Does knowing about a writer help us appreciate their work?

The answer to the titular question may at first seem obvious. We may be tempted to simply say “Of course it does!” and quickly move on to the next thought, the next article, the next post, the next photo, the next next. I would ask us though to pause a moment and reflect because what our question here turns on is not a matter of understanding it is a matter of valuing. Knowing about an author helps us read, or sometimes read into, what they have written and think that we therefore know what it means or is anyway supposed to mean (an issue of interpretation) but that may or may not be the same as appreciating a work. That judgment, or reaction, will fall I think on where we place the balance of appreciation: do we think that assuming that we know what an author herself meant by her words is where our own appreciation of them should lie or do we instead think that whatever a work does to or for us, regardless of what it might “objectively” mean, is where we should place our appreciative conclusions?

Take the case of Sylvia Plath’s famous poem “Daddy” (1962). If we know certain things about her life then we can guess what certain lines in the poem might mean. The reference to the “gray toe/Big as a Frisco seal” in the second stanza are probably about her own father’s necessary foot amputation due to untreated diabetes (the resulting consequences of which would cause his death, when Plath was a mere eight years old (though in the poem she confusingly refers to being ten at his burial)). Or the references to the German language, to Germany, to the Luftwaffe, “panzer-man”, “Chuffing me off like a Jew” (the ninth and seventh stanzas, respectively) and the Holocaust extermination camp names might mean something more for us if we know that her father immigrated to the United States from Germany. Knowing that, however, raises certain problems as the senior Plath immigrated at the age of fifteen a full thirty-nine years before war broke out and thirty-three years before Hitler even became chancellor. What connection was there between Plath’s father and the Nazis?

None, naturally. We can very easily imagine that he detested the Nazis, but Plath nevertheless draws a clear line between how the Nazis treated the Jewish people and how she feels about certain treatment received from her father. Or rather, her poem can be read in that way. Interpretation again points a finger at itself here and we find that knowing about the author of the work might actually mislead us in that regard. At any rate a bit of simple knowledge does nothing to help us feel our way into her work and if we are thinking about appreciation of the poem then certainly that feeling-into is far more paramount than knowing certain tidbits about Plath’s childhood and family. There is a point for every work of art (and certain topics such as death) where analysis simply breaks down and feeling – feeling alone – must take over.

If anything, it seems, knowing all about the author’s life makes “Daddy” less powerful as if it is read with all of that background in mind the poem simply becomes a relating of Plath’s personal experience dissociated entirely from our own lives. In the fifteenth stanza Plath writes “The vampire who said he was you/And drank my blood for a year,/Seven years, if you want to know.” Ostensibly this is about her relationship with Ted Hughes, which lasted for seven years; yet if we know that we will almost inevitably focus on the fact of it, the mere datum, and lose the nuance of fullness, of perfection, that the number seven carries for us culturally. Or her “I was ten when they buried you” (twelfth stanza) when in fact her father died a week and a half after she turned eight could easily become a point of focus yet the number ten may have been chosen for linguistic or other reasons although it is not technically accurate. Perhaps Plath did simply mean to indicate her own life through the figures but even if she did doesn’t what they could mean for us as readers carry more weight in our appreciative efforts? This, I think, is the real crux of the issue. We can never know what it was to be Plath or how she felt about her own life and experiences from the inside; all we can know in that fullest of regards is our own lives. Every single person is of course in this very position. As such I think that the balance of appreciation that I referred to above ought to fall on the side of valuing a work more for what it does to us, how it affects us as us. For that the only real knowledge that is needed is knowledge of ourselves. Note though that this conclusion does not apply to interpretation, it is instead only about appreciation. Must the two go hand in hand? That, I’m afraid, is a topic for another day.

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