The Interpretation We Should Value

Authors can often get too much credit for the their work. It is just very easy to praise the author because they wrote it the text and to credit the author with the ownership of a powerful meaning of a work. This is not appropriate because the author is unable to express every possible meaning and they are not the only person reading their work. Similarly, the text itself can gain praise for what it is- the words written- and the meanings that the words can create. In order for the text to rightly deserve credit for the meaning which it conveys, the text must be able to “stand on its own.” The text must be able to express its meaning without the author being present [to explain its meaning]. Thus, the text needs to be autonomous from the author; it must be able to give meaning without the assistance of another source. Therefore, it is the readers and neither the text nor the author who determines the meaning of a work. The readers have their own unique background and are capable of better getting messages across and elaborating on interpretations than the author and the text. What really sets the readers apart from the author and the text is that they have a fresh set of eyes that have not experienced the same things as the author. They have a different perspective from the author and this is vital to the value of their interpretation because it allows them to read the text with no prior history with the text, and thus they would only be able to read the text as it is written. Furthermore, the readers are the persons through whom the meaning of the work can be explained when the author is no longer present and the text is lost or indecipherable by itself.

The Bible is a great example of how valuable the readers are. The authors of the Bible are no longer present, so it is impossible to truly know what they meant. Secondly, we cannot even confirm whether or not they wrote the Bible. Additionally, the text itself can be very hard to fully understand. It is then on the readers to determine how important the text is to the meaning it is trying to get across. The readers also choose how to apply the meaning they gather from the work. Thus, readers hold a lot of the power to dictate which interpretation to take away from the work making their interpretations matter the most. The readers are the ones who preserve the meanings of the work and more readily and efficiently disseminate their interpretations to the masses. The readers, then, give meaning to the Bible; without the readers the Bible has no meaning.

Throughout history, many groups and individuals have taken up the Bible as a text from which they can learn about life and how one should live. However, interpretations of the Bible have varied, causing many disputes even amongst people of the same faith. One cause for this is the fact that the Bible is an incredibly hard text to read. Disregarding the length of the sacred text, the wording of the book is much different than that of modern-day books as a result of developments in language made over long periods of time. Many passages can be very abstract and difficult for one to wrap their heads around. Because the text can be indecipherable at times, readers end up being responsible for creating meaning from it and make it relevant to their lives, their reality, their world. After all, the readers are the individuals who are actively engaging in the world in which they live, and it is they who will determine the future, and for that reason they need to have priority in the “interpretation hierarchy” because they affect the things that will come. For when the Bible is decipherable, it is still up to the readers to give meaning to the text and ponder what they read in order for them to make sense of it.

Humans are unique beings: they have different backgrounds, mindsets, and experiences. Due to this, people are going to have different opinions and interpret things in a variety of ways. This allows for readers to have several meanings for even one phrase, let alone an entire book. Even groups that consist of individuals with very similar beliefs struggle to come up with one clear interpretation. This is partly because humans can be stubborn, but also because it is very difficult to have a group of people in which every member interprets things the exact same way. The text, in contrast, is unable to debate that which is written. Sure, some words have multiple meanings, but it is ultimately the readers who choose which meaning of a word or phrase to take and interpret. The text is an inanimate thing that cannot, on its own, argue for a certain meaning. According to E. D. Hirsch, the text is dependent on the readers for its meaning, and in terms of the author and their intent having significance, the critics as he mentions are the readers and the second an interpretation is made on the work, the author is removed from the work. As for the author, they are likely to have multiple ideas pass through their head, possibly causing them to lose track of their intent. This makes it extremely difficult and even impossible for the reader to even try to figure out the point or argument of the work.

My argument is not that the author or the text has no value, but that in terms of caring about the meaning of a work, neither the authorial intent nor the text has any greater significance than the reader’s equally viable interpretation. An undisputable fact about the Bible is that the authors are no longer alive or able to directly communicate their intent. But, even if they were, their intent does not matter. If there is no confirmed authorial intent, why bother looking for it or giving it attention? The text, by itself, is incapable of having an intent. Furthermore, the text can be read as straightforward or as cryptic, but again it is the readers who achieve those readings. Therefore, readers have the authority and ultimately the final say in assigning meaning to any work because they determine how the text affects them.

There are also just too many ways to interpret the Bible. Aside from each individual’s interpretation, nearly every sect of Christianity (and a few denominations of other religions), has different ways of interpreting the Bible. Examples of biblical interpretations include: interpreting passages as “the Word of God,” as a historical document, as midrash, or as folklore. To interpret the Bible as “the Word of God” is to interpret the passages as they are written because that which is written is exactly the words of God that were simply transcribed through his messengers. According to the source “Methods of Interpreting the Meaning of Bible Passages,” to interpret the Bible as a historical document is to believe that human beings wrote the contents of the Bible without the voice of God, and they did so for their own personal purposes. In addition, the authors made errors both in writing the work and in rewriting the contents with each new edition and the evolution of language. I am not in total agreement with this definition of reading the Bible as a historical document, but it still provides an additional way of interpreting the Bible. To interpret the Bible as midrash is to focus on the experience(s) of the past that allow a praiseworthy event to occur in the present. To interpret the Bible as the result of years of oral tradition is to say that the stories told within the Bible have been repeated and altered even if only slightly. Each of these examples proves how vital the reader is to the meaning of a work. For each interpretation can only be held by the reader who chooses their own way of reading. H. J. B. Combrink agrees and asserts that a text, especially the Bible, is very open to multiple interpretations, and that interpretation and application should not be separated from one another. This further supports the claim of the readers’ interpretations mattering the most because they will have various interpretations, but also the readers are the ones applying the interpretations to the world around them.

A specific example of how even a Biblical verse relies on the readers is the verse  “I can do all things through Him who strengthens me (Philippians 4:13).” This is a verse that is very popular and utilized quite often because it can be interpreted to provide false hope to the world in exchange for something so few actually have: faith in God. Popular belief holds that this verse states that it is possible to succeed and thrive simply by having faith in God. However, it can also mean that “ in Christ we find the sufficient comfort and support to carry on through all adversity,” and not that anything is possible and everything will turn out for the best because one has trust in God. Additionally, a reader could interpret this verse as a reason to live poorly, perform badly academically or career-wise, break the law, or become depressed, due to the “loose-phrasing” of the text and the ability of the reader to interpret things in various ways. The text is not specific enough, and even if it were more specific, it is incapable of being so specific that only one meaning can be drawn from it: that is one inevitable truth about literature. Therefore, looking at this one verse out of the approximately thirty-one thousand verses, it is apparent how the author(s) holds no authority in assigning meaning. It also shows how the text inadequately gets a message across uniformly. The text is just not able to provide a definite and universal meaning that will mean the same thing to everyone. Most importantly, this example shows how the reader grants meaning to the verse by assigning their own meaning to something in order for it to make sense and function in their world.

The readers must be the factor that determines the meaning of a poem, novel, play, or movie. The author can get lost in their work or in their own head and lose meaning. The thoughts circling around in the author’s head compounded with even a quick break of concentration can cause the author to lose track of their intended meaning. Above all, the author cannot exist forever; they cannot constantly be available to somehow adjust readers’ interpretations to fit their intentions. The text, which can potentially exist forever, lacks the ability to communicate a message in multiple ways to assist with conveying the message. Readers also possess the ability to alter their reading of the text to forgo its original, intended meaning for a new, readerly-imposed meaning. So long as humans (or intelligence) exist, readers shall exist. Thus, the readers undeniably determine the meaning of a poem, novel, play or movie; they have the most valuable interpretation.

Works Cited

“1 Peter and Theological Interpretation of Scripture.”

Written to Serve : The Use of Scripture in 1 Peter (n.d.): n. pag. Web. 15 Nov. 2016. <>.

“5 Reasons Why There Are So Many Interpretations of the Bible | by Karl Heitman.”

Glory Books. N.p., 05 May 2015. Web. 15 Nov. 2016.


Combrink, H. J. B. “Multiple Meaning and/or Multiple Interpretation of a Text.”

Neotestamentica, vol. 18, 1984, pp. 26–37.

HIRSCH, E. D., and GARY ISEMINGER. “In Defense of the Author.” Intention Interpretation,

Temple University Press, 1992, pp. 11–23,

Lorand, Ruth. “The Logic of Interpretation.” Interpretation: Ways of Thinking about the Sciences

and the Arts, Edited by Peter Machamer and Gereon Wolters, University of Pittsburgh Press, 2014, pp. 16–30,

“Methods of Interpreting the Meaning of Bible Passages.”

Methods of Interpreting the Bible. N.p., n.d. Web. 15 Nov. 2016.


Rosenblatt, Louise M. “Readers, Texts, Authors.” Transactions of the Charles S. Peirce Society,

vol. 34, no. 4, 1998, pp. 885–921.

“Top 5 Most Misquoted, Misused, and Misunderstood Bible Verses – Truth By Grace.”

Truth By Grace. N.p., 22 June 2016. Web. 15 Nov. 2016. <>.

Religion and Revolution: Uncovering Political Ideology in Milton’s Nativity Ode

To the modern reader, it might be hard to shake the feeling that Milton is just another stuffy old writer. It’s easy to write him off as just another one of those old Brits that your English teacher made you read – important and foundational and all, but dull, a bit tedious. His most famous association, after all, is that he wrote a really long poem about the Bible. He might seem merely as pious and devout as they come, offering little more than an affirmation of old-school Christianity. But what, then, are we to make of the fact the Milton was a vocal proponent of the English Revolution, that he was one of? How is the modern reader supposed to reconcile Milton’s reversion to the Bible with his desire for political liberation? And is it possible that someone who seemed to be writing about the Bible may have been talking about politics all along? It might turn out that Milton might be m0re radical than his poetry, at least on the surface, seems to appear.

The question before us, then, is the extent to which Milton’s religious poetry can be read as a poetics of political revolution. But that will be only the first task at hand; we’ll also want to figure out how this changes the way we read Milton, how we see him as a literary figure. Milton’s Nativity Ode offers a place to start. Written around Christmastime of 1629, though not published until 1645, the poem is a description of the nativity story in the style of a hymn. The poem might seem, at first glance, a relatively simple accomplishment, being neither the grandest of Milton’s works nor the most dramatic. But the poem’s structure and language, upon closer reading, present a number of interpretive challenges and surprising insights into Milton’s literary world.

The place to start, of course, is the beginning, which establishes the setting of the nativity.

This is the Month, and this the happy morn

Wherein the Son of Heav’ns eternal King

Of wedded Maid, and Virgin Mother born,

Our great redemption from above did bring;

For so the holy sages once did sing,

That he our deadly forfeit should release,

And with his Father work us a perpetual peace.

The first thing to note is that in establishing the nativity setting, the poem sets out to tell the story of the nativity story from the Old Testament, in which the prophets spoke of a “Son of God” descending “from above” to live among men. The poem continues in this vain, later stating “it was the winter wilde, while the head’n-born child, all meanly wrapt in rude manger lies.” Much like Paradise Lost, which is a retelling of the Genesis story, this poem is, at its core, a retelling of the Nativity. This forces us to stop and ask an imperative question: why does Milton think we need a re-telling of the nativity story? The simple fact that Milton is repeating a story already told places the poem in competition with the Old Testament. After all, if all Milton wanted people to do was read the Nativity story, pay attention to the prophets of the Old Testament, and praise the birth of Christ, he could have just told us to read the Bible. In retelling a biblical story, then, this poem at once aligns itself and is in competition with the Bible itself.

But beyond its relationship with the Bible, the poem is, curiously, also in linked to early Latin poetry. As many scholars have noted, the so-called “prophetic strain” of this poem is strikingly similar to Virgil’s Fourth Eclogue, “The Golden Age.” The most important thing to note about Virgil is that the Fourth Eclogue is generally seen as the great classical descriptions of the regeneration of the world. In this sense, the comparisons between these poems are clear: both depict the transformation of the world by a divine baby and the arrival on Earth of a virgin goddess;  “he shall receive the life of gods, and himself be seen of them, and with his father’s worth reign o’er a world at peace,” writes Virgil. Curiously, however, Milton’s poem makes a point of rejecting the figures of the pagan tradition; “The Oracles are dumm,” he writes, adding that “Apollo from his shrine can no more divine, with hollow shreik the steep of Delphos leaving.” The denunciation of the pagan world leads to the central conflict in the comparison of Milton and Virgil: Milton does not just adapt the form of Virgil’s Fourth Eclogue, but the act of adaptation actually functions as a corrective process. The pagan prophecy is converted into an affirmation of Christianity that manages to denounce Virgil in the process; as J. Martin Evans writes, Virgil’s classical framework is “adjusted and modified to meet the demands of a new ideology.” The comparison of the Nativity Ode with its predecessors, both Virgil and the Old Testament, places Milton is a sort of biblical-pagan matrix. The poem is at once aligned with the works of old while standing in competition with them, offering a curious retelling of the Bible and a Christian replacement of Virgil.

It is becoming clear, then, that the Nativity Ode in interested in more than just ordinary praise of the baby Jesus; the poem imagines nothing less than the total transformation of the world. As already mentioned, the poem does away with the authority of the Pagan gods, banishing the “brutish gods of Nile” and stating “Nor is Osiris seen in Memphian Grove;” as Milton writes, “each particular power forgoes his wonted seat.” But then the poem goes even further than more than the removal from power of these pagan figures; it imagines a cosmic transformation of nature upon the birth of the baby. Consider the following passage:

It was the Winter wilde,

While the Heav’n-born-childe,

All meanly wrapt in the rude manger lies;

Nature in aw to him

Had doff’t her gawdy trim,

With her great Master so to sympathize

As we can already see, Milton imagines nature as secondary to the newborn baby. Nature is “in aw” to him; he is its “Master.” But Milton goes even further later on, imagining nature cowering in the presence of the baby:

And through the shady gloom

Had given day her room,

The Sun himself with-held his wonted speed,

And hid his head for shame,

And his inferiour flame,

The new-enlightn’d world no more should need;

He saw a greater Sun appear

Then his bright Throne, or burning Axletree could bear.

