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Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Authorial Intent or the Lack Thereof

Oftentimes when reading a canonical or classic work of literature I find myself bombarded with footnotes and editorial commentaries.  Don't get me wrong, I'm not a proponent of New Criticism; I do think that context and the biography of the author are really important things to consider while reading a text.  However, I do not like it when theorists, critics, academics, and editors make assumptions about authorial intent and shove words down an author's mouth.  Not only do I not like it, I feel that these kinds of over-confident, even hubristic, academic abuses are harmful to the reader's perception of a text.

For example, in Edgar Allan Poe's The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym, the book's editors Frederick S. Frank and Diane Long Hoevler insist that because Poe uses other foreign words and instances of wordplay that every instance of a created word must have some sort of meaning as derived from a foreign language.  This meaning is also meant to carry significance to the interpretation of a text and speak of authorial intent.  These academics never acknowledge that perhaps since there is no clear root or basis for a fabricated word that maybe, just maybe, the author made it up.  Maybe it sounded good to him or her, maybe he made the word up as a child--who knows? I'd rather not know than pretend to know by forcing my interpretation upon reader's and claiming it to be the author's intent while knowing well that they could not possibly know the intent of the author without confirming it with him or her.

This is seen in Poe's novel where the editors note at the first mention of the made-up native word, "Tekeli-li" (Poe 223).  The editors explain that different critics have tried (often in vain) to uncover Poe's reasoning for and a possible root for the word.  This single footnote takes up approximately 1/3 of the page.  The editors finish the note by saying citing a critic that noted the word may just have been used for "its exotic sound quality or as ersatz Polynesian" (223).

It is clear from this that critics, academics, and editors have been trying to decode authorial intent and have come up with nothing. Sometimes it may just be that the author did not intend for something to have a rich history, complex origin, or significant meaning; sometimes a word is just from the author's imagination.  This frustrates academics; they cannot accept this fact because they are compelled to find an exact explanation for everything.  Who can know what the author meant if anything at all? So, who cares? It is not that big of a deal and certainly not something that merits a large footnote consisting of conjecture and bloviation.

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