aefenglommung (aefenglommung) wrote,

A meaningful post

People taking literature courses in college are consistently introduced (i.e., indoctrinated) in a critical theory which makes most people's eyes glaze over -- the idea that the construction of meaning resides in the reader, not the writer. And why should this not be so? Also, why should this matter? Let me give you an example.

I first read The Lord of the Rings as I was turning fourteen. In the chapter where the Fellowship is leaving Lothlorien, the elves equip the party with some rope. Sam Gamgee is especially appreciative; he forgot to bring any rope when they set out from Rivendell, and he's been regretting it ever since. Sam and the elves talk about rope a bit. Sam mentions his uncle Andy had a ropewalk in the village of Tighfield in the Shire.

When I first read that, and for many years thereafter, I had a picture in my head of Andwise Roper performing a circus act, walking a tightrope. It seemed an odd thing for a hobbit to do, but I was not the author, so what did I know? Maybe the hobbits, with their delight in fun and partying, saw this kind of village entertainment in high demand.

Then I read And Ladies of the Club, by Helen Hooven Santmeyer, a novel covering the doings of a fictional small Ohio city through the years between the Civil War and the Great Depression. One of the industries in the town is a ropewalk. A ropewalk, it turns out, is where you make rope. For centuries, no machine existed which could twist the strands into rope. You needed a very long shed (or even a place outside), where the long, long strands could be stretched out after wetting, and where they could be twisted by hand (later, with cranks) under pressure to form laid rope. As the rope is twisted, it shortens. So instead of Sam's Uncle Andy walking a tightrope, I should have seen him in my mind walking from one end of the shed to the other, twisting the wet strands into cordage.

Now, here's the first point to make. Using today's critical approach, the meaning I foisted upon the text of The Lord of the Rings would be seen as perfectly valid, for meaning is determined by the reader. If that was the book I was constructing in my head, who is to say that that book isn't as good as the book some other person constructs in one's head when reading it? The more traditional approach is to say that I misunderstood the text originally, and later came to a better understanding of it when I learned what a ropewalk was.

That's silly, you say. Why would your misunderstanding of the text be better than a more proper understanding of it? Well, the answer lies in the question of who is in charge, the reader or the writer. If the reader is in charge, if the reader determines meaning, then the reader cannot be "wrong," even if the reader is mistaken. This means that it is useless to argue that the professor is making a hash of the text we are reading together, that the poet of Sir Gawain or the author of Aesop's Fables or even Shakespeare in Hamlet should be studied in order to understand the author's meaning. The author has produced a text, but that doesn't mean the author understood it oneself; certainly the author did not necessarily understand it better than the professor, who got tenure for the crazy reading he or she is giving it. And if you want a good grade, you'd better learn to read it the way the professor does, lemme tell you.

This means that the mere fact of having been hired as a teacher makes one an authority. You can't be faulted for not knowing what you're talking about; only dead white males of the dreaded patriarchy ever cared about knowing what one was talking about, and did so simply to hold people like your professor back.

It also means, when we transition from literary criticism to, say, morals or politics, that there is no Truth. There is only my truth and your truth. And since I've got the whip hand, my truth is what counts, baby. It doesn't matter what you say, since you are obviously an oppressor -- or if your plumbing or skin color or wage history says you can't be an oppressor, then you are obviously guilty of false consciousness. Either way, you're wrong and I'm right. Always. Q.E.D.

And that's why this kind of bilge matters.

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