We see here that the Sun becomes weakened with the birth of the baby; the sun “hid his head for shame,” and the world no longer needs his “inferior flame” now that a “greater Sun” has appeared. The poem replaces the sun with the baby, the “Prince of light,” whose “raign of peace upon the earth began.” In this way, the poem imagines the birth of Christ as the beginning of a revolution, a supernatural reordering of the natural world.

But then the important thing to note is that the poem imagines this revolution in an apocalyptic fashion; it portrays this new world order as the result of the Earth’s progression towards its limit, when “truth and justice with return down to men” and heaven “will open wide the Gates of her high Palace Hall.” Indeed, the entire poem marches steadily towards the world’s final destination, towards the cataclysmic moment when:

With such a horrid clang

As on mount Sinai rang

While the red fire, and smouldring clouds out brake:

The aged Earth aghast

With terror of that blast

Shall from the surface to the center shake

When at the world’s last session

The dreadfull Judge in middle Air shall spread his throne.

This is, as the poem says, “the world’s last session.” And in the poem, this transformation gives way to the creation of a heaven on Earth – a world in which “at last our bliss full and perfect is.” This is the world that Milton described earlier – the world of the banished pagan gods and the abolition of Hell. It should be noted, then, that the apocalypse is the end of the world as we know it, but not the end of the world itself. This is the apocalypse, rather, of the radical millenarians, wherein the end of the world gives way to the reign of saints on Earth and God comes down to live among men – this is, to the radical millenarians the second coming of Jesus Christ.

We can see, then, that the poem is interested in the rejection of the past by way of a Puritan vision of the apocalyptic second coming of Jesus Christ. But then it’s even more than that – in describing the transformation of the world as the result of the second coming, Milton actually turns the reader into the poem’s subjects of conversion. For one thing, we have to note that the poem never refers directly to the author alone. As J. Martin Evans has explains, this distinguishes the poem from the work of Milton’s contemporaries, for often wrote of personal transformations of both the author and the subjects within their poem. Milton’s poem, on the other hand, is entirely anonymous, never once acknowledging any personal transformation on the part of the author; the poem does  not even contain a single “I” or “me.” Nor is does the poem demonstrate the personal transformations of any of its characters – even the Shepherds are unmoved, merely “simply chatting in a rustick row” and keeping themselves busy with their “silly thoughts.” Indeed, there is no subjective presence in Milton’s poem that actually undergoes any spiritual transformation. Rather, it allows the reader to bear witness to the transformation of the world before subtly inviting the reader to take part in the poem’s vision of the new society. After all, the poem claims that the newborn babe will “redeem our loss so both himself and us to glorify” and will usher in an era of “our bliss;” By the use of the word “our,” the poem invites the reader into its temporal world such that it turns the reader into its subject of conversion; it invites the reader to become aware of the consequences of the new birth and take part in the poem’s post-apocalyptic vision. Indeed, the poem takes on a clear agenda: the conversion of its reader-subjects to its distinctive religious ideology through its imagined transformation of civilization.

We’ve figured out, then, that the poem has a distinctive goal: it aims to recruit its readers to its cause of creating a new world order in line with the thinking of radical millenarians. Unmistakably, this is directly related to the politics of revolutionary England in the seventeenth century – and, as we said earlier,  Milton was one of its most vocal proponents. In his 1641 pamphlet Of Reformation, Milton stated his belief that the second coming was imminent, that Christ would “judge the several kingdoms of the world” and “put an end to all earthly tyrannies.” Furthermore, in The Reason of Church Government, Milton advocates the creation of a church-governed state; “since Church-government is so strictly commanded in Gods Word,” he writes, “the first and greatest reason why we should submit thereto, is because God hath so commanded.” Indeed, Milton’s stance was that the reign of the King is a threat to the rule of God on Earth, a conviction which comes to light most prominently in The Tenure of Kings and Magistrates, in which Milton identifies King Charles I as the Antichrist, defends the right of the people to revolt against the tyranny of their monarchs, and openly advocates the execution of the King.

It would seem, then, that to Milton, religion and politics are inextricably linked. But the question before us is whether Milton’s political beliefs are manifest in the Nativity Ode, which, at least on the surface, is fairly devoid of political language. All we need to do, however, is draw parallels between Milton’s political writings and the language of the poem to see that the poem has a distinctive political ideology. At the very beginning, for example, Milton refers to the baby as the “Son of Heavn’s eternal King” – and if the baby is Jesus, then the King of Heaven must be God, his father. Of course, this places God in competition with the monarchs. Milton makes this much clear later on when he writes that “The Trumpet spake not to the armed throng, and Kings sate still with awfull eye” upon the arrival of the baby; the kings are paralyzed in his presence. This correlates to the earlier analogy of the replacement of the Sun and the reordering of the Earth. As we already determined, the birth of the baby weakens the power of the Sun; it “hid his head in shame, as his inferiour flame the new-englightn’d world no more should need,” the poem reads. It turns out, however, that this image of the replacement of the Sun actually uses political language. Milton states, after all, that with the birth of the baby, the Sun witnesses the appearance of “a greater Sun” than “his bright Throne” could bear. We cannot miss, here, that Milton’s Sun sits like a King upon its throne, only to be deposed with the birth of the baby. It would seem, then, that the cosmic restructuring that the poem imagines – the rejection of the Gods of the pagan past, the apocalyptic second coming of Christ, the deposition of the Sun – directly correlates to Milton’s advocacy of the political overhaul of the English Revolution. If this is the case, then the whole poem can be read not just as a religious piece, but as a vehicle for Milton’s political ideology.

This brings us to a central interpretive question: did Milton intend for this poem to be political? The simple answer is that we can’t really know. After all, the poem is not strictly about politics, even if it uses something of political language. Falling short of a statement of intention from Milton himself, we really have no way of knowing what exactly his intentions were – we cannot, even through his works, concretely step inside his mind. The more nuanced point, however, is that we really needn’t care. To the seventeenth-century English reader, after all, Milton would have been associated with the political ideas he advocated in his pamphlets. In this sense, Milton, through all of his writing, would have cultivated a reputation as a revolutionary and an image as a radical political mind. In line with the thinking of Foucault, then, we can say that Milton existed through his writing not merely as an author, but as an author-image with a distinctive ideology. As Foucault argues, the image of an author transcends the author themselves, such that “the function of an author is to characterize the existence, circulation and operation of certain discourses within a society.” Milton, then, offers an ideal example of Foucault’s argument, as the consideration of Milton as an author-image allows us to uncover the political ideologies of even his religious writings.

But then there is one last step to figuring out what the poem is really after. As we can already see, the poem’s focus on radical millenarianism correlates to Milton’s advocacy of the English Revolution in that both concepts are interested in the creation of a heavenly state. Through this line of thinking, however, we can specify that the removal of the Sun from its “throne,” a part of the poem’s cosmic restructuring of the world, seems to be an allegory for the deposition of the King. The cause of this regicide is, in the poem’s terms, the birth of the baby, which is the source of the apocalypse and the revolution that follows. Now is the time to note, however, the central curiosity of the entire poem: it never actually names the baby as Jesus. Throughout the poem, baby is referred to only in the third person – he is referred to only as the “son of heavn’s eternal king,” the “prince of light,” the “babe.” Indeed, the poem never actually addresses Jesus himself. To imply that the poem would not be read as a reference to Jesus, of course, would be off the mark; after all, it references the nativity in its title. However, if we strictly consider the language of the poem in isolation, this observation does leave the identity of the source of the revolution unresolved and ambiguous.

Indeed, the babe the poem is celebrating is an unnamed source of revolution. But then we must remember that this poem is not really about the nativity; when we consider its radical millenarian position, we see that fashions its telling of the nativity story as a prophecy of the second coming. And in proceeding to invite the reader into its post-apocalyptic world, the poem is really inviting the reader to join the revolutionary cause that this newborn babe ignites. If the babe in the poem is the instigator of the revolution, then when the poem is taken as an allegory for seventeenth-century England, the babe must be the leading crusader of the revolutionary cause, the one who leads the charge for the beheading of the King. And as we already saw, to the seventeenth-century English reader, Milton had cultivated an author-image as the main advocate of the Revolution, a position that would be only further cemented by Paradise Lost, which would affirm his stalwart defense of the revolutionary cause even in the years after the Glorious Restoration. It might just be possible, then, that the poem does more than just issue of prophecy of the second coming. Rather, it might just be that when we consider the poem in terms of Milton’s representative author-image, the poem fashions Milton himself as the embodiment of the second coming, he who ignites the flames of revolution.

Works Cited:

J. Martin Evans, “The Poetry of Absence.” In The Miltonic Moment, 11-38. (University Press of Kentucky, 1998) 21.

Christopher Hill, “The Millennium and the Chosen Nation” in Milton and the English Revolution (New York: The Viking Press, 1978) 279.

Donald Swanson and John Mulryan. “Milton’s “On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity”: The Virgilian and Biblical Matrices.” Milton Quarterly 23, no. 2 (1989): 59.

Gordon Teskey, “Milton’s Early English Poems: The Nativity Ode, ‘L’Allegro’, ‘Il Penseroso’” in The Oxford Handbook of Milton, ed. Nicholas McDowell and Nigel Smith (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009).

The Dangerous Disease

I think we tend to engage in a bit of managerial task delegation when it comes to the great works of humankind, or at least, in the ways that we label them. We draw neat lines in the sand and send Newton and Wordsworth to their own respective corners; we funnel skills sets into plainly marked professions and are content to never let them touch. We ask the poets to dream, entreat the writers to imagine, beg the artists to create. And we know they will, because that is what they do, and it is in the same vein of knowing that we leave the measuring, the discovering, the facts of the world to the mathematicians and the scientists. And in doing so, we perform the greatest slight of hand known to every magician to ever walk the stage: we split a human being apart.

That is to say, we forget the intrinsic overlap between the one who paints the world and the one who examines it. A scientist does not merely observe, he imagines. And, crucially, he creates, because what the scientist and the artist and the mathematician have in common is that they must find ways to communicate their bits of knowledge and truth with the rest of the world, and the way is almost always language. And while this is not inherently harmful, the language used by a wide majority of the scientific community is indeed overwhelmingly detrimental to minority groups, due largely to the fact that the rhetoric of this field was coined by the white male elites who had near exclusive control of it for most of its lifetime.

Hunting down said language (and said white male elites) doesn’t require too much work. After all, white men have consistently remained in a seat of power in this field since its birth: scientific racism actually calls upon physical bodily measurements to determine intelligence and competence. It is unsurprising that the men who possessed the power to write and therefore create the world did so with their own image in mind, to grant as much favor upon themselves as possible. Indeed, looking back to the classical thinkers gives us an idea of the long-standing nature of these concepts: Roman writer, architect, and engineer Vitruvius (70–25 BC), writes candidly that

“… those races nearest to the southern half of the axis are of lower stature, with swarthy complexions, curly hair, black eyes, and little blood, on account of the sun. This poverty of blood makes them over-timid to stand up against the sword … On the other hand, men born in cold countries are, indeed, ready to meet the shock of arms with great courage and without timidity.”

This sheds some light on exactly how pervasive these physically dependent ideologies are in the scientific world, and how long they have been working against the efforts of minorities to stand on equal footing. To get a more modern look at this phenomenon, Donald McNeil Jr.’s Zika: The Emerging Epidemic makes for a relatively quick and interesting read, covering the events of the Zika outbreak up until the book’s publication last June. Here’s the gist of it: the Zika virus was discovered in a monkey in Uganda in 1947. No one really bothered with the disease for a long time, even when cases started sweeping across island nations in the Pacific, mostly because it was relatively mild and didn’t seem to have any long term health risks. It wasn’t until August 2015 that doctors in Brazil began noticing high rates of microcephaly in the country’s hospitals, and it wasn’t long after that before the real threat of the disease revealed itself: its ability to cross the placenta and attack unborn fetuses. Since then, a number of precautions have been implemented to try and slow the spread of the disease, but scientists aren’t really sure where it’ll go from here, although this doesn’t stop McNeil from positing his own advice to the concerned readers (mostly, stay inside and stop getting pregnant).

The most immediate manipulation of language in this book feels quite unobtrusive to us until we consider it from a distance: the personification, and indeed, characterization, of the Zika virus. It starts when McNeil moves from “the Zika virus” to simply “Zika,” giving a distant and encompassing noun the feel of a singular proper one. Assessments about the nature of the disease move away from the abstract and towards descriptive quantifications of a single individual, as in the following example: “The more we learn about Zika, the scarier it gets” (18). Which reads more like a line from a novel about a zombie apocalypse than an account of an insentient mass of viruses. McNeil does this consistently in the book, and compounds it by attributing complex emotions and intentions to the virus, as well as a myriad of adverbs that coagulate into a bizarrely strong sense of what can almost be called character development. It doesn’t simply enter the cell; it hijacks, “like commandos invading a town and converting its car factory into a bomb factory,” covered in “sinister” spikes and hunting down new victims (23). And, conversely, that’s exactly what McNeil presents the cells to be: victims. They are under attack from the “aggressive spread” (53), the manifestation of helplessness at the hands of the merciless, the powerful, Zika.

In short, McNeil is using subtle word choices to effectively morph the Zika virus into the antagonistic star of a horror story. But this is not unexpected, nor, I would say, avoidable. Scientists must sort through infinite resources when preparing to write on a subject, and in deciding how to convey their selected information, they are invariably creating a narrative. Here we see science not as a pure stream of all that is true in the world, but as a sculpted pond reflecting our own faces back at us. This is the mystery debunked, how one set of data (say, for example, global temperatures over the past 100 years) can be the pinnacle of two very different conclusions (global warming is cyclic versus global warming is catastrophic). This is where the scientist becomes the inventor.

