Lost or distorted messages: A literary malady (Column: Bookends)

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The human capacity for perverse contrariness or, at best, a different perspective, is quite immense. And suffering most from it are writers, who must not only hope their work appeals to the public but also that their message gets understood. But responses to popular works of authors spanning Shakespeare to J.K. Rowling prove the latter may to be too much to wish for.

Take Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet”. For centuries it has been read as the tragic story of young lovers separated by a cruel and insensitive world but ultimately proving that love conquers all — and adapted in this sentiment in a range of different settings.

But is it not actually about how young love can be immature, selfish and lethal? Romeo and Juliet manage to create havoc for everyone around — fatally for Mercutio, Tybalt and Prince Paris, at the very least. Their only accomplishment — peace between their feuding families — is achieved by their dying (in a way that shows well their sense, or lack thereof).

Lucifer/Satan in John Milton’s “Paradise Lost”, is not the hero but still many deem him so, expressing sympathy and even admiration for his rebellious streak. Miguel Cervantes’ “Don Quixote” was meant to make fun of the romantic image of feudal chivalry but somehow struck a chord with some idealists, while the vicious satire on man and his civilisation that is Jonathan Swift’s “Gulliver’s Travels” survives — in a much abridged form — as a children’s fairytale.

Rowling herself has expressed amazement why Severus Snape, Draco Malfoy, or even, for that matter, Tom Riddle, have turned out to be as popular as heroic figures in the Harry Potter saga. She has also admitted being disturbed at the rabidly violent Bellatrix Lestrange being seen as pro-feminist and her defeat by housewife Molly Weasley being termed misogyny.

This phenomenon is what the irrepressible and invaluable TV tropes portal terms “Misaimed Fandom”, or the phenomenon where evil figures evoke sympathy and even admiration instead of loathing, where many readers fail to appreciate what they are reading is a satire and pay more attention to the author’s text than the sentiment, miss the point entirely or (mis) use it as a prop for their own dogmatic beliefs.

There can be many reasons for this, but quite a few may stem from the mid-20th century literary concept of “Death of the Author” — or that readers can interpret a work in whatever way they might want, despite its creator’s intentions.

But while a case can be made out for any reader who wants to interpret something in the way he/she wants, it may not follow that they are right. They may be finding something that isn’t there, not looking hard enough, misreading the text (which might skew their interpretation) or might not care at all.

On the other hand, the writers’ intent might not be the only valid interpretation, but should not be dismissed entirely — after all, they are the ones who have thought of it and got it published. But they cannot escape blame for they might not be that good at their craft and have communicated their message poorly, or too well camouflaged.

An alternative interpretation may do some good — American socialist writer Upton Sinclair’s “The Jungle” (1906), about the travails of a family of Lithuanian immigrants in the US, was meant to depict the plight of industrial workers. But his disturbingly graphic account of the meat industry led to a body and law to check food quality and address some workers’ safety issues.

The eponymous character in Bram Stoker’s “Dracula” was meant to be to be irredeemably evil, but his onscreen depiction made vampires into sex symbols, while Frederick Forsyth’s assassin in “The Day of the Jackal”, though represented as a mercenary sociopath, was treated by many readers as the hero, rather than the villain.

Nazi Germany made extensive use of Friedrich Nietzsche’s writings, particularly his idea of the “Superman”, to buttress their social and racial tenets, conveniently ignoring his stress on Superman as a goal for individuals and not the “Aryan race”. He also hated anti-Semitism, pan-Germanism and was not a fan of nationalism. The culprit here was his sister who tampered with his writings.

And then George Orwell’s seminal “1984”, despite certain superficial traits, is not merely an attack on Stalinism or Communism or even Leftist politics but against totalitarian trends in general, the rewriting of history for political ends and diverting attention of the common people through consumerism and sensationalism.

Jane Austen, Mark Twain, Robert Frost, Anthony Burgess (“A Clockwork Orange”), Vladimir Nabokov (“Lolita”), J.R.R. Tolkien, and many more have also fallen prey to this trend.

What can be done? If you consider how despite many religious texts preaching peace, kindness and forgiveness, humans have abused, tortured, or slaughtered each other in the name of their faith, then literary misreadings do not seem to be much of a problem. But sometimes, important messages get lost.

(Vikas Datta is an Associate Editor at IANS. The views expressed are personal. He can be contacted at [email protected])

–IANS

vd/sac

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