This essay ran in a shorter version as a letter to the editor in the Springfield News-Leader.
In the Springfield News-Leader (MO) November 30, 2014 Tom Krause gently chides a young woman who (unknowingly) gave an interpretation of one of his poems in a speech tournament at which he was one of the judges. It seems that she offered a reading of the poem "describing what the author had meant," and it was "not even close to [his own] real intent."
This is a perfect example of the poem (or creative essay) as an artistic object. Once an author has written and published a poem, he (or she) no longer controls it. The issue is not what authors intend to do, but what they actually did. In other words the published poem/essay is autonomous and has an existence totally apart from the creative artist's intentions. The author becomes only one more interpreter, and not the authoritative interpreter. It really doesn't matter what the author intended; what matters is what the essay is. The creative piece exists apart from the author's intentions; it draws attention to itself and "speaks" to the reader, or the viewer in the case of objects of art like painting and sculpture. Thus authors may learn something new from others about what they have actually accomplished in the essay or poem. The poet Wallace Stevens, who has been described as "the necessary angel of earth," once wrote in a letter:
It is not a question of what an author meant to say but of what he has said. In the case of a competent critic the author may well have a great deal to find out about himself and his work. (Letters, #396)
In short, language is ambiguous on the best of days, as any poet well knows. For example, Miguel de Cervantes in his 17th century novel, The Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote of La Mancha, described an insane man who fancied himself a knight errant on a quest to restore chivalry and bring justice to the world He jousted (tilted) and fought with imaginary foes (windmills and giants), which were real to him in his insanity. Cervantes' novel inspired a book (by Dale Wasserman) and Broadway musical, Man of La Mancha. In the musical the signature song, "The Impossible Dream," describes a man on a quest fighting "unbeatable foes," righting "unrightable wrongs," fighting "for the right," and walking "through hell on a heavenly cause." The protagonist of the musical is certainly inspired by Cervantes' mad hero Don Quixote de La Mancha, but in his interpretation by the musical lyricist (Joe Darion) Don Quixote has become a symbol of the idealistic person who dares to dream impossible dreams including a just social order. What, do you suppose, Cervantes would have thought of that?
The situation is similar with respect to biblical texts, which were written by human beings. They are not God's words, as Mr. Krause says, but human words written in behalf of a particular understanding of God. Krause's affirmation of faith completely ignores the human authors of these ancient writings, who themselves were conditioned by their situations in life; they crafted what they wrote from vastly different perspectives with different intentions and opinions. Letting God interpret these words, as Mr. Krause advises, is only Krause's faith speaking again. Readers, not God, interpret texts, in the nexus between how they read the text and the life experiences they bring to the text. God has nothing to do with it.
If you doubt the ambiguity of language, just ask a Baptist, Lutheran, and Roman Catholic about their understanding of the Eucharist. They come to very different understandings using the same Bible. The classic example of reading the same biblical text and arriving at different conclusions is found in how differently Paul (Galatians 3:6-14) and James (2:18-26) understand the biblical story of Abraham (Genesis 22:1-18): Paul's view was that God requires faith alone (Galatians 3:8-11); James' view was that God required both faith and works (2:24).
Galatians 2:16 provides another example of the slippery nature of language, and how the personal life experience we bring to our reading of biblical texts influences what we read in the text. Paul writes "a person is not justified by works of the law, but through the faith of Jesus Christ"; that is through a confidence in God like that of Jesus. And so the passage was translated in the English Bibles of the 16th and 17th centuries. At the end of the 19th century and beginning of the 20th the translation was changed, and became: "a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ" (see The Authentic Letters of Paul, 65-66). Alas, not even the Gods, if Gods there be, can control a reader's interpretation of the divine pronouncements of the Gods.
Charles W. Hedrick
Missouri State University