But such inventions are born out of necessity; not only because of the infinite variability of language as a whole, but also because scientific language is charged with the task of turning the physical world, the tangible, into the abstract. J.R. Martin and M.A.K. Halliday present this idea in their book, Writing Science: Literacy and Discursive Power, which examines the relationship between science and linguistics:

“The language of science is, by its nature, a language in which theories are constructed; its special features are exactly those which make theoretical discourse possible. But this clearly means that the language is not passively reflecting some pre-existing conceptual structure, on the contrary, it is actively engaged in bringing such structures into being. They are, in fact, structures of language, as Lemke has expressed it, ‘a scientific theory is a system of related meanings.’ We have to abandon the naïve ‘correspondence’ notion of language, and adopt a more constructivist approach to it.” (Martin, Halliday, 9)

That is to say, the mere fact that there is no one way to interpret or organize the world is indicative of the imprecise nature of scientific language. The scientist can never simply describe the world as it truly exists outside of linguistic interpretation. Instead every account is, at its core, a theoretical construction, which only comes into being by its enunciation. To observe the world is to interpret it. To describe the world is to create it.

It is this ability to mold reality that gives scientific language such weight, and why we must continually examine our use of such language. In that spirit, let us return again to the language of McNeil’s Zika. Although we have already established the inevitability of the creation of a narrative structure, we have not yet looked at how McNeil uses this particular narrative to impart meaning. I think a worthwhile place to start would be in examining the repeated emphasis on the virus’s origins in Africa. Not only is this the metaphorical birth place of the virus, but its childhood home: “It no doubt circulated there for centuries” (32). The problem here lies in the portrayal of the virus as the villain: if we accept this, then we are also accepting an African nationality for said villain.

Following our identification of a villain, we move imperatively to investigate the nature of our victim. McNeil specifies the aggressive and harmful nature of the virus when it moves into what is scientifically categorized as “naïve” territory (28). The word naïve calls forth the image of an innocent, unaware of the dangers of the world; this is the victim, the foil to the virus that actively seeks to cause destruction. On the cellular level, this victim is the host cell’s DNA; on the biological level, it is the unborn fetus; on the conceptual level, it is the American public, for whom McNeil expresses the greatest concern about the “impeding threat” (55).

In further distinguishing the characterization of both the villain and the victim, we can look to the surprisingly consistent rhetoric that McNeil uses to detail the nature of the relationship between the quasi-characters. When speaking of the mosquito known to carry the Zika virus, McNeil repeatedly emphasizes “how hard it was to kill Aedes aegypti because it bred and lived indoors with its victims, as cockroaches do, not off in the swamps, as some other species did” (84). The parallel between the mosquito and the cockroach carries no structural or informational significance, but serves to further encapsulate the villain-virus as something loathsome and repulsive. Mention of the swamps smacks of imperialistic literature caricaturizing African natives wallowing in overgrown wilderness, such as in Heart of Darkness: “Land in a swamp, march through the woods, and in some inland post feel the savagery, the utter savagery, had closed round him.” The victims, in contrast, are intrinsically more civilized by the mere virtue of living indoors. Interestingly enough, McNeil seems to fashion a sort of motif out of the “air-conditioned homes,” referring to them multiple times in the book as the safe space made inaccessible to the villain-virus, which (I’ll just be blunt about it) has developed into the image of a violently aggressive African savage on the hunt for unsuspecting American victims.

And this is where scientific language becomes harmful. McNeil’s narrative makes it easy for white Americans to cast themselves into the roles of the wronged innocents and simultaneously associate the black “others” with stereotypical lines of aggression, fear, and blame. The identification of an out-group, of someone to blame, provides a sense of control over a situation where we find ourselves feeling both frightened and powerless. We don’t have to look farther than the results of the latest election, into the “silent majority” of disgruntled and disenfranchised lower-class white individuals, to know that this is a narrative of deep familiarity. It has been recurrent from the conception of our nation; since then, we have sought to cast it out of the impressionistic and interpretive aspects of our culture, but have made little forward progress in removing its deep roots in scientific language. But we cannot afford to stand in place any longer. For as long as we continue to employ scientific language that stands on the backs of minority groups, we will continue to build a reality that holds true to these narratives. But if we ever hope to reach any semblance of equality, we must push consciously in reverse, making space for the narratives yet unheard. We must allow the powerful language of scientific construction to spill forth from the lips of the oppressed, and thus rebuild the world that we have long accepted. One block – one word – at a time.


Works Cited

Conrad, Joseph. Heart of Darkness. New York: Dover, 1902. Print.

McNeil, Donald. Zika: The Emerging Epidemic. Norton, W. W. & Company, Inc. 2016. Print.

Martin, J.R., & Halliday, M.A.K. Writing Science: Literacy and Discursive Power. University of Pittsburgh Press. 1993. Print.


Entering the Theater of History

You are perhaps more familiar with the movie: Gérard Depardieu, lumbering, blond, and sporting the most unfortunate bowl cut, is the (or, as it ultimately turns out, one of the) eponymous sixteenth century peasant, returning home after a long ten-year absence to his small French village amidst the cheers of his neighbors and the loving acceptance of his belle wife, played by Nathalie Baye. All goes well for a while, the couple living in wedded bliss, but as time passes suspicions increasingly mount and a shocking secret is finally revealed, tearing the two apart. It is a romantic story, and a tragic one, but most of all it is it is an unlikely one, fantastical enough to be taken as more of a legend or a myth than as a real, it-truly-did-happen historical event.

But that is exactly what le retour de Martin Guerre is: an extraordinary fact of history, a remarkable but true happenstance. The details are simple enough, if hard to believe: In 1548, a young peasant by the name of Martin Guerre stole a small quantity of grain from his father, and for his crime had to flee his hometown of Artigat, leaving behind his newborn son and his young wife Bertrande de Rols. He was gone for ten years, journeying to Spain and fighting his homeland in its armies. In the meantime, another peasant from a nearby village, Arnaud du Tilh, learned of his resemblance to Martin, and decided to impersonate the former and take his identity, property, and wife. Martin Guerre alias Arnaud du Tilh was initially warmly welcomed by everyone in Artigat, even fathering a daughter with Bertrande, but a quarrel with his “uncle” over issues of the estate led to mounting suspicions over his true identity. One murder plot, one burned building, and one false testimony later, Martin Guerre alias Arnaud du Tilh was hauled up before the court at first Rieux, then Toulouse. Quick of tongue, a born trickster, Arnaud du Tilh almost succeeded in convincing them of his ruse when the real Martin Guerre, minus one leg from war, returned to reclaim his life. He was tearfully received by Bertrande and the rest of his family, and Arnaud du Tilh was hanged, admitting his wrongs and asking God for mercy on his way to the gibbet.

The case was, of course, a sensation, and in the years afterwards innumerable accounts were published recounting or at least referencing its events, among them Arrest Memorable by Jean de Coras, the bestselling record of the presiding jurist of the court at Toulouse; an essay by Montaigne; and a chapter in a book by Leibniz. Martin Guerre’s tale has been told and retold so many times over the years, traded around endlessly around the Basque region in which he had lived so many centuries ago, that it has long since passed from the annals of history into the realm of imagination and creativity. It was while working as a consultant and co-writer on the set of yet another adaptation of this famous tale, the aforementioned Depardieu vehicle, that historian Natalie Zemon Davis grew concerned about how far the story had strayed from the historical record, and thus set out to return it to its factual roots, reconstruct the events as they “actually happened” (Davis, viii). “I would give this arresting tale its first full-scale historical treatment, using every scrap of paper left me by the past” (Davis, ix). This is her stated intent, but the results of her forays into the past, another work entitled The Return of Martin Guerre, is as far from a concrete, definitive, cut-and-dry historical tract as any I have ever encountered—it is history, but it reads like a novel, like a movie. She begins by delving into the past, trying to uncover its “true face,” but she ends instead by showing that the pure facts of life are unattainable, always obscured as they are by layers of language, literary language, operating on both sides of the discourse: the one of those who tell the story, and the one of those whose stories are being told (Davis, 125). Left in Davis’s hands, history approaches literature, and deliberately so—the impression she ultimately leaves us with is not of history as true, unitary and objective, but rather of history as elusive and changeable, a story to be crafted that transforms every time it is told.[1]

From the very moment she embarks on her pursuit of the past, Davis reveals her acute awareness of the tension that exists between literary representation and the writing of history. In the introduction to his book Metahistory, the “linguistic turn” historian (according to my professor, a historian who has basically defected over to the side of literature) Hayden White writes that “the difference between ‘history’ and ‘fiction’ resides in the fact that the historian ‘finds’ his stories, whereas the fiction writer ‘invents’ his” (6). For Davis, however, her first encounter with the story of Martin Guerre is evidently a mix of the two: “When she first read the judge’s account,” Davis writes, her immediate thought is that rarely “does a historian find so perfect a narrative structure in the events of the past or one with such dramatic popular appeal” (vii). On the one hand, she maintains that she found the story of Martin Guerre sifting through the chronicles; on the other hand, her observation of the perfection of the story’s “narrative structure” for historical and popular means demonstrates a heightened consciousness of the ways in which these stories are told that is quite in keeping with White’s theories about the “fictions of factual representation.”[2] And the deeper Davis goes into the case, the more the friction between literature and history, fiction and fact, bears on her work: She is troubled by the departure of the film from the “historical record,” but at the same time she is inspired to come up with “new ways” of thinking about and understanding the past in general and about Martin Guerre in specific (Davis, viii). She feels she is in a “historical laboratory” of her own, “generating not proofs, but historical possibilities,” an image that at once connotes the scientific nature of her work (history as a “social science”) and the imaginative, inventive nature of it.

To resolve this “problem of invention” posed to her as a historian, Davis initially finds recourse in the archives (Davis, viii). She returns to her “original métier,” and “even from location in the Pyrenees I was running off to the archives in Foix, Toulouse, and Auch” to gather all sorts of sources, everything from Coras’s and Montaigne’s texts on the case to registers of Parliamentary sentences to notarial contracts of all the surrounding villages (Davis, ix). She gathers every piece of evidence, and in doing so she attempts not only to finally catch ahold of Bertrande and Arnaud, but also to “discover the world they would have seen” (Davis, 5). If she has to fall back on invention in her writing, it is only “in part,” “held tightly in check by the voices of the past” (Davis, 5). Perhaps some construction of the literary sort is unavoidable in writing history, but the final result will still be objectively true in the sense that it is borne out by the facts of the past.

But what to do when even those “voices” are literary constructions, other texts already encrusted with rhetorical devices and linguistic turns? Archival documents, it must be remembered, are not pure, unvarnished facts, but rather recordings or accountings of the facts. Channeling Nietzsche, they are not the object, not the truth, but a specific representation of the object, the truth, in the form of words. Language, then, is the barrier that stands between the historian and his subject, the “instrument of medication between the consciousness and the world that consciousness inhabits” that moreover is inherently contaminated with a whole host of ideological, political, ethical, and so on and so forth meanings—according to White, the idea that a “value-neutral description of the facts, prior to their interpretation or analysis” is possible is nothing more than an “illusion” (White, 126-134). Language is never neutral, and because language is never neutral all archival documents—the most personal of letters, the driest of legal, the most sensational of news articles—are not neutral either, and so a historian searching for the realities of the past starts from a position of having already, unknowingly, lost touch with that past. All archives are simply another sort of fiction, another type of literary or linguistic mode.

The problem of the archives as a truth-teller is exacerbated when studying sixteenth century peasants who could not write at all, and so have “left us few documents of self-revelation” (Davis, 2). To gain access to the lives of these individuals, the historian is forced to take a round-about route via secondary accounts written by others far removed from the actual peasantry. Literature is one option, but it exists, it is so often conventional, following “the classical rules that make villagers a subject of comedy” (Davis, 2). The literary corpus abounds with stories of “happy, pleasant, and agreeable” peasants and their “happy, pleasant, and agreeable” adventures, but to take that for reality is to run together fiction and fact. As Davis herself admits, a learned poet might describe Arnaud’s country with extravagant literary terms like “rich in grains, rich in wines” and “abounds in men, as brave fighters as could be,” but it would be hard to say if Arnaud would have said it similarly (Davis, 35). The other option Davis puts forth is records of court proceedings, but these too are not exempt from literary sleight-of-hand. For example, an excerpt of a document recording the testimony of a young Lyonnais villager seeking a pardon for the murder of his wife (who did not live long enough to tell her side of the story, which just serves to highlight the erasure of voices in the archives and the problem of recovering them) is sprinkled with “phrases urged upon him by his attorney” that are designed to paint a vivid “portrait of an unhappy marriage”: The wife, “without rhyme or reason, took it into her head to kill him, and in fact beat him and threw stones at him…The suppliant accepted this peaceably” (Davis, 3). Criminal cases like Martin Guerre are especially rich in drama and narrative, and also “limited as a means for faithfully recounting history,” the judges always having “the power to shape the official version of the truth” (Bienen, 496) White says that “the facts do not speak for themselves, but that the historian speaks for them” (125). We see here, however, that the relationship is a step further removed—the historian doesn’t speak for the facts, but for texts that purport to speak for the facts.

