything what the cuss is so significant about God? But no, there is but one God and one truth in our universe, and this is what makes it such a beautiful place.
All this dialogue to say that when we read we must recognize that although all interpretations are equally valid to some degree (barring they can be backed up with the text. E.G. Ishmael is chasing a whale in Moby Dick, not a red herring.) And while it is good to elevate a student’s interpretation, it is so much more important to remind them that their interpretation is not creating meaning, but a feeble attempt at discovering the author’s original attempt (and thus, the meaning). The allowed ambiguity in interpretations, not meaning, in the end is what makes literature so fantastic.
I’m sick of our Abracadabrist poets. What gives the show away is that their professed admirers give quite contradictory interpretations of the same poem-I’m prepared to believe that an unintelligible picture is really a very good horse if all its admirers tell me so; but when one says it’s a ship, and the third that it’s an orange, and the fourth that it’s Mt. Everest, I give it up. – C.S. Lewis