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


The Pook said…
Interesting, I didn't know MacDonald was such a deconstructionist. Seven decades before it was invented!

But not with the bible apparently, only his own texts.
Robin Parry said…
the Pook

It would, me thinks, be anachronistic to call MacDonald a deconstuctionist.

Indeed, I don't think he has a very clearly worked out view of the role of the reader.

What he is clear on is that
(a) the meaning of texts cannot be pinned down to the conscious intentions of the author (except in the case of God). He's right about that.

(b) readers play some role in generating the meaning of texts. Exactly how much he does not pin down but he is right in his general point.

(c) not all readings are equally good or virtuous. Yup. That's true also.

Of course, that texts need not mean only one thing does not mean that they can mean anything. Also some texts will be more 'open' and some more 'closed' to reader activity.

Presumably MacDonald the Bible means what God intended - but what God intended will outstrip what the human authors had in mind (although it would presumably have to have some relationship to what they intended). That sounds to me like a pretty traditional Jewish and Christian approach to the Bible.

If you want more fleshed out, sensible approaches to the role of the reader in interpretation I'd look to Ricoeur and Eco.

Such are my thouhts. Thanks for offering comments on my posts - it is much appreciated.

Kind Regards

Teresita said…
This comment has been removed by the author.
Teresita said…
What he is clear on is that (a) the meaning of texts cannot be pinned down to the conscious intentions of the author (except in the case of God). He's right about that.

If so, then the only texts whose author was God alone was the Ten Commandments, written by God's finger on stone, and MENE MENE TEKEL UPHARSIN. ("Numbered, numbered, weighed, divisions.") In every other text, man was the author, and only after a time was divine inspiration attributed to some of those texts as a layer of higher meaning. Since human writings are susceptible to meaning more than what was intended, and since God chose to use the agency of human authors to convey what he wanted to say (except in the two cases cited above), the majority of scripture conveys God's information while "contaminating" it with unconscious human meanings. Thus we have Paul revealing that a Christian relying on works of law nullifies grace, at the same time his own misogyny oozes out into the epistle.
Robin Parry said…

What I meant was that in trad Christian thinking a biblical text is both a human text and the word of God. The meaning of the text will go beyond what the human author had in mind but it will not go beyond what God had in mind. Why? Because God will have had the whole range of possible meanings in different possible reading-contexts in mind when he inspired it.

But you are working with a slightly different model of Scripture in your comment. It is a model that deserves serious consideration and I am open to it as a possibility. It strikes me as being not dissimilar ti Nicholas Wolterstorff's amodel in "Divine Discourse". Wolterstorff thinks that God adopts selected human speech acts - co-opts them for his own purposes. What God affirms in their words is simply what they say UNLESS we have reason to think that God would not be affirming that particular aspect of the speech act. By adopting a certain human utterance through which to speak God does not commit himself to be in agreement with every single feature of that utterance. This approach is not inerrantist - it allows for errors in the Bible whilst God was prepared to tolerate to get his main points across. This approach raises big questions but it is very interesting.

As a matter of fact, I do not think that Paul is a misogynist. There are some controverted texts but the point is that they are much debated and scholars are not agreed upon what Paul was saying. Only on certain readings is it misogynist and, in fact, on even the most harsh readings I think that misogyny is too strong a word. There are not a few Christian feminists who see Paul as a proto-feminist.

Have fun!

Anonymous said…
Hey Robin, I've noticed that you've dedicated several posts to MacDonald... So I'm gonna go out on a limb and say that you seem to be a fan of MacDonald. I tried to read Lilith about a year ago but couldn't get through it, but I'm still interested in reading him. Which MacDonald books would you recommend to someone unfamiliar with his work.
Robin Parry said…

I am actually not a fan of MacDonald. The fact is that I had to proof read the manuscript for Phantastes last week (we are publishing it in Oct) so I got to read my first MacDonald book.

But I have read nothing else. I am told that Lilith is his best novel. I could not comment. Phantastes was good once you got past the chapter with the utterly sickly flower fairies (I wanted to hit them with a cricket bat). After that it is good.
Steve said…
When you say that you are "not actually a fan of MacDonald," do you mean that in a quite literal sense, or do you mean that you actually have an overall negative assessment of him or his ideas? Perhaps it's my own American idiom that I'm hearing that suggests the latter, litotic sense behind the expression "not a fan". :-)

His form of universalism has been the most attractive to me personally. I like some of his fiction, but more influential for me have been his Unspoken Sermons.
Robin Parry said…

I mean it in a literal sense


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