Davis is not unaware of this linguistic and archival dilemma, which she proves by treating her sources like poets, subjecting their texts to an analysis of a basically literary kind. The primary source Davis uses in writing The Return of Martin Guerre is the aforementioned Arrest Memorable by Jean de Coras, whom she presents to us as “The Storyteller.” As depicted by Davis, Coras was a brilliant jurist who could pour forth “spellbinding oratory before two thousand people” and whose legal publications were beloved by his students for their literary merits as much as their informational ones: “’Corasissima’ one of them wrote in the margin next to an especially apt phrase on the subject of inheritance by minors” (Davis, 97). These talents were applied to Coras’s account of Martin Guerre’s trial, and the result, in Davis’s eyes, is a new style of law and crime writing that has never been seen before, an “innovative book of contradictory images and mixed genres” (Davis, 104). She then proceeds to examine how this “mixture in tone and mixture in form” determines the story that Coras is telling (Davis, 108). On the one hand, Coras exaggerated and omitted aspects of this story to create a “moral tale” in which the “diabolic art” of the impostor is “built up by comparison with biblical, classical” figures, thus exonerating Bertrande of any guilt and emphasizing Coras’s “exemplary” execution of this satanic figure (Davis, 109). On the other hand, however, the lack of a proper hero, a requirement of a moral tale, in this version of the events—the real Martin Guerre, Davis stresses, is portrayed as irresponsible, “unforgiving and unrepentant”—allows Coras’s account to be recast as a “tragedy,” a word he himself uses in a later edition (Davis 110, 111). And still another way to read Coras’s text is as a “tragicomedy,” a story with a diverting beginning, a doubtful middle, and a sad ending in which Arnaud is cast as a kind of hero crucially helped by Bertrande who, “not at all deceived, decides to fashion a marriage with him” (Davis, 112). Davis went into the archives a historian, but came out an English professor, well versed with the literary process, trying to find meaning not only in the sentences themselves but in the spaces between them, in their forms and structures, in the way this texts shifts between genres and “is told in two ways at the same time” (Davis, 108). The text that she ends up with as a result is not objective, not bare, unvarnished fact, but rather a complex and at times contradictory medley of voices and meaning.

Davis herself advocates for the “comitragic” version of the story of Martin Guerre, presenting to us in The Return of Martin Guerre a reading of Arnaud as a hero, Bertrande as his willing and loving accomplice, and Martin Guerre as the cad who comes back and ruins everything at the last minute. This interpretation she arrives at not by grounding her arguments in the exact words of Coras’s text, but by playing around and speculating into the ambiguities and contradictions that arise from the surface of his text once she subjects it to the kind of literary analysis mentioned above. Davis treats Arnaud, Bertrande, and the other historical figures in her book like they are characters in a Dostoyevsky play, wondering and hypothesizing on their emotions and psychology. For example, much of her assertion of Bertrande’s complicity in Arnaud’s deception (really the heart of her book) rests on what she imagines are Bertrande’s feelings as a young and beautiful woman abandoned by her real husband: but surely, Davis says, “Bertrande dreamed of a husband and lover who would come back and be different” (Davis, 34). She invents scenarios in her head as “thought experiments,” and places Arnaud and others in them, putting words into their heads—if Arnaud du Tilh and Martin Guerre had ever met beforehand, she says, it surely must have been “unsettling and fascinating,” but once the shock wore off regarding their resemblance they likely would “exchange confidences” (Davis, 39). The real Martin expresses ambivalence about his wife, suggests to Arnaud that he “take her,” and Arnaud would think, “Why not?” (Davis, 39).

Davis tries to justify her speculation by asserting that a historian has recourse to “the uncertainties, the ‘perhapses,’ the ‘may-have-beens’” when the “evidence is inadequate or perplexing,” but her retelling of Martin Guerre goes far beyond that and approaches fiction (Davis, viii). The historian Robert Finlay, for example, criticizes Davis for bypassing completely the historical records “in the service of an inventive blend of intuition and assertion,” particularly in her characterization of Bertrande, whom she transforms in a stroke of the pen from the dupe of the traditional tale to an active and engaged accomplice in hers (Finlay, 569). This type of inversion of traditional women’s history is very common in micro-history studies like The Return of Martin Guerre, and, according to historian Marsha R. Robinson, has its roots in the idea that “history is constructed, historical narratives are rarely objective” (Robinson, 1). Although Davis vehemently denies Finlay’s claims that she ignored the historical record, certain elements of her book indicate her implicit recognition of the hold of fiction in history. First, she frames the entire book in terms of theatrical language—Bertrande and Arnaud are consummate “rural actors,” their ruse is compared to the donning of “the mask of the carnival player,” the trial is a performance which Arnaud has to go into “rehearsals” for and which is attended by spectating crowds (Davis 5, 41, 57). This obviously serves to call attention to the literary aspects of her writing, making transparent the ways in which she uses language and narrative structure to intensify the drama (Look! Arnaud takes “center stage”) and embellish her history (Davis, 69) And second, Davis leaves her book deliberately open-ended, ending: “I think I have uncovered the true face of the past—or has Pansette done it one again?” (Davis, 125). Although Davis had set out to write the true history of Martin Guerre, in the end she can only she can claim that it is a face, not the true face, of Pansette, Arnaud’s nickname/stage name. She has not deciphered the story; it lives on, changing with every re-telling, whether it is another historian who takes a crack at it, or a grandmother in present-day Artigat who tells the it to a young mother complaining over her baby carriage that nothing ever happens in this sleepy town. “Perhaps not now, but in the sixteenth century…” (Davis, 125).

In many people’s minds, there is a firm difference between historical writing and fiction writing—one is true, and the other is not; one deals in facts, the other inventions; one is a science, interested in discovering and quantifying, the other an act of creativity, interested in creating and imagining. But as Davis shows in her search for the true, the right, way of telling the history of a legend like Martin Guerre, the boundary between fiction and history is much, much more fluid than most imagine. Language, literary schemes and modes, infiltrates every step of a historian’s work, from the starting point of the archives to the end point of actually setting words down onto the page. It is impossible to get the truth of the past, because such a thing doesn’t exist, and if it did, it is lost to us anyway. Truth is not objective, or unitary, or singular, but rather ever-shifting and ever-changing, a story to be crafted and told and re-told, every version, every interpretation, different, repeating ad infinitum. Davis’s The Return of Martin Guerre is but one of these stories—there will be, and already are, many more.

[1] The idea for this essay grew out of two sources. First, a prompt my Literary Theory professor gave me for our second assignment that goes: “Historians take themselves to be reconstructing the truth about past events, but they are actually writing a kind of fiction. They bring to their understanding of earlier periods narrative schemes of a basically literary kind—storytelling forms that help them organize bare historical facts into a satisfying shape, none of which can be said to be more right than any other. The choice of what kind of story you are going to tell cannot be made on empirical grounds.” Second, a book (Davis’s The Return of Martin Guerre) that I read for my Theory of History class, and on which I led a discussion section.

[2] Title of one of Hayden White’s essays: “The Fictions of Factual Representation,” compiled in Tropics of Discourse: Essays in Cultural Criticism (Johns Hopkins UP, 1978).

Works Cited

Bienen, Leigh Buchanan. “Review: The Law as Storyteller.” Harvard Law Review, Vol. 98, No. 2, 1984, pg. 494-502.

Davis, Natalie Zemon. The Return of Martin Guerre. Harvard UP, 1983.

Finlay, Robert Finlay. “The Refashioning of Martin Guerre.” The American Hsitorical Review, Vol. 9, No. 3, 1988, pg. 553-571.

Robinson, Marsha. Inverting History with Microhistory: Women Who Belong: Claiming a Female’s Right-Filled Space. Cambridge Scholar’s Publishing, 2013.

White, Hayden. “The Fictions of Factual Representation.” Tropics of Discourse: Essays in Cultural Criticism. Johns Hopkins UP, 1978.

White, Hayden. Metahistory: The Historical Imagination in Nineteenth-century Europe. Johns Hopkins UP, 1973.


Meaning in Literature: Where All Hell Rightfully Breaks Loose

One man’s hunger to inspire. A love of mankind. A tragedy. Loneliness. These words speak of an innocence vandalized and a dream crippled in a special character who goes by the name Wing Biddlebaum. His story, titled “Hands,” is one among many to come to life in the pages of Sherwood Anderson’s 1919 short story anthology, Winesburg, Ohio. It is a remarkable collection of stories that juxtaposes both community and isolation and both love found and love lost in the lives of individuals who strive so hard to exult life and humanity–only to be made so useless in the very communities that need them most. Their silenced voices beseech readers and it wasn’t long before I lent them my ears, heart, and soul.

“Hands” is as much the story of Biddlebaum as it is mine. And I say this not to claim for myself Biddlebaum’s experiences out of my empathy for him. Instead, I am claiming ownership of the particular presentation, or reading, of “Hands” that I used to open this discourse. I “own” my reading of an author’s literary work because it is a product of my deliberate construction of what the work means. I say constructing as opposed to discovering or receiving the meaning of a work, almost as if it was solely upon myself and needing nothing else to come up with such meaning. But, if this is true, it seems thoroughly radical but entirely possible to say that my meaning comes to exist with little regard for who the author is, let alone what they may have intended to communicate. But I wasn’t prepared to do away with the very figure who has always been a central part of all my experiences reading. The author was my intimate interlocutor. My mentor and alter-ego. Dare I suddenly trivialize Anderson’s role in the meaning of his own work. But, god forbid, could I be deluding myself? That is, do authors really not matter?

French literary theorist Roland Barthes seems to think so. For him, the beginning of narration marks the death of the author. Words cannot be any more than “the very practice of the symbol itself” (Barthes 142). The text is purely verbal, performative, and autonomous, essentially having a life of its own independent of the author (Barthes 145). Wimsatt and Beardsley take this this claim further saying that a work of literature simply is, and not representative or indicative of the author’s intent (1375). That is, to get any inkling of the author’s intent is to go back to the text itself, to ask how well the words succeed in showing authorial intent (Wimsatt and Beardsley 1375). In presenting my meaning of “Hands,” then, I am forced to make room for the role of the text as the grounds for justifying my interpretation. It is not Anderson to whom I owe my interpretation, but to the verbal condition of the text.

But what exactly is this verbal condition of the text? Barthes writes that it is “a tissue of quotations drawn from innumerable centres of culture” (146). Wimsatt and Beardsley trace its origin in the text’s syntax, readers’ common, default understanding of language, all existing literature, and in culture (1381). And E. D. Hirsch describes it as “the vital potency of language itself” (18). It might help to look at a line from “Hands” to help demonstrate what these theorists might mean by verbal condition. For example, my understanding of the following lines, “The story of Wing Biddlebaum is a story of hands. Their restless activity, like unto the beating of the wings of an imprisoned bird, had given him his name,” comes, first and foremost, from my understanding of the denotations and connotations of words such as “story” and “hands”, the logical strucutre of English grammar, the figurative implications of personified “hands”, and the cultural framework within which Biddlebaum can be a character, be defined by his hands, and possess a name (Anderson 10). It would follow that my understanding of those lines as referring to the meaning of Biddlebaum’s hands exists because I find the words themselves and their attached linguistic implications in the two lines I’ve just read. And yet, in this interpretive process, the authorial intent is absent, or at best, on the fringes of the textual origins of meaning. The text becomes self-sufficient and inevitably public once it is published, no longer owned or dependent on the very author who brought it into existence (Davies 68).

But as much as we seem to credit the text for its role in the meaning of a work, I find that the credit may actually be going to the reader. Barthes keenly points this out in admitting that despite the array of different writings and cultures housed in the public object we identify as the text, the reader is the one and only who can and does bring together all the different parts of a text by recognizing all of its diverse origins and possible meanings that none of the characters in the text or the author can recognize (148). It would be as if I as a reader was in a position to identify the many different ways of understanding the meaning of “Hands.” But I wouldn’t be, as Barthes says, deciphering some secret, ultimate meaning in the text, but disentangling the kinds of writing that come together and make possible the text titled “Hands” (147). The meaning of “Hands” for which I eventually settle emerges from my deliberate choice of what kinds of writing I have disentangled from the collection that is “Hands.” Thomas Karshan eloquently articulates the birth of meaning as the “enigmatic combination with the reader’s expectations and the assumptions of the linguistic context in which one reads it” (202). The meaning that I thought encapsulated “Hands,” then, is an agreement between myself and the text; Anderson has neither given nor been expected to give permission for me to state the meaning of his work.

Yet, what unsettles me is that arguments such as these — positioning readers as “disentanglers” and mere partners with the text — try to distance the reader from the structural implications of the text. But are readers really so distant, if at all, from the text just because the text is an autonomous, public linguistic piece? Hirsch attempts to restore the role of the reader by claiming words would be nothing without someone to understand them (13). Any reading I develop upon reading, say, the following line from “Hands”, “In the darkness he [Biddlebaum] could not see the hands and they became quiet,” rests on my able to distinguish those words as meaningful from aimless markings on a page, or even as purely grammatical and syntactical placeholders (16). The text and all its verbal glory are still there but they amount to nothing were it not for the reader who makes the words bear value and give them “verbal unity” (Sartre 30).

But the reader does more than just make the text “come to life.” Theodor Adorno writes that “The work of art becomes an appeal to subjects, because it is itself nothing other than a declaration by a subject of his own choice or failure to choose” (78). The reader declares the work of literature according to their choice. Here, Adorno introduces a different approach, one that hits closer to how I come to appreciate “Hands,” to understanding the relationship between the work of literature and the reader. The work of literature is an object that appeals to readers, depending on their preference that is wholly free-willed. This relationship returns the focus back onto the reader by whose preferences the text fulfills its role to impact the reader. In other words, the meaning that has stood out to me as aesthetically interesting from my reading of “Hands” supersedes not only authorial intent but the text as well.

To speak of aesthetic interest, however, is to speak of the goals that readers expect to reach after reading a work of literature. So far, I have shown that readers construct meaning from the text by interpreting the text regardless of the author’s intentions. But Knapp and Michaels push back saying interpretation of a work only follows if there was a speaker trying to communicate a message (53). This assumes that the reader only interprets a text in order to figure out what the speaker, or the author, is trying to say. But figuring out authorial intent, if that is even possible, is only one among many goals: the text’s aesthetic success being one of them. More importantly, authorial intent need not be prioritized over any other possible reading of the text as some kind of standard for judging the success of the text.

