Whatever I Want It to Mean

Occasionally a creative writing student would comment, “A poem (or other piece of writing) means whatever you want it to mean.”  I hated this brainless attitude, and still do.  It is not true.  The author intends one or more, usually more, way more, specific effects.  It takes work and it takes intelligence.  I blame what I call the hidden meaning theory of poetry, a favorite of hack teachers everywhere.  You’ll recognize it.

The hidden meaning theory of poetry substitutes ingenuity, however preposterous, for understanding.  It arose with Eliot’s generation, the culture’s defense against the perceived “difficulty” of contemporary poetry.  Its basic tenets are that the job of the poet is to hide as many meanings as possible in the poem, and the job of the student is to dig them out.  The more “meanings” you can invent, the more likely you are to get an A.

It’s a thoroughly boring activity, of interest only to hacks and suck-ups, and if that’s what most people think poetry is about, no wonder they hate the stuff.

But the malaise runs even deeper, is even more insidious.  When I was in college and grad school, it was dogma among intellectuals that we could not discover the actual nature of things, that language itself, with its insistence on conceptualization, was a barrier to “the truth.”  (I view language as a path into reality instead a screen that filters it out.)  Philosophers insisted that we could not know how we knew things, and therefore all language was suspect, and therefore no viewpoint could be impeached.  They insisted that one’s language shaped one’s perceptions, was the dominant force.  (Among linguists, this is known as the now widely discredited Whorfian hypothesis–usually phrased as “The Eskimos have thirty words for snow,” or some similar and equally misleading statement).

Again and again the academics of my day insisted that perception was primary, that one viewpoint was good as another.

I’m think of this now because my daughter just mentioned a television channel called Belief Net, which is apparently devoted entirely to “Christian” programming.  When exactly did “belief” come to mean “contrary to evidence and reason”?  My other daughter once described to me a member of her church who declared that “faith is believing in things that don’t make any sense.”

No it isn’t.  Faith is more nearly holding to the truth no matter what the fashions may be.  Sticking to the facts, no matter how widely disparaged you may be for doing so.

There IS such a thing as Christ-like forbearance and sacrifice.  It’s a true facet of human nature.  The story of Christ presents that capability in transforming myth.  (When I say “myth,” I do not mean “silly little story,” but something so powerful it can reshape society.  Neither do I necessarily mean “historically inaccurate.”

It’s also true that sort of forbearance and sacrifice delivers better results than any of the alternatives, especially the alternatives of violence and revenge.  (It’s extremely rare and difficult to practice, though.  One must first learn to factor oneself out of the calculations.)

I do ridicule the “believer” who thinks the world was created six thousand years ago.  No it wasn’t.  The Bible was never intended as a physics manual.  I do not hesitate to mock anyone who insists that his or her opinion is as valid–simply because he or she “believes” it–as painstakingly acquired evidence, the fruits of long and difficult reason, or fidelity to fact.

But I blame those midcentury philosophers and academics as much as anyone.  They were the ones who floated the notion in the first place that all points of view were equally valid.  They were largely humanists, and feeling the hurt because science was getting all the attention.  It was their take on relativity, their attempt to be as cutting-edge and theoretical as the physicists.

But it leaves them with no comeback to the fruitcake fundies.  Typically what is fashionable in philosophy gradually leaks into the cultural substrata and becomes a given several decades later.  Now, although the philosophers and academics have long since moved on, everybody “knows” that any point of view is as good as any other.

No it aint.