A brief intermezzo with some narrative theory to tie the knot on our observations on Mad Men and pave the way for the entries to follow.
In Mad Men, we came upon the emphatic eyes in Mad Men. At the time, it was not certain, to me, whether the experience was only my own or if it had been facilitated by the creators of the show—the “authors”. Regardless of the authors’ role, the experience was manifest; furthermore, my specific experience may—still—deviate from the authors’ exact intent—a truth of which I am adamantly sure. The implications of this fact (fact) are paramount.
In spite of the seminal breakthroughs in narrative theory more than half a century ago, a common misperception about fiction persists: The Intentional Fallacy.
Some all-but-rare situations:
- Getting into an argument over whose experience and interpretation is the proper.
- Discussing characters as real people and trying to define them: are they good or evil; are they likeable; have they undergone a significant development?
- The concept of a work being “about something (singular)”, such as when the misguided request for a summary occurs.
- The teacher or lecturer who insists that the students are wrong in failing to come up with the one, singular interpretation of a work the s/he had in mind. “SparkNotes”, the teacher’s guide or a majority says differently, ergo …
- X is true, because the author this-and-that.
These situations rarely end fruitfully. The main reason for this is that they are built on false assumptions.
What is the intentional fallacy? In 1946, William K. Wimsatt, Jr. and Monroe C. Beardsley wrote the essay The Intentional Fallacy, which was later revised and featured in the book The Verbal Icon: Studies in the Meaning of Poetry. The essay is as brief as it is profound and can—and ought—be read online.
The cardinal point, which would spearhead the literary school of New Criticism, is to distinguish between the external and the internal evidence of the work; while the external evidence may pertain to the work, it is not the work proper, but factors of circumstance that (may have) helped shape it. The work is a voice, itself unique to each reader in their own inference from text to semantic, conceptual meaning. The author’s intentions are external in an outlying plan the work may or may not conform to satisfactorily; the reader’s reception of the work is beyond the author’s control. He can only aspire to imply and instigate an inference, but the work is the intermediary and object of inference, not the author’s intent.
- (…) One must ask how a critic expects to get an answer to the question about intention. How is he to find out what the poet tried to do? If the poet succeeded in doing it, then the poem itself shows what he was trying to do. And if the poet did not succeed, then the poem is not adequate evidence, and the critic must go outside the poem—for evidence of an intention that did not become effective in the poem. (…)
Judging a poem is like judging a pudding or a machine. One demands that it work. It is only because an artifact works that we infer the intention of an artificer. “A poem should not mean but be.” A poem can be only through its meaning-‑since its medium is words‑yet it is, simply is, in the sense that we have no excuse for inquiring what part is intended or meant.
Poetry succeeds because all or most of what is said or implied is relevant; what is irrevelant has been excluded, like lumps from pudding and “bugs” from machinery. In this respect poetry differs from practical messages, which are successful if and only if we correctly infer the intention. They are more abstract than poetry.
- (…) We ought to impute the thoughts and attitudes of the poem immediately to the dramatic speaker, and if to the author at all, only by an act of biographical inference.
- There is a sense in which an author, by revision, may better achieve his original intention. But it is a very abstract sense. He intended to write a better work, or a better work of a certain kind, and now has done it. But it follows that his former concrete intention was not his intention. “He’s the man we were in search of, that’s true,” says Hardy’s rustic constable, “and yet he’s not the man we were in search of. For the man we were in search of was not the man we wanted.”
There is a difference between internal and external evidence for the meaning of a poem. And the paradox is only verbal and superficial that
what is (1) internal is also public: it is discovered through the semantics and syntax of a poem, through our habitual knowledge of the language, through grammars, dictionaries, and all the literature which is the source of dictionaries, in general through all that makes a language and culture;
while what is (2) external is private or idiosyncratic; not a part of the work as a linguistic fact: it consists of revelations (in journals, for example, or letters or reported conversations) about how or why the poet wrote the poem—to what lady, while sitting on what lawn, or at the death of what friend or brother.
Roland Barthes would later expand on this idea in the essay The Death of the Author in 1967 (also available online and heartily recommended), which opens with:
In his story Sarrasine, Balzac, speaking of a castrato disguised as a woman, writes this sentence: “It was Woman, with her sudden fears, her irrational whims, her instinctive fears, her unprovoked bravado, her daring and her delicious delicacy of feeling” Who is speaking in this way? Is it the story’s hero, concerned to ignore the castrato concealed beneath the woman? Is it the man Balzac, endowed by his personal experience with a philosophy of Woman? Is it the author Balzac, professing certain “literary” ideas of femininity? Is it universal wisdom? or romantic psychology? It will always be impossible to know, for the good reason that all writing is itself this special voice, consisting of several indiscernible voices, and that literature is precisely the invention of this voice, to which we cannot assign a specific origin: literature is that neuter, that composite, that oblique into which every subject escapes, the trap where all identity is lost, beginning with the very identity of the body that writes.In addition, in the first sentence of a paragraph that can be considered a perfect distillation of all the (irreconcilable) schools in literary criticism, he emphasizes the fallacy of attributing a meaning to a work, “a secret”; there is no the meaning or finiteness.
Once the Author is gone, the claim to “decipher” a text becomes quite useless. To give an Author to a text is to impose upon that text a stop clause, to furnish it with a final signification, to close the writing.
There is no one meaning of the author’s work, but meanings that converge in the reception of the reader proper. In my brush with copyright I won’t quote the last paragraph in its entirety, albeit a profound stroke of insight, but the mere gist of it:
[T]here is one place where this multiplicity is collected, united, and this place is not the author, as we have hitherto said it was, but the reader[.]
As an example, consider this story:
The man left the toilet seat up. The woman killed him.
In general, one would remark that the woman must be of a mean temper to kill her spouse over such a trivial thing. Perhaps she had bottled up a lot of anger; perhaps she suffered from a mental disorder? These are perfectly astute observations to make, but these are not cut-out solutions to the so-called actual meaning.
What I have done is to write two sentences—events as some theorists would say. Something happens in the first sentence; something happens in the second. Notice that I did not write “first something happens; then something happens”. The relation between the two sentences, should one be perceived to exist at all, is entirely inferred by the reader. If a relationship were inferred, it would be temporal and/or causal.
Temporally, you may presume that the syntax implies that the first sentence happens before the second, but no (and yes): it might as well happen reversely, concurrently, or in whatever time-space continuum you could conjure. Causally, the two sentences do not explicitly have a relationship, but you are prone to assume that they do: she kills a man or the man from the first sentence, because, and, as logical consequence, after, he leaves the seat up.
One would also easily suppose that the two have some relationship in general: they know each other, live together, or some such. In fact, they may not; they may be two separate, self-contained people and stories or intertwine in a way whose scope only the reader proper can dream up. Likewise, the circumstances prompting the actions of the two people are also susceptible to reader scrutiny.
As the author proper, I merely made up the example with the intent to explain the concepts of this post, but look what life it took on as multifarious interpretations began cropping up! It’s well out of my hands and my imagination. And you as a reader are not “correct” in inferring the same story or plot as I nor wrong in inferring your own; the work lives on beyond my grasp and finite comprehension. A work is a work is a work. Nevermind the author.
End of part one.