Essays Written By Authors
I was from the Humble Consumer school of reading, and having just embarked on three years of studying English literature, it was a blow to be told that all my most cherished notions about that enterprise were bourgeois delusions.The countless hours I had spent in high school dutifully disinterring the truth and beauty of “Ode on a Grecian Urn” and parsing Shakespeare’s attitudes to romantic love in “Antony and Cleopatra” had been for nought, it seemed.If a text can mean anything the reader wants it to mean, then why read it in the first place?Isn’t literature supposed to help us achieve contact with other minds, rather than trapping us in a hall of mirrors, in which we can see only our own distorted reflections?
(She discovered that she did believe in writing as “an expression of an individual consciousness” after all.) For me, the disenchantment had more to do with the slow-dawning realization that I was not a very good or clever poststructuralist reader.Surely there must be limits to a text’s interpretability.And of course there are — no one could finish “Paradise Lost” and claim that Satan was a minor character.No book could announce its author’s intentions more plainly than “Paradise Lost.” John Milton declared his purpose in the opening stanza: “That to the heighth of this great argument / I may assert Eternal Providence, / And justify the ways of God to men.” And that is how “Paradise Lost” was read for the first century and a half of its existence: as a vindication of God’s justice.Because the sacred drama of the Fall will conclude with the salvation of humanity through the sacrifice of Jesus, Adam comes to realize that all his suffering is divinely ordained for the best: “O goodness infinite, goodness immense!Readers like William Blake and Percy Shelley opened the same poem that pious Christians had been enjoying for generations, only they discovered something surprising: The hero of the poem is not Adam, or Jesus, or God himself, but actually Satan, the incarnation of evil.Because all the other characters act out of obedience to a divine plan, they can’t be said to possess the characteristics of heroism — boldness, daring, pride. far superior to his God.” Yet how could it be that Milton, who was a deeply pious Christian and who explicitly said that his poem was meant to promulgate Christian truths, was actually, as Blake said, “of the Devil’s party without knowing it”?I regret to say that I kept up this approach for most of my time at college.It was nonsensical, but it was efficient and left me with lots of free time to pursue other pressing interests, like lying around in bed.The results of my grim-faced, slash-and-burn treks through the “polysemy” of canonical texts were infinitely duller and cruder than any of my naïve high school efforts to figure out what authors actually meant.Eventually, I slunk back, tail between my legs, to the ranks of Humble Consumers.