Learning to Read
Originally published on the Ink Desk.
My approach to reading literary texts is outlined in “How to Read Shakespeare (or anyone Else)”, which is published as an appendix to my book Through Shakespeare’s Eyes. In a nutshell, I insist that a literary work should be read, as far as possible, through the eyes of the author. My reasoning is that the author understands the work more authoritatively than do his readers. This approach has recently come under vociferous attack by a contributor to the excellent “Christian Shakespeare” website, which was established and is edited by none other than our own, Kevin O’Brien, who will be no stranger to visitors to the Ink Desk. The negative critique of my authorialism, to give it a name, was written by Andrew Lomas. Those wishing to read Lomas’ spirited attack on my position can do so here: "How to Read Shakespeare? Or Anyone Else?"
I would, however, like to address some of his arguments with a view to correcting his misreading of my position of his misunderstanding of it. Lomas’s words are reproduced in italics below; my replies are unitalicized:
The first thing to note about Pearce’s account, is that it is really tough on classical literary studies. We know nothing from extra-literary sources about Homer’s beliefs and the intentions behind his works, for instance; indeed, the existence of “Homer the man” has often been doubted. Authorial authority cannot possibly fix the meaning of Homer’s works. The same holds true, to a greater extent, for all the Greek tragedians, but also, moving forward, for the authors of Beowulf, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, all those “anon” ballads, etc., etc..
The best way of answering this objection is to ask a simple question: Would we know more about the Iliad and the Odyssey if Homer walked into the room and told us all about the writing of it and his motives for doing so? Would it enlighten us and enhance our understanding of the work if Homer explained to us its meaning and the moral it sought to convey? Few would dispute that we would benefit greatly from such an eventuality, and the few who would dispute it should not be taken seriously.
Since Homer could tell us a great deal of great value about his work, were he alive to do so, it proves rather than disproves the authorialist position. Since, however, we do not know much about Homer, is the authorialist approach practical with regard to reading the Iliad or the Odyssey? The answer is an emphatic “yes”. We will know more about the works of Homer if we try to get as close to Homer as possible. Linguistically, this means reading the text in its original language, thereby avoiding the interpretative shadow that falls between the original work and any translation of it. Historically, we should endeavour to know as much about the times and culture in which Homer lived so that we can see his works, as far as possible, through his eyes and not through the eyes of Englishmen or Americans living in the twenty-first century.
In this context, I was excited to learn recently of the discovery that one of the most ancient manuscripts of the Iliad, written on animal hide, has been analysed using infrared technology. It has revealed marginalia written by someone teaching it to students in a culture much closer to Homer’s own. This relative closeness to the author will help us to understand the work more objectively and in a way that is not prejudiced by the zeitgeist in which we find ourselves.
The difficulties wrought by insufficient biographical information spread even to the examples Pearce cites in support of his theory, and indeed deepen here. As is well known, Wuthering Heights was first published under a pseudonym, “Ellis Bell”, in 1847; it was only in 1850 that Emily Bronte claimed authorship. So, on Pearce’s theory, early reviewers and readers could have legitimately interpreted the novel as a paean to “unbridled carnal passion”; it was only after the real author and her beliefs were known that this interpretation became illegitimate. On Pearce’s theory, interpretations can switch from valid to invalid without the text they are about changing a jot.
Of course interpretations can be shown to be valid or otherwise without the text changing! In this case, a misunderstanding of the text, based on the false belief that the author was a man of indeterminate religion, would be corrected by the realization that it was in fact written by a deeply pious Christian woman, a parson’s daughter.
