05 March 2004

Interpretation and Overinterpretation

The function of criticism, if it has a legitimate function at all, can only be one function -- that of dealing with the subconscious part of the author's mind which only the critic can express, and not with the conscious part of the author's mind, which the author himself can express. Either criticism is no good at all (a very defensible position) or else criticism means saying about an author the very things that would have made him jump out of his boots.

--G.K. Chesterton
I've annoyed Mervius over at Fantastica Daily with a parenthetical remark in my "Stories of Sex and Identity" post, one which Cheryl Morgan called attention to. Here it is for reference:
...the Lord of the Rings movies are intensely homoerotic -- celebrating the fellowship of men seeking to destroy what looks to me like a giant flaming vagina in Mordor, one worshipped by an apparently all-male society of trolls and orcs and other warnings against steroids.
(I'm not addressing here the quote's relationship to what I wrote around it, since I wrote it quickly and, on reflection, it seems to be a non sequitur.)

Mervius first expressed annoyance in the comments to the post, and I responded briefly, but the comments don't allow enough space for the development of any ideas. I was going to move on, thinking that I didn't want to make a big deal out of a tongue-in-cheek pronouncement coddled by parentheses, but there are serious issues here, some of which Mervius raises in his recent post at Fantastica:
Was there some sort of homosexual agenda on the part of J.R.R. Tolkien, to sneak homosexuality into a larger, unsuspecting audience? Or can the contention be that Tolkien didn't know that he was a closet homosexual, that his repressed feelings only came out, in his writings, subconsciously? Or that readers, in being fans of the work, are clearly exhibiting homosexual tendencies? Short of those three suggestions, which I can't imagine standing up, I don't know what the actual point can be. Yes, perhaps it's a fun exercise to identify metaphors in literature, but isn't it an inherent tendency of the human mind to find patterns where there is in fact no actual intent? Suppose you show me a Rorschach ink blot test, and I tell you I see a tall man walking away. Do we conclude that (for instance) I have father abandonment issues, or do we make that giant leap and suggest that the "artist" of that ink blot clearly had father abandonment issues? Without admitted or mysterious intent on the part of the artist, I think that such interpretations are likely to say more about the interpreter/viewer than about the artist himself. I suspect that if you gave The Lord of the Rings to two different groups of people and asked them to identify (in one group) homosexual metaphors and (in the other group) heterosexual metaphors, you'd wind up with large arguments for both sides. And I think that invalidates the whole issue. As they say, sometimes a sword is just a sword. A doughnut can be just a doughnut. The identification of metaphors in a work of fiction seems more likely to say something about he who is doing the identifying than about he who created the work.
Much of what Mervius writes is true, or at least true as far as it goes. One problem here is an old one, known since at least the middle of the 20th century as the intentional fallacy (summarized here). When interpreting any text, it is dangerous to assume knowledge of the author's intention, and in truth it is irrelevant except for biographical speculations. The text has got to be able to communicate on its own. If it can't, then the author's intentions don't matter, and if the text does succeed at communicating, then the author's intentions will be embedded in the text itself and so any discussion of "what the author intended" is useless -- the text's structure(s) and system(s) will speak for themselves.

So, just to get it out there: No, I wasn't saying Tolkien or Jackson are or were homosexual, had homosexual desires, whatever. If they did, great; if they didn't, so it goes. Once a work is created and submitted to an audience, the creator of the work doesn't matter very much (unless, of course, they intend on revision). Biographers may be interested in how and why an author wrote something, or the particular cultural and social influences on the author's psyche, but for interpretation to be meaningful, it needs to stick to evidence outside the author.

A small distinction I want to maintain is between homosexual and homoerotic -- it's the distinction between an act and a desire. To say that Lord of the Rings is "intensely homoerotic" is not to say it is "intensely homosexual". The latter is, I think, clearly untrue; the former has as much to do with the audience as with the creators of the imagery and situations to which I referred.

Consider, for instance, the following two short notes from reviewers polled by The Village Voice and labelled "Return of the Queens":
In The Return of the King, a passionate, deeply committed, borderline-erotic male bond reaches apotheosis through the annihilation of an oppressive ring. NATHAN LEE

...with its final installment, The Lord of the Rings proves itself the gayest film in history, capped by the Frodo-Sam (forehead) kiss and the boat ride into the sunset--wait, that's the ending of Querelle! MARK PERANSON
Or, perhaps we should look at The Gay Guide to Middle Earth (created by The Advocate). And what about this:
Still early on, when Frodo and his sidekicks from the shire go into an inn where they are supposed to meet Gandalf, they find the place filled with leering, bearded older males, like a  lecherous motorcycle gang out in search of hot boy ass. A later episode in which Boromir (Sean Bean) and Frodo are alone together in the woods and Boromir tries to take the ring from the boy has equally obvious connotations of sexual assault when the older male approaches the younger seductively and then attacks him after Frodo proves wary of his intentions. But what attracts him more, taking the ring or the boy's cherry?
Tolkien's rolling in his grave, I'm sure, and I haven't any idea how Peter Jackson would react to such a viewing of his films, though somehow I doubt he would say, "Wow! They get exactly what I was going for!"

Does that invalidate such an interpretation of how various elements of the films work? Mervius and other viewers -- perhaps most -- would probably say yes: no symbolism where none intended. For me, it's more complex, not only because I often look at books and films (and advertisements and TV shows and...) from a point of view that is interested in sexuality, gender, and their incarnations in culture and society, but because I tend to find literal interpretations of anything dull and useless. A sword is never just a sword -- it is a tool, a weapon, a status symbol, an icon, a historical marker, and sometimes even a symbol of masculine potency. It may function within a text as only one of those things (or none of them), but that doesn't mean it is therefore stripped of any other meaning.

The fact that no interpretation can completely wipe away is that Middle Earth as it is depicted in the films is almost exclusively a place of men and for men. If you say that this doesn't matter, then you are choosing to accept the exclusivity as rational or justifiable, which is, of course, your right.

As for me, I couldn't help being amused by the final scene of Return of the King, where the book's resolution of Merry and Pippin's story was neglected, and I was left to happily imagine them running back to the shire where they might finally, after all those journeys and adventures, consummate their relationship.