Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Fallacies, intentional and otherwise

I recently blogged about Michael Wood's new book, Yeats & Violence, and thought I'd post a little more about it. Having done so earlier elicited, to my surprise, some snark; I dunno, is Wood not cool enough or something? Maybe only Helen Vendler should write about Yeats? Sheesh.

Anyway, Wood devotes a few pages to a digression on the question (if that's the right word) of authorial intention. More snark will come, I fear - yet I feel that this is a good bone to gnaw on during the dog days, so here goes!

Wood finds that there's much to be said for the "now often ignored case" against the intentional fallacy, "and for the related metaphor of the author's death," that is, for the "implication that authors are in an interesting and important sense absent from their texts" - that they "become their admirers, as Auden said of Yeats, or at least become their readers. A text is defenceless, it just repeats itself, Socrates claimed in the Phaedrus..." Wimsatt and Beardsley, he says, were "too extreme in their suggestion that knowledge of an author's intention is 'neither available nor desirable as a standard for judging the success of a work of literary art.' Often unavailable, often interesting, quite often misleading, and always insufficient as a critical measure, would be closer."

(As Borges made clear in "The Aleph," a terrible poem could be a masterpiece if we only referred to the poet's ambitions for it; and, Wood adds, Lionel Trilling memorably proposed that if Shakespeare did not intend anything less than Hamlet, it's also true that he didn't write anything less than Hamlet, whatever his intentions were!)

Still, Wood argues:

... there is something wasteful and disagreeable about not wanting to know what writers think they are doing, and about the accompanying assumption that critics know better. It doesn't seem implausible that writers often achieve what they intend and that their intention has something to do with their achievement. If I find enormous subtleties in a literary work, chances are the writer put them there. The subtle mind at play is the writer's rather than mine. I'm doing what I can but I'm just following clues, not placing them.

A difficulty remains, and significant differences hide within similar critical phrases. A reader's idea of an author's intention is always a guess, if often a good one. This is true even when authors tell us what their intentions are. We don't have to suspect them of lying but neither can we assume they are immune to the ordinary frailties of human self-knowledge. To say nothing of the times when they wish to speak ambiguously, or make a joke.

(That last part really speaks to me: when assembling commentary on a certain poet's work that was partly based on his own correspondence, it looked for a while that I'd not get permission to quote him on the grounds that - as his family put it - he was a "pathological liar.")

Wood continues:

When reading a poem we are guessing if we see ourselves as trying to imagine what went on in the poet's mind as he wrote. But if we are just tracking whatever intentionality we find in the words and sentences as we see or hear them, we are not guessing, we are reading, we are exercising our ordinary abilities of comprehension, and the court of appeal is the language itself or more precisely our knowledge of the language and the possibility of trying out our understandings on others who know the language well and care about it.

We can go quite a long way in language without invoking intention at all. Vocabulary and grammar alone will allow me to understand a line [of poetry]... I begin to need intention - to need to imagine an intention - when I try to hear the overtones, and hear if there are any overtones... It's at points like this that readers' choices begin. Different readers choose differently but these are real options, substantive and discussable modes of interpretive action, more like theories or legal opinions than like guesses, and we don't have to imagine the mind of a particular person to get to them. We only have to imagine, as we can scarcely avoid imagining in the presence of any speech act, a tone and a direction...

And in the end, even though the author is dead, so to speak, he/she's the one who put the words together, and so "deserves all the credit for whatever wonder and danger we find" in a poem; "but the words are not his any more than they are ours, and to be a poet is, among other things, to take one's chances with language."

To paraphrase W., we are guessing, and poets keep us guessing.

Speaking of guessing and dead poets, Wood tells a great story about how he and a friend once had a bet about the meaning of a remark Philip Larkin made in an interview. "In response to a casual mention of Borges... Larkin had said, 'Who is Borges?' My friend... took Larkin at his word, thought he was asking a question about a figure whose name he really didn't know. I thought Larkin was pretending ignorance and taking the opportunity to wind the interviewer up a little." As Wood points out, either reading seems plausible - though both can not have been intended. So... Wood's friend, the late Gamini Salgado, finally wrote to Larkin to consult the oracle directly ("to borrow the image Wimsatt and Beardsley use for worrying about intention"). A reply was received - but you'll have to read the book to find out what it was!


In my recent blog post about the new issue of Paideuma, I mentioned in passing that I have a quibble with Andrea Brady's wonderful essay about researching John Wieners's archives. I'll tell you now what it was. As most readers of Wieners know, he came to hold some racist and anti-Semitic views; the latter, Brady observes, he shared with his friends Jack Spicer and Steve Jonas. Brady does a thorough and thoroughly frank job exploring those views. She concludes that the paranoia underlying Wieners's anti-Semitism can be seen as "part of the disintegration of trust in his relationships with friends and family, as a symptom of mental illness; but it also suggests that the theatrical roles which people some of his later poetry might express of [sic] anxiety towards systems he believed to control his fate."

Understood. She adds: "It should be remembered however that Wieners lived in conditions which could easily elicit paranoia." She quotes Michael Rumaker, who remembers the "heavy climate of fear" in San Francisco of the late 1950s and 1960s, particularly among gay men. It's clear that "though more socially liberated than the rest of the country, San Francisco still policed the gay and drug subcultures that Wieners celebrated." As Rumaker put it, "the Morals Squad was everywhere," and entrapment was a real risk; "you never knew who you were talking to. Among the hip avant-garde, everyone was on his guard." Brady comments that "though Wieners's fearfulness could take eccentric turns, it was not just a sign of an oncoming crisis of schizophrenia but a response to his social reality."

She's saying, in other words, that as Delmore Schwartz famously put it, even paranoids have real enemies. No doubt! But just what part of his "social reality" induced the anti-Semitism? We aren't told. Either Brady has elided something here, or something sinister has gone unexplained. Or maybe I'm misunderstanding the argument.

Otherwise, her piece is really terrific: must reading for anyone interested in Wieners's work, and even if you're not, it's exemplary with regard to the use of archival material in the appreciation and criticism of poetry.

As it happens, I recently received Brady's handsome book, Wildfire: a Verse Essay on Obscurity and Illumination. It's from Krupskaya - who have also published Ryan Murphy's The Redcoats; Murphy wonderfully published Jack Spicer's Hokku Notebook. I hope to blog about these books soon.

Pictured: The death of the author.


Joseph Hutchison said...

I've written in favor of intentionality here, and while I can understand the desire to erase the author's intentions from the poem (most critics hate authors, and some authors hate themselves), it is, as Wood suggests, a failure of imagination to do so. I've always found it amusing that those who attack authorial intention nevertheless bother to write their own books. Evidently the law does not apply to them: they expect to make a point and have it understood, if imperfectly; that is, they assume that they've encoded their passions and ideas in language that conveys them to their readers. It seems willfully obtuse—or maybe just pretentious—to argue that writing can be understood any other way.

Jordan said...

Was Dupee still around when Wood and Koch shared an office in Hamilton?

Henry Gould said...

I don't think we can understand a text at all without trying to grasp the author's intention. Our resources are more or less limited (depending on the age & provenance of the poem etc.) - we may turn out to be wrong in our interpretation - but isn't the primary aim to understand what has been written? & just how do we understand it without a sense of the author's intended meaning?

"Creative" interpretations - the ironic sorting out of unintended new meanings - that's all fine, & probably unavoidable. But such secondary developments are based on the original sense & intention of the author.

Am I just stating the obvious? Ain't it the truth?

Shelley said...

Was it Auden who said that there were critics who could understand everything except that what the writer didn't do was something he didn't want to?