Archive for the 'Literature' Category

14
Dec
09

Seeing Author People (the intentional fallacy part II)

Editor’s note: the following was received in a repeating signal, broadcast by a digital beacon from the middle of the Bornean Jungle. As of now, Blanka Hsudler’s location is unknown.

***

Previously in this space, I’ve discussed the so-called “fallacy of the author,” which states that an artistic work should be judged on its own merits without preconceptions about authorial intent. Although this has always been a touchstone of my attitude as a reader, it’s caused considerable problems in my approach to writing. Trying to write with a background in literary criticism is like trying to play the lottery while having a basic understanding of math.

The Fallacy, in particular, seems designed to undermine the creative act. After all, the very name of the thing declares that authorship is a lie. How am I supposed to put words on the page when I have no say in the meaning of the finished work?

The dilemma is encapsulated nicely in this scene (linked in part I) from the marginally-entertaining Rodney Dangerfield vehicle Back to School. For a practically-minded man like protagonist Thornton Melon, it makes perfect sense that the ultimate authority on a Kurt Vonnegut novel would be the writer himself. He learns a hard lesson about lit theory when his college professor gives Vonnegut’s paper an F, and moreover declares that its author “doesn’t know the first thing about Kurt Vonnegut.” Of course, poor Kurt learns a harder lesson, one that really tugs at a fellow writer’s heartstrings, when Melon cancels his paycheck. As far as I am concerned, the most important lesson in Back to School is always ask to be paid beforehand, in cash.

***

That authors often don’t understand the “hidden meaning” in their own work is hardly news. But if I can’t tell you what my own book is about, what’s the point of writing at all? Worse, what if I’m writing one thing and it turns out to be just the opposite? Take The Merchant of Venice: critics still can’t decide if poor old William Shakespeare meant Shylock to be a greedy old caricature hilariously bitch-slapped by karma, or an sweet man soured by the bitter pill of society’s salty aspersions.

Two modern interpretations of the character:
Laurence Olivier

Sir Laurence Olivier as Shylock, 1973

Al Pacino

Al Pacino as Shylock, 2004

This, of course, ignores the obvious answer that Shylock is supposed to be an ambiguous figure. For the sake of this analysis I’ll pretend that shades of gray weren’t invented till Impressionism.

***

Another example from the Bard: I’m pretty sure “to thine own self be true,” the words said by Polonius to his son in Hamlet, wasn’t meant as sound advice. Until he’s accidentally stabbed while hiding behind some curtains (in a scene that I find hilarious — is that so wrong?), Polonius is presented as a senile, lecture-happy dotard, a sort of medieval Larry King who hails from Denmark instead of Mesopotamia. I’m pretty sure it’s no coincidence that his advice sounds like the title of a bad self-help book or an even worse memoir (an Amazon search turns up a painfully comprehensive list of both).

An astute reader might point out that Shakespeare isn’t the best source to use when discussing authorial intent, since we’re not actually sure the guy wrote his own plays. Or existed. But whether a non-entity can truly intend anything is a question I’ll leave to the philosophers (or Tom Huxter).

The point is, it can seem impossible to get a message across when all readers have to go on is the written word. Even when the message is right there in the text, someone is likely to come along who gets it completely backwards. Worst of all, everything being relative, perhaps it’s the author himself who’s misunderstood the whole thing. So, why write at all? It’s certainly enough of a dilemma to make one tear one’s hair out.

Shakespeare, BEFORE and AFTER

Shakespeare, too, was distressed to learn about the Fallacy of the Author.

***

Next time: Some foolproof ideas about how to write, in spite of the Fallacy. Or at least, some foolish ideas.

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21
Oct
09

Don Quixote and the Legacy of an Otaku: PART I

This is a brief article about the term otaku and how it relates to our Western society.

The following passage may be too nerdy for some audience members.  Viewer discretion is advised.

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Fuura Kafuka with "the man" and his sidekick Sancho

Fuura Kafuka with "the man" and his sidekick Sancho by Picasso.

