The Devil's proposition


Propose that the Devil offers you the power to read any book and understand exactly what it's author really intended, but on one condition: You are under no circumstances to be given to the ability to coherently communicate your insights to anyone. Do you take the offer?

I came upon a question like this on Reddit earlier today and posted a short reply. Eight hours later, I had participated in a lengthy discussion with the threadstarter, treating subject like "truth", "intent" and "interpretation". Funny how things happen and days turn out not quite as you had expected.

Since I found the question interesting and the following discussion rather constructive, I decided to save my comments by compiling them below, editing them slightly to make them fit together as a sort of narrative. However, I don't expect anyone to be interested in reading this, excluding - of course - myself:

Thoughts on the question of "true intent"

The only thing that matters when reading a book is your personal interpretation - whatever the author intended/meant is secondary (sorry to any and all authors out there).

One example: H P Lovecraft was an incredibly racist and xenophobic person. Reading his stories as he intended them would probably mean less "cosmic" horror and more "racist" horror. That would seriously mess up my relationship to those stories.

On the other hand, an author's intent does not necessarily correspond to truth.

But to expand further on the example of Lovecraft, his intent may very well have been to make the reader understand the true horrors of immigration and race-mixing/multiculturalism, by using the Cthulhu-mythos as a metaphor. In essence, that supposed "truth" (his original intent) doesn't correspond to anything other that his prejudice and racism - or, to put it mildly, to his subjective experience of life.

I do believe the struggle to understand the world in an objective manner is important and valuable, but equally important is the insight that this struggle is futile. You are doomed to experience this world through your own eyes, your own mind, regardless of the amount of knowledge you achieve.

In short: it's not about what you know, it's about how you use that knowledge. And if that possibility is taken away - by, for example, being replaced by someone else's (i e the author's) use of their knowledge, it will have lost at least some of it's true potential and purpose.

I think it's a fair assumption to make, though, that the author always has an intent, and that he/she formulates this intent according to the genre of the writing and communicates it according to how good an author he/she is. I also think it's possible to claim that intent as a sort of "truth" about the book.

However, I don't really see how intent and truth can be interchangeable1 , since intent in itself has more to do with opinion than fact unless it's a scientific paper or something - and even those have a section where the author tries to free himself from accusations of having an intent/communicating an opinion rather than just presenting (objective) facts.

Even in fiction, the intent cannot enter the domain of "truth", simply because that truth will by necessity be subjective - it is the result of the author's own experience and knowledge, not an amalgam of objective facts; and if I as a reader was to be able to put myself in the author's shoes (i e "understand exactly what it's author really intended", I would gain very little new knowledge, since the intent never can reach beyond that which the author already knows.

So if one were to talk about the reader trying to discover intention as opposed to the reader trying to forego intention, I think that would be missing the point. Because even if the reader manages to discover the authors "true" (or rather "original") intention, this intent will nevertheless have to be interpreted by the reader while reading and thus either manipulated or foregone. Because the reader is not the author.

Books are not holy
Nor are they dead
Books are living things
And what makes them
Live is being read and
Interpreted again and
Again and
Books speak
Books speak to their contemporaries
Books speak to future generations
And Books say different things to
Each who read them
Most might be the same
But the thing that gives them
Life is those little things
They say just to me and
Just to you
Regardless of the author's intent

Now... It's possible I've misinterpreted the initial question. Most likely because I tried to put the idea to practical use, instead of sticking to it's theoretical/philosophical aspects.

I asked myself what I would do with the knowledge: If I knew the author's intent - what he/she wanted me to learn/realize from reading his/her book - would I really learn it? Or would my limited knowledge and experience up to the moment of reading the book prevent me from learning, until I had gained the correct levels of knowledge and/or experience? And how would this affect my growth as a unique individual?

I'll get back to this. I think in the meantime we can establish the following points (facts?):

  • Provided that it is possible to learn a writer's true intent, that knowledge will be both a truth and a fact.
  • Even if we cannot find out the writer's true intent, it still exists - and therefore it is still a truth, but not a fact.

So, yes, from that perspective, truth and intent can - even though I recently claimed the opposite2 - be interchangeable.

On the other hand, "a truth" is not synonymous to "the truth". And I really think that's an important point to make. The knowledge in itself - of the writer's true intent - cannot be accessed without changing it. (The mere process of using words to describe an idea will undoubtedly transform it, as will reading those words.)

I started thinking about what would happen to me, if I were to read a book as it was originally intended to be read. Would I gain anything at all from it? I'm currently reading Frantz Fanon's "The wretched of the earth", and while I understand his intent as wanting to address the de-colonization of Algeria - in my un-intentional reading of the book, I'm learning completely different truths.

That is also why I keep claiming that there is no "right" way to read a book; no "true" reading of it, that stays valid just because it might have been the writer's original intent. Not that there isn't a true intent, because, well, there is. It's just that the writer's true intent might not work that well in the context, in which the book is currently being read.

  • 1Or do I? Keep reading...
  • 2See above.