The Demeaning of Meaning: The Author as Tyrant?

I’m going to try to do a very un-bloggish thing this month.  🙂  I know we’re supposed to make sure blog posts are all pithy and self-contained.  I want to look at an unpithy, complex set of questions:  How should we approach the idea of meaning in literature?  Does the author impart meaning to the text, is it something the reader brings to it, or is there something greater at work here?  I do think this is a very important question, for Christians in particular but also for intelligent readers in general.  In short, we’ve been led astray.  We’ve been fed a bill of goods.  In recent years, we’ve been told that we, as readers, must choose between two mutually exclusive propositions:  either we must accept the author as tyrant or promote ourselves into his/her place.

“Hogwash” and “poppycock” are two appropriate technical terms.

While there is something to the critiques of both extremes, the idea that we must accept one or the other is nonsense.  In my own opinion, there is a better, deeper, and more truthful answer to the question–one I hope to introduce you to this month.  Maybe you’ve already thought of it, but regardless,  I hope you find the discussion as engaging as I do.


Read my book, peon!
Read my book, peon!

The idea that the author has tyrannized the reader for centuries is, quite frankly, a bit of a postmodern bugaboo.  However, it a bugaboo that haunts the dreams of a number of recent literary critics and the theories they espouse.  If the author can impart meaning, then he/she has a reasonable claim to controlling the reader’s interpretation of what is read.  That is something that makes some people of a relativistic bent nervous and, if carried too far (in theory), not wholly without reason.

Does an author have absolute control over the meaning of a text?  Some postmodern thinkers believe so.  In some fields of study–such as history in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries–that indeed seemed to be what some authors intended.   As one historian of the time noted, facts “when justly arranged interpret themselves.”  When presented to a reader, then, there was no room for unique thought.  Readers would be forced to agree with whatever the author said.  According to this theory, scientific history would produce the perfect book, just like science as a whole would the perfect human, the perfect society, and the perfect world.  Once such a book was completed, there would be no need to revisit the subject.  There would be nothing more to say–the author’s account was absolute.

If that is the case, then it is reasonable for at least some readers to gradually regard themselves as nothing more than slaves.  The author would have assumed complete theoretical control of the exchange.   The text itself wasn’t something you could engage, and you weren’t supposed to be interested in what you could bring to it, only what you already found inside it.  At least that is the bugaboo version of the story used to justify the modern dismissal of authorial intent (Nasty uncomfortable thing.  Makes you late for dinner!).

Of course, in the realm of literature as well as of history, reality was much different.  While there was a significant focus on the author as the key to the text for quite some time, the idea of the author-tyrant seems to me (and I’m open to being disproved) to be mostly a modern invention.  Most authors have always encouraged engagement with their text even as they have tried to convey their meaning through it.  Readers demanded no less, as illustrated by the oft-quoted comment by Machiavelli.  When he sat down to read, he would “take off my rough mud-stained country dress. I put on my royal and curial robes and thus fittingly attired I enter into the assembly of men of old times. Welcomed by them I feed upon that food which is my true nourishment, and which has made me what I am. I dare to talk with them, and ask them the reason for their actions. Of their kindness they answer me.”  People have continued that engagement throughout time, no matter if it be when the author was considered to be either tyrannical or superfluous.  The historians kept writing books arguing about history, the critics always sought out new plays by brilliant playwrights, and even the literary theorists who themselves attacked both author and meaning formed themselves into schools around their favorite authors.

That doesn’t mean, though, the author cannot indeed be idolized to the point of absurdity, and this perhaps does illustrate why people might choose to rebel.  When we allow an author to be treated as something more than human, we lose perspective.  Authors are not infallible; neither are they omniscient, even in their own texts.  While I certainly grant there are people far more learned than I, they are not so far above me that we do not share a common grounding in human experience.  The very fact we are who we are means that though there is undoubtedly something I have to learn from them, I probably have something I could teach them too.  Therefore, when I sit down to read something composed by mere humanity, I am not doing so with the intention of simply receiving a “good talking at” by the author, and, while I should give the author his/her due, I will not be wholly focused on what the author thinks or wants or had for breakfast the morning he/she wrote the passage I’m currently on.  To do so would be to cut myself off from half the experience of reading!   I have my own experiences and my own ideas I bring to the table, and I want to use them to tease out new insight.  As I read, I often see something unique I believe is just as truthful as what the author intended, but has apparently escaped notice.  I argue with the author (successfully at points, not so at others) and in general become as much a part of the experience as the author does.

So, while we need not accept the bugaboo, the author as the total end of reading and writing simply will not do.  Unfortunately, when the late Twentieth Century tried to find a new way, sans author, the result would be to overthrow a theoretical tyranny with a real one:  That of the reader.

Next Week:  The Reader Ascendant, Impoverished 

Posts in this Series

  1. The Author as Tyrant?
  2. The Reader Ascendant, Impoverished
  3. Why it Matters, Biblically
  4. The Redemption of Meaning:  Freedom with Respect


6 thoughts on “The Demeaning of Meaning: The Author as Tyrant?

    1. An improvement over my last attempt then, I suppose. 😉 I’ll be interested to see your reactions to the rest of the series.

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