The Intentional Fallacy

This problem involves the reader’s assumption that the most important thing to do when reading a text is to figure out what the author meant. This leads to a host of problems, including the reduction of literature to simplified lines of communication—that the speaker of a poem or the narrator of a novel is the voice of the author. We can all think of examples in which this is manifestly not true, such as dramatic monologues like Tennyson’s “Ulysses” (for which the speaker is Ulysses, not Tennyson) or any novel in which the narrator is a character in the book. But even for less likely candidates, the new critics suggest it’s useful to separate the text from the author and see what it says on its own. I.A. Richards famously suggested that the worst thing one could do if he didn’t understand T. S. Eliot’s poem The Waste Land was to call up the poet and ask him what he meant. For one thing, Eliot would only respond in riddles, or would suggest he couldn’t remember what he meant, or that he never knew to begin with; Eliot was a cagey dude. The critic, the reader, is just as much an authority as the author about the meaning of a text, because meaning is communal.

This is a result of two historical trends. One is the idea of the unconscious and its role in the creative process. By the early twentieth century, the author of literature was beginning to be understood not only as a professional craftsperson, but as a person with an extraordinarily active subconscious mind. The concept of the “Freudian slip,” the unintentional glimpse we sometimes give into our deepest thoughts and desires, entered into the study of literature, and authors (being real people) were no longer taken to be the supreme authorities of what they meant to say. Anecdotes about what goes on in therapeutic sessions also have convinced us that people tend to try to put the best face on their desires and actions, and literature may be no exception. We can think about the image that an author might try to depict of him or herself as a better person than she or he might actually be in real life, and we have no way of knowing whether that image matches their actual personality. The new critics suggest that in the end, it’s not really that interesting to know about authors as real flesh and blood people; far more interesting is our investigation of what they wrote and what it has to say about a variety of themes we care about: gender, power, race, class, violence, etc.

The other trend is the “linguistic turn,” the growing historical awareness in modern times that language structures the way we think in a such a fundamental way that we are often more in its power than we realize, and that it is a delusion to think we can ever completely control the meaning conveyed by the words we choose. Language existed before we did, and it changes and adapts to events in an often alarmingly fast-paced manner that can leave us perennially playing catch-up. Since it is external to us, even when we put our own thoughts into language other people can be just as much of an authority on what those words mean when strung together. We can’t avoid being influenced by other people’s words, and what we said ten years ago may seem hopelessly dated to us when we hear them again in the present. More to the point, the words inside a text may create resonances and nuances of language that have more to do with the words themselves than with the stamp of meaning an author tries to imprint on those words.

Avoid the intentional fallacy by speaking of what the “text” does, rather than what the author thought (how can you know that, really?). Say “speaker,” if a poem, or “narrator,” if a novel, rather than the poet’s or novelist’s name. If you find the concept of the text’s author helpful, always be specific that you mean the author of the text in question. Don’t assume the Henry James of Washington Square (1880) shares an identical perspective with the Henry James who wrote “The Jolly Corner” (1909). Treat the process of artistic creation as a complex and dynamic enterprise, but don’t revere the author’s accomplishment unduly. Be skeptical about any author’s statements to the effect of “this is what I meant.”

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