Vampiric Hiccup and other matters

21 Apr

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Owing, I suspect, to the current popularity of certain things of an early evening nomenclature (which is something else I may eventually read in order to comment on, but I’m not holding my breath), I am somewhat delayed in obtaining a copy of Dracula.

In the meantime, back to a topic I mentioned in passing a couple of posts ago. There’s an old joke about an author taking an english course; he finds that they will be studying one of his books, so he turns up to the final exam without having studied… and promptly fails. It illustrates two things: if you don’t study, you’ll fail, no matter who you are; and how a work is interpreted is not necessarily what the author intended.

Various schools of literary criticism debate over what is important – the author’s intent, the actual words, the reader’s reaction, etc, some going as far as to claim one or more of these components are irrelevant. I happen to disagree, but then I have more of an information-theoretic perspective, which attempts to put a measure on the amount of information communicated by a message (which could be an electrical signal, a flag waving, a novel, a painting, etc). It is important to note that this theoretical concept of information is in a very mathematical/logical context – the meaning of the message is a separate issue.

I would argue that several things are important in fully understanding a given message:

  • What the originator of the message intended (e.g. the idea in an author’s mind). Ultimately, there is something they meant to get across, and you cannot judge their success without comparing their result to their intent. We generally consider an accidental offense to be lesser than a deliberate one.
  • How the message was encoded (e.g. author’s thoughts -> english words). Were they using a form they were competent with? Were they dictating to an intermediary?
  • How the message was transmitted. The tone and inflection of spoken words can affect what is conveyed; written words are comparatively inert.
  • How the message was “decoded”. Does the reader speak english well, or do they tend to misinterpret some words?
  • What the result was (e.g. thoughts in the reader’s mind). What was their mood at the time? It amazes me how much minor things – that wouldn’t bother me normally – can annoy me if I’m already in a stressed/frustrated frame of mind.
  • What was the cultural context of the message (e.g. idioms, values, norms, etc. can be very different today to when a novel was written). Day-to-day life for us is very different to that of characters written by Charles Dickens.
  • Was there a single communicative step, or is the information second (third/fourth/…) -hand? Anyone who has played a game known by the un-PC name of “Chinese Whispers” will know how much a message can change as a result of misinterpretations, reinterpretations, and translations).

Basically, I feel that if you’re going to seriously and thoroughly analyse a novel you should consider all these facets. That is not to say that you cannot do interesting analysis on only one, but you shouldn’t cast aspertions on the validity of the others while doing so.

There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.

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Posted by on April 21, 2010 in General


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