Check Your (Authorial) Privilege

It is reasonable to suggest that the deep roots of the New Criticism–the position that what matters for the critical task is “the text,” not the author, his biography, his historical context, or his intentions; for the text is a closed system to be understood on its own terms–are found in a remark of Socrates in Plato’s Apology

After learning from the Delphic Oracle that he was the wisest of men, Socrates set out to disprove the statement through the examination of those reputed to be wise. He assumed, he says, that he would be able to prove that someone was wiser than he, and thus the Oracle’s statement would be refuted. He begins with the politicians. No dice; and no comment.

He then moves on to the poets, and says this:

You see, after the politicians, I approached the poets–tragic, dithyrambic, and the rest–thinking that in their company I’d catch myself in the very act of being more ignorant than they. So I examined the poems with which they seemed to me to have taken the most trouble and questioned them about what they meant, in order that I might also learn something from them at the same time. 

Well, I’m embarrassed to tell you the truth, gentlemen, but nevertheless it must be told. In a word, almost all the people present could have discussed these poems better than their authors themselves. And so, in the case of the poets as well, I soon realized it wasn’t wisdom that enabled them to compose their poems, but some sort of natural inspiration, of just the sort you find in seers and soothsayers. For thse people, too, say many fine things, but know nothing of what they speak about. The poets also seemed to me to be in this sort of situation. At the same time, I realized that, because of their poetry, they thought themselves to be the wisest of people about the other things as well when they weren’t.So I left their company, too, thinking that I had gotten the better of them in the very same way as of the politicians.

(trans. C.D.C. Reeve)

The point that Socrates is making here is that authors are not reliable, well, authorities on their own writings, and they don’t deserve any special privilege in interpreting them. They might not know what they meant or how they came to say it, and there is no reason to assume that they can give a rationally satisfying account of why they said all that they said. One must leave room for the Muse–for inspiration.

A book, once it leaves its author’s pen, is public property, and subject to public judgment and criticism by whoever can read it best (and often, alas, by those who can’t). Socrates says this, more or less, in the Phaedrus:

When it has once been written down, every discourse roams about everywhere, reaching indiscriminately those with understanding no less than those who have no business with it, and it doesn’t know to whom it should speak and to whom it should not.

(trans. Alexander Nehemas and Paul Woodruff)

(Socrates does seem to leave room in the Phaedrus for a special role for the author–”And when it is faulted and attacked unfairly, it always needs its father’s support”–but I wish to focus here on the statement in the Apology, which does not.)

Criticism, in other words, is its own art with its own rules, and writers may or may not have any capacity for it. We should certainly not prejudge the case in their favor. 

None of this, by the way, means jettisoning the concept of “intention,” pace the New Critics. “Intention” is a capacious term, and it’s one worth keeping–in fact, it’s one we can’t do without. What it does mean is making less use, and giving less weight to, the slippery category of “conscious intention.” For a brilliant defense of the former category, and cautions against the latter, see Malcolm Heath’s Interpreting Classical Texts.


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