The Text, the Whole Text and Nothing but the Text
Andrew Lomas, a new contributor to the Christian Shakespeare, has written a well-argued critique of the biographical method of literary criticism, especially as espoused by Joseph Pearce.
Pearce argues that the fact that William Shakespeare was almost certainly Catholic should be a determining factor in how we read his plays.
Lomas says not so fast.
I have summed up what I take to be Lomas' main points from his essay. Lomas argues ...
- If an author's biography should tell us how to read his works, then what are we to do with anonymous works, or with works by authors about whom we know little, such as Homer?
- Similarly, what are we to do with works when our knowledge of the author's biography changes? For instance, Wuthering Heights was first published under the pseudonym Ellis Bell, a figure about whom readers knew nothing. Once Emily Bronte claimed it as her own, does this mean that our reading of the work must at that point be adjusted to what we know about Bronte?
- And when an author, outside of the text he has created, expounds upon the meaning of that text and his intention in producing it, even this stated intent must be taken with a grain of salt. For instance, when Tolkien said that The Lord of the Rings was "a fundamentally religious and Catholic work," this does not mean we are forced to take the author at his word and read the text accordingly, for we must consider the context in which Tolkien (in this case) made such a statement.
- Indeed, the interpretation of an author's life is as much subject to variation as the interpretation of a literary work. If anything, it's harder to read a man's life than it is to read a literary work the man has produced, however complex that work may be. If Pearce is trying to avoid the shifting sand of post-modern literary criticism, he has only made the situation worse, by adding another layer of interpretation - biography on top of literary analysis. [This point, incidentally, gives rise to one of the best lines in Lomas' piece, "Yes, it pains me to say it, but the truth is unavoidable: beneath his conservative rhetoric, Joseph Pearce is just another doyen of postmodernity."]
- Furthermore, even Joseph Pearce does not practice what he preaches. For example, when faced with the obvious conflict between the biographical fact of Milton's Puritanism, and the literary quality of Paradise Lost, Pearce overlooks the biography and focuses on what the text itself contains; for the liberty with which Milton writes about devils and demons, contrasted with the fetters that bind him when he writes of God and heaven, is not the sort of literary quality a Puritan would produce [so says Andrew Lomas]. This alone proves that the biographical method is faulty.
- Finally, Lomas asserts that reading a text is not an exercise in mere subjectivism [here here!]. Encountering a text and interpreting it is, in fact, similar to the experimental method of scientific research. In other words, theories can be molded to fit the text, but such theories must always be subject to the objective evidence - the text itself, and nothing beyond it. "The validity of an interpretation is dependent, wholly objectively, on the text: it must conform to the text, as the ultimate authority," writes Lomas. With this in mind, disagreement over the proper interpretation of a text may be due "not to the perversity of one or other party, but to actual, objective complexity of the subject matter." In short, then, any critic with an agenda (be they "queer theorists", Marxists, feminists or Christians) must ultimately resort to the text, the whole text and nothing but the text [that's my phrase, not Lomas'], to prove his case.
I think much can be said about Andrew Lomas' criticisms, some of which I agree with and some of which I don't. First, however, let me say that I am delighted that Mr. Lomas has wrtitten such an engaging and well-reasoned essay for this site. In fact, I encourage any of our readers to do the same. The Christian Shakespeare could use a bit more life - and some healthy disagreement is a very good thing. So email me - firstname.lastname@example.org - and enter the fray!
Now, to my rebuttal.
What strikes me is how conservative Andrew Lomas is. Yes, conservative! More so even than Joseph Pearce.
For Andrew Lomas is arguing for a kind of fundamentalism that is antithetical to the post-modern spirit. While seeming to critique Joseph Pearce so as to defend elements of post-modernism, Lomas is actually defending a rather antiquated - and even quaint - notion of literary criticism.
And that notion is that the text somehow stands alone.
The truth is that a literary text is never alone. A text is no more divorced from its milieu than the Bible is from Tradition and from the Church that formed it. And by milieu, I mean everything that surrounds the text, both in its creation and in its "consumption". For starters, a writer writes in a certain language, for a certain audience. That language is bigger than the book itself, and that audience far broader than the book itself. In addition, a writer appeals to certain known things beyond the text - shared concepts of valor, honor, knowledge of mythology, history, and other literature, and so forth. A million things go into making a book and into reading a book - a million things that are not in the book itself. The text can never be, as Andrew Lomas asserts, the only objective ground for understanding a work.
