Tuesday, July 19, 2005

Exegeses, etc.

I’ve got the nature of meaning on my mind, partially because I’m still arguing at FUUSE about what makes an incident racist. Partially, though, my quandary comes because I’m reading For Your Eye Alone: The Letters of Robertson Davies.

I’ve learned a lot about my hero as a man from reading this. Apparently, he wrote to actors and actresses to praise their performances in plays he’d seen all the time. He also kept his friends for many decades ans was in his sixties writing to college friends. He liked his biographer but wasn’t completely comfortable around her. (The biographer edited this set of letters and chose several that noted his discomfort with her. In her position, I likely would have done the same.)

But the most interesting letters to me are the ones from ordinary fans. One person wrote to complain about anti-Semitism she perceived (and he answers her well, I think, pointing out in one case that to say a person looks Jewish is not in itself Anti-Semitism and in another that the Jewish character took advantage of an opportunity other people didn’t see, but didn’t cheat anyone and was no way deceptive.) people write to ask about where he gets his ideas. And lots of people write to tell him what his books meant. The funniest letter by far is from a chap quite convinced that World of Wonders was really about the life of the St. Paul.

As an undergraduate, I was rather taken with a guy who liked taking lit theory courses more than he liked doing his homework in them. In a clumsy smart girl attempt to curry favor, I wrote a couple of papers and heavily advised him on several more. (Memo to smart girls: This never, ever, works.) The professor would often say that they were looking for meanings in books that the authors themselves hadn’t perceived. At the time, I doubted that such a thing was possible and completely made up the contents of the guy’s papers. I wrote them in academic-eese and they went over well. But I thought that what I was writing was crap.

I still think that about those specific papers. And admittedly, I thought the St. Paul guy deserved a response less kind than Davies’.

But it’s obvious that our actions can have consequences beyond what we intend, and people can see, for example, a racial context in a harsh confrontation we have with someone of another race when we didn’t think of it at all. (CC is bad on this one and has an awful tendency to forget that people she knows are of another race. She likes to tell the story that she went to school with a guy named Miguel Montoya for eleven years and noticed as a high school junior that he was Hispanic.) Can our words have meaning beyond what we thought of when we wrote them? If a good friend who once loved a woman from France shows us a poem he wrote at the time praising the beauty of wonder of Paris, the connection seems obvious even if the writer denies it.

I can’t say that I’m thinking about where the line can be drawn as I’m convinced that there’s no line. But that’s what I’m thinking about these days.


1 comment:

Jeff Wilson said...

You just reminded me of my revelation about my schoolfriend, Aaron Mitra. It wasn't until one day when we were high school seniors sitting in physics class that I suddenly realized, "Hey, Aaron is Indian!" And this after I'd hung out with the guy for years, met his family in their home, etc. Seems kinda weird to be that oblivious now that I look back on it.

Someone in the FUUSE debate said that perception is reality. I don't believe that for a second. Reality is reality. But perceptions are part of reality, such as the perception of racism that creates racially charged incidents (not to mention the reality of racism that creates such incidents).

I'm an author, and I've had people describe to me meanings they saw in my work that I know just weren't there when I wrote them, not even subconsciously (for instance, about things I'd never even heard of). That used to worry me, including the worry that I might be reading more into films, books, people, etc than was really there (and as an academic, looking for subterranean meaning is part of how you earn your livelihood). But I came to understand eventually that a piece of writing does not belong solely to the author, and the author is not the sole arbiter of what meaning it has. Writing is a public event, with an intended audience, and thus it is natural that readers beyond the author will appropriate and alter the understanding of the text. Art has a life beyond the mind/pen of the author--once you've written something down, it has its own existence and this child you've just given birth may go on to live a very different life than you envisioned. Nowadays I find that idea actually sort of appealing: there's a wonder and a mystery in every act of creation, since we don't fully know what will become of it.