On intention

A few months back Nick wrote a very interesting post on hidden meanings within Stanley Kubrick’s films, especially 2001: A Space Odyssey. As Nick points out, there are layers of clues and subtle communications within Kubrick’s works, some of which may not have been intended for the average viewer at all but rather aimed at a subset of viewers. Artistically this is a very intriguing concept.

As anyone who has walked into a bookstore within the past decade (or even more) will know, mysteries sell very well, particularly when done in a suspenseful, “page-turning” way. The really successful of these will spell everything out for the reader in a satisfying and gratifying way such that when the book ends all questions have been answered and even if you didn’t figure it out beforehand now you know and can, in a sense, congratulate yourself on knowing. Some examples of books like this have surely already sprung to mind as you make your way through this post (and if you’re a regular reader of DSB you probably know the title I have in mind, it’s a favorite target of mine). Such works are of course quite different from what Kubrick was doing and the varying methodologies point to an interesting question: How should we think about the reader’s interpretation of our writing?

It is inevitable that some interpretation will occur. Language is at best an imperfect medium for the transmission of the thoughts, feelings, and experiences that compose and mark our internal lives. Add to that the mental filters that get placed on top when we translate or read a translation and the challenges that a writer faces increase. I assume that most readers of our blog are either native speakers of English or have studied English extensively; does that mean that I take it for granted that what I’m trying to say in each post I write is fully understood exactly as I wish it to be understood? Should I? To do so would be to invite folly (read the last paragraph of this post and the comments that follow). On the site’s front page here I try to be as explicit as possible due to the nature of the writing involved but I realize that there will, at times, be a disconnect or that I will fail to adequately phrase what I mean. I may even be doing so right now. My approach to fiction is however quite different. There I sometimes purposefully choose to engage in subterfuge or to place a hint on one page that refers to something much later or that is expanded on via another clue much later. I invite misinterpretation. As Nick pointed out, Kubrick did the same. (To be clear in the midst of the enveloping fog this is becoming: I do not by any stretch of the imagination wish to put myself in the same category as Kubrick. If I could have met the man I think I would have fallen on the floor.) What would be the point of doing so?

Here is where things get really interesting. If a writer intends to mislead, misdirect, or hoodwink a reader that is one thing; if a writer intends to be subtly vague such that misinterpretation might occur for some while correct interpretation occurs for others that is something else. That is burying a mental “choose your own adventure” within the foundation of your book/piece without ever asking the reader to turn to a certain page to “find out”. That is writing for an audience while at the same time writing for a subaudience; that is considering the reader’s interpretation of your work to be a part of the work itself. If art is something that cannot ever really be defined (and a look at the history of what is considered to be art and the seemingly endless philosophical discussions on defining art appear to indicate that such is the case) then arguably leaving things open is in a way demanded by the process of creating art itself. As you write then, ask yourself this: Am I intentionally creating a work of art or am I intending to do something much different? How you answer that will help you plan and structure your work, and it will help you answer that most nagging question of all.

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  1. Nick Cody
    Posted June 9, 2016 at 11:13 am | Permalink

    Interesting post, Andrew. I’m guessing that anyone who is curious to know about the whole, “What has the artist hidden” sub-genre, will be put off by the time commitment that is implied in my post which you linked to. Rewatching 2001 and The Shining, and reading interpretations of them, and then watching YouTube video analysis could sound like one massive time-suck.

    A much better test case, to see what this experience is like, lies with the Nabokov short story “The Vane Sisters.” I blogged about it a while back: http://drugstorebooks.com/?p=3060.

    Because it’s something that could be read in under an hour, I think it’s a better sample than the Kubrick movies and novels of Nabokov which are fuller treatments employing tons more tricks.

    By the way, readers who catch on to the game will get a chuckle as they realize this mini-tradition is still throbbing through the contemporary culture. Christopher Nolan, I have absolutely no doubt, was influenced directly (or indirectly secondhand) by “The Vane Sisters” when he made Interstellar. But he was a poor pupil in that movie when compared to the Old Masters of 2001 and Pale Fire.

  2. Andrew Oberg
    Posted June 9, 2016 at 1:56 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for a great comment Nick, that’s very helpful. I do remember your post on “The Vane Sisters” and agree that that’s probably an easier route in for those looking to go spelunking. On the other hand, simply a change of mentality and approach towards what’s written/read/viewed could be another way to get started, and then from there picking up bits and pieces on the way.

    Whatever the method the rewards are there to be had; and as you point out, still coming.

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