Saturday, January 25, 2014

The ends and means of literary interpretation

I have recently started following the Chicago public library's blog. It's pretty great. They have a lot of really interesting posts (not to mention pictures of adorable kids getting their first library cards), but one in particular sparked the topic for my post today.

So, if you followed that link you should have discovered a list of books that, in the author's opinion, lots of people lie about having read (other lists drawn from actual surveys here, here, and here). For the purpose of this post, we will not argue whether this list is a valid representation of the literary lies of the general public. The part I found most interesting was the description of the second book from the bottom.

The author of the article claims that The Prince by Machiavelli is completely misunderstood and usually taken out of context. After a half-an-hour link chain, I would have to agree. Honestly, I feel a little silly for not knowing this before (thank you, eighth grade World History class....). The basic argument is that the The Prince is a satirical work (or at the very least can't be taken at face value). Beginning in the 1700s (and continuing more recently), several authors have claimed that Machiavelli was promoting a republic, exposing the political tactics of the ruling class to the common people, or even possibly laying an elaborate advice-that-will-get-you-killed style trap for the Medicis.

Now, you may ask: Is this like that one time my English Professor tried to claim that Faulkner meant every single noun in "The Bear" to be taken as a different Symbol, even though you're pretty sure he was just drunk most of the time he was writing it? Is this your basic confirmation bias reading-what-you-want-to situation? I dunno. To be fair, your English professor is certainly not Rousseau or Diderot, but it is true that the intentions of dead authors in their centuries old writings are a tad difficult to substantiate. Barring the presence of an actual statement of intent, it's mostly circumstantial speculation. So is it satirical, or serious, or both, or neither? Well, I suppose you'd have to read it yourself to see. (I started, but quickly realized I would have to read a lot more than it's mere eighty pages to have a fair enough understanding of the context alone. So I gave up. [I myself am quite upfront about the fact that I have not read the treatise]).

So why am I writing about this? Mostly because I found it interesting. Also because I thought you all might find it interesting (though apparently Dad and Andrew already knew all about it. Maybe I am the only one who found this surprising?) Specifically, I find the question of interpretation interesting. Who has the right to interpret a work? To what extent is an author responsible for how a work is interpreted? Is there a point in satire that no one understands as such? Functionally speaking, if it takes two hundred years for someone to realize what you meant, you either have really long term goals or you seriously need a new editor. Am I right?

Just random questions rolling around in my head. Personally, I prefer the theory that it was all a carefully laid pit of death for his arch-nemesis Lorenzo Medici. Machiavelli did dedicate the treatise to him after all.....


  1. Ha ha! This is Andrew commenting from Dad's account. Mwa ha ha. Apparently my deceit is more apparent than Machiavelli's.