Geoffrey Long
Tip of the Quill: Archives
Contextual literary criticism.

So I'm on this email discussion list with a bunch of my old classmates from Kenyon, and somehow we got onto the topic of "meaning" in literature. I almost never go for that kind of bait, but this time I decided to bite. The result was a short essay on my philosophy of meaning, which I'd like to share with you (and archive for my own personal reference) here. Apologies for any linguistic philosopher arrogance that may follow. :)

For the longest time I ranted and railed against this notion that we can
pick apart any work, rip out the symbols and cast them on the ground like so
many scryer's bones in order to learn its secret meaning. The older I get,
though, the more I feel like looking for meaning isn't such a bad idea, but
the notion that there is only one meaning to a work, like some encrypted
message waiting for the right decoder ring, feels wrong.

Literature is language, frozen in mid-leap. The little squiggles that form
letters and words themselves are devoid of any objective meaning, save from
our recognition that someone arranged them in a particular pattern for some
kind of purpose. That's how we know we're supposed to try and interpret
them. (The same goes for modern art -- even a seemingly meaningless pattern
can become "art" when somebody says it's meant to be seen as such, because
that's the trigger that sets us trying to interpret it.) The trouble with
trying to set a particular "meaning" is that all readers come to those
squiggles under different circumstances, and almost certainly under
different circumstances than the ones under which the squiggles were
written. To get back to Evangeline's associate, and I'll quote that point

"Art is (or should be, according to this guy) the communication of specific
thoughts and/or emotions, so any piece of artwork wherein the viewer (or
reader) cannot grasp the message the artist meant to convey is a failure."

This definition is impossible. No two people will ever take away the same
thoughts/emotions from any kind of artistic work, for the same reason that
no two people ever get the same thoughts/emotions from ANY kind of work: we
translate those little squiggles into thoughts using tools forged from our
own personal experiences. This is why I think that any given work can't
have "one true meaning", but a myriad of different meanings based on who is
writing or reading it.

If readers want to gain a clearer understanding of what the author was
thinking when it was written, then I think they should search the context in
which the work was created. What was happening in the author's life? What
was happening in the world at the time? Those are the keys to what the work
probably "meant" to the person creating it.

If readers want to understand what a work means to THEM, then they should do
the same thing for their own lives. Do they think there's a
postmodern/feminist/vegetarian message to be taken away from ULYSSES? If
they take something like that away, then fine, there must have been
something in it that triggered that reaction in them -- only that "meaning"
may have only come as a result of their own experiences. Did the author
have any postmodern/feminist/vegetarian experiences? If so, he might have
intended to infuse the work with that meaning, and both reader and writer
have that element in common. If not, then he probably didn't -- but that
doesn't mean that the work can't have that meaning to the reader.

If I ever become a professor, or try to get back into the academic writing
profession (apologies for all the intellectual sloppiness in this, BTW, I'm
really rusty), I'll ask my students to do contextual reports on a work in
order to analyze it for meaning. Whether they study the context under which
this "frozen language" was dispatched or the context under which it was
received, well, that should be up to them. A possible final exam question:
Would a reader in 16th century France get the same mental images and take
away the same impressions from reading THE ODYSSEY as someone in 21st
century China?

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