The Best of Fallacious Intentions


When I was 19 I worked in a metal pressing factory. Unsurprisingly each shift was numbingly repetitive and so to stave off pesky Marxist anomie I exchanged non-metallurgically themed anecdotes with my workmate.

He was a mediaeval longbow instructor with a passion for pranic meditation and lateral thinking; one morning, as I was passing him metal box after metal box to be stacked and wrapped, he told me this brainteaser which you may already know: a man is found dead in a telephone kiosk (this was in a time when the term ‘cell-phone’ had a ring only of prison-based privilege about it) and the windows on either side of him are broken.

The phone is off the hook and the man’s wrists are bleeding. Question – how did he die? I had until morning break to work out the answer, which was that our unfortunate man was an angler who had caught such a large fish he couldn’t wait to tell his friends about it…

My workmate refused to believe I cracked the story and reckoned I had called a friend for the answer during the break. He was partly right. As it was indeed an old puzzle I had heard it somewhere else years before. I didn’t tell him that, though.

Such teasers as these require an almost forensic rigour in working out the likeliest beginning to a perplexing ending. Inference to the best explanation, (technically called ‘abduction’), is the name of the game with crime scenes and brainteasers alike. And the winning inference, brought to bear upon complex scenarios, can impress us immensely.

Is the same trick possible in reverse (or should that be forwards)? Edgar Allan Poe is said to have predicted the plot of Charles Dickens’ Barnaby Rudge after reading only the first few chapters, such was his knowledge of literary form. Dickens was understandably amazed at Poe’s insight. Stories, though structured, tend to wend their fictitious ways through uncharted personal territory, and their denouements may surprise not only ourselves as readers, but also ourselves as writers.

In literature circles the term ‘intentional fallacy’ defines this unpredictable property of narration. It implies that writers and readers alike can lay equal claim to exposing deeper meanings of a story, independently of what the writer initially intended. Is this is a tenable position? Surely if I’m planning a novel I know exactly what I want to say, and how I’m going to say it. And if its events subsequently don’t go according to plan my original intention is still truest to the plot as it unfolds, isn’t it? Who else could be held to account?

In the abhorrent vacuum left by Roland Barthes’ ‘death of the author’ and Jacques Derrida’s ‘nothing’ outside of the text there sits the ‘implied author’, a narrative voice that relates only to the story it tells. It can become as much a fictional creation as the world and people it describes. Interpreting it properly requires that we justify our insight into its consistency with selections from the text itself.

This approach is nothing new to undergraduate students of literature but may seem a strange way to read a book to anyone outside the esoteric realm of literary theory. The fictional narrator now becomes subject to various modes of inquiry: we may plumb the depth of his or her imagery, syntax, and structure according to principles of psychology, linguistics, or philosophy of language. We may find threads of pathology (think of Poe’s tortured characters in light of his tortured life) and argue a for a clearer link between the tale and the teller – for a certain degree of fit between the virtual writer and the real one.

We may question contemporary attitudes towards sex, gender, class, or religion and back up our findings with relevant citations. All these available analyses follow from the premise of the intentional fallacy, as it posits the purpose-thwarting influence of subjective and external forces during the writer’s wakeful watch.

In postmodernist thought an intention is deemed too slippery for writers to control and readers to spot directly. The link between a word and its speaker (or its reader) is considered too fluid – subjectively and derivatively – to pin down absolutely. This is not so mysterious a state of affairs when we realise that stories have always worked this way. Haven’t we heard it said that there are no more original plots, just new versions of familiar themes?

Perhaps we kid ourselves if we believe that things were once different; that generations ago our great ancestors had the best time of it fiction-wise, hearing and telling stories for the first time and revelling in an originality we can barely imagine.

Which came first – the story or its teller? Treated separately the former is nonsense while the latter implies a generational mutation that implausibly outstrips the speed of evolution. Taken together, we find ourselves creating new concepts to explain new problems: this author isn’t dead but that’s neither here nor there; that author’s work is hers alone but it doesn’t completely belong to her any more than it completely belongs to her culture. Intentional fallacy and the implied author are the problem and solution, respectively.

The validity of these concepts and their implications is for you alone to decide. Edgar Allan Poe feared being buried alive and this fear certainly inspired the story The Premature Burial. He also had a passion for cryptograms (The Gold Bug) and unsolved crimes (The Mystery Of Marie Roget is based on the murder of Mary Rogers in New York,1841, which Poe himself tried unsuccessfully to solve).

However, to the best of my knowledge, he never dismembered and buried a corpse beneath floorboards – only to drive himself further insane by the beating of its ‘hideous heart’ (The Tell-Tale Heart). Nor did he abuse and hang a cat before walling up his dead wife in a cellar (The Black Cat). Poe’s implied narrator is as much a mix of fact and fiction as he was himself, as all writers are.

My workmate and I strove to pass many noisy and dreary hours in the factory, swapping our own strange tales and fiendish conundrums. To all intents and purposes we succeeded. We may have embellished a little, bent the truth along with the metal, but that’s how the storyteller in all of us works. For my part, I meant well.

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