All literary works are anonymous, but some are more anonymous than others. It is in the nature of a piece of writing that it is able to stand free of its begetter, and can dispense with his or her physical presence. In this sense, writing is more like an adolescent than a toddler. I might pass you a note at a meeting, but a note is only a note if it can function in my absence. Writing, unlike speech, is meaning that has come adrift from its source. Some bits of writing - theatre tickets or notes to the milkman, for example - are more closely tied to their original contexts than Paradise Lost or War and Peace. Fiction (since it is imaginary) has no real-life original context at all, and hermeneutically speaking can therefore circulate a lot more freely than a shopping list or a bus ticket. Literary works are peculiarly portable. They can be lifted from one interpretative situation to another, and may change their meaning in the course of this migration. Waiting for Godot as performed in San Quentin prison is not quite the same play as Peter Hall's first London production. We cannot simply put Auschwitz out of our minds while watching The Merchant of Venice. Writerly meaning does not always trump readerly meaning. Walter Benjamin believed that works of literature secreted certain meanings which might be released only in their afterlife, as they came to be read in as yet unforeseeable situations. He thought much the same about history in general. The past itself is alterable, since the future casts it in a new light. Whether John Milton belonged to a species which ended up destroying itself is up to us and our progeny. The future possibilities of Hamlet are part of the play's meaning, even though they may never be realised. One of the finest English novels, Samuel Richardson's 18th-century masterpiece Clarissa, became newly readable in the light of the 20th-century women's movement.
LRB 22 May 2008 | PDF Download