Misinterpretationism: A Manifesto
-- Anders Nyhus
I would like to introduce a new and exciting theory into the field of literary criticism called Misinterpretationism. The basic premise takes the trend set by Jacques Derrida and other deconstructionists a step further and consciously (and without conscience) snatches literature entirely out of the hands of the writer, and gives it over to the reader, where it belongs. The reader is given license to interpret literature in any way that is pleasing, as long as it is purposely interpreted in such a way that makes a case for itself which could not possibly be consistent with the writer's own intentions. Basically, it takes literary devices such as ironic narration, and turns the tables back on the writer. A kind of ironic re-narration, if you will. It must be made clear that form, diction, archetypes, stereotypes, binary opposites, metaphor, assonance, scansion, allusions of all kinds, and all other literary devices which aren't usually used in small talk at a cocktail party are not required tools for interpretation unless they serve to support the misinterpretation itself. Then they may be used at will.
The beauty of Misinterpretationism is that it can be a useful tool to apply other critical theories to works which might not fit naturally under normal critical guidelines. Under Misinterpretationism, almost any literary work can support almost any critical theory. It will no longer be necessary for certain critical theories to criticize certain works because the works in question can be misinterpreted to support all theories and their preferred slants. Obviously there can be multiple misinterpretations of the same work, but this only shows the ultimate value of the work in its versatility. This ground-breaking theory will eventually bring all opposing theories and their supportive academics together under the single umbrellas of Misinterpretationism, much like Marx's ultimate end-point of Communism, where anarchy will eventuate in peace and harmony among all peoples of the Academy.
Misinterpretationism accepts the notion put forth by Edmund Husserl, the father of modern phenomenology, that consciousness is only a subjective view of the existence of anything in the world. In applying this comprehensibly obscure idea to our purposes, objects, such as poems, for example, cannot be said to be "out there" in the physical world, but rather exist only in our personal consciousnesses. Therefore, if a book of poems is "published," it is not "out there" like, say, the Taj Mahal (which actually doesn't physically exist either, according to Husserl, although he might have changed his mind if he had accidentally driven into the side of it during a thick fog), but is rather only "in here," between the proverbial ears, so to speak. This is the only place a poem or anything can physically exist, so its ownership should be in the hands of those who give it life, and they should be allowed to misinterpret it as they see fit.
For academic purposes, the study of a poem can be substantially less daunting when you understand that it never existed outside your head before. Non-Misinterpretationists often mistakenly think that they are reading the same poem that someone else has read, or that a certain poem by a certain author has been studied for hundreds of years by thousands of people. They are, however, sadly mistaken. Any poem one reads is one's own by virtue of its intrinsically subjective nature, and therefore should be misinterpreted to its fullest and most satisfying potential. If it made Ezra Pound happy to think that Walt Whitman's "Song of Myself" is a poem about the socio-economic gender politics in nineteenth-century fascist thought, far be it for anyone to take the poem away from him. (It should be noted that some examples used to explain this critical method are at least partly conjecture, if not downright misinterpretation of ideas and history.)
Misinterpretationism intends to make literature fun again, at least for the person for whom it was written--the reader. If a writer was writing only for herself, then he should have never published it, or better yet, should have hidden it better. Having neglected these two options, the author has only left it naked and vulnerable for misinterpretation, and the fault of that oversight can only be her/his own.
The pronounal clumsiness of the previous paragraph brings up an interesting point that has not been satisfactorily considered by other critical theories but, nevertheless, merits addressing. The English language is in dire need of a third-person singular neuter pronoun, and Misinterpretationism, in its progressiveness, will take the liberty of assigning one. This word will be "thon," and its possessive form will be "thine." In the future, if a misinterpretationist wishes to refer to a general third-person in the singular form without thine wishing to assign gender, thon shall refer then to thon. I believe the word has Scandinavian origins, but this may be just a linguistic misinterpretation.
With all qualifiers finally in place, I will now illustrate the first known intentional examples of applied Misinterpretation theory. To best illustrate the versatility of Misinterpretationism, I will offer three different agenda-focussed misinterpretations of the same poem, E. E. Cummings' "my sweet old etcetera." The reason I chose Cummings is because his name comes first alphabetically on my list of poets who have two initials instead of a first name, that is, if you ignore W. H. Auden, which I generally prefer to do. Initials are preferable in Misinterpretationism because the poet has already given room for identity misinterpretation prior to consideration of the poetry.
The best approach for any misinterpretationist is
to jump in as quickly and with as little forethought as possible with an unlikely,
stab-in-the-dark interpretive thrust. (For those more interested in actually using the
theory to support their own political or critical ambitions, more forethought can be given
to the misinterpretation in question, although excessive planning is decidedly
discouraged). After that, the only work the misinterpretationist has left to do is justify
thine misinterpretation using the loosest connections, or the most slanted logic that may
present itself. Since I have already alluded to Marx, the first misinterpretation I will
demonstrate will be in support of his theories, or perhaps those of his more
literary-minded followers, who attempt to slant the very literature which he found to be
too immersed in bourgeois decadence to be of any value to fit his political theories.
