Monday, October 22, 2007

Monday Thoughts: The Authority of the Reader: Dumbledore as Case Study

J. K. Rowling revealed over the weekend that, in fact, Albus Dumbledore of the Harry Potter series was gay (he's killed in the sixth book, I understand, although he apparently makes a cameo to Harry when he briefly dies in the seventh :-). The trigger for this revelation came when she had them remove from the next movie an allusion to a girl he had once liked. Rowling informed the screenplay writer that Dumbledore would not have had such a crush because he is gay.

What a great opportunity to discuss hermeneutics (I can bring just about anything back to the subject)! To what extent does the author of these books have the authority to tell us things that she has not made clear already in the books? They are, as she tells us, already a "closed canon." That is to say, she will not be writing any more books in the series. Can she then make the texts mean something that they do not clearly mean?

The names that should spring to mind are of course Paul Ricoeur and Stanley Fish. For Ricoeur, once a text has been uttered, its author loses control over its meaning. It becomes, in a sense, autonomous. Nevertheless, Ricoeur did believe that the "world of the text" accommodated certain interpretations better than others.

For Fish, even the text cannot hold control over its own meaning. Texts mean whatever the communities that read them want them to mean.

So we return to the original question, Does Rowling have the power to control the meaning of her uttered texts? According to Vanhoozer, there is an "ethics of meaning" that requires us to listen to the author's intent. But somehow with art, with novels, paintings, sculptures, architecture, the piece itself seems to trancend such earthly moorings. The brilliance of art is that the viewer can make it after her own image.

So some reading communities of Potter will no doubt be glad to adopt Rowling's "interpretation" of one of her characters--indeed had done so before her announcement. But the character of Dumbledore in the text of Harry Potter winks at us and refuses to tell us. Indeed, Rowling herself cannot make him tell of his sexuality. It is his secret--he is free to be whatever he wants to be.


Michael R. Cline said...

In class the other day, the role of the author after having "released the text" came up. In some sense, Rawling now becomes an interpreter as part of the larger community, helping us interpret her writing. But every new act of communication, be it writing or speech, is a new act requiring acceptance and interpreting as well. But through these new acts, she can come alongside us and help us with her original composition.

Luckily, she's alive to help us.

With the Biblical authors...not so much. And with the anonymous nature of many of them, it wouldn't help anyway.

I was wondering if you have any thoughts on Ben Meyer's (sp?) "critical realism" stuff. I think he would basically say that we can interpret Dumbledore as gay via Rawling's intention only if she successfully "embodied" this intention within the text. If she did not, then we will mistakingly conclude that he was straight with a crush, and it is no longer up to here (she has "released it.")

The the author plays a huge role in making sure s/he "successfully embodies" the right intention. In this case, it falls back on Rawlings if she screwed up. But the reader is not to blame for alternative readings.

James F. McGrath said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
James F. McGrath said...

There's an interesting piece using the same example in relation to the Constitution and the framers' intent.

Scott Hendricks said...

Heath Jones and I talked about this over lunch today. He said,
"I'd like to know what Schenck would have to say on this topic and hermenuetics."

Martin LaBar said...

Oh, you practitioners of hermeneutics! It comes up everywhere.