The Wall (no, not that one)

by mollykl

The bane of my junior year of college, second semester, specifically in “Literary Criticism” taught by one D.S., was “intentional fallacy.”  From the Oxford Dictionary: (In literary theory) the fallacy of basing an assessment of a work on the author’s intention rather than on one’s response to the actual work. Or as D.S. used to bluntly put it, after ripping your paper to shreds, “You can’t read the author’s mind.” You don’t actually know what the author intended. And that, my friends, is the crux of the matter, because in literary criticism it seems that’s all we were trying to do. (Hear that sound? That’s the sound of what readers I do have dropping dead from the perceived boredom to come… but bear with me)

You use history (what was happening to and around the author), you use psychology (author’s background and experiences), you use weird crap that the French thought up (deconstruction: “I think, I think deconstruction is, have a donut”).

Stop rolling your eyes, you know you do it too. You have a favorite song, a favorite artist, that you’ve got all figured out. You can see in to their soul! You know what that song, painting, book is all about! You GET it! That my friends, is intentional fallacy. Unless you’re lucky enough for the artist to still be alive you can’t really understand what they meant for you to understand, you can only glean what you get out of the work. (That’s reader response – your reading of it is the most important).

So why the hell am I trotting out the class notes from 25 years ago?

Today my friend R and I were talking about Kansas – we’re both big fans, him more than I because he’s actually FROM Kansas, from the area the band was from, and his best friend was the little brother of one of the founding members. I’d mentioned that I’d asked the head of IT to program the music to play “Carry On” at 6 every day (as a birthday present to me) and K asked me if Kansas was “work appropriate”. R and I had a good laugh since it’s more “work appropriate” than some of the other stuff we play. He asked if I’d ever really listened to the lyrics and told me to pay more attention and recommended a book: Seeds of Change: The spiritual quest of Kerry Livgren. While Kansas, as a band, was coming in to its own and discovering its sound Kerry Livgren was going through his own thing, and as the main songwriter, it’s reflected in his music. You can listen to the music and draw your own conclusions, but in this case you’ve actually got the songwriter’s own words.

I wrote my senior project on Jane Austen, and while I wouldn’t trade that experience for anything, I would give anything for the chance to actually know what she was thinking while writing every paragraph. We have her letters, notes and the details of her life, but it’s not the same as getting to hear the story from the horse’s mouth. But is it the same as what you get out of a book? Does what the author intended diminish your take on the work?

While I’m a big supporter of the New Historical school of criticism my heart stills lies firmly in the Reader Response camp. (How boring am I? I have a favorite school of literary criticism.) Being able to know what was going on IN the author’s mind when “The Wall” was written? Great. Drawing my own conclusions based on what I perceive? Priceless.