These theoretically high ideals can be seen in E. E. Cummings' "my sweet old etcetera," which demonstrates the harsh realities of life under a capitalist system wherein even family members are pitted against each other in the pursuit of material excess. The poem opens with a narrator (assumed to be male in this misinterpretation) who is obviously so preoccupied with excess that he used the term etcetera to pad his adjectival description of his Aunt Lucy. He describes her propensity to express her views of the conditions they are struggling through. The term recent war here, of course, represents politics and economics as they are the root of all wars and conflicts of any kind. He goes on to describe his sister and her vocational plight of working in a capitalist factory where she is forced to produce vast quantities of textile goods while an entrepreneur reaps all the economic benefits. The narrator's social relationship with his parents is then described to be hostile and scheming as his mother wishes him dead (albeit honorably) and his father encourages him to pursue work in the disparaging vocational environment but remains willfully unemployed himself. The final description is that of the narrator's introspective view of himself drowning in the mud and corruption of an economic system in which family members have been
assimilated into a system that forces them to
scheme against even each other for personal gain. To try to emotionally escape the
conditions he is drowning in, the last vision the narrator sees, while dying a spiritual
death, is the love and beauty in the object of his affections, who is the addressee of the
There are a number of poetic devices at work in
this poem to favor a Marxist misinterpretation. The main linguistic tool at work in this
poem is Defamiliarization. According to Boris Tomashevsky, the basic principle of
Defamiliarization is "The old and habitual must be spoken of as if it were new and
unusual," and economic oppression is markedly new and unusual in Cummings'
unconventional description of it. The defamiliarization at work comes through first in the
unconventional line and stanza breaks, wherein a fragmented narrative indicates the
fragmentation, or upheaval within the narrator. The main defamiliarization technique,
however, comes through in the content, in the ironic detachedness of the narrator from the
economic system that is drowning him and his ambivalence to the views and circumstances of
his family. The social and economic fallacy becomes so defamiliar by the poem's closure
that it is barely recognizable as the force behind the narrator's plight.
A look into the poem's use of foregrounding also shows the value of this Marxist Misinterpretation. The repetition of the possessive modifier "my" (aunt, sister, parents, etc.) Indicates a self-centeredness on the part of the narrator, a concentration on the self that defines the system that he is suffering within. The frequency of the term "etcetera" and also the poem's unconventional use of the unabbreviated form of the word, indicate excess in terms the length of the word and the superficial and empty description the term conveys. Through the close study of poetic devices and a measure of misinterpretational instinct, "my sweet old etcetera" is proven to be misinterpreted as a moving and powerful statement about the harsh realities of capitalist systems.
As I stated earlier, the true value of a poem to a Misinterpretationist comes through in its versatility, its ability to be misinterpreted to achieve a number of different and contradictory aims. Another critical movement which could be helped dramatically by the flexibility of Misinterpretationism is Feminism. From Kristeva through Spivak, the Feminist critical method has always limited itself by analyzing works from the perspective of a historically oppressed group and attempts to give voice to that group. Kind of like a new "History of the World" videotape with a female narrator. What has been overlooked by Feminists is that that view and voice have always existed in all literature, and the workable misinterpretation is all that need be sought to bring it out. There is really no need to create a new canon to represent the female voice; this voice only needs to be wrought out from the existing canon through Misinterpretationism. This would save Feminists a lot of work, and save the canon from the senseless beatings it endures almost daily.
An example of this potential can be drawn from "my sweet old etcetera" in which a female narrator contemplates a number of perspectives of the female search for identity and the gender war, or recent war, as it is referred to in the poem. The poem basically illustrates the variety of faces of femininity as they react to the age-old battle for identity and equality between the sexes. Firstly, the narrator describes her aunt lucy as being strong and fearless in her convictions about what is behind sexual discrepancies in society. Isabel the narrator's sister, selflessly devotes her time and skill to the health and comfort of peoplekind in general. The interestingly understated relationship between the mother and her daughter (the narrator) is significant in a Feminist Misinterpretation of this poem. All that is said in this relationship is "my mother hoped that I would die (etcetera) bravely," and in terms of a gender war, "die" here means not give up the fight for equality and the search for identity. The simplicity and clarity of this hope is carried out by the narrator as her own perspective has her immersed I the mud or trenches of this cause. The "you" in the poem is the inspiration that has brought the narrator on this search for her deeper female identity, who may be the mother or another teacher who has shown her the historical oppression of her gender. The narrator's father is also portrayed here as a non-actor and empty influence, but this misinterpretation will not concern itself with him as he is well represented in thousands of years of a misogynistic canon.