Frankly speaking however, I initially read “Hands” with the hopes of discovering what hidden meaning Anderson had in store for me and formulated a meaning that I thought was the closest approximation of, if not exactly, what Anderson intended to communicate. And I think it is safe to say that the casual reader wouldn’t act too differently when picking up a novel at the bookstore. You may have also experienced those innumerable times in middle school where teachers ask, “Well, what do you think the author is trying to tell us?” and “Why does your interpretation seem more correct than another’s?” Perhaps years of being conditioned to not only seek authorial intent but also treat it as the correct and only way of understanding a text made me hesitate to abandon the author completely from the meaning of a text. But even more interesting is the underlying assumption that there needs to be some correct, single way of interpreting a text. Richard Shusterman gives a very compelling account of why many think this need exists:

to deal only with the intention of the author…provides, at least in theory, a single, determinate, unchanging focus and standard for all different readings or interpretations of the work to converge upon and be judged by their fidelity to such intention…[for] Without it there is simply too much freedom, indeterminacy, and instability in the public linguistic conventions governing meaning. (67, 69)

His insight reveals something understandably compelling. And yet, what is so interesting about this attachment to what Shusterman terms “cognitive monism in interpretive intentions,” is the undeniably aggressive and almost competitive hunt to discover the best reading of a text. And this was not the kind of attitude I wished to hold in my meaning of “Hands.” All this time, I was only constructing meanings to eagerly capture what I presumed already existed, lying-in-wait, deep within the text; as if my “successful” seizure of the text’s “true” meaning echoed Caesar’s own Veni, Vidi, Vici! But it never crossed my mind that this meaning might merely be a projection of what I hoped to gain from “Hands” and what the implications of the purely verbal condition of the text have led me to believe.

For E. D. Hirsch, to do away with interpretive monism is to commit to a “chaotic democracy of ‘readings’” (13). For him, the absence of some “divine criteria” parametrized by authorial intent by which readings can be judged leaves us too unmoored and “reject[s] the only compelling normative principle that could lend validity to an interpretation” (14). His view, then, completely undermines the validity of my reading of “Hands,” but I can’t say I’m inclined to agree with Hirsch by deeming my interpretation as invalid. To agree with Hirsch would mean I could not settle for how I’ve appreciated “Hands” as a story of a community of isolated individuals. My own interpretations would constantly need to be scrapped for what was the “correct” way of appreciating “Hands” by determining Anderson’s intent, which is a task that Wimsatt and Beardsley claim is not only unwanted, but impossible (1375).

What Hirsch seems to disregard in latching onto matters of truth and correctness is the importance of a work’s aesthetic rewards for readers. Davies emphasizes reading with this goal of aesthetic interest in mind and argues that aesthetically pleasing accounts of a work of literature bypass the complications ensuing from Hirsch’s strict criteria for the “best” reading. For Davies, readers seek a reading of the text that is most aesthetically rewarding to them, which justifiably functions independently of the author and whatever aesthetic reading they preferred (65). On this note, if my reading of Biddlebaum as a pitiful character whose desire to inspire children to dream was wrongfully misunderstood by his community is what I find most aesthetically pleasing about “Hands,” that is the end all be all. Furthermore, if I am moved by “Hands” as being a story that not only beseeches the compassion of its readers, but compels readers to be more present in their lives and in those of others, I am again more than welcome to hold that view without objection. For there is no standard to which aesthetically pleasing accounts can or should be judged; truth has no place in aesthetic interest. While in Hirsch’s sense, my readings are not valid, in Davies’ sense, my readings are aesthetically rewarding and perhaps even aesthetically superior to the author’s intention, thus, restoring the “validity” in my readings that Hirsch seems to care so much about.

Recognizing the importance of aesthetic value in works of literature is, however, a way in which not only multiple readings of a work of literature can retain their dignity, but also retain the dignity of authors by respecting them in the ways they actually do matter. That is, while I believe it is ultimately the reader who ends up determining the meaning of a work, and is fully justified for doing so, it is the author who is accredited for bringing into existence works of literature, which are simultaneously works of art, that are willfully made public in the hopes of interesting their readers. Sartre calls this hope to interest as “deepest tendencies” which are motivations that dictated the author to construct their work; but I do not go further to try and guess or idolize Anderson’s “deepest tendencies” (26). In other words, while I reserve the right to be confident and justified in my interpretation of “Hands,” I also recognize that the story is purposeful and not some random salad-bowl of words. Anderson created an aesthetic presence deserving of my attention meant to be read, pored over, reflected upon, and enjoyed. And to this respect, he matters.

Works Cited

Adorno, Theodor. “Commitment.” [1974] New Left Review, Trans. Francis McDonagh, n.d. p.78. 

Anderson, Sherwood. “Hands.” Winesburg, Ohio. New York: E. W. Huebsch, 1919. 7-17.

Barthes, Roland. “The Death of the Author.” Image – Music – Text, Ed. and trans. Stephen Heath. New York: Hill and Wang, 1977. 142-148.

Davies, Stephen. “The Aesthetic Relevance of Authors’ and Painters’ Intentions.” The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, vol. 41, no. 1, 1982, pp. 65–76.

Hirsch, E. D. “In Defense of the Author.” Intention Interpretation, Ed. Gary Iseminger. Temple University Press, 1992, pp. 11–23,

Karshan, Thomas. “Deaths of the Authors.” Shades of Laura: Vladimir Nabokov’s Last Novel, The Original of Laura, Edited by Yuri Leving, McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2013, 201–204,

Knapp, Steven and Walter Benn Michaels. “The Impossibility of Intentionless Meaning.” Intention Interpretation, Ed. Gary Iseminger. Temple University Press, 1992, pp. 51–64,

Sartre, Jean-Paul. “What is Literature?” [1905]“What is Literature?” And Other Essays, Ed. Steven Ungar. President and Fellows of Harvard College, 1988, pp. 25-47.

Wimsatt, William K. and Monroe C. Beardsley. “The Intentional Fallacy.” [1946] The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, Ed. Vincent B. Leitch et al. W.W. Norton & Company, 2010. 1374-1387.

The Literary Intentions of the Law

It feels like we are constantly being told to “seize the moment” and to “appreciate the present”, but when we try to get ahold of what is right now, it slips right through our fingers. By what “is”, I mean what is true, real, and staring you back in the face. Society often tries to tell us that we need to live in the moment, but that is inherently impossible because everything is ever-changing. New wars start, new politicians take office, new environmental disasters occur. These types of changes often cause instability in the world that can make it hard to govern and maintain order, but we have law to keep us in check. The law is supposed to tell us what we can and cannot do when faced with certain circumstances. The language we call law has created a governing body that appears to have control over many aspects of our lives, such as what taxes we pay and where we can fire our guns. Upon further investigation, however, every word that we use to make law can be interpreted in different ways, making its practical application seem impossible.

While our capacity to communicate our thoughts through writing is something extraordinary, it is also something that we can negatively take advantage of because we often take creative license over writing. Reading literature is interpreting what someone else has written, and the act of reading law is no different. As individuals, we come up with our own meanings for everything that we read, and our interpretations stem from a number of factors. One crucial factor is the society in which we live, because our thoughts are immensely susceptible to the power of the situation. But society is a concept that is ever-developing and dynamic, which consistently changes our ways of thinking. So how does this fit into the law? And why is it even important? To start, even though law may be proven to be part of literature, no one other than literary critics care if they cannot convince anyone of their interpretations. It may be sad, but there are no real-life detriments. In contrast, the judge has the responsibilities of the literary critic to pull meaning out of written language, of the moral philosopher to decide what is right and wrong, and of the Pope to be someone that actually has an influence on daily life. But there are literally thousands of judges in the United States alone, each with their own moral code from their own upbringing, and the literary aspects of language allow each to make their own separate interpretation. This seems like a recipe for disaster. However, it is actually good in the wake of an ever-changing world.

The base of my argument requires proof that law can truly mean different things to different people. The example I am going to use is the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution from the Bill of Rights. The Fourth Amendment reads as follows:

The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.

I can start with what “the people” means; in the 1700’s when these laws were first written, only protestant, property owning, white males had the respect of the community. If you were a woman, non-white, or had a disability or different religion, you were not an intended recipient of the rights given by these laws. If you still think that this law could be beneficial to you, I could argue that being “secure” means giving the government control over everything, including your personal life and property. Then there is the question of what is an “unreasonable” search or seizure. Essentially anything, including race and gender, could cause suspicion, and with that, having to make an oath or to “affirm” your beliefs bears little weight. The word “probable” has the same ambiguity as unreasonable. Probable cause could come out of anything, including looks, ethnicity, past crimes, friends and family with past crimes, a zombie scare, or a full moon. Following this logic, the Fourth Amendment says that the government can search and seize you and your personal property for looking the wrong way and pissing someone off.

This is, of course, an extreme interpretation, but the exact opposite argument could be made as well. In that case, the Fourth Amendment could almost completely handcuff government law enforcers, potentially jeopardizing public safety. To make matters worse, many laws, including the Fourth Amendment, become even more ambiguous when applied to cases involving modern technology unimaginable to the framers of the Constitution. Consider the case of an American citizen with Fourth Amendment rights talking over the phone to someone in another country that does not grant the same rights, and imagine that the U.S. government has access to the recordings. Should they be able to search the recordings without probable cause, or even with probable cause ,but without a warrant? One interpretation says that,

Communicating with a person who lacks Fourth Amendment rights should not waive the rights of the person who has those rights. The Fourth Amendment should continue to fully protect the U.S. person who communicates with those lacking Fourth Amendment rights.

I would argue, on the other hand, that if you want to communicate with someone who does not have the same rights, then you risk your rights being frozen. There are many people abroad who want to do harm to America and its citizens. Does it not morally make sense to forgo some individual liberties to save even one life? The rapidly changing times and contexts necessitate very open and interpretable language, especially given the rate of technological advancement. Not once does the Constitution or Bill of Rights mention computers, online data, or international servers because those were not things when these laws were written, so we are left to our own devices to decide how these laws apply to modern situations. If my perception of the world were different, my interpretation might be different as well, and this is my point. We must make judgements and the ones we do make are influenced by our environments, and while this may seem problematic because everyone is free to use their own processes to come to their own decisions, this actually functions to keep laws relevant.

There is no way that everyone in the world would be able to agree upon how to handle some of the most controversial topics in existence. “The very existence of written constitutions with substantive limitations on future conduct is evidence of skepticism, if not outright pessimism, about the moral character of future citizens.” That is to say, humans will always be testing their limits and the law needs to draw the line between what is acceptable and what is illegal. The law, therefore, grows out of what is decided to be bad or unlawful. In the case of the Fourth Amendment, the government arresting you for no reason without a warrant is the described mistake, and someone then has to face the consequences. But everyone has their own idea about what they think the law should say, and each thinks they are more right than the other.

The point that is relevant here is not only that private lawmaking takes place through religious authority, contract, property, and corporate law (and of course through all private associational activity), but also that from time to time various groups use these universally accepted and well-understood devices to create an entire nomos – an integrated world of obligation and reality from which the rest of the world is perceived…We witness normative mitosis.

This process could launch us into indecisive lawlessness, but it is our ability to consolidate and interpret law that keeps us in check.

All words still have meaning that should not and cannot be ignored. Any piece of text not written in complete gibberish can convey an intended meaning even if there is ample room for interpretation. This is especially true for the law; although there may be some breathing room, we know that each law was written with a purpose in mind. In his book Sonnet LXV and the “Black Ink” of the Framers’ Intention, Charles Fried takes a solid stand for the recognition of and respect for the framers of law. His argument is that you cannot interpret any law in any way that you want because this makes you a framer as well. Each word in a piece of legal writing has a reason for being there, much like in poetry. They all strive to come together to say what is lawful and what is not, so we cannot all become our own personal framers of law if there is any chance of maintaining order. Quite simply, not everyone should be free to interpret the law.

While one interpretation cannot satisfy all, it should be the ultimate goal to not disregard any substantiated opinions. The literary aspects of legal language allow us to do just that, and this is my main point. “General terms are not mere compendia of the specific instances imagined by those individuals who first enunciated them. What the miracle of language requires is that words, ideas, and concepts reach new instances.” The general terms are the ones that not only make law literary, but that also make it viable through time. The ambiguities in legal language save laws from going obsolete with every change in society. Having unclear laws is actually a blessing in disguise because it allows them to stand up against shifts in society and new challenges. It is important to understand that law does not have the capacity to rule everything we do in our daily lives, and it should not be able to. The better function of law, the one that comes out of its literary qualities, is to tell us not exactly what we will do in a very specific situation, but rather what we should do when faced with a set of circumstances. Our literary-law system saves us from spending our time and resources constantly coming up with new laws for every given situation and gives us a way to recognize and react to crime more efficiently because established laws can be applied to different yet related sets of circumstances.

Works Cited

Cover, Robert M. ‘Foreword: Nomos and Narrative’. Harvard Law Review 97


Fried, Charles. “Sonnet LXV and the ‘Black Ink’ of the Framers’ Intention.” Harvard Law Review, vol. 100, no. 4, 1987.

Kerr, Orin S. “The Fourth Amendment and the Global Internet” Stanford law review 67.2 (2015): 285-329. ProQuest. Web. 14 Nov. 2016.