Yet the disturbing fluctuations are not limited to the legitimacy of interpretations: they go to the very meaning of literary texts. Let us now turn to Shakespeare, and his biography. A.L. Rowse’s William Shakespeare is a fair representation of the state of Shakespearean biography in the middle of the twentieth century—as I think Pearce would concede, since he states that the facts which establish his different portrait are recent discoveries. For Rowse, Shakespeare was baptized, married, and buried in the Church of England, and consequently was an “orthodox, conforming member”(47) of this church. Interpreting the plays in the 1950s, then, according to the biographical method, we must have found a C.of E. meaning. Indeed, for three hundred and fifty years Shakespeare’s plays, construed in the light of available biographical knowledge, must have had non-Catholic meanings. It is only with the recent discoveries which prove Shakespeare a Catholic, as Pearce believes, that the plays take on a Catholic meaning.
As a point of fact, I would not concede the point about the evidence for Shakespeare’s Catholicism being more recent than Rowse’s biography. As I make clear in my book, the foundations of work in showing Shakespeare’s Catholicism were laid by the pioneering scholar, Richard Simpson, in the nineteenth century. This relatively minor quibble aside, the main problem is not with my authorialism but with Rowse’s illogical conclusions from the historical data. Everyone was baptized, married and buried in Anglican churches in Elizabethan England, even known and convicted recusant Catholics. As such, Shakespeare’s baptism, marriage and burial in an Anglican church prove absolutely nothing about his religious convictions. Rowse’s failures as an historian have no bearing whatsoever on the rectitude or otherwise of authorialism. In practical terms, his poor history will lead to a poor reading of the works based on a false presumption with regard to Shakespeare’s religious beliefs.
Is this Catholic meaning, though, really any more final than all the other meanings? A crucial piece of evidence in Pearce’s case for Shakespeare the Catholic is the playwright’s purchase of Blackfriars Gatehouse, which had been a centre for recusant Catholic activities, years before. But what if further searches of the records turn up that Shakespeare also owned a house known to be a base for Puritan agitators? What if, in some dusty Tudor attic, a poem by Shakespeare is found which eulogizes Good Queen Bess? The meaning of the plays would again metamorphose, by Pearce’s theory.
Of course they would! That’s my point! If it could be shown that Shakespeare was a German Jew living in the nineteenth century it would force us to reconsider our understanding of the plays. No evidence has been found of Shakespeare purchasing a house owned by Puritan agitators, nor has a sycophantic sonnet been discovered in Shakespeare’s hand that praises Bloody Bess. I think that Mr. Lomas would concede that an argument based upon non-existent evidence proves nothing. The evidence shows that Shakespeare was a believing Catholic in very anti-Catholic times. This evidence must be seen as crucial to an understanding of Shakespeare’s plays.
Still for Pearce this is not yet the worst. There is an even more fundamental objection to Pearcean interpretative theory, and it again shows up most spectacularly with Shakespeare. But I want to begin by identifying the issue in the most “water-tight” of Pearce’s exemplars. J.R.R. Tolkien once affirmed that The Lord of the Rings is “a fundamentally religious and Catholic work”: Pearce concludes that Lord of the Rings is a fundamentally Catholic work. Surely this is just simple commonsense? I recall, however, reading a non-Catholic critic who noted that the letter in which Tolkien made this avowal was written to a Catholic priest, Father Murray, S.J., and that in the letter Tolkien seems rather eager to please the priest, and perhaps to reassure him about the orthodoxy of the magnum opus. In hundreds of other letters to non-clerics, rather less stress is placed on religious significance. The conclusion was drawn that the letter to Father Murray is less central and decisive than Pearce would have it.
This is really clutching at straws. Tolkien states explicitly, in such a way that no ambiguity is possible with regard to its interpretation, that The Lord of the Rings “is, of course, a fundamentally religious and Catholic work”. Note the word “of course”. And yet Mr. Lomas suggests that we can ignore Tolkien’s explicit, unambiguous assertion or insistence that the work is Catholic merely because he happens to be writing to a priest. In hundreds of other letters to non-clerics he does not discuss the Catholic core of the work because this is not the topic under discussion. Whenever the topic is discussed, he has no hesitation in making the same point abundantly clear. On another occasion, in writing to a non-cleric, he states equally explicitly that the fact that he was a Christian and in fact a Catholic was the most important factor on the “scale of significance” relating to his relationship as author to his work.
