Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Intentionally Omitted

In a post about error in texts, Drout points out that I seem to be talking obliquely (if one can talk obliquely) about authorial intent. Of course, he is right ... the original version of the post had a paragraph about authorial intent, but I omitted it from the final version because I wasn't sure it was fair to bring it in to a discussion involving The One Ring folks (who aren't really trained to know what "authorial intent" means, nor why it is out of favor). Since Drout brings it up, though, I'll address it here.

One of the folks over at The One Ring has an interesting post differentiating between serious study and serious reading, which he ends with "Tolkien put it there for his reader." My only suggested revision of his main argument is to consider serious study and serious reading merely two different points along the same line, rather than two entirely different things, as I am trying to get at here (in a post that was primarily critiqued by the blogosphere as being homoerotic in its use of "fanboy" -- not my "intention").

The second and lesser point, though, is that Tolkien intended his work for non-philogists, a claim that I'll grant for the sake of argument. The next question should be, do we care? Does Tolkien have the final say over his text? We call this appeal to what the author intended "authorial intention," and if you visit your library you can find shelf after shelf on the subject. Let me smush the argument down into something bite-sized here.

Intention seems to make sense at first glance; when I entered undergraduate school as a geeky young English major, I was an intentionalist (though I didn't know what to call it). I liked to point out that if the author were unimportant, why did some authors have multiple great works? Are books foundlings? Are they not crafted by authors? And, as such, shouldn't the author have final say over the meaning of the work?

When you start to examine intention more closely, though, you can see that it isn't held together all that well. For one thing, we might not know who the author is. Or perhaps we have a name, but know little else -- for example, other than a few legends we know almost nothing about Homer. We know very little about Shakespeare, and certainly not enough to know what he intended in such-and-such a line. Even though we have no practical connection to the intention of the author, we don't throw up our hands and claim that we can't figure out what the text means.

What about an author about whom we know a great deal, though? Even in this case, the "intention" can change. Let's take C.S. Lewis, for example. Publishers have recently re-ordered the books so that The Magician's Nephew is the first in the series (a stupid decision, if you ask me). The argument between the two sides is laid out here. The decision to re-order the books was justified by the intention of the author, primarily growing out of this quote:

'I think I agree with your order for reading the books more than with your mother's. The series was not planned beforehand as she thinks. When I wrote The Lion I did not know I was going to write any more. Then I wrote P. Caspian as a sequel and still didn't think there would be any more, and when I had done The Voyage I felt quite sure it would be the last. But I found as I was wrong. So perhaps it does not matter very much in which order anyone read them. I'm not even sure that all the others were written in the same order in which they were published.

This quote, though, rather than supporting the change, actually undermines the idea of intention. Lewis writes that the serious "was not planned beforehand," that he "did not know" he would write more, that he thought Prince Caspian and The Voyage of the Dawn Treader each would be the last, etc. The sentence But I found as I was wrong shows us that the intention of the author can change over time. The author may not even know what was intended.

Lewis isn't an odd case -- he's the norm. Walt Whitman kept revising and re-publishing Leaves of Grass over and over. William Blake (who is one of the few authors who could make a claim that his works weren't sullied by editors, except possibly Mrs. Blake) would move poems back and forth between Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience. Tolkien (to take the author dearest to The One Ringers' hearts) didn't seem to know himself what "hobbit" was when he began The Hobbit, nor that Biblo's ring was really really really really eviiiiiil.

Of course, for the student of medieval literature, authorial intention isn't as much of a draw, because we often don't know who the author of a given work was -- which is the reason we refer to them as "the Beowulf poet" or "the Pearl poet." What do we know of Cynewulf beyond a name? Even when we know a great deal about an author, we are confronted with different ideas about authorship.

As I am fond of saying (my colleagues must be getting sick of hearing this), medieval scholars weren't as surprised to hear about the "death of the author," since we operate before the birth of the author.


