The Problem of Authorial Intention

In Reading Chekhov – A Critical Journey, Janet Malcolm discusses an aspect of Chekhov’s work that is focused on by the so-called Jacksonian critics, namely his repeated references to religion.

It is a kind of ‘Purloined Letter’ situation: the references to the Bible and to the Russian Orthodox liturgy have always been there, but we haven’t seen them, because we took Chekhov at his word as being a rationalist and a non-believer… However, if we slow the pace of our reading and start attending to every line, we will not fail to pick up the clue in a remark like Asorin’s ‘I feel as though I had woken up after breaking the fast at Easter,’ or in Ryabovitch’s feeling that he has been anointed with oil. Indeed, we will find that whenever a Chekhov character undergoes a remarkable transformation, an allusion to religion appears in its vicinity, in the way mushrooms grow near certain trees in the forest. These allusions are oblique, sometimes almost invisible, and possibly not even conscious.

We have Chekhov on record as saying to Diaghilev, ‘I squandered away my faith long ago and never fail to be puzzled by an intellectual who is also a believer.’ And in a letter to Shcheglov, ‘When I think back on my childhood it all seems quite gloomy to me. I have no religion now.’ According to Malcolm, the Jacksonians are careful never to claim that they have found their way to Chekhov’s intentions, so we are left asking ourselves, are these allusions conscious and purposeful, or do they reveal a different strand of meaning at odds with the author’s own intentions?

This issue of an artist’s intention is a critical one, in my view, and it often comes up in discussions of an artist’s work. Christopher Ricks tackles this question early on in his great discourse on the work of Bob Dylan, Dylan’s Visions of Sin:

Briefly I believe that an artist is someone more than usually blessed with a cooperative unconscious or subconscious, more than usually able to effect things with the help of instincts and intuitions of which he or she is not necessarily conscious. Like the great athlete, the great artist is at once highly trained and deeply instinctual. So if I am asked whether I believe that Dylan is conscious of all the subtle effects of wording and timing that I suggest, I am perfectly happy to say that he probably isn’t. And if I am right, then in this he is not less the artist but more. There are such things as unconscious intentions (think of the unthinking Freudian slip). What matters is that Dylan is doing the imagining, not that he be fully deliberatedly conscious of the countless intimations that are in his art.

Ricks quotes Dylan himself on the creative process:

As you get older, you get smarter and that can hinder you because you try to gain control over the creative impulse. Creativity is not like a freight train going down the tracks. It’s something that has to be caressed and treated with a great deal of respect. If your mind is intellectually in the way, it will stop you. You’ve got to program your brain not to think too much.
(Bob Dylan, interview with USA Today, 15th February 1995).

He also quotes TS Eliot: ‘The poet does many things upon instinct, for which he can give no better account than anybody else.’

This discrepancy between an artist’s intention and an artists’s critical reception is powerfully revealed in Ben Watson’s astonishing book on Frank Zappa, The Negative Dialectics of Poodle Play. This unique 600-page tome approaches Zappa’s art through a Marxist/Freudian lense, drawing on Theodor Adorno’s writings on aesthetics. Watson is an intellectual, and his writing is packed full of fascinating insights into Zappa’s art and the state of late 20th-century culture in general. At the end of the book, Watson considers the idea of meeting Zappa and discussing his analysis with the artist himself. He approaches this with some trepidation, but sends him the chapter on ‘Apostrophe and King Lear’, which compares Zappa’s mid-70s album Apostrophe with Shakespeare’s tragic masterpiece. Watson finds many startling resonances, pointing to the frozen desolate landscape, the references to ‘nothingness’, the loss of sight and reliance on smell, the philosophical implications of power and social domination, and he concludes that overall the two pieces are juggling with ‘some of the heaviest themes in European culture.’ The response from Frank Zappa and his wife Gail is in many ways surprising:

Gail [Zappa] telephoned. She told me that she and Frank had found the comparison of Apostrophe with King Lear hilarious – they both laughed and laughed – ‘how much of this stuff is there?’ she asked. ‘How long have you been doing this? Where has it been in print? Why has it taken so long for you to get in touch?’ She was so charming – relaxed and amused – I asked if I could bring the manuscript in person, and the reply was yes.

Watson does go to California and the encounter with Zappa and his family is extraordinarily revealing. At this stage Frank Zappa is dying of advanced prostate cancer, but he welcomes the unknown critic into his household, and asks him to read sections of the manuscript to him, his wife and children, their employees and friends (including The Simpsons creator Matt Groening):

I was asked to read from the book, and delivered the section on the cover of Uncle Meat. When I finished my dissertation on reification, Nazism and teeth Frank simply reached over and shook me by the hand… The conversation moved on to the fact that Frank did not read philosophy, and therefore could not have consciously parodied (Plato’s) The Phaedo. Frank remained enigmatically silent. I countered that artists deal intuitively with words and concepts, do not consciously plot every resonance of the symbols and themes they play with. Frank nodded. Certainly the Fido/Phaedo pun – hinted at eight years later (but never actually made) by Jacques Derrida – is a stunning example of what Gail [Zappa] calls Frank’s ‘prescience’:

There are many many examples of things that Frank has said that have happened. Some of them really very inside, just silly references. A perfect example of that is just the title Chunga’s Revenge – if you look in the artwork, there’s the vacuum cleaner dancing around in the studio, a gypsy dancer… and we didn’t know this, but in Spain there’s a very very famous dancer called La Chunga who does the flamenco dances with the castanets and everything. That’s a bizarre example, not of prescience perhaps, but of being in tune with something on a cosmic level – more of that cosmic debris.

For Zappa himself, the whole experience seems to have given him mixed feelings:

I was secretly relieved when Zappa told me he could not bear to hear any more… Reading out the book had been taxing on us both. Frank pointed out that whenever I quoted Theodor Adorno he lost the thread. I replied that that was inevitable, since he did not come from a Hegelian-Marxist philosophical tradition: ‘I’ve never read any philosophy at all,’ he commented. When I compared my work to ‘translation’ – translating Zappa’s art into a theoretical language – he agreed, and said the process was ‘valid’… Later Gail came with a message from Frank saying that he was tired and ill, listening was a strain – but he had not developed an aversion to my writing and he did not want me to draw that conclusion.

As for the critic and his conclusions:

It is the dream of the critic to be approved by the artist. Despite the warm reception – Frank actually called me a ‘genius or something’ at the Friday soiree – I had to recognise that we talk different languages, operate on different lines.

In researching this post, I found a bit of Cosmic Debris flung my way. As I took the Negative Dialectics of Poodle Play down from my shelf to look up my dimly reflected memories of the meeting between artist and critic, the book fell open at a page with the following reference:

In 1975 Jeremy Prynne told a shocked gathering of undergraduates that any literary critical ‘analysis’ of the lyrics of Captain Beefheart or Frank Zappa was a vain exercise…

Jeremy Prynne, of course, being the subject of inquiry for this month’s Culture Club meeting. I then discovered that the book was dedicated thus: ‘For Jeremy Prynne and Danny Houston, the true gurus on this one.’ Now as far as I know, I’d never heard of Jeremy Prynne before someone in the Culture Club brought him to may attention just last month, so this has to be just one of those coincidenes; perhaps, in the Jungian sense, a meaningful one, or perhaps, in Frank Zappa’s phrase, just a piece of cosmic debris. As neither an artist nor a critic, I suppose I’m not qualified to say.


One response to “The Problem of Authorial Intention”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *