Archives For Interpretation

shakespeareSometimes authors are not quite so brilliant as we think them to be.

It is possible to read into someone’s work ideas, and even profundity, that was not present when they were originally composed.

That’s an odd thought, I will admit. But the truth is that each of us as readers carry with us our own knowledge and personalities.

Imposing those upon a text is a subconscious reality, and it may even be unavoidable. Minimizing our presuppositions is one of the key elements of honest literary criticism.

This is one of the reasons that it is insanity to impose contemporary “political correctness” on writers who lived before such constraints were imposed. Intelligent people recognize that we must read Twain as an iconoclastic nineteenth century author, and Bunyan as a Baptist preacher of the seventeenth.

I just read a letter in which C.S. Lewis describes how this works. He wrote to a Roman Catholic correspondent, a priest, on Christmas Day 1959. In the letter he responds to his friend’s reference to something he had not consciously included in a particular book.

It is a fascinating letter, and even though it is the final portion that pertains to the subject I’ve been discussing, I will share it in whole.

The Kilns, Headington Quarry, Oxford   Christmas Day 1959

I hope my last letter to you did not sound chilling: still less (heaven help us!) as if I were offended by criticism. I think the chief reason why I am less disposed than you for large-scale discussion by letter is the difference of our ages. In youth we conduct (at least I did) long and deep disputations through the post. It is indeed a most valuable part of our education. We put into it quite as much thought and labour as would go to writing a book. But later, when one has become a writer of books, it is hard to keep it up. One can’t fill one’s leisure with the v. same activity which is one’s main work. And in my case not only the mind but the hand needs rest. Penmanship is increasingly laborious, and the results (as you see) increasingly illegible!

If you sometimes read into my books what I did not know I had put there, neither of us need be surprised, for greater readers have doubtless done the same to far greater authors. Shakespeare would, I suspect, read with astonishment what Goethe, Coleridge, Bradley and Wilson Knight have found in him! Perhaps a book ought to have more meanings than the writer intends? But then the writer will not necessarily be the best person with whom to discuss them.

You are in my daily prayers. Will you pray much for me at present? The cancer from which my wife was (as I believe, miraculously) delivered 2½ years ago, when death in a few weeks was predicted, is returning. Can one without presumption ever ask for a second miracle? The prophet turned back the shadow for Hezekiah once: not twice. Lazarus, raised from the dead, presently died again.

Yours

C.S. Lewis

P.S. I never thought of it before, but how Lazarus was sacrificed. To have it all to do over again–bis Stygios innare lacus!

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Father Peter Milward, SJ, taught English Literature at Sophia University in Tokyo. He has extensively published on his major subject, and A Challenge to C.S. Lewis (1995), which I just now ordered for my library. A curious title, however, for a student and “fan” of Lewis.

As a Shakespeare scholar, he has persuasively argued that the bard was Roman Catholic. “When the archbishop of Canterbury recently broke his church’s long silence and acknowledged that William Shakespeare was probably a Catholic, it was a moment of quiet satisfaction for Father Peter Milward, the author who began researching this subject a half century ago.” Read the article here.

Misinterpreted Symbols

October 31, 2013 — 10 Comments

finn planeFew symbols evoke the intense reaction caused by the swastika. Regardless of the color in which it is rendered, it is inescapably associated with the Nazi insanity of the Third Reich.

And yet, for millennia it meant something else. And even today, in many lands it is recognized as representing something completely different.

I recently read a fascinating article* about the 1939-40 Winter War between the Soviet Union (Hitler’s “ally” at the time!) and tiny Finland. The Finns fought valiantly, and although in the peace settlement they forfeited territory to the insatiable communists, they inflicted terrible casualties on the aggressors.

Finnish bitterness toward the Soviets, due to their invasion, led them to ally with the Germans once the nonaggression pact between Germany and the Soviet Union ended. Without any sympathy for Nazi beliefs, they naturally hoped to regain the land they had been forced to surrender in 1940.

Prior to the Finnish alliance with Germany, the swastika already served as the official symbol of their small but talented Air Force. Ironically, they had adopted it in homage to the Swedish noble who donated one of the first foreign planes imported to fight the Russians.

The plane pictured above is the modest aircraft donated by Count Eric Von Rosen. The symbols adorning it are based on his personal crest, which was in turn based upon ancient Viking runes. It represented good luck.

After the decisive defeat of the National Socialist Party, the offensive symbol was virtually wiped away. However, as one writer says, “Although de-Nazification was enforced throughout Scandinavia, it was taken rather lightly in Finland, where the symbol had become an integral symbol for their Air Forces.

This is understandable because in Finland, the symbol meant something completely different than the common association linked to Hitler’s mania.

This should serve as an important lesson for those of us who work with words (which in large part are symbolic). A meaning we may consider patently obvious might turn out to be missed entirely by a reader for whom the “symbols” mean something else entirely. In Mere Christianity C.S. Lewis provides an entertaining illustration of this.

There is no need to be worried by facetious people who try to make the Christian hope of “Heaven” ridiculous by saying they do not want “to spend eternity playing harps.” The answer to such people is that if they cannot understand books written for grown-ups, they should not talk about them.

All the scriptural imagery (harps, crowns, gold, etc.) is, of course, a merely symbolical attempt to express the inexpressible. . . . People who take these symbols literally might as well think that when Christ told us to be like doves, He meant that we were to lay eggs.

The fact that we know the swastika has an ancient pedigree, and that it continues to mean something completely different than Nazism in some locales today, is unlikely to calm the minds of the vast majority of people who will never become comfortable with it.

Turning to Lewis once more we find a dynamic image that is perfectly apropos to our discussion of the swastika as a symbol. Symbols, he reminds us, are inherently powerful. Although written in a different context (“Williams and the Arthuriad”), Lewis could easily have had in mind the preeminent symbol of Nazism and the Holocaust when he wrote:

A symbol has a life of its own. An escaped metaphor—escaped from the control of the total poem or philosophy in which it belongs—may be a poisonous thing.

_____

* You can download a copy of “The Winter War” from Air Force magazine at this link.