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09/04/2019

What is the significance of authorial intent for you?

QUESTION
What is the significance of authorial intent for you?
You partake of a work of art, and it speaks to you. You derive meaning that is based on the work, but also on your experiences.

They you study the creator of that work, and discover that the creator had a very different intent. Maybe they thought they were saying something completely opposite what you got out of it?

Have you ever been in a situation like this? Does authorial intent chafe at you? Or do you find it essential to aid in understanding the work?

Or, does none of it matter, really. What’s important is if you enjoy it, not if you think about it?

ANSWER
When I was in high school, I read Upton Sinclair’s, “The Jungle.” By the end of the book, the hero, Jurgis Rudkus, has lost everything of value to him including his wife, child and home. The poor man is really down on his luck when he is taken in by a Socialist hotel keeper, who gives him employment At the end of the book, the poor man is seen as being an enthusiastic Socialist.

I took the final turn of events in the hero’s life as the ultimate degradation. The poor man was so beaten down that he accepted the false god of Socialism, rejecting the values that he had learned on the farm in Lithuania when he was a boy.

It wasn’t until we discussed the book in class that I realized that Upton Sinclair was writing a pro-Socialist tract. I wasn’t in the least bit embarrassed at my analysis of the situation, because Sinclair had put the man on a downhill skid. His conversion was not the conversion of a man at the top of his game. No, Jurgis Rudkus was a totally disillusioned, beaten man at the end of the novel. I viewed his conversion to Socialism as being a parallel degradation to that of his late wife’s cousin, Marija Bernczynskas, who was working in a brothel by the end of the novel. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Jungle http://www.sparknotes.com/lit/jungle/characters.html

At the end of a rousing discussion, my teacher told both sides of the argument that they were right. He told us that in a course on Advanced Literary Criticism that he had taken in college, he had been introduced to the concept of the Intentional Fallacy.

Intentional fallacy, in literary criticism, addresses the assumption that the meaning intended by the author of a literary work is of primary importance. By characterizing this assumption as a “fallacy,” a critic suggests that the author’s intention is not important. The term is an important principle of New Criticism and was first used by W.K. Wimsatt and Monroe Beardsley in their essay “The Intentional Fallacy” (1946 rev. 1954): “the design or intention of the author is neither available nor desirable as a standard for judging the success of a work of literary art.” The phrase “intentional fallacy” is somewhat ambiguous, but it means “a fallacy about intent” and not “a fallacy committed on purpose.” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Intentional_fallacy

My teacher suggested that we should view how well the author achieved or didn’t achieve his stated purpose, which in Sinclair’s case was a conversion of the reader to Socialism. He also suggested that what the author thought that he wanted to write, the painter to paint, etc. is not the only yardstick for measuring a work, since creativity comes from the subconscious. Having composed music and having written fiction that was published, I can tell you that my teacher was right. The creative brain is using its right side, a side ignored by the rational mind.

So, it is entirely possible that a creative type could set out to create a work of art for one reason, but the end result would suggest to the reader/viewer, etc. what the creator really thought in his heart of hearts, a thing perhaps unknown to the artist.