Miguel de Cervantes wrote an epic novel called the Ingenious Hidalgo Don Quixote de la Mancha.  When I read it as a teenager I was absolutely fascinated by the “hardcore” nature of Don Quixote.  It saddens me a little now that I have fully grasped the actual nature of the character of Don Quixote.

Before I go any further with Cervantes, let me explain to the viewers a term I learned later in life.  “Otaku” is a noun used in Japan indicating a specific group of individuals who has or have fixated interest in a particular subject matter.  More than likely, the fixated subjects tend to be anime, manga, video games, an idol (this is a common word used in Japan to indicate a model/singer/actress/etc.,) cosplay, etc.  The closest English version of the word would be something in the line of fanboy (or in old English as loser or geek.)  Just to make it a bit more relevant, an individual in Western society who were engrossed in Dungeons and Dragons 24/7 would be classified as an otaku.  An individual that we label as a furry would be classified an otaku.  The main character that was depicted in that movie, The 40 Year Old Virgin, would be classified as an otaku.

Now back to Cervantes and his cartoon character.

I have now realized that this work by Cervantes, though not completely convinced that it is an original story, is actually an epic about an otaku.  Don Quixote, “the man” as I call him, is one of the first otakus to be illustrated in words unto paper.  This primogenitor of sort for the Otaku community belonged to a wealthy Spanish (this word means that the person is from Spain) nobility.  Due to the inordinately large gap between the poor and the wealthy during these days (Actually this is not true.  The gap is still large in the US and the world), the wealthy can practically live their unproductive lives doing absolutely nothing.

For the case of our “the man” de la Mancha, he felt obligated to indulge in romantic (again this word refers to something that is romanticized) novels of the past knights in shining armor days.  An avid reader and collector of these romantic novels, “the man” was ever so engrossed in the fantastic world of dragons and ladies awaiting rescue.  Adding to the fact that in his residence, he amassed a hefty load of armor, though decrepit and rusting, in which to satiate his cosplay (the need for me to explain every little thing here is starting to really annoy me, look it up yourselves my magnanimous readers, sayth the humble writer,) needs.

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To Be Continued.

PS: Your humble servant/writer’s note: Due to new rules from FTC (Federal Trade Commission) requiring bloggers who review products to disclose if they have received funding from the products’ owners by December 31 of Deus Anno 2009, I have decided to apply this rule early to show how humble and noble of a servant I am.  Even though we do not, in Uncomma, review much of anything other than to elaborately review how our minds are greater than theirs, I feel that Uncomma will acquiesce to the greater rule of law.  Hence, the article above written by I, your humble servant and overlord of all that is good and humble, have not received anything from any unnamed donors of any kind relating to any products mentioned or implicitly mentioned within this article or relating to this article.  The said unnamed donor did not pay in cash or in goods or in kind of any services that was provided or was not provided by Uncomma.  This article is completely unbiased and unaffected by donation that can be submitted via PayPal or Google Checkout to an unmentioned link not provided by Uncomma.  Also, PayPal and Google Checkout did not pay Uncomma in any way or form in providing their great service through their respective Web sites.

07
Oct
09

You killed my author, prepare to die

I’d only intended to stay a day or two while I recovered from exhaustion, but by now it seems that the abandoned camp has become my temporary home.  The trees are less dense here, so the place has the feel of a vaulted cathedral compared to the shadowy netherworld just a few yards away; at night, the dim glow of the Google logo on my laptop gives the clearing the subtle sheen of a polished stone.  If I really squint, I can even pretend that the clusters of beady, hungry eyes out beyond the edge of the clearing are candles twinkling serenely at the end of some neglected alcove.

I’m only joking about the eyes, of course.  Death here comes without the luxury of a warning.

But I won’t let it worry me.

***

I’ve been thinking a lot about writing lately.  This is, clearly, no substitute for the real thing.