Take, for example, the book of Hebrews in the New Testament. The author of the book of Hebrews is unknown. Some tradition says it's St. Paul, but most scholars reject that, and have rejected the authorship of Paul even from the days of the early Church. And so, without knowing the author of the epistle, we can dispense with the biographical method of interpreting it.
But in no way can the text be interpreted on its own! Even without reference to its author, the Epistle to the Hebrews only begins to make sense once the reader
how to read Greek, or has the Greek translated for him
the many references to the Hebrew Scriptures
some notion of the function of the priesthood
who Melchizedek is and why he is important
some notion of the life of Christ and the things people are claiming
Indeed, the text of Hebrews can no more stand alone than a single word or a single letter in the text can stand alone. Everything is tied to everything else, both in life and in literature. You simply can't understand Hebrews without the rest of the New Testament. And you can't understand the New Testament without the Old Testament. And you can't understand the Old Testament without some life experience - experience of sacrifice, suffering, sin, awe, fear and so forth. These books can only be read in reference to something far greater than these books - which is why they're all about God.
This is not to say that the text is unimportant, and is merely a blank slate, a kind of Rorschach upon which we can project whatever interpretation we will. On the contrary ...
"There are two types of people in the world," says Joseph Pearce, "Those who do things to books and those who let books do things to them."
Lomas is arguing that we should all be the latter. And with this we heartily concur. And while he may have a case that Joseph Pearce can appear a bit strident in insisting that the biography of the author is the primary determining factor in understanding a work, I would suggest that it is at least one of many factors. It is a factor that cannot be ignored, but must be mixed in with everything else that goes toward reading and reading deeply - which is an exercise that can never abandon the text, and must always be grounded in the text, but that must include at least some of the history, culture, language and allusions that are both in the text and in its context. And the author's biography is part of the context.
Having said that, anyone who writes will admit a caveat here. You don't always create what you're intending to create. So the author's intention can be borne out in a work or can be belied by the work. Indeed, the cramped heaven and liberating hell of Paradise Lost tells us more about Puritanism than Milton intended. In this case, the author's religion does indeed have an impact on the work - perhaps in a way that is more true to his sect than the author meant it to be. And, of course, both Joseph Pearce and I would argue that The Lord of the Rings is utterly Catholic, regardless of Tolkien's intentions, and Wuthering Heights is profoundly Christian - as well as beautifully Gothic and Romantic - and would be so, even if we were someday to discover that it had been written by Madeline Murray O'Hair, the famous atheist, and not by Emily Bronte, the Christian.
But were we to discover heretofore hidden letters from Bronte denying her faith and asserting, "My intention in writing my novel was to laud passion and sex above chastity and forgiveness" ... well, if we found that, it would behoove us to read the book again and see what we were missing, those of us who see it as only fully comprehensible in a Christian context. To argue, as Andrew Lomas would, that a bit of biographical information such as this would not have an impact upon how we should read the text itself is to argue mistakenly.
Would it be possible for Wuthering Heights still to be profoundly Christian, despite the intentions of the pseudo-Bronte that I have envisioned? Yes, because the author's life and intentions are not the only elements that go into the mix.
Likewise is there more in Shakespeare's plays than just Christian or Catholic elements? Well, there's plenty of classical mythology, plenty of secular intrigue, plenty of symbolism, imagery and influences from Greek and Roman drama - but "catholic" simply means inclusive or universal. And the plays are definitely that - catholic with a lower-case c.
But they make the most sense when viewed from a spiritually Catholic worldview (something lacking in the world today); and they make the most nonsense when viewed from a "queer theory" or feminist or Marxist worldview. If we stick to a kind of scientific method, we must jettison the latter models and look more closely into the former.
We must honor both the text and the context when we read.
Having said all of this, I want to add one final and very important thing.
Reading Shakespeare's plays as Catholic works should enrich our understanding and enjoyment of them, not impoverish it. It is the Puritan who writes in fetters about God and heaven, not the Catholic. Sex, violence, high drama, Greek tragedy, political intrigue - this is all a part of the great and not-so-great heart of man. God is in these plays - the supernatural, fate, temptation, sin, redemption. The plays are vividly and vitally Catholic and fully Christian. To see these elements - which are there both by virtue of what we know about their author's biography and because of the words on the page and the words and actions on stage - to read both the text and the context of these tremendous works of literature is to read deeply and truly; to see these elements is to see the truth - and a far greater truth toward which they point.