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On Authorial Intent

“Authorial intent” is something many philosophers of language have balked-at over the last century, especially post-modernists within the so-called New Criticism school of thought. The idea is that “all we have is the text” so we shouldn’t get distracted in trying to know the “mind of the author” since such a thing (if it existed) is technically “off limits.” While spinning a pun off Sir Thomas Mallory’s Le Mort d’Arthur, French literary critic and theorist Roland Barthes famously announced “La mort de l’auteur” in 1967. And once the author was pronounced “dead,” we are now free to divide and dispense his work as we see fit.

A half a century later, the “death of the author” idea has become incredibly influential across all sections of philosophical thought. Post-structuralism, Marxist Criticism, Psychoanalysis, and Reader Response Theory all find their place in either tearing down or de-constructing the “mind” of the author.  And for the most part, Christians have been along for the ride.

And while this approach might be helpful to an extent, and certainly text criticism has offered us a host of structural and literary insights, I think it is far from clear whether dispensing with the mind of the author has been a good move in the long run. Indeed, by insisting upon a superficial hyper-focus upon the text, does it not actually steer readers away from any deeper enjoyment and richer insights he or she might find upon the personal, psychic, and spiritual levels? Wouldn’t this be a classic case of missing the forest for the trees? What if the really important thing is precisely the mind and spirit of the author? And what if by missing this we miss the greater portion of the work itself?

More importantly, it would seem this critical approach to hermeneutics has marked correspondences with how we understand (and/or read) the entire world of creation,  God’s Word (Logos) writ-large upon the big screen of the physical cosmos. And if we consult the mainstay witness throughout traditional Christianity, a relationship with the author is absolutely central to understanding his world. This is our “Father’s world” after all.  For medieval Christians, not only did Scripture reveal the Word (Mind/Logos) of God, but the entire created order was considered the other “book” of God. Thus all of creation was understood as revealing (unveiling) the mind of God, and Christians was encouraged to seek after this knowledge. “How great are your works, O LORD! Your thoughts are very deep! (Ps. 92:5) As Kenelm Digby observes,

According to this philosophy the sources of our knowledge of God cannot be confined to divine revelation and the history of the world. “Nature,” says Father Luis of Granada, “is also a book, written on the outside and within, in which the finger of God is visible.”

Indeed,

All that is lovely and admirable in this beautiful world, the sweetness of flowers, the clearness of the sky, the cool blue of the placid waters, the solemn recesses of the grove, should be loved in reference to their Author.

This emphasis upon the personal “Author,” here, betrays the strong relational context in which medieval Christians understand their world and the “things” in the world. Smelling the roses wasn’t merely an exercise of the olfactory receptors reacting to chemical compounds. Rather, it was a tangible offering within a gift-exchanging love-affair with a personal God. All of creation was a web-like “book” replete with meaning and full of endless depth not exhaustible in a thousand lifetimes. And this was, as the medievals understood it, entirely the Author’s Intent.

“Oh what a goodly thing it is,” cries Caussin, “to talk face to face with those great forests which are born with the world, to discourse with the murmur of waters and the warbling of birds in the sweetness of solitude.”

Or as St. Bernard of Clairvaux expressed to the men invited into his Order:

Believe me upon my own experience, thou wilt find something more in the woods than in books; the trees and rocks will teach thee what thou canst not hear from masters.

This medieval approach to the world is doubtless refreshing and perhaps even enchanting for the contemporary Christian overwhelmed by the modern context of total nominalism and anti-meaningfulness of all things cultural and natural. But take heart, you are not alone, for many others have been fighting against this onslaught of nihilism.

C.S. Lewis, the staunch medievalist at heart, attempted to combat this “spirit” of critique, especially in his famous essay, An Experiment of Criticism. There he contrasted two kinds of readers: (1) those who intend to exert authority over the text; and (2) those who submit to the authority of the text. The first seek to explain away the author/other through a spirit of criticism, self-sufficiency, and superiority. The second desires to sit at the feet of the author and learn the mind, wisdom, and understanding of those who have knowledge transcending one’s own. Of course, it was the latter approach to which Lewis personally ascribed:

The first demand any work of art [text] makes upon us is surrender. Look. Listen. Receive. Get yourself out of the way. (There is no good asking first whether the work before you deserves such a surrender, for until you have surrendered you cannot possibly find out.)

Such an approach to reading any cultural artifact (book, painting, music) and likewise “reading creation” stands in stark contrast to the post-modern approaches, which seek to de-construct texts and then approbate meaning toward their own (usually political) goals. This describes the whole cottage industry of Marxist critical theories which fill the textbooks at all the universities, intent only upon deconstructing the great cultural texts and artifacts of Western Civilization and appropriating them toward their whatever flavor of revolutionary politics they happen to fancy. What Homer meant is meaningless, all that matters is how it might reinforce your previously held opinions.

But for those who learn to let-go of their self-sufficiency and superiority-complex,  a whole new world opens up before the reader. Lewis continued,

Those of us who have been true readers all our life seldom fully realize the enormous extension of our being which we owe to authors. We realize it best when we talk with an unliterary friend. He may be full of goodness and good sense but he inhabits a tiny world. In it, we should be suffocated. The man who is contented to be only himself, and therefore less a self, is in prison. My own eyes are not enough for me, I will see through those of others. Reality, even seen through the eyes of many, is not enough. I will see what others have invented…. In reading great literature I become a thousand men and yet remain myself. Like the night sky in the Greek poem, I see with a myriad eyes, but it is still I who see. Here, as in worship, in love, in moral action, and in knowing, I transcend myself; and am never more myself than when I do.

I have often experienced this enjoyment, what I believe Socrates meant by “divine eros,” or what is known to many as “platonic love.” When one begins to drink deeply from the literary works of great minds, one cannot help but begin to love them and to desire (eros) to know them better; to know the mind of the other/author; to know what they knew with them; to see what they saw together; and to somehow enjoy with them a feast of wonderment at this beautiful, tragic, world.

Given such experiences in my own intellectual journey, it is very hard for me to agree with certain theorists who would celebrate the “death of the author” as somehow a move forward. Perhaps they never learned to truly love their authors. For then they might have remembered what we’ve been told somewhere, that love is “stronger than the grave.”

I suppose I shall rest my case there.

John_William_Waterhouse_-_The_Soul_of_the_Rose,_1903

The Medieval Professor View All

"We need intimate knowledge of the past. Not that the past has any magic about it, but because we cannot study the future, and yet need something to set against the present, to remind us that the basic assumptions have been quite different in different periods and that much which seems certain to the uneducated is merely temporary fashion. A man who has lived in many places is not likely to be deceived by the local errors of his native village: the scholar has lived in many times and is therefore in some degree immune from the great cataract of nonsense that pours from the press and the microphone of his own age.” — C.S. Lewis

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