Original Intent

One of the most frequent questions that come up in introduction to literature classes is from students who want to know “what the author really meant.” Even in cases where an author has explicitly articulated what he or she intended by a piece of creative writing, the answer is complicated. Creative works of all kinds matter as art and expressive forms only insofar as they interact with someone beyond the creator … in literature with readers, in visual arts with viewers, in music with listeners and so on. Thus, as soon as a piece of creativity escapes from the artist’s or writer’s hands, “meaning” can become a pretty fraught term, since artists and creators and writers are - by making their work public - effectively inviting people to make a meaning of their own (Thus “Redemption Draweth Nigh,” for example, might primarily mean the promise of eternal salvation to you, but to someone else it might mean the hope of forgiveness for a troubled past). I always tell my students that the presence or absence of an “explanation” by an author (many creative types specifically refuse to “explain” themselves, a rule I think I’d adopt if I were creative) has to be part of one’s interpretation of a work, but it by no means precludes or necessarily limits the range of potential meanings that proceed from responsible interpretation of a given piece of art.Of course this is where it gets tricky, since at this point someone’s hand invariably goes up: “So it means anything or nothing? It’s all relative? It’s like a Rorschach test and stuff, right?” Well, no, it’s none of those things exactly. Remember I said responsible interpretation. That a range of possible meanings may exist does not mean any ole meaning is equivalent to the next. The privilege of reading, viewing and listening to art comes with the attendant obligation that we be responsible readers, viewers and listeners - in short, responsible interpreters. So while we may differ on the meaning or significance of The Great Gatsby or argue about the point of a Jackson Pollack painting or disagree about the locus of psycho-spiritual force in “I Will Find You Again” (I mention this song because it’s one of the more psychologically rich and textured pieces to come out of sg in a while, though LordSong’s “Wandering Heart” could easily top the list too) - that is, though there may be various legitimate interpretations of the same piece of art from equally serious interpreters - this doesn’t mean the interpretative possibilities are unlimited. “Wandering Heart” may mean Christ receives sinful men; it may mean journeys of faith are about the process of spiritual discovery and not about some fixed but elusively unknowable destination; it may even be about the creative impulse to discover redemptive beauty in the process of musical creation itself (that instrumental interlude certainly lends itself to this interpretation) - it may be something else alongside these possibilities … but it probably isn’t about, say, geothermal physics or the rising crime rate in certain urban areas, or a creative lament on the migratory patterns of Canadian geese (though this last one sounds like something a freshman comp student might turn into me).

This all comes to mind, I should say, by way of a circuitous and mildly disturbing path. A reader sent me a link to a whacked out discussion board dominated by, among others, someone going by the handle Larry Petree. From the looks of things, this may be the same Larry Petree who has written several sg hits (”Lazarus Come Forth,” “Still Drinking Water from the Well,” ‘Ever Since That Wonderful Day”) for a lot of big name groups (the Cats, The Crabbs, the Hoppers, GVB). In any event, there are some real gems of crackpot pontificating and general inadvertent hilarity on this site (some of my favorites are here, here, here, and here), but my favorite line written under a post by the name Larry Petree is “Sticks and stones my hurt my bones, but you are an idiot and all alone.” Oh my. We’re a long way away from “Ever Since that Wonderful Day.”

If this isn’t the same Larry Petree of sg fame (or is it infamy?), thank God. If it is, that’s too bad - certainly for me anyway. I mean, it would be disappointing to find out the guy capable of creating “I’m Gonna Move” thinks Rebecca St. James is “pure evil” and that “Amy Grant, Michael W. Smith, … and several other false prophets” are “demonic worship leaders.” Leave aside the possibility that, if it turned out to be true that Larry Petree the Pontificator (LPP) and Larry Petree the Songwriter (LPS) are one and the same, this kinda thing would not reflect well on sg (leave this aside, not least of all because the sad truth probably is an LPS/LPP convergence would probably not so much hurt sg’s image as reinforce the one already solidifying). What really interests me about all this was my own response to the possibility that LPS and LPP are the same person. Because despite my alleged knowingness about the separation of art and artist, my first reaction was a naïve but I think very real and common mixture of sadness and anger: at some level, I still want to believe writers and performers and artists of my favorite music (or authors of my favorite books) wanted me to have (hoped they would elicit) the very reaction their work inspires in me. The LPS/LPP business reminds me that’s probably not always true.

A while back I remember reading something a pretty famous sg songwriter had written. She said something like, “had the artists who sang my song to No. 1 had any idea of my true motivation for writing the tune, they’d be appalled” (this could have just as easily described many people’s reaction to discovering that Marsha Stevens wrote “For Those Tears I Died”). I think one thing that keeps me coming back to southern gospel, lets me mostly laugh off the likes of a LPP, is that the best art, the finest expressions of faith, the most moving testaments of religious experience can (indeed, they must, if they are to have an effect) break free from the context and confines of their creator and take on an independent life of vitality that transcends the limitations of “intent.” So rave on Larry Petree, whoever you are. I won’t hold it against the music.

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