Meanings

I was recently reminded of one of the pages I have on this blog titled, “Intertextual Andrew.” This is a long-term project that I add to from time to time. Not as often as I’d intended, but things do find their way there. The project started out as a way to combine two things, a desire to examine my life and to apply some of my knowledge of literary criticism.

When it comes to improving ourselves and our lives, perhaps there is nothing more powerful than examining who we are by taking a good long look in the mirror. There are many ways to do this. Whole libraries of books have been written on the subject.

A couple of years ago I setup a little project to examine some of who I am. I’ll admit that I’ve not been as diligent with this task as when I started. Recently it’s come back to my mind and I feel the need to spend a few brain cells on the project again. You can click on the “Intertextual Andrew” link above to see the project.

The title of the page “Intertextual” comes from my study of literary criticism and my fascination with reader-response theory. My thought behind the project was to combine all of that and then using myself as the text try to show what has influenced me and how that has brought me to where I am today.

Perhaps a bit of explanation would help.

First, literary criticism. It’s not what it sounds like at first. It is not about doing book reviews. It’s the study and interpretation of literature to discover the meaning in a “text.” A text is any kind of writing, books, stories, poems, plays, etc. If you want to be expansive a text could also be anything created by humans, movies, songs, pictures and so on. The literary critic applies a number of theories to a text to see what the text might mean in various lights. We often refer to a literary theory as a “lens” through which we examine a text. The theories have names like, formalism, new criticism, post-colonialism, new historicism, gender theory, structuralism, deconstruction and my favorites intertextuality, semiotics and reader-response theories.

With these various lenses we can look at a text to see how meanings can be derived from the text. For example, in gender theory we’d look at a text in light of what does the text tell us about being a man or woman. We could then take the same text and apply structuralism to look at the linguistic structure of a text and how the author is conveying meaning through those structures.

Sounds like fun right?

It can get complex if you’re trying to do this as part of an academic study, but let me briefly talk about my two favorite ways to view texts by using reader-response theory and intertextuality. In reader response theory we say that meaning is formed in the mind of the reader. To understand a text, we need to understand the person reading the text. What does our reader know? What experiences has our reader had? How will a reader interpret a text?

My best example is to think about this line, “Call me Ishmael.” Of course, this is the opening line to Melville’s Moby Dick. Those who have studied the Old Testament will find one meaning. Those who’ve not read about Abraham and Hagar, are likely to miss the author’s intention of the opening and form a meaning not intended by Melville.

We have one text, Moby Dick, with readers who have and who haven’t read the Bible story. Each group will respond differently to Melville depending on what they, the reader, brings with them when they read. This is one part of reader response.

Another part is the notion that everything builds on something else. That is all writings in some way reference other texts. Melville references the Bible and other writings. In this blog I’ve talked about Beatle’s songs. Unless you’ve heard of the Beatle’s before, you’re like to miss the meaning I intended. Go see the latest Star Wars movie, if you haven’t seen the previous ones, there are meanings (and inside jokes) you’ll miss out on.

This principle is the notion of intertextuality. That is, the idea that one text’s meaning is shaped by another. One of my favorite examples here is Marilynne Robinson’s book, Gilead. In this book she follows the life of John Ames and along the way manages to take us on a journey back through John Ames life. In the novel you’ll see many examples of where Robinson slips in a reference to another text. My favorite is when Ames’s wife sits down to read the book, The Trail of the Lonesome Pine. Turns out this is a reference to a 1908 novel written by John Fox, Jr. I read Fox’s book and was surprised at the similarities between the character John Ames and the protagonist in Fox’s book.

After reading both books I felt that I had a better understanding the meaning that was being conveyed in Gilead. If you’ve not read the book, please go read it, it’s worth it.

So back to my personal project. My thought when I started it was that, just as I received a better understanding of Gilead, I might gain a better understanding of me if I looked at the “intertexts” of my life. Treating myself as the text I set about listing everything that I could think of that has been an influence on my life. I listed, books, movies, songs, people, experiences and so on.

It’s been both a nostalgic trip down memory lane and an informative exercise about how I got to where I am.

This exercise brings to mind the thought, “To know where you’re going, you have to know where you’ve been.”

Till next week,
Andrew

About Andrew Reynolds

Born in California Did the school thing studying electronics, computers, release engineering and literary criticism. I work in the high tech world doing software release engineering Then I got prostate cancer Now I am a blogger and work in my wood shop doing scroll saw work and marquetry.
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10 Responses to Meanings

  1. Extremely interesting and challenging. My initial response to any text is its readability in my own terms – simply, will I enjoy this piece? As to why certain texts evoke a reaction in one or another way is not something I have thought about deeply and maybe I should. A writer’s thought processes, and how they were founded, has always intrigued, if only for the social history that induces the baggage in their words. I sometimes think we attribute too much. Was it David Hockney who said: ‘I just painted a chair’?

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    • I’ve often found a bit of a disconnect between the writer and reader. A meaning or feeling intended by the writer is often read in a very different way by the reader. Years ago I did a little talk for a group at a local church. After the meeting a woman came up to me and said, “Loved what you said about humility.” For years after that she’d often quote me. The odd thing is, that nowhere in my little speech did I use the word humility. Whatever she found, didn’t come directly from me.

      Readers are like that, they bring to a text their own lives and experiences which influences the experience they have with a text.

      I love that quote by Hockney. Recently I wrote a silly little poem. Mostly just a fun play on words and I sent it to a few friends as a bit of fun. Most just smiled, but one sent me back this long note describing the deep meaning he found in my words. Readers, go figure.

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  2. Kinderhook88 says:

    What a great post! I’m going to go read Gilead now.

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  3. No being a literary person, reading this was a challenge for me. I think I got the essence of what you are saying but I’m not sure. But it’s not you; it’s me – I was never a deep thinker. I tried once but got a headache… 🙂

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  4. PiedType says:

    “I set about listing everything that I could think of that has been an influence on my life.” What a massive undertaking!! It also strikes me as one you can never quite finish, since every day will bring something new.

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  5. This is way too intellectual for me this morning, Andrew. I’m going to have to re-read it when I’m more awake (and my resident headache is duller).

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