Wind in the Willows

minnow at belfry.org.uk minnow at belfry.org.uk
Tue Jul 15 18:20:15 EDT 2003


Robyn wrote in reply to me:

>>I'm surprised you don't understand the distinction, which I had thought was
>>well-known.
>I asked you to clarify what *you* meant by it. I think the "well-known"
>distinction isn't really very clear. A lot of people use the term "read
>into" as I suggested, to dismiss readings that they don't like.

But that would be intellectual dishonesty -- what would be the point?

Merely disliking a fact is not an excuse for bilking or denying that fact.

>>One way to think of it might be: What is *in* the text may be subject to
>>debate, with various opinions being expressed by author, reader, critic and
>>so on.  What has been *read into* the text, provided always that the person
>>doing the reading is capable of expressing him- or herself with reasonable
>>clarity, is not subject to debate: that such *reading in* has been done is
>>indisputable.
>See, I don't think this clarifies the issue at all. If there can be debate
>about what is in the text, how can there be no debate about what
>constitutes "reading in"?

I think this may be a pronunciation problem.  "Read-pronounced-reed" in --
I wasn't trying to define what this might be, or what would constitute it.
"Read-pronounced-red" in, it has happened.  One might call a debate about
whether a reading was actually *in* the text a debate about what
*constitutes* reading in, I suppose, but one cannot dispute the fact of
that reading having been made.  I'm saying "If it has been read (red) into
it then that is what has happened, and there is no point in debating
whether this is true or not, because there it is, happened at one, a fact."

In other words, if a reading has been made, that reading can be made, and
therefore is possible.  What's to debate?  Only the very stubborn cannot
alter the theory to fit the data, surely?  One might previously have
thought "nobody could possibly believe it means _that_" (for any value of
_that_ you like to postulate); but if an individual asserts that yes,
indeed, its meaning _that_ *is* their belief, then one's theory (that
nobody can do this) is shown to be false, because somebody can and does.

How can one "debate" such a point?  Their sanity maybe, but the fact of
their reading it thus or asserting that they so read (reed *or* red, at
this point, I think!) it, no.

What constitutes "read (red) in" may be anything anybody has understood the
text as containing *whatever it is*.  Whether [x] is actually in the text
can be debated; that the suggestion/assertion/reading of [x] as being in
the text has been made, is a matter of fact.

Hence my being able to say "I don't think it is *in* the text" (I am
debating that bit) "but I can see that may be *read into* it". (Not subject
to debate.  It can/may be, and has been.)

>Surely one person's valid interpretation can be
>another's wild surmise. All this, of course, assumes that the readers are
>not operating in a malicious or sarcastic way when providing their various
>readings.

Motivation is entirely outside the question, though.  Malice or downright
silliness does not invalidate the fact that this is what the reading is;
therefore the reading is *possible*.  (What one may think of it is another
matter, having nothing to do with whether it exists. As I went on to say.)

>>One may think the person responsible has a bee in his or her
>>bonnet and would read, say, an Oedipus complex into "The cat sat on the
>>mat", or proto-feminism into "Have a banana! Let's all go down the
>>Strand!", but if that is what that person has *read into* a text, that's
>>the fact.  They did it, therefore it can be done, therefore it is a
>>possible reading of the text, however daft a reading and however mistaken
>>the premise upon which the reading has been based.
>Your examples are of facetious readings.

I have seen things quite as daft (in my personal view) as either of them
propounded seriously, but I'll admit I was providing what I thought might
strike most people as absurd, to show the point.

>Are you saying that as long as the
>reading is "serious" it will be valid?

No.  I am not talking about validity at all; I am talking about existence,
which is not the same thing.

The phlogiston theory exists.  So does Einstein's theory of relativity.  To
deny their existence would be silly, like denying the existence of the
duck-billed platypus -- which is improbable to a degree, but never mind.
Are they valid?  That would be (has been, is) debatable.  (Well, the
duck-billed platypus may demonstrably survive, which I suppose in a species
is what "validity" would mean.)

>>Charles Manson's reading of Robert Heinlein's *Stranger In A Strange Land*
>>was that it instructed him to commit ritual murder.  Nobody else including
>>the author appears able to find that instruction there, and it thus seems
>>likely it was not *in* the text, but was *read into* it by someone who was
>>frankly deranged and might have found such an instruction almost anywhere.
>>(*sigh*  Usually it's the bible they go by, which is less appalling for the
>>author whose work is thus abused, the authors being safely long-dead.)
>Okay, so this falls into my definition of malicious.