Levinson, Sanford, and Steven Mailloux. Interpreting Law and Literature: A Hermeneutic Reader. Evanston, IL: Northwestern UP, 1988. Print. 168

U.S. Const. amend. IV

The Dark Side of Darwinism

Charles Darwin, nineteenth century English naturalist, is known as one of the most brilliant minds in history. He was a curious intellectual and a brave adventurer, well-liked by those who knew him personally and greatly revered in the scientific community. His 1859 and 1871 books, On the Origin of Species and The Descent of Man, enlightened the world with a transformative understanding of life that became the foundation of modern biological thought. But there’s a darker side of Darwin, a side that perhaps calls into question his prized intellect and cherished legacy. Darwin’s writing was racist, and discriminatory beliefs and practices follow directly from his theories. If you’re a lover of evolution or biology major like I am, you may be tempted to reject that claim. But hear me out: Support for the idea that Darwin’s theories are racist may come from where you least expect it.

I’d only heard of Darwin’s dark side in passing, and I’d always assumed that Darwin’s critics were driven by ignorance or ulterior motives. But as I scrolled by debates online about Darwin’s theories, I noticed something peculiar: Darwin’s defenders most often cited his abolitionist identity, notes from his diaries, or quotes from people who knew Darwin. His accusers, on the other hand, often directly cited text from The Descent of Man. Conclusions drawn from the authorial approach to the question, in which defenders focused on proving that Darwin himself was not a racist, starkly contradicted conclusions drawn from the approach of consulting Darwin’s text itself. I’m familiar with Darwin’s theories, but I had never actually read his books; I suspect the same is true for most of you. However, I found that to determine whether or not Darwin’s theories are racist, the text of his books is revealing and conclusive. Information outside the text of The Descent of Man can help us understand the man behind the pen, but it does nothing to soften the brutal racism and white supremacism found in the text of his theory.

Although best known for On the Origin of Species, Darwin does not address human evolution and race until his 1871 book, The Descent of Man, in which Darwin applies his theories of natural selection to humans and introduces the idea of sexual selection. Here his white supremacism is revealed. Over the course of the book, Darwin describes Australians, Mongolians, Africans, Indians, South Americans, Polynesians, and even Eskimos as “savages:” It becomes clear that he considers every population that is not white and European to be savage. The word savage is disdainful, and Darwin constantly elevates white Europeans above the savages. Darwin explains that the “highest races and the lowest savages” differ in “moral disposition … and in intellect” (36). The idea that white people are more intelligent and moral persists throughout. At one point, Darwin says that savages have “low morality,” “insufficient powers of reasoning,” and “weak power of self-command” (97). Darwin’s specific consideration of intellectual capacities is especially alarming. He begins with animals: “No one supposes that one of the lower animals reflects whence he comes or whither he goes,—what is death or what is life, and so forth” (62). His remarks soon expand to humans. “How little can the hard-worked wife of a degraded Australian savage, who uses hardly any abstract words and cannot count above four, exert her self-consciousness, or reflect on the nature of her own existence” (62). Darwin writes that Australians are incapable of complex thought, and insinuates that they are akin to lower animals: His perspective on non-European races is incredibly prejudiced and absurd. Modern evolutionary scholars and teachers tend to ignore or omit that component of Darwin’s theory, but it hasn’t gone completely unnoticed. For example, Rutledge Dennis examined Darwin’s role in scientific racism for The Journal of Negro Education and found that in Darwin’s world view, “talent and virtue were features to be identified solely with Europeans” (243). White supremacy is clearly embedded in The Descent of Man, regardless of Darwin’s brilliance or the accuracy of the rest of his theory.

Darwin makes a disturbing link between his belief in white supremacy and his theory of natural selection. He justifies violent imperialism. “From the remotest times successful tribes have supplanted other tribes. … At the present day civilised nations are everywhere supplanting barbarous nations” (160). Darwin’s theory applies survival of the fittest to human races, suggesting that extermination of non-white races is a natural consequence of white Europeans being a superior and more successful race. Further, Darwin justifies violently overtaking other cultures because it has happened regularly throughout natural history. The arc of Darwin’s evolutionary universe evidently does not bend toward justice: He has no problem with continuing the vicious behavior of past generations. Claims such as those made evident in the title of a 2004 book, “From Darwin to Hitler,” may not be as alarmist as they seem.

Not only does Darwin believe in white supremacy, he offers a biological explanation for it, namely that white people are further evolved. He writes that the “western nations of Europe … now so immeasurably surpass their former savage progenitors and stand at the summit of civilization” (178). Darwin imagines that Europeans are more advanced versions of the rest of the world. As previously mentioned, this purported superiority justified to Darwin the domination of inferior races by Europeans. As white Europeans “exterminate and replace” the world’s “savage races,” and as great apes go extinct, Darwin says that the gap between civilized man and his closest evolutionary ancestor will widen. The gap will eventually be between civilized man “and some ape as low as a baboon, instead of as at present between the negro or Australian and the gorilla” (201). Read that last line again if you missed it: Darwin’s theory claims that Africans and Australians are more closely related to apes than Europeans are. The spectrum of organisms is a hierarchy here, with white Europeans at the top and apes at the bottom. In Darwin’s theory, colored people fall somewhere in between. Modern human is essentially restricted only to white Europeans, with all other races viewed as somehow sub-human.

The text of The Descent of Man clearly contains a racist and white supremacist ideology, but not everyone who reads Darwin’s theory believes that the text tells the entire story. Adrian Desmond and James Moore argue against the idea that Darwin’s theories are racist in their 2009 book, Darwin’s Sacred Cause: How a Hatred of Slavery Shaped Darwin’s Views on Human Evolution. As the title suggests, Desmond and Moore claim that Darwin’s intent in studying evolution was actually to bolster the abolitionist cause. “Darwin’s starting point was the abolitionist belief in blood kinship, a ‘common descent’” (xvii). In response to Darwin’s defectors, they say that “the real problem is that no one understands Darwin’s core project. … No one has appreciated the source of that moral fire that fueled his strange, out-of-character obsession with human origins” (xix). How can Desmond and Moore claim to know Darwin’s intent? They reached their conclusions after an exhaustive search through “a wealth of unpublished family letters and a massive amount of manuscript material,” and use “Darwin’s notes, cryptic marginalia (where key clues lie) and even ships’ logs and lists of books read by Darwin. His published notebooks and correspondence (some 15,000 letters are now known) are an invaluable source” (xx). Using these sources, Desmond and Moore attempt to make a substantial case against the idea that Darwin was racist, citing evidence such as the diary that Darwin kept during his Beagle voyage. Darwin writes of slavery, “It makes one’s blood boil, yet heart tremble, to think that we Englishmen and our American descendants, with their boastful cry of liberty, have been and are so guilty” (quoted in Desmond and Moore, 183). Darwin often wrote thoughts that don’t quite align with the ideas in The Descent of Man. In his theory, Darwin suggests that it is natural for more successful races to dominate over others, and speaks comfortably of white Europeans exterminating other races. However, he wrote in his diary that “the white Man … has debased his Nature & violates every best instinctive feeling by making slave of his fellow black” (quoted in Desmond and Moore, 115). Desmond and Moore view Darwin’s later contradictions of his racist ideas in The Descent of Man as reason to interpret the text of Darwin’s theory cautiously.

Desmond and Moore also offer details of Darwin’s life that they claim are incongruent with his purported racism. Darwin came from a family that fought to emancipate Britain’s slaves, and many of his friends and readers were abolitionists as well. As a young man, Darwin took lessons in bird-stuffing from a local African American servant. Desmond and Moore write, “Evidently the sixteen-going-on-seventeen year old saw nothing untoward in paying money to apprentice himself to a Negro, and the forty or so hour-long sessions which he had with the ‘blackamoor’ through that frosty winter clearly made an impact” (18). Desmond and Moore see Darwin’s willingness to associate with African Americans as evidence that he was not prejudiced. Finally, the authors bring up a story that is actually mentioned in The Descent of Man. When Darwin writes of similarities he has noticed between savages and himself, he mentions “a full-blooded negro with whom I happened once to be intimate” (232). Again, Desmond and Moore see Darwin’s personal experiences with colored people as evidence that he is not biased against them; further, they believe this information should influence our interpretation of The Descent of Man.

A final argument made in favor of Darwin blames the time period in which he wrote. The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education writes that “Darwin, like [Abraham] Lincoln, believed in white supremacy, but he was far more enlightened and sympathetic to blacks than most white men of his time” (39). In this view, The Descent of Man must be considered within the context of its conception, namely a period and location in which white supremacy was the norm.

The external information supplied by Darwin’s personal notes, experiences, context, etc. adds to our understanding of Darwin himself, but it cannot change our understanding of his theories. The question of whether Darwin was a racist man is separate from the question of whether his theory was racist, and the answer to the former question has no bearing on the latter. The text of The Descent of Man is undeniably racist, and readers only engage with the presented text: They don’t know what Darwin wrote in his diary, whether his family supported abolition, or how much he interacted with African Americans, nor should a reader have to know these things in order to correctly interpret the text. The Descent of Man exists separate from its author and context. Claims that readers should not take the racism in Darwin’s theory literally in light of external information reject the nature of literature. As Roland Barthes says, “a text’s unity lies not in its origin but in its destination. Yet this destination cannot any longer be personal: the reader is without history, biography, psychology; he is simply that someone who holds together in a single field all the traces by which the written text is constituted” (148). Barthes’ argument is especially salient in this case because The Descent of Man was written so long ago, and Charles Darwin is long dead. Darwin and the context in which he wrote his theory have long passed, but the text lives on and will continue to exist as an independent entity that deserves to be interpreted as such.

Thus, the value of considering contextual details depends on which question we are asking. When wondering about Darwin himself, a full range of sources is applicable. However, when determining whether Darwin’s theories contain dangerous racial ideology, the alarming text of his theories cannot be at all softened or explained away with outside information. Now I understand why I’ve never been asked in a biology class to read the original text of Darwin’s theories: Our contemporary reverence for Darwin’s gentlemanliness and the pure scientific brilliance of his theories is an overly optimistic illusion that shatters upon a closer look at his publications.




Works Cited

Barthes, Roland. “The Death of the Author.” In Image-Music-Text. Translated by Stephen Heath. Hill and Wang, 1978.

“Blacks Less Likely to Accept Charles Darwin’s Dethronement of Mankind.” The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education, vol 21. CH II Publishers, Autumn 1998. USA.

Darwin, Charles. The Descent of Man. John Murray, 1871. Albemarle Street, London.

Dennis, Rutledge M. “Social Darwinism, scientific racism, and the metaphysics of race.” The Journal of Negro Education, 64:3. Howard University Press, 1995. USA.

Desmond, Adrian and Moore, James. Darwin’s Sacred Cause. Penguin Group, 2009. London.

“What They are Trying to Say at”: A Defense of Words in the Face of Rational Criticism



The natural human response to a puzzle is to solve it. This precept lies behind systems of government, modern science, and—of greatest relevance—the constant inclination of English scholars to interpret literature. In some cases everything goes well, but, at other times, it can turn into an uphill battle. Though this may frustrate us immensely, though it may go against our human need to find answers, those cases in which rational interpretation eludes us serve as an important reminder. Words, we realize, do have inherent value beyond the message they are used to signify. One such case is found in William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying. 

When the novel was first released, it was highly controversial among critics and readers. Though the book is now accepted by most of the literary world as a masterful piece of writing, it is as surrounded by disagreement as ever. The thing is, no one is quite sure what the book means. The general concepts, of course, are established. The novel tells the story of a Southern farming family through the death of the matriarch and her survivors’ attempts to give her a “proper” burial. Their quest is related through a series of 59 first-person “monologues,” with perspective shifting between each of the seven family members—the main characters—as well as several minor characters. Most everything one might say about the novel beyond this, however, is liable to questioning.

Much of the work’s ambiguity results from the style of narration. Traditionally, critics have read As I Lay Dying as a series of formal internal monologues. Readings of this type are attempts “to find meaning as statement” (Slaughter 16) in the text. But meaning as we know it—a layer of rational definitions behind the words, logically moving forward with the narrative—is not to be found here. The issue lies in the fact that Faulkner’s particular “interior monologues” simply do not fit the standard form; they are plagued by anachronistic narration, inconsistent verb tense, incomplete thoughts, and impossible diction. Some decide he is “a botched realist” (Hale 5), while others simply feel he has misused this narrative technique. Either way, the question becomes, “if Faulkner seems to misuse a narrative convention [interior monologue] that most writers employ for the sake of ‘realism,’ then what kind of novel has he produced?” (Hale 5).

In an attempt to answer this question, literary scholars like Carolyn Norman Slaughter have come forward in support of more “nontraditional readings [that] are beginning to let the meaning lie while they follow Faulkner’s strange experiments with time and space, with memory and imagination, with consciousness and unconsciousness” (16). By divorcing As I Lay Dying from any idea of rationality, readers can gain much more from the book than a frustrating struggle of ill-fitting interpretations. Faulkner’s very specific use of language in his novel, when read for its own value, allows for an understanding of his characters that extends far beyond what they say and do, into the realm of each individual’s inner-most consciousness.

One of the most simple yet incomprehensible portions of the novel is Monologue #19. It consists of a single line from Vardaman: “My mother is a fish” (Faulkner 79). There is no doubt that Vardaman’s mother is not, in fact, a fish. Vardaman’s mother is Addie Bundren, an unmistakably human woman. If one were to attempt a logical interpretation of this line, then, it would make sense to interpret it as a representation of his disorienting grief. The metaphorical language is strange, perhaps, but not incomprehensible. Attempts to do this, though, are constantly set back by inconsistencies in the text. An interpretive theory can go through only so much reinterpretation—only so much bending, and twisting, and compressing to fit a new angle of the literature—before it loses all validity. In the end, it seems no theory about this line can fit the novel throughout. There is no making sense of this strange declaration.

