Authority

It was only last year that I first encountered The Lord of The Flies by William Golding. I found a narration on Audible that was excellently performed by Golding himself. Just after finishing the book, Golding gave some concluding remarks, with an intriguing pronouncement at the end. I’m still thinking about it a year later. When asked about how to interpret the meaning of the story, Golding replied:

There have been so many interpretations of the story that I’m not going to choose between them. Make your own choice. They contradict each other, the various choices. The only choice that really matters, the only interpretation of the story, if you want one, is your own. Not your teacher’s, not your professor’s, not mine, not a critic’s, not some authority’s. The only thing that matters is, first, the experience of being in the story, moving through it. Then any interpretation you like. If it’s yours, then that’s the right one, because what’s in a book is not what an author thought he put into it, it’s what the reader gets out of it.

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While I’m aware that such matters of interpretation can be quite involved, I’ve never been able to fully understand declarations like these coming from an author. I wonder what Golding intended me to make of his admonition.

Of course, out of politeness I should assume that he means exactly what he says. He says there is no ‘correct interpretation’ of the story. The narrative envisions a little colony of shipwrecked boys as a struggling microcosm of society. Things go badly fairly quickly. Chaos and anarchy ensue. If I said the story was a Rousseau-like celebration of the innate goodness of humanity, rather than a stark portrayal of the Beelzebub within us all, would Golding simply have nodded and given me a pat on the back for my bold and independent reading?

What I suspect is going on is a blurring of hermeneutical edges that may have been trendy in Golding’s time. Perhaps it was cliché to be overly concerned with authorial intent, as prior generations might have been. It’s probably not a coincidence that there was a culminating backlash against all things authoritative in those days. The times, they were a changin’.

On one level, of course what the reader gets out of it is most important. If I manage to get anything out of the story, it will be through my own mind. However, since so I enjoyed Golding’s story, I wish that he was less flippant about his intentions towards me as his reader. I suppose that I wanted him to care that I understood him aright. In some way, my efforts to understand him would be my small part of honoring his efforts.

Anyway, if I decide to ‘have my own way’ with the story, regardless of Golding’s intentions, I will likely miss out on a more delightful reading experience. This is a point that Lewis makes in his Experiment on Criticism. When faced with the question of why we should pay any attention to authorial intent at all when we can simply have a grand time with our private understanding of the text (‘what it means to us’), Lewis answers:

There seem to be two answers. One, is that the poem in my head which I make from my mistranslations of Chaucer or misunderstandings of Donne, may not be so good as the work Chaucer or Donne actually made.

Secondly, why not have both? After enjoying what I made of it, why not go back to the text this time looking up the hard words, puzzling out the allusions and discovering that some metrical delights in my first experience where due to my fortunate mispronunciations, and see whether I can enjoy the poet’s poem, not necessarily instead of, but in addition to my own.

“Not necessarily instead of, but in addition to my own.” This is a fitting rejoinder to Golding’s suggestion. Where Golding says, “go ahead boys, have a good time,” Lewis suggests that we go back to Golding for advice on the best way to do that.

All of this reminds me, however, of Twain’s dire warning to the reader of Huckleberry Finn:

Persons attempting to find a motive in this narrative will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished; persons attempting to find a plot in it will be shot.

Duly noted, gentlemen.

Alan Jacobs on Thinking for Yourself

I’m reading through Alan Jacobs’ delightful new book, How to Think. I’m still getting a feel for the general direction Jacobs proposes to take, but he begins with a wonderfully provocative take on the de-conversion of Westboro Baptist Church member Megan Phelps-Roper. Following the interview of Adrian Chen of the New Yorker, Jacobs describes the slow process by which Megan began to slowly change her way of thinking about her beliefs. The steady and gracious engagement from a Jewish web developer named David Abitol was apparently instrumental for her.

What is interesting, and what I’m still not sure about, is one of the ideas that Jacobs encourages us to understand in light of this. He notes that we would have a tendency to think that Megan Phelps-Roper had finally “begun thinking for herself.” According to Jacobs,

That’s not at all what happened. Megan Phelps-Roper didn’t start ‘thinking for herself’- she started thinking with different people. To think independently of other human beings is impossible, and if it were possible it would be undesirable. Thinking is necessarily, thoroughly, and wonderfully social.

The social dimension of our thinking is something new to me that I would like to think through further. In the case of Megan Phelps-Roper, this was obviously a factor. Jacobs continues: “And when people commend someone for ‘thinking for herself’ they usually mean ‘ceasing to sound like people I dislike and starting to sound more like people I approve of.’”

He notes that we generally don’t refer to someone as “thinking for themselves” when they are running contrary to our guiding lights. When that happens, we tend to look for bad influences. “She’s fallen under the spell of so-and-so. She’s been reading too much X or listening to too much Y or watching too much Z.”

Jacobs is an academic, so he points to the presence of this problem in his workplace:

“Similarly, people in my line of work always say that we want to promote ‘critical thinking’- but really we want our students to think critically only about what they’ve learned at home and in church, not about what they learn from us.

Jacobs works very hard at his craft and I’m grateful to be able to follow his lead in this book. I’ll be- how shall I say it- thinking through his arguments very carefully in the days ahead.

P.S. I apologize for my longer than normal absence on this blog. My family has been supporting me through a process of ordination with our church. This has been a longer term project that has occupied a significant investment of time for all of us, so I’m eager to get back in the saddle here. More to come.