Not surprisingly to those who read my literary sleuthing ruminations, my eyes were immediately caught today by an online link to the following piece that ran in yesterday’s NY Times Book Review:
“Should an Author’s Intentions Matter?” This week, Zoë Heller and Adam Kirsch debate whether an author’s intended meanings matter more than a reader’s interpretations.
Anyone interested in this topic should read that NY Times Book Review point-counterpoint in full, and then read all the online comments thereto, which add several other dimensions to the debate so ably initiated by Heller and Kirsch. Any attempt to simplify that complex discussion would be hopelessly inadequate.
A short while ago, I added my own idiosyncratic comment to the online mix:
“There's another possibility--certain authors (Shakespeare, Milton, & Austen, to name 3) deliberately created ambiguity so as to allow (at least) 2 plausible interpretations of their stories. So, e.g., there's one intended version of Paradise Lost in which Milton is of Satan's party, and another in which Milton is on GOD'S team--two parallel fictional universes. And the primary purpose of this deliberate anamorphism was didactic, i.e. ,to train readers to be flexible enough to see BOTH sides of an ambiguous reality. And...these greatest authors also used hidden word clues to accentuate that ambiguity-- hence the SATAN acrostics by Brooke (1562), Shakespeare (1599), and Milton (1667), all hidden in plain sight, which are connected, and which accentuates that ambiguity:
Those latter two links are for the two blog posts I most recently wrote about the SATAN acrostic lineage I have identified among Brooke’s Romeus & Julius, Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet, and Milton’s Paradise Lost (with significant connection thereto in the King James Bible’s translation of the Book of Revelation, and to Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park). As I indicated in my comment, my discovery is a fact that any attempts to discern the meaning of those works must take into account.
The most informative part of the NY Times article for me was the following online comment:
Mike from Dallas: “Having been an English grad student road warrior in the roaring 70's when Lacan, Derrida, Foucault, and Paul de Man were all the rage, I know exactly what it feels like to be a minority of one in a seminar room. ….then I read Dante! BOOM! There is a fabulous terza in Canto IX of the Inferno (how apropos!) that says, "O You who have strong intellects / Observe the teachings which are hidden / Under the veil of these strange verses! / -- Yes, 700+ years ago, Dante was well aware of all the pseudo-intellectual catfights which have felled a forest of trees and bled ink wells dry for decades!...” END QUOTE
While I myself am no big fan of literary theory, Mike has tossed the baby away with the bathwater. I.e., the error of Lacan, Derrida et al is not that they reach for hidden meanings, but that they’ve invented a whole superstructure of litcrit ideology which has scant connection to the literary works they purport to describe--ironically, they create a fog of jargon that obscures the very real hidden meanings they are supposed to illuminate.
But what was informative to me is in Mike’s comment is that I had no idea about that remarkable passage in Dante’s Inferno—but it did not take me much Googling to confirm my initial guess as to the meaning of Dante’s cryptic hint---which is that Mike (ironically) has been hoist on his own petard---Dante went metafictional at that moment in his allegorical text, in order to alert his readers to look for secondary meanings, NOT to mock that sort of against-the-grain reading! In his fear of the “Medusa’ of hidden meanings, Mike has closed his eyes to the literal meaning of Dante’s plea to his readers!
And….the obvious and well-recognized allusion to The Inferno in Milton’s Paradise Lost takes on additional meaning in light of Milton’s emulation of Dante, by his making Satan the de facto hero of Paradise Lost!
So, for those who are intrigued by this sort of inquiry into hidden meanings in great literature, but have never looked at it closely before, I suggest that reading the 3 above URL links is a really good place to start-then begin to apply these sorts of ideas to the literature you love!
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