Guest Post: George MacDonald on the Role of the Reader in Meaning-Creation
Here are some words from Fantasy author George MacDonald writing in 1893 on the art of the Fairy Tale (the whole essay will be reproduced as an appendix in the 150th anniversary edition of Phantastes published by Paternoster on October 28th). He writes in response to an imaginary interlocutor and has some interesting things to say about the place of the reader in the construction of meaning:
“How am I to assure myself that I am not reading my own meaning into it, but yours out of it?”
Why should you be so assured? It may be better that you should read your meaning into it. That may be a higher operation of your intellect than the mere reading of mine out of it: your meaning may be superior to mine ...
“Suppose my child ask me what the fairytale means, what am I to say?”
If you do not know what it means, what is easier than to say so? If you do see a meaning in it, there it is for you to give him. A genuine work of art must mean many things; the truer its art, the more things it will mean ...
“But a man may then imagine in your work what he pleases, what you never meant!”
Not what he pleases, but what he can. If he be not a true man, he will draw evil out of the best; we need not mind how he treats any work of art! If he be a true man, he will imagine true things; what matter whether I meant them or not? They are there none the less that I cannot claim putting them there!
One difference between God’s work and man’s is, that, while God’s work cannot mean more than he meant, man’s must mean more than he meant. For in everything that God has made, there is layer upon layer of ascending significance; also he expresses the same thought in higher and higher kinds of that thought: it is God’s things, his embodied thoughts, which alone a man has to use, modified and adapted to his own purposes, for the expression of his thoughts; therefore he cannot help his words and figures falling into such combinations in the mind of another as he had himself not foreseen, so many are the thoughts allied to every other thought, so many are the relations involved in every figure, so many the facts hinted in every symbol. A man may well himself discover truth in what he wrote; or he was dealing all the time with things that came from thoughts beyond his own