The first appearance of the fish in the narrative comes even before Addie’s death. While she is sick in bed, Vardaman goes out and catches a gigantic fish to show his mother (Faulkner 30). Already, in this small way, the relationship between mother and fish is being established. In some sense, it seems reasonable that Vardaman displaces the concept of his dead mother onto the fish. When Addie dies, there is this sense that she no longer exists; as Darl puts it, “If it is was, it can’t be is. Can it?” (93). For Vardaman, then, it is not just a question of bringing her back to life but of bringing her back, period. In response to the lifeless body lying in his mother’s bed, ready to be laid in the coffin, Vardaman expresses, “I saw when it did not be her… It was not her because it was laying right yonder in the dirt” (63). The reader knows the “it” which had been lying “right yonder in the dirt” was the fish when Vardaman first brought it home. Here, he replaces one corpse with another—the mother with the fish—and, in so doing, misplaces their identities. Yet, with the slightest bit of pushback, this potential defense of Addie’s existence falls to pieces. To start, why would the boy choose something already dead as his mother’s replacement? He says the body in her bed “did not be her,” but why should the lifeless fish be any more her than that other lifeless body? Then there is the added trauma of ‘the killer’ in the fish scenario, as opposed to simply ‘the killed’ in the other. Vardaman is that killer. If he is trying to salvage his mother’s existence, why would he make her into something he’s killed? These explanatory loops just go on and on.

Psychology aside, there are also passages indecipherable at the linguistic level. Take for example:

I can feel where the fish was in the dust. It is cut up into pieces of not-fish now, not-blood on my hands and overalls. Then it wasn’t so. It hadn’t happened then. And now she is getting so far ahead I cannot catch her. (Faulkner 52)

This is one of those segments that leads eminent Faulkner critics like Walter J. Slatoff to write, “One is puzzled by the meanings of many of the events; one is far from sure what the book is chiefly about” (Kerr 5). If we can accept this fact—if we can decide not even to try to understand passages like this one, where does that leave us, the readers? According to one theory, this strange voice of Faulkner’s “makes us cease to regard language as a transparent medium by which agents communicate and instead forces us to recognize language itself as a determining agent” (Hale 8).

To take “language itself as a determining agent,” we must worry not about what the words are saying but about how they are speaking. In the passage quoted above, structure is of particular importance. The sentences are short, jerky, disjointed. If this is a view into Vardaman’s mind, it reflects the difficulty of his personal position at this moment. The youngest member of the Bundren family, Vardaman is going through the grieving process in a highly tumultuous and especially traumatic way. As one scholar explains it, Vardaman’s attempts to cope with his mother’s death are, at root, verbal solutions (Delville 63). The boy cannot process this tragedy, so his verbal expression breaks down. The lack of coherency in his monologues reflects the state of Vardaman’s mind: he is a child, and his mother is dead, and he cannot understand that.

So he tries to think it through, tries to explain it to himself in a way that doesn’t hurt so much, but there is nowhere he can go with that thinking. He remembers the dead fish and the dead mother and, in his mind, “Then it wasn’t so. It hadn’t happened then.” There is no knowing the antecedent of these pronouns. The “it” could be the fish’s death, the mother’s death, the killing of the fish, or even the catching of the fish. “It” could be all these things together or something else entirely. The fact that the reader cannot know is symptomatic of the fact that Vardaman cannot know either. At different moments in the narrative, the fish means different things—sometimes comprehensible, sometimes not, but always fluid according to Vardaman’s mental state. What is most significant here is that Faulkner has painted Vardaman’s character “not as he talks, acts, or otherwise appears to others,” but “as he ‘really’ is” (Hale 9). By breaking down the boy’s linguistic expression, the author has allowed a view of the private Vardaman, rather than his public persona, highlighting the discrepancies between an individual’s internal and external life. The reader is, now, not observing Vardaman from the outside, nor even just listening in on his thoughts. Instead, the reader has been put into the position of Vardaman himself, feeling the character’s private responses when he or she could just be witnessing them. As scholar Dorothy Hale writes, this “private identity is what makes each self not just unique but profound” (11). Through study of Faulkner’s illogical language and the way he employs it, the reader is able to gain access to that profound selfhood of characters. We do not know why Vardaman’s mother is a fish, but we can relate to how, on the most personal level, his child’s mind is comprehending her death.

Another important consequence of reading the novel’s language for its own sake is the network of linguistic connections it allows the reader to make. When one stops obsessing over the message the text is trying to convey, possibilities are opened for the text to express things that don’t make logical sense. From the start, we have been looking at Vardaman’s declaration, “My mother is a fish,” only in terms of Vardaman and his mother. If we are reading the text rationally, this is the only way to do it. When we let go of meaning, however, a connection surfaces between this repeated phrase and Vardaman’s sister, Dewey Dell. The word ‘guts’ is used ten times in the novel: once as a description of Vardaman’s fish, and the other nine about Dewey Dell’s pregnancy. Dewey Dell does not want to be pregnant, and her personal goal throughout the novel is to get an abortion, in order to spare herself the shame of a child conceived out of wedlock. She refers to herself as “a little tub of guts” (Faulkner 56) and feels that “everything in the world for [her] is inside a tub full of guts” (56). The child, too, growing inside of her, is guts. About her lover, Lafe, Dewey Dell thinks, “He is his guts and I am my guts. And I am Lafe’s guts. That’s it” (58). It is impossible not to tie this, on the purely linguistic level, to one of the first images portrayed of Vardaman’s fish, when he exclaims to his father, “It was full of blood and guts” (36). If one follows this image throughout the book, further connections between the fish and Dewey Dell’s pregnancy emerge.

There is one particularly powerful image in monologue #30, a Dewey Dell monologue: “I saw Vardaman rise and go to the window and strike the knife into the fish, the blood gushing” (115). When, in the space of her own mind, her own private ‘reality,’ Dewey Dell conjures this thought—this sight, given the context, she could not possibly be seeing—the reader knows it is a thought purely her own. Dewey Dell envisions this violence against that other “little tub of guts,” just as she wishes to destroy the invasive “guts” in herself. In the end, though, she is unable to succeed in getting the abortion. Likewise, she never is able to cook—and thereby destroy—that fish (58). It is this sort of connection, fascinating in its own right and curious in its implications, which the reader would never be able to get at if not through language alone. It cannot be explained in logical terms; the young woman never opens up to her brother about her pregnancy, and there is no way he could have known the situation she is in or, more specifically, the unique language she uses to describe her condition. Yet, somehow, he strikes a note that holds true for his sister’s most private struggles, cutting to the quick by making the fish a symbol of death and motherhood for both Addie and Dewey Dell.

In Addie Bundren’s sole monologue, the consideration of words and their value is taken up directly. Addie feels that “words are no good; that words don’t ever fit even what they are trying to say at” (Faulkner 163). This sentiment can be applied to the whole novel and everything Faulkner achieves through his manner of writing. Of course, one does not walk away from the book with the feeling that “words are no good,” but there is a sense that they don’t quite match what they are trying to convey. Faulkner uses this flaw of language to make it more powerful, giving his words permission not to say anything. They must simply exist. They must simply feel right. As Addie explains, “when the right times [comes], you [don’t] need a word for that anymore” (164). This is true for As I Lay Dying. When a character’s sentiment is true enough, deep enough, the words that would normally describe it are nullified. To make his readers privy to the most essential bits of his characters’ internal consciousnesses, Faulkner uses words that move in an around “what they are trying to say at,” allowing them, finally, to fit—to be good for more than empty signification.





Works Cited

Delville, Michel. “Alienating Language and Darl’s Narrative Consciousness in Faulkner’s ‘As I Lay Dying.’” The Southern Literary Journal, vol. 27, no. 1, 1994, pp. 61–72.

Faulkner, William. As I Lay Dying. New York: Vintage Books, Random House, 1930. Print.

Hale, Dorothy J. “‘As I Lay Dying’s’ Heterogeneous Discourse.” NOVEL: A Forum on Fiction, vol. 23, no. 1, 1989, pp. 5–23.

Slaughter, Carolyn Norman. “As I Lay Dying: Demise of Vision.” American Literature, vol. 61, no. 1, 1989, pp. 16–30.

Works Consulted

Benstock, Shari, and Stephen M. Ross. “‘Voice’ in As I Lay Dying.” PMLA, vol. 94, no. 5, 1979, pp. 957–959.

Kerr, Elizabeth M. “‘As I Lay Dying’ as Ironic Quest.” Wisconsin Studies in Contemporary Literature, vol. 3, no. 1, 1962, pp. 5–19.

Lyrics as Literature

Last month, the New York Times proclaimed that a committee of Norwegians had “dramatically redefined the boundaries of literature” by offering a Nobel Prize to musician Bob Dylan. To the shock of some and the approval of others, the choice “[set] off a debate about whether song lyrics have the same artistic value as poetry or novels” (Sisario). Disbelief at the negativity of the reactions was compounded when many critics justified the decision purely because Dylan had also written prose, because he made references to scholarly works in his songs, or because his lyrics could potentially be read as poetry on their own. Such justifications are an insult to music; they suggest that words made sonorous no longer qualify for our time, study, and thought in any serious capacity. Media of such critical importance and popularity should not be undersold with suggestions that it only achieves literary merit by replicating a different art form. Stretching the boundaries of literature into the realm of sound does not diminish it but instead provides greater emotional access to the words. Music adds a new dimension which pure writing simply cannot achieve.

If words can gain literary merit by becoming musical, songs from a less “literary” artist than Bob Dylan should be able prove this benefit. Mumford and Sons, a folk rock band which found widespread success in its three albums from 2009, 2012, and 2015, provides a particularly fitting example. Lead singer Marcus Mumford has said that music is written when “you can’t really express how you’re feeling, so you write it down with poetic license and vent as much as you want” (Patterson). The importance of his statement is its implications. He claims that writing lyrics helps him express what he doesn’t know how to express; how can you express in words what you don’t know how to say in words? Another element must be introduced to offer a richer expression than plain writing. That is where the musicality of the work comes into play.

In the same interview, Mumford revealed that “We’re just writing songs that ask questions.” Asking a question can be done with only pen and paper, but melody adds a previously unaccessible layer of meaning. This tendency of songs to pose questions encourages two objections to their qualification as “serious literature.” First, unlike a novel or a biography, pop songs simply do not have the space to write out every detail of the arguments and stories they attempt to tell. Second, the nature of music is more crowd-seeking than the average sonnet. The pressure towards popular themes has supported the mentality that songs are not worth the same consideration as poems, which can be shorter without having their integrity questioned. If music is truly a feature of language, neither of these complaints should stand.

Brevity alone is not a disqualification from literary merit. The very existence of haikus shows that short works have been considered worthy of analytical reading. In music, the scarcity of words tends to leave open extensive interpretation, more so than in novels or biographies which can employ their length to offer more specific and in-depth statements. “Ditmas,” a short, bright track from Wilder Minds, opens with just the sort of vagueness scorned by those critical of musical prestige. The first verse sings of “a life lived much too fast to hold on to,” surrounded by obscure references to some time, someone’s past, and an unspecified “I” and “you.” Since it is unclear what exactly the subject is, the verse could be applied to an unlimited number of stories. Those who suggest that this interpretive gap devalues music ignore the history and implications of this obliquity.

The genres of song lyrics (not always considered literature) and lyrical poetry (almost always considered literature) were not always so distinct. Indeed, the blurred lines between the two are what legitimize the excuse that Dylan’s work could be accepted as literary due only to its “poetic nature.” Scholar Mark Jeffreys explains that the history of this schism created “the modern lyric…at the intersection of a fading Petrarchism and a rising admiration for the epigram” (120). He follows the path of short styles from historical epigrams and inscriptions to today’s modern work. Of particular importance was the shift of epigrams from purely written words to “emblem books,” where they were accompanied by visuals to fill out their stories. In their wake was “a lyric poetry that had not only acquired epigrammatic tendencies towards terse suggestions and tight closure, but also a self-referentiality and obliquity” (125). Short forms, in their reliance on images, became even less specific. Once the pictures faded out, the language was too obscure to understand what was actually being talked about. Brevity became a problem because once sophisticated authors moved away from images, they had neither excessive words nor pictures to fill in their works’ newfound conciseness.

Into this void entered sound. Lyrical writings were now better equipped than ever for the “tradition of lyric as a poem to be sung” (120), because something had to fill the interpretive gap left by the emblem books. Still, this practice of excluding portions of the narrative has left marks on current music. All “Ditmas” offers are fragments of a story: “one reminds the other of the past,” “I had been resisting this decay,” “The world outside just watches.” Never does the band give solid reference points to what happened in the past, what is being resisted, or what is being watched.

Such vagueness has been exploited as one of music’s weaknesses; it can’t be literary if the author doesn’t explain what he is talking about. But this gap does not degrade significance. It can instead be a door into understanding a work. Jeffers suggests that “No one can write in short forms without being forced to make a host of assumptions about what one’s audience will know or be able to ascertain from the barest textual information” (129). Such assumptions are necessary when words are too limited to offer explicit meanings for every lyric. These assumptions are what turn some critics away from music, as they feel that so little can be gained from a line like “I’ll never wear your broken crown,” the refrain of a disputed set of lyrics with grim religious undertones and spirited instrumentals from Mumford’s second album. The interpretation is left open; the listeners are on their own to parse the meaning of the pronouncement, since again the “I” and “you” are unspecified, as is what sort of crown we’re discussing and just how metaphorical it is. Speculations range as to what that line references, but that is precisely the point. While reality shows the writer to be the son of an English clergyman who refuses to call himself religious (a reading which reveals what the writer was likely to have meant), Mumford did not assume that his audience would be aware of this. When asked about the song, he left it at “I’m never gonna tell you who or what it’s about” (Patterson).

But even if he didn’t want his explicit story dragged into everyone’s interpretation, he does make assumptions about the society that would hear his music. A song with lines like “I will not speak of your sins” and “How dare you speak of grace” assumes an audience with enough awareness of the connotations of sin and grace to understand the religious implications. His religiously worded song with a less-than-religious mood presumes a society that to some extent understands the significance of the biblical references in a non-biblical context. The expected understanding of the song thus reveals what assumptions the author presumed the reader would have; as in short poetry, this expected background knowledge makes lyrics a useful lens with which to look at the culture in which they were written.

