While listening to Conrad’s ‘Typhoon’, the other day, I found myself getting quite annoyed by the carefully placed ‘subtexts’ of the story. I used to view all literature as a puzzle to be solved, and gradually worked up to more and more cryptic puzzles. T.S. Eliot’s ‘Wasteland’ was an early favourite, with all of its hints and references. I should be grateful – it got me into the source material that Eliot drew from. The problem was, I started preferring the source material to the ‘more compex’ works sitting on their shoulders.
Take Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey. Forget how these works are dressed up in ‘culture’: they are great romping tales of adventure, love, war, death, tragedy, comedy, the whole rich tapestry of life. All the author was trying to do was tell a story that entertained his readers (or as was most likely the case, his listeners), even though they knew the plot backwards, having heard it since childhood. The fact that these works are still read and loved 25-odd centuries later suggest that he was on to something.
But, to a modern author, it is not enough to let me find my own meaning in a story: he has made a secret meaning for me to tease out, which, with enough background research, I might just arrive at.
I could forgive this, in fact, I enjoyed it, until I read the poetry of Sappho, a contemporary of Homer’s, whose fragments of poetry has retained a power like dynamite, and is as easy to read as it is to understand:
“Some say that the fairest thing upon the dark earth
is a host of horsemen, and some say a host of foot soldiers,
and others again a fleet of ships,
but for me, it is the one I love most.”
The elitists will try to make stories as difficult and forbidding as befits a desire to keep the best for oneself. The greatest authors wrote for everyone (Shakespeare, Dickens, Chaucer, Homer etc etc), and took pains that they be understood by their audience. To willfully mislead them seems perverse. And, being a human, I consider myself a ‘meaning finding machine’ – we even find familiar faces in tortillas – and can be trusted to draw my own meanings from what I read.