The best linguistic tool to bring out these different aspects of female personae is parallelism and equivalence which can be seen in the verb clauses in each perspective. Julia Kristeva, the noted Feminist scholar, said that feminine language is semiotic rather than symbolic, and parallelism and equivalence examine what is placed in metrical parallel positions to imply this semantic equivalence in the female voice. Each of these verb clauses illustrates one side of this voice, where the aunt "did tell," the sister "created," the mother "hoped," and the narrator "lay. . . dreaming." Each of these actions represents a female archetype, where the aunt is the "teller," the sister the "creator," the mother the "wisher," and the narrator is the "dreamer" archetype. Each of these identities is both equivalent semantically and important in terms of identity and aspect of all women in all historical periods and cultures. This poem, at least in a Feminist Misinterpretation of it, is important to a development of a feminine-oriented language and canon in terms of the different faces of female archetypes and perspectives in the state of women's issues today.
A final test of the worthiness of "my sweet old etcetera" will be its capacity for Misinterpretation under the agenda of Freudians, whose school of Psychoanalytic Criticism is surprisingly alive and not entirely irrelevant today. Psychoanalytic Criticism concentrates on the dreams and unconscious desires of Sigmund Freud, who developed a language to describe them, a model to explain them, and a theory to encompass them. He called this theory human psychology, and perhaps some of us share some of these dreams and unconscious desires with hm, but probably not to the extent that he said we do. As a theory of human behavior, most Misinterpretationists and most people recognize Psychoanalytic theory as generally bunk, but as a means to make literature interesting, this theory is an inspiration for the very practice of Misinterpretationism. Freud's abstract theories lend themselves well to small m misinterpretation, and therefore the jump to capital M Misinterpretationism is not much of a leap at all.
In regard to "my sweet old etcetera," a Psychoanalytic Misinterpretation has the narrator, who is necessarily male as men seem to be the only gender Freud was capable of sensically posturing about, engaged in the war all children go through in coming to terms with their sexuality. This war is fought mostly on the family battleground, and thus, the perspectives of several family members are significant in the narrator's battle toward sexual awakening. Aunt lucy represents the Superego-dominated perspective in which society's values dominate her Ego and repress the unconscious desires of her Id. She is prone to, in the eyes of the narrator, officiously putting forth her views, which indicates that she is probably only rehashing society's popular view and this explains the narrator's apparent annoyance. Isabel represents the will for chastity, as she creates socks and fleaproof earwarmers, objects for protection and cleanliness. There is a hint of sexual desire, however, in her compulsion to knit hundreds of socks, which are phallic symbols, and represent condoms for the feet and therefore indicate a fear of pregnancy. The narrator's mother hoping he will die sexually represents the Oedipal nightmare, wherein the narrator's desires for his mother are not only thwarted, but entirely obliterated by her wish that he become a eunuch. This Oedipal nightmare is heightened by the father, a young man's natural competitor, who urges his son towards this sexual death and even calls it a privilege. The narrator, unsurprisingly, is left lying in the deep mud of sexual awareness, vainly dreaming of the object of his sexual fantasies.
In Psychoanalytical terms, symbols are the main medium of interpretation, and this works likewise for Psychoanalytic Misinterpretation. I will not linger on all potential symbols, but will concentrate on only the most significant. The deep mud, in Psychoanalytical terms, represents a combination of dirt, or impurity, and water, which usually represents sex in Freudian terms. The narrator is therefore wallowing in symbolically impure sex at the end of the poem, having reached sexual awakening with the help of his family.
The other important symbol in this poem is the term "etcetera," which is repeated throughout the poem to modify adjectives, verbs, and even noun lists. The term "etcetera," clearly represents the Id of the narrator, his unconscious desires which remain difficult for conjecture until the last instance, which reads "dreaming. . . of Your smile/ eyes knees and your Etcetera." This sexual innuendo as closure of the poem clearly indicates that the narrator has successfully won the war of sexual awakening and is prepared for manhood, which presumably consists of sitting around, recollecting dreams and analyzing their symbolic significance in Freudian terms. Regardless, these valuable insights into the nature of sexual awakening are evidence of the vast possibilities of Psychoanalytic Misinterpretation.
As is evident from this array of misinterpretations from a single poem, this field is versatile enough that it should become a major force in critical theory. By marrying this method with other critical guidelines, the possibility of expanding meaning within the canon without actually having to expand the canon itself presents itself like never before int he history of literature.
Misinterpretationism interests me a great deal, being so totally opposed to this kind of abstract reading that it is verging on a true abstraction for the first time in the history of literary theory. Misinterpretationism intends to give literature back to the reader, who was the one who paid for it in the first place, unless it was borrowed or taken out of the library, in which case perhaps a different literary theory should be applied to the work in question. For owners of their own literature, however, this ground-breaking, new way to look at interpretation should prove to be the death of literature as we know it, and the birth of something newer, better, and ultimately more obtuse.