Wednesday, 24 March 2010


The discussions in class have made me think of all the different possibilities that exist when it comes to understanding meaning. The meaning usually associated with a specific word can be altered by using the word in a different context or changing it's function to create a new nuance of meaning. I also thought of the possibilities of meaning as in the different ways an author intended a text to be understood. Can these 'possibilities of meaning' be limited by the author's intention?

In the song 'Forgive Me' by Missy Higgins I was particularly struck by the two middle verses:

Oh my god how you make it hard
Not to pick the apple
Pick the Apple
And Lord I long to give it back

And I was on shaky land
Lost and unsure I opened my hand
And she held it like sinking sand.

What I find most effective is how the apple as a metaphor for temptation effortlessly materialises into the girl's hand between the two verses. Although Missy clearly states that it is a character piece about a man who has been unfaithful to his wife I can't help but imagine the narrator of these verses in particular to be a woman. Perhaps it is this Eve reference, or maybe it is the female vocals, or maybe it's my own projection, but in my mind the hands holding each other in this last image are both definitely female. My question is, is my interpretation wrong or less valid because it is not supported by the writer or the song lyrics? Are the possibilities limited by the words in the text or the author's intentions or do they exist endlessly in the reader's mind too?

Let's take this in another direction. What happens if an interpretation is based on a misunderstanding? Does this create a myriad of new possibilities?

For me the most crucial moment in the film The Lives of Others is when the actress Christa-Maria walks out onto the road infront of a truck. I understood this as an accidental death that had nothing to do with the rest of the plot or the other characters. I found this sense of wastage unbearable. I was instantly overcome by the feelings of pointlessness and loss that I had experienced the year before when two of my friends were killed in a car crash. Afterwards a friend explained that Christa-Maria had seen the on-coming truck and had walked out in front of it on purpose as she couldn't live with herself after betraying her lover to the secret police. My point is that the film had an even more significant and personal meaning to me because of a misunderstanding. At school our interpretation of anything always had to be backed up with evidence but I think there is a difference between the world of factual analysis and the world of possibilities. The former searches only for difinitve answers whereas the latter is fluid. I don't think it can be limited by authorial intent or textual content as meaning is relative and interpretation personal.

Saturday, 13 March 2010

Framing Meaning with Words

Calvino described Exactitude using the image of a feather to weigh the souls of the dead. That is the level of exactness we are talking about - but in language. This made me understand that we should not use language vaguely or randomly, but respect the power of each word. We have meaning but we need words to convey it. There are an infinite number of ways to express a specific meaning, each combination of words framing the meaning in a different manner.

A word with a wrong connotation can prevent the meaning from coming through. Therefore the balance between exactness and vagueness must be just right: our meaning must be flexible enough for the reader to take from it their own understanding yet concise enough that the meaning is not lessened or lost.

Phillip Pullman said:

The meaning of a story emerges in the meeting between the words on the page and
the thoughts in the reader's mind.

This raises the question, 'Is a writer a wordsmith whose purpose is to mould his text in a manner that provokes a specific response from the reader e.g. shock, approval, curiosity; or is it the writer's task to create a text containing a myriad of meanings for the reader to extract what they choose?'

In The Art of the Novel Kundera explains:

...the single divine Truth decomposed into myriad relative truths percelled out by men. Thus was born the Modern Age, and with it the novel, the image and model of that world.

In Story Robert McKee adds:

In life, experiences become meaningful with reflection in time. I art, they are meaningful now, in the instant they happen.

I think it is the purpose of the novel, and of art, to capture these relative truths that we experience through life and illuminate them in a way which perhaps makes them more consistent, more part of a universal sense of truth.

There is a quote by Kahlil Gibran The Prophet that supports Pullman's earlier statement:

No man can reveal to you nothing but that which already lies half-asleep in the dawning of your knowledge.

In this sense the reader must have, whether consciously or unconsciously, already sensed the possibility of what you are trying to say.

An important question is how we choose which words we use to describe a universal theme such as love. There is an infinite number of ways to explain it yet how do we choose one that is familiar enough for people to relate too yet innovative enough to give new insights on such an exhausted theme?

I took a quote on love from the lecture on Pullman's Northern Lights. Aristophanes explains to Socrates:

Human nature was originally one and we were a whole, and the desire and pursuit of the whole is what we call love.

In the feature film, Loving Annabelle, Annabelle explains to her English class what the text they are studying is trying to say:

Through love we feel the intensity of our connection to everything and everyone.
And at the chore we're all the same; we're all

Although these two examples essentially hold the same view of love they have still found original ways of expressing it.