aefenglommung (aefenglommung) wrote,

On the meaning of Meaning

In my re-reading of The Lord of the Rings this evening, I came across this statement by Sam Gamgee concerning rope:
Sam did not laugh. 'I may not be much good at climbing, Mr. Frodo,' he said injured tones, 'but I do know something about rope and about knots. It's in the family, as you might say. Why, my grand-dad, and my uncle Andy after him, him that was the Gaffer's eldest brother, he had a rope-walk over by Tighfield many a year. And I put as fast a hitch over the stump as any one could have done, in the Shire or out of it.'

When I first read that fifty years ago, and for many re-readings thereafter, I assumed a rope-walk was a rope stretched between two points, upon which acrobats would walk. Tighfield, I assumed was a village with an annual fair or something, and Uncle Andy would put on exhibitions of his rope walking skill there. It seemed reasonable with the traditional English feel of the Shire; besides, we had already had one example of tightrope walking in the novel, when the Companions of the Ring crossed the Silverlode into Lothlorien over a rope stretched between trees on either bank.

It wasn't until I read Helen Hooven Santmeyer's enormous novel, And Ladies of the Club, some twenty years later, that I learned how wrong I was. One of the families featured in Santmeyer's novel was in the business of making rope. The facility at which one makes rope by hand -- and all rope was made by hand until the practice was industrialized in the 20th Century -- is called a rope-walk.

Rope was typically made in a long -- a very long -- shed. Strands of yarn would be twisted into twine, and then those strands twisted into rope, by hand. The lines would be stretched from one end of the shed to the other, and men would twist it with simple tools -- a hand crank and a bar for tightening -- and as they twisted it, they would be forced to walk toward the other end as the rope was shortened by the twisting. That's what a rope-walk is. Uncle Andy and his father made rope to sell at Tighfield in the Shire. Which explains why Sam told the Elves of Lorien that rope-making was also "in the family."

You'd think that I -- who taught pioneering at summer camp and knew good and well how to make rope -- would know this. But I didn't. Who, today, operates a rope-walk? Nobody. It is an all-but-vanished trade.

Now, the reason this matters has to do with the meaning of Meaning; specifically, with how texts are understood and interpreted. Traditional interpretation would assign my original understanding of Andwise Roper's enterprise as a mistake. My mistake did not damage my enjoyment of The Lord of the Rings very much, since no important point of plot or character hinges on this particular detail, but it was nevertheless a mistake. And when my understanding was enlarged by Santmeyer's novel so that I now understood Tolkien's reference properly, my enjoyment of LOTR was increased. The novel made more sense, and my realization of the Shire within my imagination was clearer. In any case, since the traditional approach assigns Meaning to the writer, to understand what the writer meant is to be a better reader.

Ah, but this manner of interpretation is NOT what is taught in Literature classes nowadays. A new understanding of where Meaning is derived from is now in vogue -- and those who teach it require that students interpret all texts in this way. It is now said, with all seriousness, that Meaning derives from the reader's experience. What the reader makes of a text is what the text means, not what the writer was trying to communicate. The writer merely provides the raw material from which the reader constructs the work to one's own satisfaction.

This means that you can take some Victorian or Medieval or Classical author, and understand him to endorse all your post-modern values, since that is what you get out of him. Or, you can dismiss everything he has to say as bigoted awfulness, since he obviously does not share your post-modern values. Either way, you're right (this is one of the great advantages to the person writing an article or a thesis). If this seems topsy-turvy to you, that's just because you are not up to date in your literary criticism -- probably because there's something wrong with your own values, bigot and oppressor that you are.

And this is why people can make the Constitution say whatever they want it to say. The same goes for the Bible, or any other authoritative text. I read the words and assign them the meaning I wish them to have, since the reader's authority is dominant over the writer's. If you disagree, it's because you are a bigot and an oppressor. So there.

Trying to argue cases with progressives -- literary, political, or religious -- is exhausting, and you can get your head spun around several times before you're done. Better to identify the root of the argument, and have that out from the beginning.

I believe that the intent of the writer(s) of a text is what determines Meaning. You can disagree with that meaning, if you like. What the writer means may be, in fact, terrible or ugly or evil. But you must first understand what the writer intended to say before either disagreeing with it or citing it in support of your own ideas. This is called exegesis in Biblical studies. Privileging the reader's understanding over the writer's is called eisegesis -- or, in plain talk, baloney. It may be tasty baloney; you may in fact prefer your meaning over the writer's, but you have made a mistake. You are in error. And if your opinion, based upon your reading of whatever text we're talking about, is in error, then the value of what you say is greatly reduced.
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