It is interesting to note that Mr. Lomas seems to be conceding that Tolkien’s making of such a statement would indeed have been significant to our understanding of the work if he had said it to anyone except a priest. I wonder whether Mr. Lomas doth protest too loudly and that he is, in fact, a secret authorialist!
Drawing out the implications of Pearce’s theory, we arrive at a situation just the same as that produced by the theories of Roland Barthes and Jacques Derrida. Yes, it pains me to say it, but the truth is unavoidable: beneath his conservative rhetoric, Joseph Pearce is just another doyen of postmodernity.
I have no reply to make to such arrant nonsense. Indeed it renders me speechless. It did, however, make me chuckle!
This alternative theory of interpretation may be formulated by considering literary criticism as a branch of scientific, experimental reasoning. The critic’s interpretation is his hypothesis, the text constitutes the factual matter he is attempting to explain. If in a critical “experiment”, a confrontation of interpretation and text, it is found that the interpretation does not account for elements of the text, or accounts for them inadequately, the interpretation must be modified, or abandoned. The validity of an interpretation is dependent, wholly objectively, on the text: it must conform to the text, as the ultimate authority.
Ignorance of the theology, philosophy and historical culture which is inevitably the informing principle of the work will invariably lead to woeful misinterpretation. A work is a product of the personhood of an individual author, the pouring forth of his deepest held beliefs and assumptions in relation to the culture in which he finds himself. As such, theological, philosophical and historical ignorance, and ignorance of the author’s own theological and philosophical assumptions must invariably lead to absurd misunderstandings about the meaning of the text. There is a reason that Tolkien has the Ring destroyed on March 25, the date of both the Annunciation and the Crucifixion. If one does not know the significance of the date, or the theological connection between the Annunciation and the Crucifixion, or that Tolkien, as a Catholic, knew the significance, one will miss the very key that unlocks the deepest meaning of his masterpiece. If one did not know or suspect that Shakespeare was a Catholic one might not notice the repeated references in his plays to the poetry of the Jesuit martyr, St. Robert Southwell, and its significance to the deepest meanings of Shakespeare’s plays. Et cetera.
In Wuthering Heights highly charged Romantic passion is front and centre, while the “deeply held Christian faith” of Emily Bronte is not conspicuously present. A critic attempting to demonstrate an underlying Christian structure to the novel has to work against the apparent meaning.
On the contrary, knowing of Bronte’s “deeply held Christian faith” will cause us to expect its presence in the work and will thereby help us to discover it. Any “apparent meaning” that contradicts the deepest held beliefs of the author is ipso facto an incorrect reading.
Then with the battle over Shakespeare’s proto or anti secularism, consider the example of King Lear. This play clearly contains Christian themes, such as Lear learning compassion through suffering. But it also contains elements that are far from obviously Christian—the murder of the innocent Cordelia, Lear’s agonized death—elements which even the great Doctor Johnson considered unChristian—Doctor Johnson who was neither a postmodernist, a secularist, nor a fool.
One need look no further than the Gospel to find the murder of the innocents. Is the Gospel, therefore, “unchristian”? The presence of sin in a work does not make it un-Christian - as long as the sin as seen as being sinful and its innocent victims are seen as being innocent. In this sense, Lear is a profoundly Christian play. And as for Lear’s “agonized death”, his last words indicate that he is deliriously happy, having seen a vision of the resurrected Cordelia. This crucial fact is all too easily missed if we do not see it through Shakespeare’s Catholic eyes. As for Dr. Johnson, he was not a good literary critic, for all his other strengths.
I wish Mr. Lomas well. I also wish that he would learn to read through the eyes of those who see more clearly than he. I refer not so much to myself as to the authors of the works that his faulty philosophy has caused him to read incorrectly.