I was up at 1:30, at 2:00, and at 3:00 last night with Maya and after trying for much of that time to return her to sleep with the lights off, I gave up, turned the kitchen light on, and tried to read while walking in circles, rocking her, and waiting for her to surrender. For this, I chose Stanley Cavell’s Must We Mean What We Say, which I’ve wanted to revisit. I moved in slow laps around the kitchen, listening to four gallons of Belgian Strong Dark Ale as it bubbled beneath the kitchen table. Each page of Cavell’s text, seen in motion and through half-lidded eyes, took on a strange sort of luminescence, individual lines read and re-read until they glowed. I felt I understood.
It’s been hard to recapture that feeling this morning, but here are a few thoughts, put down primarily in an attempt to cement them for myself.
In “A Matter of Meaning It,” one of the essays in which Cavell deals with film (Fellini, in this case), as he responds to questions about what constitutes art, I found this sentence, quite relevant as my AP students write papers on the last four works that we’ve read together, trying to offer clear, coherent investigations in central concerns, questions, or ideas in at least two of them:
“I had suggested that a certain sense of the question ‘Why this?’ is essential to criticism, and that the ‘certain sense’ is characterized as one in which we are, or seem to be, asking about the artist’s intention in the work.”
And there you go. Investigating a work of art, a novel, a poem, a piece of music, is a matter of asking why X is present, or X is used, or X appears, or X recurs. And this questioning, ultimately, brings us to issues of whether or not a given reading, a given idea is “intended” by the author. Or, as my students put it, “Did he really mean that?”
For some critics, according to Cavell, this questioning pushes them outside the work. But, as he puts it, “The fact is that the correct sense of the question ‘Why?’ directs you further into the work.” And it is being brought further into the work that I love about reading criticism, about discussing books and poems, about hearing others talk through their understandings of movies, and about returning repeatedly to books or poems I’ve read before and music I’ve heard before.
But what about that matter of intention? What can we say about how or whether an artist “intends” certain things in his work? What if we read something into a poem that the poet didn’t “intend” to put there? Here’s what Cavell says, in a thought that, last night, tired, more distracted than I wanted to be, seemed to me to bring the questions to answer in a fashion that would have pleased Borges: if an artist’s work produces, say, a resonance, or reflects an allusion, or an idea that he didn’t, in some sense “intend,” it’s okay. The reading is still relevant. The idea still matters, for “he re-discovered, or discovered for himself, in himself, the intention of that myth itself [referring, in this case, to Fellini], the feelings and wants which originally produced it.” And even if he didn’t “intend” it, “I shall still use it in my reading of the film, not because his intention no longer guides me, but because what it does is exactly guide me (as it guided him).”
And the end of the piece, probably my favorite part: “In art, [asking about intentions] has to be earned, through the talent of understanding, the skill of commitment, and truthfulness to one’s response – the ways the artist has earned his initial right to our attention. If we have earned the right to question it, the object itself will answer; otherwise, not.”