I read Wimsatt and Beardsley's famous paper 'The Intentional Fallacy' (The Sewanee Review, 1946) as an undergraduate, because I was told to do so by my teachers. I wasn't always so biddable I must say, but on this occasion I did my reading. And Wimsatt and Beardsley's argument persuaded me. Indeed I believe it did more, and softened me up for my journey deeper into the Tarkovskian 'Zona' of Theory as a postgraduate: the author is dead, il n'y a pas de hors-texte, the whole kit and kaboodle. Especially le kaboodle.
Now, Wimsatt and Beardsley persuaded me because the point they make is so sensible (although, actually, the paper itself is surprisingly tortuous and rather archly written). People often do want to judge literary works by what the author intended, or more broadly they want to import biographical considerations into the hermeneutics of interpretation. But when you think about it, that doesn't make much sense. Wimsatt and Beardsley argue that readings based on authorial intention are either irrelevant (because they draw upon extrinsic evidence, and therefore are about those other texts rather than the one under consideration) or else they are circular (when an author’s otherwise unknowable ‘intention’ is intuited from the very text that it’s invoked to explain). Nor do I come to bury W & B; on the contrary I intend to praise them. Ho ho.
Still: 'intention' seems to have real staying-power in the way people (my students, for instance) tend to think about literature. People like the idea of the author and don't wish him/her dead. This has a lot to do with our investment in 'intention' as such. I don't mean, by saying that, to open the door (huge and creaky like an ancient tomb) onto the philosophical discussion of 'intent', 'intensionality' and 'intention': this link gives you a primer, if you're interested, and it gets dense and counterintuitive pretty quickly (which is not, of course, to say the discussion is pointless or wrongheaded). There's a more common-or-garden reason for our attachment to the idea of 'intention'. We know, from our own experience, what it means to intend things, and it seems to us as though having intention and acting on it is integral to who we are as active (rather than passive) agents in the world. To lobotomize someone is to remove precisely their urgency of intention. And since it matters to each of us, we assume its significance in others. When we interact with other people, one of the things we're doing is trying to intuit their intentions.
It's this, I think, that's at the heart of the Turing Test, I'd say (and therefore is the point of shows like HBO's current Westworld). Turing's test argues that if we interact with a machine and believe that it is responding in the ways it intended to, rather than randomly, mechanically, or in a manner that utilizes some clever algorithm, then that machine is actually thinking. Turing doesn't put it in exactly those terms, but that's what it boils down to, I think. One immediate problem that suggests itself; the niggle I've always had about this famous test: mightn't intention itself be faked? How can we tell 'real' intention from 'fake' or 'ersatz' intention? This is one of those questions that can unnerve us, if we think about it too long. Philip K Dick based an entire career upon a variant of it.
And that is one of the ways 'intention' feeds through into my day-to-day as an academic. I teach Literature, but I also teach Creative Writing. Students of the latter sometimes wax jocular, or mock-outraged, by 'the author is dead'. Since they want to be authors and they don't want to be dead this is fair enough. Of course they understand that 'the author is dead' doesn't refer to the physiological status of actual authors, many of whom are manifestly alive. It refers to the status of the novel, published and launched into the world, something from which 'the AUTHOR' needs to disengage his or her claws. And this is a pretty common-sense position, really. Even if you 'believe' that authors' intentions do indeed have a part to play in the way we read and interpret literature, you will be unlikely to grant authorial intention too much power. If we really respected authorial intention, then we'd have to take on board, let's say, Vergil's deathbed intention to destroy the Aeneid, and be obliged to go around the world burning all copies of the finished poem. That's an extreme example of course, but it's there to make a point, viz. that there is a hard limit on one side of the 'intention' debate, That said, the hard limit is quite a long way over, and leaves a lot of territory for people who do not consider it fallacious to include authorial intent in their accounts of literature. If J K Rowling, in an interview, says that she intended Dumbledore to be a gay character, but there's nothing in the novels themselves that specifies Dumbledore's sexual orientation, then how do we 'read' Dumbledore? Is he gay or not? We might answer 'his sexuality is irrelevant to his function in the novels' but that's merely to evade the question.
