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Stanford Report, October 8, 2003

Vantage Point: Saying and meaning: A plea for the humanities at Stanford


I'm glad to see President Hennessy enjoys the same books I do. Dr. Seuss's Horton Hatches the Egg was one of my favorite stories as a child (second only to Bartholomew and the Oobleck), and a recent issue of Stanford Report notes that this book provides President Hennessy with some of his best guides to living ("In Print" column, Sept. 10). "I meant what I said, and I said what I meant." That's Horton's claim, and Hennessy's as well. The statement implies that integrity and honesty (two words that Hennessy had used in his interpretation of this passage) stem from meaning what you say and saying what you mean: that there should be no gap between expression and intention. Anything short of that is duplicity.

As a critic and teacher of literature, however, I can think of few who really mean what they say and say what they mean. Great literary characters are fascinating precisely when they revel in the gap between intention and expression. Take, for example, Chaucer's Pardoner, who freely admits that his intention (his "entente" in Chaucer's language) is exactly not to say what he means -- his role is to seduce, beguile, and ultimately cheat. Or look at Hamlet, who spends most of Shakespeare's play obsessed with the fact that nobody around him seems to say what they mean or mean what they say: to the point where Hamlet himself questions his own ability to express himself clearly. Great love poetry lives in the space between saying and meaning: in that fragile world where we are always unsure what the lover meant to say, where we are always afraid of whether our words have been taken amiss. "That's not what I meant" -- a litany in every marriage. Consider, too, the novels of the 19th century, great studies of society in which the hero or the heroine must decipher the coded language of the culture. In Great Expectations, for example, Pip confides his love of Estella to his friend Herbert. Here is the interchange:

"Herbert," said I, laying my hand upon his knee, "I love -- I adore -- Estella."

Instead of being transfixed, Herbert replied in an easy
matter-of-course way, "Exactly. Well?"

"Well, Herbert? Is that all you say? Well?"

"What next, I mean?" said Herbert. "Of course I know that."

"How do you know it?" said I.

"How do I know it? Why, from you."

"I never told you."

"Told me! You have never told me when you have got your hair cut, but I have had the senses to perceive it. You have always adored her, ever since I have known you. ... Told me! Why, you may have always told me all day long."

We always convey meanings we have never meant, and, it seems, always find ourselves surprised when others know more of our utterances than we do ourselves.

The humanities exists as a discipline designed to understand that gap between saying and meaning. It looks at works of creative expression to illustrate just how an author's words may get away from him or her, or how, within a fiction, characters reveal themselves by their mistakes, their slips, their lies. Reading works of literature, whether they be by Dr. Seuss or Dickens, shows us for all we may aspire to express ourselves, things don't come out as we would like (Horton may be faithful 100 percent, but he is only an elephant; the statistics on people may be somewhat lower). But this is what is fascinating about literature, and so central to its study. What this passage from Great Expectations teaches, at one level, is that human relationships demand a subtle form of reading -- that we all may find ourselves misread by others or, in spite of ourselves, find those things we wish hidden brought out in the open. In spite of my best efforts, I remain an open book.

But Dickens' passage here says something about books, too. It tells us that authors may be hiding things from us, that we need to be close, attentive readers to what characters may do and say, or what writers may put down on paper (or, these days, on screen). I've had the joy of teaching books to students who would ask, incredulously, and much like Pip, just how I know something about a book or can make claims about its meaning. The book never told us explicitly. "How do you know it?" "I have had the senses to perceive it." My job is to heighten the senses of my students, to get them to perceive what books are telling us, if only we can read them closely.

We should not measure the humanities by standards of exactitude. The play of literature, the provocations of art, the teasings of philosophy all ask what may well be unanswerable questions. In fact, the philosopher Stanley Cavell asked such a question over 30 years ago, in the title of his landmark book, Must We Mean What We Say? Writing about the study of language and communication, Cavell notes, "It is exactly because the language which contains a culture changes with the changes of that culture that philosophical awareness of ordinary language is illuminating; it is that which explains how the language we traverse every day can contain undiscovered treasure."

The humanist seeks out the undiscovered treasures in the everyday. He or she reads (and rereads) literature, looks, and looks again, at paintings, sculptures, buildings, arguments, events in order to see how the world has changed around the artifact or the experience, and also to see how those artifacts and experiences change the world. What we say one day may have different meaning in the future. So, too, the words of a work of literature -- whatever the author may have meant by writing them -- take on different layers of meaning over time. Generations of readers bring different interpretations to texts. Teachers teach them, students read them, and the history of a work's reception accretes over it like the lustrous patina films a sculpted bronze. We look at statues, aged and worn, sometimes in fragments, and find beauty. Was this what the artist meant to say? The thrill lies not just in finding out; it lies in knowing that the journey to that finding out (scholarship, criticism, teaching, research) is a journey, full of byways, dead ends and forgotten pathways. But who knows? Along that path we may find undiscovered treasure.

So, let us revel in our ambiguity. Let's not, of course, abandon integrity and honesty. But let us recognize that in the fissures that erupt between a meaning and a saying may lie the most fascinating landscapes of them all.

But then again, I may not have really said what I meant.

Seth Lerer, the Avalon Foundation Professor in Humanities, holds appointments in the English and Comparative Literature departments.


Seth Lerer