Not being privy to Manson's mind, I could not possibly state what his
motivation was or is.  That his reading exists cannot be disputed; he acted
upon it.  Malice?  Well, maybe.  Madness, possibly.  Is it impossible to be
mad without malice?  (I know and know of plenty of people who have
psychiatric disorders but are not malicious.)

>I entirely reject authorial intention as a definition or a limiter on what
>may or may not be a valid reading of a text.

Two things from that statement.
First:
If it is not a matter of intention but of knowledge, what then?   I am
reminded of the wonderful moment, in an English class studying *Hamlet*
(the play attributed to William Shakespeare, from some time around 1600,
not some other work of the same name), when one of the class, encountering
the "What a piece of work is a man" speech in Act 2, exclaimed delightedly,
"Oh, I know where he got that!  It's out of *Hair*."  (The musical of that
name, which had just made its appearance on the London stage.  Written
circa 1968?).  The class laughed.  But on the basis that the author (in
DWJ's case as cited above) is said to be deriving matter from a text
unknown to that author, maybe one has to accept that Shakespeare did indeed
get the idea (and in this case I think the exact words) for that speech
from something written three hundred years and more after his death.

Such a reading is possible.  Why?  Because Barbara made it.  Malice is not
a factor -- she wouldn't have known how to be malicious.  She was entirely
in earnest, and very pleased at having made the connection, and very
cast-down about being laughed at.

Second:
All readings of any text by anybody are valid in that they exist.  I am in
no way disputing this, which is the only possible conclusion to reach from
where we started.  Whether they can be shown by nasty hard knobbly facts to
be simply incorrect statements about the actual content of the text (what
is intrinsic as opposed to what is extrinsically perceived) is a different
matter, and that is where the debate comes in.

>Authors may say all sorts of
>things about their texts, but I don't think readers are bound to agree with
>them.

Indeed not: forced agreement would be entirely without any value to
anybody.  Besides, telling people what they think or ought to think is a
waste of time.  (Telling authors, who are people, what they think may also
be a waste of time.  It's safer to do so only when the author is dead,
because some of them may abandon argument and simply punch on the snoot
someone who insists on knowing what's inside their head better than they
know themselves -- which is a lousy argument, but soes tend to have the
effect of abating what is to the author a nuisance.  I have a particular
incident in mind.  Nobody gained by it.)

>For example, Marion Zimmer Bradley at various times claimed that
>Mists of Avalon was not a neo-pagan influenced text. She may have had
>reasons for making these statements, but they are clearly bunk, as most
>readers can see.

I would have thought that the author's reading exists at least as much as
anyone else's, though.  Are you not here dismissing a reading on the basis
of opinion?  My position is that I can't dismiss the reading, because it
exists.  Whether I agree with it or not is a different question altogether:
we may debate what is *in* the text, but not what has been *read (red)
into* it.  If MZB read something different into it to what you read into
it, why is her reading less valid than yours, if yours is no less valid
than hers?

>I think in the case of DWJ and the Turn of the Screw, it is quite likely
>that what the readers see is *in* the text, but that does not mean DWJ put
>it there on purpose.

If the reading asserts that she did, at that point I feel that DWJ's
reading should be taken into account and given at least as much weight as
anyone else's.

Purpose is irrelevant anyway, as being intention and not having a bearing
on this.

However, "what readers see", as I tried to point out with the "creole"
example,  may simply be *incorrect*, a misapprehension -- I might see an
animal I think is a stoat, but which subsequent closer examination and
better information as to the difference between the two animals shows
clearly to be in fact a weasel.  I then have a choice:

I can stick to my original position and assert that I saw a stoat, which
then somehow changed into a weasel whilst I wasn't looking.

I can assert that I said, or meant, "weasel", and that "stoat" was a slip
of the tongue/brain.

I can say "Ah.  Thank you.  I didn't realise there was a difference; now I
know, and I can see it is in fact a weasel.  I will try not to get them
muddled hereafter" and then correct the error in whatever other places I
may have made it.

The first, I'd suggest, is an attempt either to avoid or to falsify a fact;
the second may be true or may be an attempt to excuse (and partially to
deny) an error; the last is an honest and intellectually acceptable course.
It may involve the humiliation of having to admit that unlike God I don't
know everything, and that unlike Melissa I am not allways right, but I feel
these to be somewhat less humiliating than losing my integrity by telling a
lie.  No?  Even if nobody else ever discovered I'd been lying, *I* would
know I'd been a cowardly prat.  I'd rather say "sorry" if I discover that I
was wrong, than try to change the universe to make it so that I was right
all along.

Speaking of a long, this has become one.  I shall stop.  Please snip
fervently in replying, if anyone does!

Minnow


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