Aug 11, 2009

New Criticism, Part 2: The Intentional Fallacy

Left: My Grandmother?

The Singer and the Song

So you say you love Faulkner? Me too (or at least I went through a mild Faulkner phase). Therefore, you want to know what he intended by blah blah about blah blah in this or that work? Who was the real Benjy, and was he in fact a savant?

In a PBS interview with Faulkner’s daughter a couple decades ago, when she was middle aged, she talked about being a young girl and trying to stop one of her father's drinking binges—she’d learned to recognize the beginnings.
“Pappie,” she said, “please don’t. Please stop.”
His reply? “Nobody remembers Shakespeare’s children.”

Although it’s not relevant, I want to add that Faulkner's daughter, all those years later, was dignified and restrained in narrating this tale. Dignity and restraint are valuable weapons.

The point is, artists and writers full of psychopathologies have produced stunning works—Van Gogh, Plath, Sexton, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Nietzsche—the list seems endless. In fact, we commonly assume—don’t we?—that great artists have led unusually troubled, often mean lives, unless we hear otherwise. Presumed guilty (i.e., neurotic) until proven innocent. Somehow that mollifies and elevates our own troubles and meanness, I suspect; we are of a kind with Faulkner, or something like that. Never mind that he'd probably prefer we be of a kind with his characters.

Further irony: don’t we assume that literature offers wisdom, whatever else it might do? Yet we expect this wisdom to come from our looniest fellow travelers. The looniness produces the wisdom. Why else Lear's fool? And from there, it's only inches to: "I am loony; therefore, I am wise."

Of course some of that might be true. The point is, however, in being a good reader, it is wasteful to speculate much about the author’s life or his intentions, titillating as that can be, because authors are not completely aware of the correlation between their intentions and the object they’ve in fact created.

The work is on the page; read it. The writer is dead or dying or too flawed to believe, or simply unaware of precisely what he’s wrought. So what he says about his work is of limited value. Think of his commentary as literary fortune cookies, party favors, mints on the pillow. Do not think of his remarks as the entrĂ©e; that’s pointless idol worship. That's Hollywood. That's fawning from the mosh pit. Instead, read the damned poem. Over and over. Out loud. Can you chant it? Why not? Wallow in it. If it's too shallow for a long-wallow, there's your answer about how good the poem is, at least for you; and in arriving at that evaluation, you've probably come to understand it fairly well.

Was that too impressionistic? How about this hypothetical: a writer intends to compose a merely literal chronology of his grandmother’s life, but does it so well that he ends up with a brilliant novel about man’s inhumanity to man. Why should we deny his achievement simply because it was not his intent to produce so grand an object?

Of course the evaluation game usually goes the other direction, with the author trying for canonical greatness, but achieving only a superficial sketch of his grandmother’s life. In either case, his intent is irrelevant. The work product "is what it is," as we say these days; it may or may not be what its creator intended it to be. It sits there trying to come alive on its own terms, begging us to participate in it, not its creator's daydreams or the facts of his life.

More coming? You betcha. (I speak Alaskan).


Anonymous said...

Hey, I wrote about this too a ways back.

Author bios have ruined certain books for me. And it's all my fault. I read those bios just to hear gossip, even if the gossip was 100 years old.

Knowing sleeping, drinking, and drugging habits has made me doubt some brilliant and reliable narrators just because of whose shaking hand put the words on the page.

I, however, never liked Faulkner until I read that Shakespeare line.

Gothpunkuncle said...

Just to follow up with a little demonstration of text and context: Mr. Faulkner's As I Lay Dying is a wonderful book in the context of a graduate level course on the Modern novel. No arguments there. It should be read with Ulysses and Jean Toomer's Cane by anyone interested in multiple points of view, shifting perspective, experimental storytelling and such (forgive me, that sounded a bit too POST-modern, sorry.)

As I Lay Dying, as written, would make a terrible Disney animated feature.

However with these changes:

Disney’s As I Lay Dying

The Bundrens may be poor, but their love for each other and their penchant to break out in song and dance get them through the hard times. As a family, they head off in their wagon to get their ailing Ma the medicine she needs. There is peril along the way as Old Man Peabody chases the family down to force them back into his cotton fields at any cost, but together, with the help of their talking mule and Vardaman’s sassy talking fish, they make it to town on time, and Ma Bundren fully recovers. (Hopefully, T-Bone Burnett is available for the soundtrack.)

Banjo52 said...

AH, Well said, as usual. Your "shaking hand" image really captures the issue, I think.

I doubt anyone who claims to be completely uninterested in the mind and behavior that guide that hand. But I have to prefer the New Criticism's position. Would they even allow this point: that's a separate, supplemental, or even irrelevant story; we "may" read it if we like, but we don't impose its facts, or "facts" on the other, primary work.

If you care to pin down the date of your post on the subject, I'd love to read it.

Faulkner's line on Shakespeare's children makes you like Faulkner? You really are dedicated to the work. On the other hand, the line is indisputably true and raises interesting, troubling questions. On the third hand, Faulkner did make some sacrifices for family--at least by the standards of his time and place. Ooops, violation of the New Criticism? Biographical fallacy?

Banjo52 said...
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Banjo52 said...
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Banjo52 said...

Follow up message

Whew, here it is

New Criticism’s position is kind of like the judge telling the jury to disregard a comment. Can you?

Funny, I was going to write a little piece about how a child’s success depends on a parent’s mediocrity. Now I realize what gave me the idea – your quote!

Banjo52 said...

Interesting on the judge's directive! "You can't unring that bell."

I've also wondered about another difference between the law and literary theory -- in the law, INTENT is a huge factor in the severity of the crime, yet the New Criticism asks us to ignore intent in literature.

Fascinating point on parenting, also. Sounds like a future
post . . .

Banjo52 said...

I've been too long away from As I Lay Dying to say anything meaningful about your frolic with it. It sounds like fun, but a stretch for Disney. Still, why don't you float it? (Is that what you do--float it? What's the expression I mean? Send Disney a flier? Take a powder? No, that's not it . . . ).

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