A recent exchange with a student concerning artwork:
To prevent being completely productive in the two weeks when it would be most beneficial to do so, I started writing a commentary at my blog on the lyrics to "Call It Clear", a song by Halloween,
When reading a great play or novel is their a point at which your interpretation is no longer intended by the author but some kind of fluke connection? If so, how do you know where that point is? You have said that you believe such and such an author chose every single word with intent, but how do you determine if the author you are reading was that mindful of his own work? In other words, is it possible to read a book with no intended symbolism and manufacture your own dynamic interpretation? How do you know if you are doing that?
Student Aix Wizee
Thanks for the email, Aix, and in order to waste my time I’ll try to give a quick response.
Of course there is a difference btwn reading the text and reading into the text. Unfortunately, there is no rubric to know exactly when you cross that line. One way to know that the author intended X is to read as much of his other work as you can and see whether the message stays consistent. Look also and see whether the imagery used is appropriate for the rest of the message (for instance, does the author make his hero suddenly become a bunny rabbit? If so, is that consistent with the culture, as it would be with Indian or Buddhist culture but not so with Western)? Also an aid is to read what others have to say about the author; frequently such opinions offer great insight which an initial read might miss.
Ways to know when you’re really off? Any bending of the imagery to meet what you want would be a misread (for instance trying to insist that the color red represents purity). Any wishful thinking contrary to the actual text and imagery would be a misread (for instance hoping to find the golden proportion where it doesn’t exist). Any anachronistic interpretations would be a misread (like Marxist or feminist readings into an earlier historical work; or Christian for that matter).
Unfortunately, the only sure way to know a misread is the gut response one has to the text; it seems right or wrong. No one has ever read the Grendel cave as a womb (at least to my knowledge) but it is; under water, in the earth, reached through a passage, dark, feminine & devouring life. That just seems right. So in any essay I right I make the case that it is so and hold up to public scrutiny whether this is right or wrong.
Finally, the odd thing about all art is that it transcends the artist. Sure, we say that the artist “intended” XY or Z and with great artists they really are careful in their choice of word, note, or color/form b/c they are very aware that their choice will have some effect (I’m excluding here poor or sloppy artists whose work seldom is great except by some fluke). But the work is greater than the artist and can frequently speak to an audience of things which the artist himself never saw or intended. He intended a great message, but perhaps a greater message than what he intended corresponds to the work. This observation Plato himself made in the Republic when he noted that artwork corresponds to realities beyond the limitations of the artist. Thus a piece of music may speak volumes to us when the artist just found it a whimsy or small work. “Carnival of the Animals” for instance, was loathed by Saint-Saens who wanted to write only “serious” music. The Mona Lisa was only a minor portrait by DaVinci and the Last Supper was merely a decoration of a refectory; rent payments. But the impact these works have had on others has been tremendous. So when you find a work speaking to you and your analysis growing out of control just remember that the analysis may be still correct.
Hope this helps. I’m not intentionally obscure but I play it on TV. I would suggest reading Aristotle’s Poetics and Walker Percy’s “Message in the Bottle” as well as Santayana’s “Reason in Art” and Carl Jung's "The Spirit in Man." Also a great work is “Leonardo’s Incessant Last Supper” and “Sexuality of Jesus Christ in Renaissance Art and Modern Oblivion” by Leo Steinberg and “Harmonies of Heaven and Earth” by Joscelyn Godwin. Lots of reading, but all good stuff.