Does Authorial Intent Exist?
By Clarke W. Owens
Oscar Wilde, when he was being cross-examined in a civil court case, was asked whether a well-written book with perverted moral views is a good book, and his response was that “No work of art ever puts forward views. Views belong to people who are not artists.”
Those are two different answers, but both are interesting.
The first refers to works of art. The position taken – and I guess you’d have to say that it’s a “view”—is one belonging to the school of “art for art’s sake.” A book (a novel) which purports to be a work of art is not concerned with putting forward views, meaning acting as a form of propaganda for particular ideas or positions on topics of current interest. Taken to an extreme, it could also mean that literary art is not philosophy, and should not be read for philosophical positions presumed inherent in it.
Most of us who are pretty well-steeped in literature probably accept this idea without even needing to think about it. I discover this about myself, for example, when I remember reading for the first time, sometime within the past ten years, Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, which I had always been given to understand was a kind of muckraker tract setting forth depictions of unclean practices in slaughterhouses, which led, after its publication in 1906, to the passage of the Pure Food and Drug Act. Because of this reputation, I didn’t expect much, and was pleasantly surprised to find that there was more to the book than that; and that, even if it wasn’t the greatest novel one could read, it had reasonably interesting characters and a story that was more than simply an outline of abuses.
In other words, it seemed to me more of a work of art than a position paper, although I had expected the latter. Therefore, I had come to the book with that distinction in my mind, i.e., political tract vs. work of art, two separate and unequal things.
Even more recently, I finally downloaded a copy of Tolstoy’s famous essay on Shakespeare, and read it. Tolstoy positively hated Shakespeare, and considered his work shoddy as art. The plots were borrowed and unbelievable, the characters were nothing like real people, and there were no ideas anywhere.
That is to say, no views, or—we should be more precise—no consistent views. In short, no philosophy. By contrast, you do get philosophy in Tolstoy. So Tolstoy, we take it, would not have agreed with Wilde.
Wilde’s ideas would support a conclusion that Shakespeare was a true artist – and not Tolstoy. There are lots of ideas in Shakespeare, but would one call them “views” in the manner intended by Wilde and Tolstoy? Shakespeare has no philosophy, if by that term we mean a consistent world view detachable from the works in which they appear, and which are attributable to the author. Yet you could take Hamlet or Julius Caesar or any number of other plays and go into great detail about the questions they raise about any number of issues, beginning with the health of the state. Is Shakespeare a hack because he has no views, or a great artist because he raises questions without insisting on unitary answers? Or is he merely a poet, after all?
What about Wilde’s second, stronger statement? “Views belong to people who are not artists.” Does this mean that artists are people who never have views? I think not. I suspect it is a restatement of the first response, and could be stated this way: The artist, in his/her role as artist, is not concerned with putting forth views, but with creating beauty. He or she might be a Tory or a Republican, and might vote, but the work of art is not concerned with Tory or Republican (or any other political) issue, and it is vulgar to look for such things in literature.
Does that make Tolstoy a vulgarian? Possibly, in his views of Shakespeare. Tolstoy’s own art, though, is as good as it gets. That leaves open the question of what makes it so good. Its philosophy is good, and I personally value it, but it’s Tolstoy’s art that ultimately wins you over, not his philosophy. To give you a sense of what I’m referring to here, let me say that I read Resurrection in recent years and came across a passage in which the book describes a sound made by (if I remember right) a wood-burning stove. I can’t remember the scene completely now, but I remember being blown away by the description of the sound.
That’s the art.
Originally published on Clarke W. Owens’s blog.