The thing I get criticized for the most in my English classes is presuming to know the author’s intentions. I like to look at a book or a poem or a play and figure out what the author intended for us to know. I refuse to believe that all of the different possible readings of a work are equally valid. The author was trying to say something, not an infinity of somethings. We may never know what the author really had in his or her head, but shouldn’t we at least try to find out?
First, not all interpretations are equally valid. Some things are simply impossible – no matter how many times you see groups of three in The Odyssey, reading the Holy Trinity into it is simply not acceptable. Second, even of the interpretations that we can’t rule out as definitively, what do we gain from allowing all interpretations? The whole point of books is to learn something, to look at life in a way that you are not used to. You learn by listening to what others tell you – and that means listening to what the author is saying, not what you choose to say on the basis of his book. If you only pay attention to your own opinions rather than trying to find definitive fact, you generate no new knowledge.
Maybe this is exactly why English “research” is so amazingly useless. To accomplish something, you have to generate new knowledge, and, moreover, knowledge that can be applicable to something outside of itself. Coming up with a definitive answer as to whether Richard III is a good play is useless. Finding that it portrays Shakespeare’s frustration with political manoeuvring tells us a lot about him, the time he lived in, and the way that the Wars of the Roses fit into the lot. Finding out that it is just as likely not to portray his frustration with politics accomplishes absolutely nothing.
The biggest argument I’ve been given against my point is that we can never know an author’s intentions. But this isn’t math, not even biology. We can’t know anything for certain in any of the humanities. And yet historians aren’t afraid to make definitive answers. We can never know what was going through F.D.R.’s mind when he decided to enter the war, but we still unabashedly explain the reasons for why he did it. How? They gather evidence, weigh both sides, and make conclusions. Sometimes they supply a caveat with it, that these are only possibilities. But at least they don’t give the other options equal weight.
So really it should be even easier for us to guess at authors’ intentions than it is to guess at those of historical figures. Authors, unlike everyone else we study, take their ideas – their purpose – and write works hundreds of pages long telling us all about them. Everything in their books is their intent. Nothing is in there by accident. We can over-analyze, but then we can also do that with history, politics, even biology. That danger shouldn’t stop us from reaching and publicizing conclusions.