The Creative Writing angle is an interesting one. W & B address it head on. One measure of falsification, where the supposed primacy of 'author intention' is concerned, is how rarely authors are able to say anything very illuminating or perceptive about their own writings. W & B suggest, without mentioning Freud as such, that this is because intention actually plays a much smaller role in writing than is often assumed. They quote Houseman:
Having drunk a pint of beer at luncheon—beer is a sedative to the brain, and my afternoons are the least intellectual portion of my life—I would go out for a walk of two or three hours. As I went along, thinking of nothing in particular, only looking at things around me and following the progress of the seasons, there would flow into my mind, with sudden and unaccountable emotion, sometimes a line or two of verse, sometimes a whole stanza at once [W & B, 475]Speaking as a writer, I recognise this. Or to be a little more precise: as I tell my CW students, writing is a two-step process. The first thing you must do is get it written. The second thing you must do is get it right. Good advice, especially for writers who are starting out, is: don't try to get it right as you are writing it, for that way lies what they call 'writer's block': finishing a sentence, then looking at it and feeling paralysed by the thought that it's not good enough, and losing momentum in the scrabble to improve it. All that. Better is: push through with your draft and don't worry overmuch about sunspots and infelicities. Which is to say, don't worry about them as you are going on. Worry about them when you come back to revise, and be confident during the writing of your initial draft because you know you will come back to revise it. And as far as the 'intentionality' argument goes, there is much more conscious intention involved in the revision portion of being an author than in the writing portion, at least in my experience. To write I create a space actually designed to minimise the rational, critical, intending mind: I take myself to a coffee shop, I put on headphones and listen to music, I defocus enough to let my fingers start moving over the keyboard. Revising is different: to revise I tend not to listen to music, I need to concentrate and think critically and so on. But that's a separate matter. And, to say one more thing about my writing praxis: the longer I have gone on, as a writer, the more I find my fingers, rather than my conscious brain, doing the thinking. Very often I have to write something out to discover what it is I think about it. I'm doing it right now, in fact.
Where does that leave 'authorial intention'? Not in a golden throne seated in the middle of my skull, that's for sure. But neither am I (of course) a mere robot, producing my works by a process of automatic writing. It does not feel true to me to say, as I have heard some other writers say, 'it writes in me' rather than 'I write'. It's conceivable, of course, that I'm fooling myself; and there's a sense that putting those two in opposition like that misrepresents matters: the 'I' in 'I write' has already been written by a thousand overlapping discourses and texts and so on. But 'it writes in me' seems too passive to me; almost an abdication of responsibility.
Enough generalised chatter (too much generalised chatter! I hear you cry). Some specific examples. Let's take the second of W & B's two intentional fallacies first: the circular one. The example they give is Homer. Longinus considered great poetry the sublime outpouring of a great soul; Homer's epic verse is great poetry; ergo Homer had a great soul. Now that we've established that, we can talk about how it is Homer's greatness of soul that is responsible for the majesty of the Iliad. W & B call this attitude 'Romantic', which is fair enough (Coleridge insists that asking 'what is poetry?' is essentially to ask 'what is a poet?') but it is, of course, perfectly vacuous when considered under the aegis of analysis. This mode of circularity thrives in situations, as a fortiori with Homer, when we know little or nothing about the author, because then we can inscribe whatever values we like upon the blank sheet of the author in question. By the same token, it tends to be falsified when we encounter the situation of great art being having been created by nasty people. Pope was a marvelous poet and an unpleasant human being; Schopenhauer a great philosopher but a shit; Thomas Malory, author of the Morte D'Arthur, was a convicted rapist, Pound and Wyndham Lewis were fascists and Heidegger a Nazi; Walter Sickert was Jack the Ripper (he probably wasn't, but he was certainly violent towards women and generally not very nice). It needn't be examples as extreme as these. Henry James's short story 'The Private Life' (1892) came about because James was so profoundly baffled that Robert Browning, whose poetry seemed to him as rich and complex and full of eddies and depths, was in person, when James met him, such a bland and conventional human being. The story 'solves' this problem by imagining a kind of cloned pairing of Brownings ('Vawdrey' is the name of the character in the story): one who babbles on pleasantly at dinner parties and another who hides away writing the great literature. Absent such The Prestige-style contortions, we're led to a simpler conclusion: shabby people sometimes create great art. Indeed, I'd suggest that nowadays something the reverse of the old Longinus attitude prevails. The success of Shaffer's Amadeus, especially in its film version, speaks to a now-widespread idea precisely of a disconnect between character and greatness in art. Mozart is a foul-mouth gibbering child-man who also just happens to be able to write Mozartian masterpieces. Lots of rock stars and artists have been like that. So it goes.
What about the first of W & B's two objections to reading via authorial intention? Some examples. Michael Stipe has said, in interview, that when he wrote the lyrics for REM's 'Losing My Religion' he did not mean religion in the sense of God, church and faith; rather the phrase is a Georgia idiom for a secular sense of anger or disappointment (as in: 'I used to like The Walking Dead but lately I've been really losing my religion with that show'). Does that fact prevent us from reading that song as being about (say) Christianity and doubt? Surely not. When I first heard that song, that's how I read it, and that's still how it works for me, and works powerfully. What are you going to do: lock me up?
Another example, of a slightly different sort: what difference might it make to our reading of The Satanic Verses if we say either 'Rushdie had no intention of insulting the prophet', or 'Rushdie fully intended to insult the prophet'? If it doesn't make a difference to (say) our free-speech defence of the right of the novel to be published, then how can it to any other aspect of our interpretation? Or again: let's say we can read Animal Farm as a satirical critique of right-wing authoritarian governments like Fascism and Nazism or we can read Animal Farm as a critique of left-wing authoritarian government like Stalinism. Does Orwell's own left-wing political affiliation operate as, in effect, the casting vote when weighing the two? ('Orwell wrote to Yvonne Davet that the novel was 'un conte satirique contre Staline' and this means that we can only read Boxer the horse as Trotsky, and so on).