This lens explains why “songs receive little critical attention until they have lost their audience and become historical curiosities” (131). Critics who concede that songs can have literary meaning once we want them for this more historical pursuit can accept that understanding old songs offers a window into old cultures. Yet this same critical attention is refused to more current works. Songs offer an expectation of what their audiences will identify with; people’s responses to them are a critical cultural indicator, particularly in an age when information about who listens to what music when is so readily available. Classifying current music outside the realm of literature is thus problematic because it ignores current culture. If music can be used after its time to distinguish cultural patterns, there is no reason to not extend that study to the current time, for the same reasons we study current books as well as historical ones.

However, up until now we’ve ignored the hallmark of music: sound itself. While plenty of people do love and study poetry, today’s poets do not reach anywhere near the popularity and esteem of today’s musical artists. What makes them different is the complexity added by the language of music itself. Evidence of this essential difference lies in its effects.

The source of music’s peculiar grip on people is not a new question. Roger P. Phelps goes into detail on such studies in “The Psychology of Music and Its Literature,” which offers an overview of psychological musical papers since the 1920s when the question started to be approached by contemporary methods. The field encompasses “aesthetics, acoustics, measurements, performance, and therapy” (114), and there “is still a great need for considerable research” (125) in such fields. Even though these studies have yet to reach conclusive answers on every effect of music, Phelps at least manages to show that music certainly does have unique effects on people’s minds. Dozens of authors are cited who look at why music might change moods and mindsets, its practical uses for therapy, and its origin in aptitude or training. There is something for all of these writers, psychologists, historians, and musicians to try to understand about music.

Few of us can deny having felt that effect, that something different. The first impressions of “Ditmas” focus on the fast beat, the happy key, the soaring vocals; attention lies in the emotions projected into the song, not the words written through them. The full script forces amendments to that fully optimistic interpretation, but does not destroy it. Mumford’s words may be what his song is built on, but they do not define its meaning alone. The line “so I cry / as I hold you for the last time in this life” would in most contexts be heartbreaking, because the words evoke a picture of the speaker being torn from someone he cares about. Empathy does not let the listener ignore the melancholy undertones of final and heartbreaking goodbyes; the instruments behind the line do. They refuse to fall when the theme falls. “Broken Crown” uses this additional tool as well. In this case, it augments the angry words with angry noise instead of the juxtaposed emotions present in “Ditmas.” Here is the dexterity so valuable to be gained in music. Sound becomes a new tool for the author. Their words are now received in a mood partially induced by whatever background noise with which they decide to pair the words.

Mumford may write questions in the lyrics themselves, but as a songwriter, the words are no longer his sole tool in pondering those questions. He gets to give the question more; he decides how it is said, in both tone and volume; and he decides what else is happening while it is said, discord or harmony. Music allows its writers more choice, a means of expression beyond simple words.

While the brevity of music imposes limits on how much a lyricist can express, the musical qualities themselves provide a means of further exploring the work in a way inaccessible to the purely written word. As with any literature, the audience will have its own interpretation of the writer’s work. The pure author- the novelist, the historian, the scholar- has only words with which to shape this impression. Music offers another way to express, another way to shape the audience’s experience. And its way is far less constrained than a book’s. No matter how creative or experimental a writing style is, identical sounds will not accompany every reader’s experience with story. Music’s features offer a tone unbound completely by language. This freedom allows musicians much easier access to people’s thoughts and emotions, instead of just their logical thinking patterns. Even though musicians have less ability to shape their audience’s thoughts with logical explanations and definitions, they trade the length in for an even more powerful tool: the ability to shape emotions and feelings in a much more immediate way.

Martin Heidegger is one of the many philosophers who has considered language’s role in our loss of touch with the world. His solution is poetry. Lyrical music can be a saving grace for much the same reason. It offers us words without the same analytical mindset books sometimes force upon us. Because musical words are presented with background noise, with a feeling and emotion behind them, we can hear “Ditmas” and experience the happiness without getting caught up in the sad words; we can hear “Broken Crown” and feel the anger without needing the entire explanation behind it. The specifics of the lyrics offer some insight on what the songs might mean, but language is no longer alone in defining what the work will offer. Words become one aspect instead of the entirety; and in this way they lose their monarchical power over our reactions to text. We no longer understand words purely on a basis of their definition; we can now hear the emotions behind them, a dimension unique to music.

Works Cited
Jeffreys, Mark. “Songs and Inscriptions: Brevity and the Idea of Lyric.” Texas Studies in Literature and Language, vol. 36, no. 2, 1994, pp. 117–134.
Mumford and Sons. “Broken Crown.” Babel, Markus Dravs, 2012,
Mumford and Sons. “Ditmas.” Wilder Minds, James Ford, 2015,
Patterson, Sylvia. “Mumford & Sons: ‘We’re Fans of Faith, Not Religion.’” The Big Issue, 3 Oct. 2012. Web. 10 Nov. 2016.
Phelps, Roger P. “The Psychology of Music and Its Literature.” College Music Symposium, vol. 15, 1975, pp. 114–125.
Sisario, Ben, Alexandra Alter, and Sewell Chan. “Bob Dylan Wins Nobel Prize, Redefining the Boundaries of Literature.” The New York Times. N.p., 13 Oct. 2016. Web. 9 Nov. 2016.

Broken Crown

“How to Be an Other Woman” and Stories that Teach Mistrust



There is something to be learned from textbooks.  At the end of a chapter, if you were paying any attention, you will have read something discrete– pieces of information that you can synthesize and summarize into a single declarative: “I read about partial fraction decompositions” or “the life cycle of ferns” or “the Trail of Tears,” and this short and sweet encapsulation feels satisfying to possess.  You can prove you’ve read about something because it is finite in scope as an event or theorem.  But more than once I’ve been stumped by the question “what is it about?” when asked for my favorite book or recommendation to read on a plane, or when just talking about a novel in conversation. What is it about? I can tell you why I like it and think it’s worthwhile, who it’s by and her other works, the themes and the characters and the plot. But was that what it was about, or was it just the matrix in which whatever it was about took shape? Professors and teachers of English assign works of literature for the same purpose that teachers of other disciplines assign textbooks: there is something instructive, something to be gleaned.  So, surely, we must be able to say what we’ve read at the end of a story.  I’m going to illustrate the complexity of addressing this task for a particular piece of writing, “How to be An Other Woman” by Lorrie Moore to show how, unlike textbook writing, literary truths are shaky when the whole meaning of stories in literature can shift in a single phrase.

There are select occasions when assessing the truthfulness of a story is meaningful at all.  Only in the cases of biography or genres where we expect accounts accurate to reality, as in science textbooks or newspaper articles, and in these we are explicitly told as a feature of genre that the portrayals are true. The brunt of the content in these works is statements, which can be externally cross-referenced to verify or debunk.

Creative fiction cannot be assessed in this same sense. Prior to J.L. Austin’s work, the common belief among linguists was that statements could be defined as any utterance that could be proven true or false; Austin in How to Do Things with Words establishes a category of utterance which, although conventionally designated as statements, didn’t in fact have strict boolean values, which he termed “performative” speech acts (6).  Statements such as “I now pronounce you man and wife,” “I order you to stand,” and “I name the child Charles,” can either be “happy” or “unhappy” depending on the “felicity” of the conditions in which they’re uttered; conditions for “felicity” are unique to the utterance, but typically require a speaker imbued with requisite authority (a doctor has not the credentials to marry), and certain appropriate circumstances (one cannot really order someone already standing to stand, nor name a child Charles when the object to be named is a dog) (14).  Performative speech acts are by nature metalinguistic utterances which declare the actions they themselves currently perform.

“How to Be an Other Women” is a story which we can treat as something like a performative speech act. Told in the second person as a series of imperatives, the story is framed as a step-by-step guide on how to be a mistress, but not in generalities.

What weather,” you hear him sigh, faintly British or uppercrust Delaware.

Glance up. Say: “It is fit for neither beast nor vegetable.”

It sounds dumb. It makes no sense.

But it is how you meet.

You the reader are conducted through the story as Charlene, a young woman, college graduate yet menial secretary, who falls in love with and has an affair with a married man. The instructions (authorial? divine?) which form the body of the story are at the same time dealt as they are enacted by “you” (3).  You are reading Madame Bovary on a bus; “Return to your book. Emma is opening her window, thinking of Rouen” (4). The simultaneous declaration of the action and its treatment as ‘having happened’ or ‘happening’ in the story constitutes performative acts; similarly, the “you” of the text represents both you the reader and you Charlene– meaning there can be no boolean value to the question “are you Charlene?” since it is simultaneously false and true. The story is an experience of your life lived in real-time. 

If veracity were key, this story would have no merit because we know the “you” of the text cannot possibly be referencing us, since in our real lives we’re reading the story.  The relationship to the reader is a peculiar one in which the very act of reading enacts a series of imperatives that unfolds the story before you; to read the story makes it true.

In the cases of science or history papers, logical argument and fact are surface-level information. This type of knowledge is what is readily available–the happenstance of an event, the formula of a chemical compound.  While not necessarily easily intelligible, meaning here isn’t veiled from view.  But stories have no obligation to tell you what the truth is explicitly nor implicitly.  Even in the most overt example of parable, where the intention is to clearly illustrate a moral, the meaning of something as digestible as Aesop’s “The Tortoise and The Hare” has been lost. Originally, Hare’s hubris is what lead to his defeat, napping after seeing Slow and Steady (the tortoise) so far behind.  But over the years, the line “Slow and Steady wins the race” has assumed the role of moral, converting “Slow and Steady” from a proper noun to an ascription of virtues.

Because knowledge is coded, each piece throughout a story is not necessarily recognizable by the same reader; Charlene quips that “the unexamined fly is not worth zipping,” a pun which can only be understood if the reader is familiar with Socrates’ “the unexamined life is not worth living” (10). And such knowledge or truths can range from something as frivolous as a pun to the entire meaning of the story.

Our story is replete with references to the insecurity of an “other woman’s” identity.  You “philosophize,” declaring, “you are a mistress… part of a great historical tradition” that normalizes your degradation and even esteems it (16). You “wonder who you are,” “gaz[ing] into the mirror at a face that looks too puffy to be yours,” “then look quickly away, like a woman, some other woman, who is losing her mind” (8, 12).  In defining yourself an “other woman,” your identity is shaped completely by what you aren’t: his wife–the woman.

So when in the penultimate page you discover that all along the woman he convinced you is his wife is actually a mistress herself, it becomes evident that there is no way to know the truth in this story; “Patricia is not his wife. He is separated from his wife; her name is Carrie… Patricia is the woman he lives with” (21).  Whatever sense of identity you felt by having a set category as “other” is now meaningless. Already you were living the lie of a mistress, wherein your very existence is a subject to be hidden and denied.  You are an other woman in an ignominious line of other women.

At the same time, you are confounded by the identity of the man you love.  What little you did know of him, what little he shared of his “dust, eat, bicker” relationship with his so-called wife were lies. He is suddenly remote and foreign, asserting in his defense that what he has “always admired about you is your strength, your independence,” so trite and meaningless a line, a canned phrase that reeks of use and reuse (21). Yet in some ways you are “other” as in exceptional; you know of Patricia while she seems to have no knowledge about you; months later he still “calls you occasionally at the office to ask how you are” (18, 22).  You still answer his calls.  Your relationship and your identity remain ambiguous.

Logician Charles Pierce argued that “pictures alone can never convey the slightest information… it leaves the spectator uncertain whether it is a copy of something actually existing or a mere play of fancy” (7).  We must treat literature like a picture. Because it has no necessary binding to some real world analog, seeing any one word appear in the text means nothing by itself. Each subsequent sentence can complicate or negate something previous. We think we’ve found out how to be an other woman, that “it essentially means to put your shoes on the wrong feet,” that “it is like constantly having a book out from the library” (5). To be a mistress is to be something as awkward and unnatural as misfitted shoes, as out of place as an overdue library book–an error to be righted as soon as he comes to his senses. Being an other woman involves constant paranoia, obsession, and ultimately settlement for whatever scraps you can scrounge; “On the street, all over, you think you see her… Every woman is her. [But] remember what Mrs. Kloosterman told the class in second grade: Just be glad you have legs” (12, 13). But our truths crumble when confronted with an incompatible reality, when our understanding of “other” is revealed to have been erroneous all along, and the tenuous means of coping on which we had come to rely is rendered useless.

The conclusion is a form of twist-ending tantamount to the adventure in “A Wizard of Oz” all being a vivid dream. An abrupt and story-altering end revelation is a common trope in film and literature, including “Shutter Island,” in which events are revealed to have been a ploy to remedy the insane protagonist, or Yann Martel’s Beatrice and Virgil which in the final pages emerges as an allegory for the Holocaust.

So we find that literary truths can be unstable.  While its title has us believe we’ll emerge from the other side having learned, the story sets up our beliefs in order to knock them down. “How to Be an Other Woman” embodies literary instability by turning the truth on its head, leaving us to answer our original query: what was it about? with the reality of finding more questions than answers.

Works Consulted

Aesop. “Story Arts | Aesop’s ABC | The Tortoise and The Hare.” Story Arts | Aesop’s ABC | The Tortoise and The Hare. Story Arts, n.d. Web. 15 Nov. 2016.

Austin, J. L. How to Do Things with Words. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1962. Print.

Moore, Lorrie. “How to Be an Other Woman.” Self Help. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1985.  Print.

Peirce, Charles. Peirce Edition Project, ed. 1998. “What is a sign?” and “Of Reasoning in General,” in The Essential Peirce: Selected Philosophical Writings, Volume 2. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, pp. 4-26.