I read a discussion concerning my earlier article on allegory in which someone identified himself as a writer. He stated that if a reader saw something in his writing that he had not intended, then either he or his reader had failed. His statement is an extreme example of what is called “authorial intent”: what the author intends for the reader to see is indeed what the reader sees. Of course, no author can ever have such control. He writes a text, but he is no longer part of the conversation. The text speaks for itself. Were the author in an actual conversation, then, like all speakers, he can engage in the give-and-take of communication. I speak, you speak. I adjust. You adjust. Eventually, if successful, we agree on a meaning.
JRR Tolkien gave considerable thought to the nature of fiction, particularly fiction in the form of faerie. He went so far as to speak of the author as “sub-creator.” He disliked the notion of allegory – by which he meant a straight-forward “this-represents-that” sort of thing (he cited Edmund Spenser as an example). He, and others around him, preferred the term “symbol” and “myth.” But in the language of the Fathers, “allegory” was the generic term for symbolic uses of language and story, and, more importantly, for a meaning that lies beneath and within a narrative or object (cf. Gal. 4:24 where St. Paul uses ἀλληγορούμενα, often translated as “figure”).
The first hurdle in understanding any of this is to agree that true symbolism actually exists. Symbol, in its primary meaning, refers to something that makes something else present or that contains something else within it. It is sym-bole, a “throwing-together” of things. In our modern world, we believe a symbol is something that makes us think of another thing that is not there. Such a symbol is a sign of absence. The older and original meaning is like that of a sacrament (the Fathers had no problem calling the Eucharist a “symbol” in this older meaning). A symbol carries within it the reality of the other thing.
Owen Barfield, friend of Tolkien and CS Lewis, offered very significant reflection on the symbolic aspect of language. For him, the oldest form of language represented a very unified world in which object and word, thing and meaning were encountered in something he described as “original participation.” An example can be found in St. John’s gospel, chapter 3. There Christ speaks of the pneuma. Our modern loss of original participation makes it impossible to translate the passage. We render the word as “spirit,” but it also has the meaning of “wind” and “breath,” as well as the “Holy Spirit.” And Christ uses the single word pneuma to carry all of these meanings. For the modern reader, wind is not breath. The one word does not contain the other. As we translate the passage, we squint at the word and wonder, “Which meaning did He mean at this point?” What we cannot seem to do, however, is to hear all of the meanings at the same time. The world, for us, has been “disenchanted,” its words pressed into ever more distinct and discrete meanings. The sacramentality of the world has become opaque to us.
I will press this one step further. We are not only deaf to a variety of simultaneous meanings, we also cannot hear the direct connection between word and object. Pneuma, like the Hebrew, ruach, not only means breath, wind, spirit; it is itself breath, wind, spirit. This is present in the word spirit, but we cannot hear it.
This brings us to the notion of authorial intent. For modern readers, everything is about ideas. The mind of the writer is the only reality that concerns us. The world itself has lost its meaning. Meaning is only something that occurs in the mind and language is only a means to share what is in my mind. If the world were only a digital projection, nothing would be different. The idea is the thing. It is not surprising to hear a modern writer concern himself only with communicating his own intentions. My mind wants your mind to understand.
We do not live in a world of minds. The modern fascination with its own mind actually alienates us from what is real and true. We perceive knowledge as thinking – the Fathers perceived knowledge as participation. We know things through communion. If a man builds a house, can he insist that everyone think of the house as he does? We recognize (with apologies to Ayn Rand) that the house is one thing, and the one who built it, another. The same is true for language.
Writing, in such an understanding, is not a form of self-expression: it is a service to the word (and thus to reality). The author, like a poet, labors over words and mines them for what is already there. Their combination (including as narrative) reveals. Ideas are almost never truly original, or their origin is not within our own minds. We cannot conceive apart from language and the language already carries within it a reality that refuses to be silent.
An author may voice his intent, but he is not the master of his language nor the inventor of his culture. Even at the extremes of fiction, the world that is “sub-created” must be recognizable as a world. Tolkien went so far as to invent new languages in his fantasy novels. But having done so, he must then conform his story to that language. To some degree, he intended that it be necessary to learn Qenya in order to understand Middle Earth.
Deeper than authorial intent is what I will call “original” intent (following Barfield’s lead in speaking of “original participation”). The words we speak recognize that something is there, and they recognize that what is there is even greater than you might know. Spirit is wind and breath, and cannot be known unless and until it is also known as wind and breath.
And the intent goes deeper still. This intention is reflected in the New Testament notion of revealing what is “hidden.” What is “hidden” is also synonymous with “that which was from the beginning.” The meaning, purpose, and direction have always been there. They are given to us, to be discerned and revealed. They are not the product of our own minds. Listen carefully to this dynamic in the Scriptures:
That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon, and our hands have handled, concerning the Word of life–the life was manifested, and we have seen, and bear witness, and declare to you that eternal life which was with the Father and was manifested to us–that which we have seen and heard we declare to you, that you also may have fellowship with us; and truly our fellowship is with the Father and with His Son Jesus Christ. (1Jo 1:1-3)
But we are bound to give thanks to God always for you, brethren beloved by the Lord, because God from the beginning chose you for salvation through sanctification by the Spirit and belief in the truth, (2Th 2:13)
To me, who am less than the least of all the saints, this grace was given, that I should preach among the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ, and to make all see what is the communion of the mystery, which from the beginning of the ages has been hidden in God who created all things through Jesus Christ; (Eph 3:8-9)
It is this “communion of the mystery” that represents the content of the gospel and of our salvation. Our true life that is “hidden with Christ in God,” is often revealed in allegory (in its original sense) within and beneath the words. In such a case, it is the obvious, day-to-day business of our lives that constitutes a shadow existence. The true, the real, the solid is that which was from the beginning, That which chose us from the beginning. All of which is what is now being made known to us in Christ through the Church. (Eph. 3:10)
Glory to God!
Next: The Hidden Word of the Prophets