Authorial Intent and Ham Sandwiches

I regularly teach both literature and literary theory courses, so I’m regularly confronted with the problem of interpreting literature. What defines meaning in a literary work? The default position is “the author’s intent,” and people generally think that if you were to somehow distance linguistic meaning from authorial intent that words might come to mean anything and everything anyone wants them to mean.

I’d like to start by saying that the fear is unfounded: words are our most important shared cultural resource, which means that no one — neither readers nor writers — have the ability to make any given word or group of words mean anything at all arbitrarily. At the same time, many given arrangements of words, especially the more creative kind, are still susceptible to multiple interpretations. So we want to start by thinking that most arrangements of words are capable of being interpreted in a limited number of ways. Only under certain circumstances will an arrangement of words mean only one thing (think highly technical language in limited contexts), and under no circumstances can any arrangement of words mean anything at all arbitrarily.

So what’s the problem with authorial intent as the basis of literary meaning? The problem is inherent in what I’ve already said: authors don’t own language any more than readers do because language is a shared cultural resource. Now of course authors get to say what they meant when they wrote the work: no one gets to ascribe motives to an author on their behalf (which is what defining a work in terms of authorial intent usually does, in fact). But that doesn’t mean that the arrangement of words exclusively means, or even actually means, what the author intended.

I’d like to illustrate this point with a Lou Reed song called “Perfect Day”:

“Perfect Day”

Just a perfect day
Drink sangria in the park
And then later, when it gets dark
We go home

Just a perfect day
Feed animals in the zoo
Then later a movie, too
And then home

Oh, it’s such a perfect day
I’m glad I spent it with you
Oh, such a perfect day
You just keep me hanging on
You just keep me hanging on

Just a perfect day
Problems all left alone
Weekenders on our own
It’s such fun

Just a perfect day
You made me forget myself
I thought I was someone else
Someone good

Oh, it’s such a perfect day
I’m glad I spent it with you
Oh, such a perfect day
You just keep me hanging on
You just keep me hanging on

You’re going to reap just what you sow
You’re going to reap just what you sow
You’re going to reap just what you sow
You’re going to reap just what you sow

Here’s the song:

Now here’s what Lou Reed said the song was “about”:

My song “Perfect Day” was originally inspired by a ham sandwich I had eaten. It was so amazing that it had turned my day into a perfect day. It was delicious, so delicious that I decided to dedicate a song to it. I really liked where I was going with the song so I changed some of the lyrics around and now it just sounds like any ordinary song. Most people wouldn’t have guessed that it was about a ham sandwich.

Lou Reed on “Perfect Day”

What the heck? That was a song about a ham sandwich? I’m thinking about this line from 27 Dresses now: “I feel like I just found out my favorite love song was written about a sandwich.” I’m beginning to think this line really was inspired by this song.

Seriously, Lou: how the heck do you get from point A, a ham sandwich, to point B, a sweet song about a day spent with someone you love? And what the heck is all that “reap what you sow” stuff about at the end? Sow a sow, reap a sandwich?

Still have any doubts about what I’m saying about authorial intent? No intent-based reading strategies could ever arrive at the right answer and, in fact, the meaning of the song really has nothing to do with ham sandwiches, regardless of what Reed had on his mind. Yes, it really is just a sweet song about spending the day with someone that you love, and the “reap what you sow” lines turn a rather threatening idea into a promise and a wish: “let’s have more days like these so we can have more days like these.”

Now I’m not saying there is never some intention behind any literary work, or even that the intent is never worthy of consideration. It’s just that we often cannot ever really know what the author’s intent was. and sometimes even the author doesn’t, and that reading strategies designed to reveal or uncover authorial intent never really read the author’s mind. What they do instead is place the work within a sociolinguistic and biographical context to limit possible meanings. But, that process never eliminates all other possible meanings. It just focuses upon one type of meaning.

If you’d like to consider other ways of reading, you might find this video interesting:

 

 

 

 

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