  1. And then, there's Milton, who first arranged Paradise Lost in 10 books (1667), then changed his mind and rearranged it into 12 books for the second edition (1674).

    How are we really to read it?

    Jeffery Hodges

    * * *

  2. I think that's a fascinating point, about the lack of "authors" and therefore all debate about their "intent", in non-modern literature. I myself am certainly not "trained" in this matter, but I find these arguments fascinating, especially when I have just read and publicly commented on some piece of critical tripe about an author whose intent I had believed I understood. Thanks for explaining some of the underlying issues and questions!

    Anyway, you reminded me of an extended discussion on Derrida, deconstruction, and authorial intent that took place on The One Ring last fall.

    Hint: it's way too long to read all the posts, but the entire thread is reproduced at the bottom of each post's page. The active post you are reading is the non-underlined one in the outline. Some of the topic heads may give you a sense of how the discussion trended.

  3. Anonymous9:53 PM

    The second and lesser point, though, is that Tolkien intended his work for non-philogists, a claim that I'll grant for the sake of argument. The next question should be, do we care?

    Actually, I am the One Ring site poster you refer to as making that interesting post (thank you, by the way). But my point has been misunderstood: I said Tolkien put the word ("weapontake") there for his reader. I did not say he put it there for non-philologists. Philologists can also be readers and therefore, the word is there for them as well as any other reader. No reader can completely separate his personal training, experience, or worldview from his reader-self. We are all personal in our reading, aren't we?

    However, he did not simply place the word there for the few philologists who would read it. The word is purposely used and any reader can get the gist of it in context. The word was placed there for the reader, or why write anything except a personal diary? Words in a book are read by readers.

    And completely off topic, but just so you know when you drop by the One Ring reading room (and I sincerely hope you do more often)-I am a fanGIRL.



  4. Anonymous8:20 AM

    The lack of an known author hasn't stopped medievalists speculating on intent (e.g: 'The author wants to show his audience that killing is bad' or 'The Beowulf Poet wants to demonstrate the characteristics of the ideal warrior')

    The (mistaken?) assumption is that language is in some way in the service of the author where the opposite may be the case.

    Another possible stance is that language is not 'representative' of our thought in the way we might like to think - hence speculation on intent is subjective, in that it depends heavily on the critic, and likely to be redundant.

    Perhaps: 'It is not we who play with words, but the nature of language plays with us' (Heidegger)

  5. Wow. I'm coming into this discussion late, but I'm surpried to see the consensus concerning intent. I do not travel in literary circles, but I'll throw in my two cents. Although it may be the case that it is difficult to determine the author's intent, it does not follow that such a project is impossible, nor does it follow that the author's intent is irrelevant (a strong claim probably not intended by Nokes). Can't we infer something about intent from examining the original context/audience? It seems odd to say that intent changes over time -- the question is, "What was the intent when this work was written?" Perhaps, as in the Narnia case, there simply is no answer to the question, "What was his intended ordering?" It does not follow from this that he had no important intentions.

    I find that, in general, epistemological concerns often result in unwarranted skepticism and even worse, metaphysical conclusions. (I'm venting here.) Just because we can't have Cartesian certainty about a matter doesn't mean there is no truth about that matter. We should apporach each work on a case-by-sace basis, asking what we can discern about intent, rather than embracing a paradigm that dismisses such concerns altogether.

  6. Anonymous6:11 AM

    Further to the above: Speculation on intent is interesting but it seems it can only result in projection.

    An example: the 'Leonardo da Vinci was gay' angle (proposed by Sigmund Freud in 1910). It's enticing (the sodomy charges, the male nudes etc.) but ultimately has more to with Freud (why, he must have been gay!!! - it's very trappy this intent lark....) and the 20th century, than Leonardo.

    A linear (enlightenment-edified, as it were) view of history - in which new things about the past are 'discovered' all the time is perhaps the cause?

    The critics ego (erm, thanks Sigmund) is also rather important to the whole enterprise (critic as detective genius etc.)

    As well as that, it is undeniably fun!