I’ve been reminded, though, of an essay I read in one of the first classes I took on literary theory.  I can’t remember the title or the author (clearly, it made quite an impression), but it dealt with the Fallacy of the Author (also known as the Intentional Fallacy, or, more whimsically, the Death of the Author), an idea which has informed my reading process ever since.

The concept states, basically, that when we read we shouldn’t worry about the author’s intentions.  The words, once written, speak for themselves and we should look to them if we want to find out what a work means.

Music provides some illumination into how this should work.  Beethoven’s Ode to Joy has lyrics by Frederick Schiller – lyrics so majestically overblown that they practically float away like a German airship.

No ticket.

But even without its lyrics, perhaps more so without the distracting verbal flourishes, the chords and melody exude joy.  We don’t need to know what, precisely, inspired joy in Beethoven in order to understand  the piece’s meaning.  In fact, this one is best left alone, because I’m pretty sure he’d just won a bunch of money betting on a slapping contest.  Perhaps Joy was the name of the winning competitor.

***

SIDEBAR: Speaking of Beethoven, what if the radioactive goo that simultaneously blinded and empowered Daredevil had gone into his ears instead of his eyes?  We might have ended up with a deaf but eagle-eyed avenger, spotting danger before it appears.  Tough to get his attention, though, if he’s not looking at you.

Ludwig van Murdock

Hey Daredevil, help me light my barbecue? Daredevil? DAREDEVIL? ...Ah, I'll just do it myself.

But I digress.

***

Ode to Joy is just that – a celebration of human emotion.  Things get more complex when we deal with popular music, in which lyrics play a central role.  What do we make of something like Layla by Derek and the Dominos?  The song’s narrator begs the eponymous Layla to leave her neglectful husband and be with him instead.

I tried to give you consolation/When your old man had let you down/Like a fool, I fell in love with you/You turned my whole world upside down. (Eric Clapton could have been incredibly emo if he’d been born 30 years later.)

Rock fans know that Clapton wrote Layla about Beatle George Harrison’s wife, whom Clapton would later marry.  The song is grounded in fact, which lends it an extra dose of poignancy.

Layla provides a nice illustration of the limits of the Intentional Fallacy.  If we ignore Clapton and look at the song on its own, we can still understand the narrator’s woe.  The listener may even be able to see its sentiments reflected in his own life.  Clearly, though, the feelings expressed were intensely personal ones for Clapton, and ignoring this aspect of the song excises a whole layer of meaning.

***

The Fallacy of the Author comes in handy when parsing more opaque songs like Led Zeppelin’s Stairway to Heaven.  It’s only natural to want to find meaning in a song that is one of the few things people remember from the ‘70s, and Stairway’s words clearly have a lot going on.

Then again, If there’s a bustle in your hedgerow/Don’t be alarmed now/It’s just a spring clean for the May Queen just sounds a lot like Robert Plant forgot the lyrics mid-session and decided to ad lib.  The thing makes little enough sense that it’s not surprising some listeners thought the whole point of the song was as cover for a backmasked salute to Satan.

Much has been made of the song’s symbolism, its reference to Celtic mythology, etc., etc., etc.  But without asking the songwriter himself, any conjectures are just that.  For all we know, a drug-addled, Tolkien-loving Plant may have thought he was writing a sequel to The Lord of the Rings.

No Stairway? Denied.

No Stairway? Denied.

In the end, it is probably best not to worry about what was intended here.  Authorial intent, as in the case of Layla, can sometimes make things work on another level, but mostly, listeners trying to unscramble the contorted brainwaves of an earlier decade in search of illumination are just going to do themselves an injury.  Some see Stairway as a parable about materialism, some hear a call to arms for the grand tradition of western mythology, and of course, there’s always the Satanists-with-a-sound-engineer theory.

Myself, I find it’s easiest, and most accurate, to say what I always say when someone asks “what’s this song about?”

Uh, heroin?

***

Next time on Uncomma: what the Fallacy means to writers – or Why Kurt Vonnegut totally deserved that F.