Tennyson's In Memoriam is a powerfully moving elegy for his dead friend Arthur Hallam. What makes it so affecting is that Tennyson clearly loved Hallam, and there is real tenderness and physicality in the expression of loss. When it was anonymously published in 1851, one reviewer speculated that it was 'the outpouring of a widow, perhaps a sailor's wife, for the death of her husband'. Many critics have explored the erotic power of the poem; but Tennyson himself firmly repudiated any implication of improper intimacy, and therefore any such reading: as he said to James Knowles: 'If anybody thinks I ever called him dearest in his life they are much mistaken, for I never called him dear.' Does this render Queer readings of In Memoriam illegitimate? Of course, it's also possible Tennyson was in denial about his feelings for Hallam; that his comment to Knowles is a small example of the idiom of the closet. But that's just to say that we don't always understand our own intentions.
This example, though, leads us into the marshy ground of speculating about something to which we don't have access (Tennyson's actual state of mind, behind the things he publicly wrote and said about his state of mind). A universal obstacle, of course. So perhaps a better example would be one in which a reading of a poem relates to something that we know the author cannot possibly have had in his or her mind, as with the reading of Merchant of Venice as being in some sense about the Holocaust, the notion that the young Socrates took dictation from Plato (as per Derrida's Post Card), that Shakespeare was thinking of Freud when he wrote the scene with Hamlet and Gertrude in the latter's bedroom. The jink here would be to think something like 'whilst, obviously, Shakespeare was perfectly unaware of Freud's theories, both men tapped into an underlying and broader existential truth about sons and mothers ...' It's not immediately clear to me what advantages this approach has over saying: 'it is irrelevant what Shakespeare knew or didn't know; what matters is what Hamlet says.'
Or, to pick up something I've talked about before on this blog: 'is Paradise Lost about association football?' By any criterion of authorial intention, we can be confident in saying: no, for Milton cannot possibly have had any such thing in his head when he wrote his epic poem. The question is, if we discard authorial intention as our prophylactic, then what can we use to prevent any and all such outlandish interpretive gestures? To quote myself:
Is Paradise Lost about football? The nay camp might point to the fact that Milton's epic was written centuries before the rules of football were codified in 1863; that it makes no reference to spherical balls being kicked into goals, or the offside rule or anything else related to that game. Ah, say the yea side, nodding knowingly, but consider Book 6. Think of The War in Heaven. The first great battle between God, or his general Christ, and the army of angels, pitted against the army of devils lead by Satan. If you're concerned about the anachronism of using football as a lens for reading Milton's epic, then consider the way anachronism itself becomes the focus of this war, with the devils inventing gunpowder and cannons to bombard the angelic army. And consider too the way Milton represents these immortals attacking, being attacked, wounding and being wounded. Michael hacks Satan with a sword, and cuts him right down the middle: 'in half cut sheer; nor staid,/But with swift wheel reverse, deep entering, sheared/All his right side'). But Satan being immortal can't be killed, so: 'But the ethereal substance closed,/Not long divisible'. (Pope makes fun of this bit of the poem in Rape of the Lock). In other words, this battle is a mode of war in which the combatants can't be killed. That is to say, it is a sport. This in turn opens up all sorts of critical avenues: to talk about the way football figures, culturally and socially, as a defanged mortality-free version of war; to discuss what is at stake in a battle if life cannot be forfeited—Milton might say, a huge amount, more than mere physical mortality (compare the celebrated Bill Shankly quotation 'football is not a matter of life and death; it is much more important than that'). And off we go, yomping through the thickets of interpretive glory, leaving far behind the nay-sayers, who are booing and calling after us 'but all that ignores the fact that Paradise Lost is not about football'.Authorial intention protects us against all this. What else might? Then again, perhaps we don't want to be thuswise protected:
Claiming that Milton's epic poem is about football is not to make a literalist assertion about the content of the poem; it's a way of getting 'at' the truth of that text, viz., the truth of the way it elevates playfulness to epic dignity. We could put it this way: claiming Milton's poem is about football doesn't denigrate the epic so much as it dignifies the sport.Maybe this is why I continue to consider the idea of authorial intention fallacious. I don't want, as a writer, to be restricted by my intentions. But maybe that's just me.
As for the image at the head of this post, I just liked it, is all. I think it's a lovely photo. I had no other conscious intention when putting it up there. I suppose there's some point in putting a too-all-intents-and-purposes random image at the head of a post about intention and meaning. But my pointed unintentionality here was not intentional. If you can believe that. Then again, why would you?