To what extent can you ‘understand’ an author through their work?
Of course, understanding someone in general is not a robotic back-and-forth or a multiple-choice questionnaire. What people tell you about themselves is not to be considered accurate information.
It is better to apply the process we apply to all evidence – consider the context. What do they want you to know? Who are you? What is the context of your meeting? Do they have future expectations of you? Do they perhaps want something? Everything someone says about themselves should be subject to these questions.
I keep Michel de Montaigne’s essays on my bedside table and read bits every so often. Montaigne’s essays are called – by him – an investigation of himself. But they’re not a self-summary. They’re not a robotic list of personal preferences. They’re an amalgamation of his thoughts on various topics. We learn just as much about Montaigne from what he chooses to talk about than his specific thoughts on the subject. A lot of the book is supported by and based on quotations from classical authors – Montaigne could read and write proficient Latin – and to top that classical education off he’d also lived through quite a bit before shutting himself up in his tower.
The result is what Nassim Taleb calls more a companion than a book, a document so universal in its application that it’s survived hundreds of years and is very likely to survive thousands more excepting the possibility of planetary nuclear destruction.
The danger that I’m sure some readers will see coming: the possibility that making assumptions is merely projection, that any traits you decide to apply to others, based on the uncertain premise that one statement they make defines them. This can be avoided with two moves: Collecting enough information (as we have in the case of Montaigne, over a thousand pages of his inner world put to immortal paper) and not assuming that the clues we do have are anything more than minuscule introductory clues that reveal next to nothing about a person’s character.
Any form of written expression carries an idea of the writer, and it’s possible for this to be the case even if the sample of writing is only three words long. Of course, such a tiny sample won’t reveal much if anything, but it won’t reveal nothing, which is my point. Word choice and order tell you what they want you to know – and this is the mistake many people make with primary sources.
Words won’t tell you what you want to know no matter what they say unless you ask the right question. They only say what the author wants you to know. Or what they want you to think that they want you to know. And so on. Excessive self-awareness can be dangerous – look at what happened to David Foster Wallace, and look also at his writing style, especially in stories like ‘Good Old Neon’ or ‘The Depressed Person.’ There’s something ridiculous about how candid he is, and how much it obviously pained the man to, well, live. But because of the context he wrote in – and he acknowledges this himself – his works were in real danger of being seen as some meta-textual ironic experiment instead of real confessions. When I use the phrase ‘David Foster Wallace speaks to us’ I don’t mean it in the same inconclusive, analytical, insubstantial manner that I would normally balk at using when discussing other writers. I don’t mean he’s constructed a clever metaphor to discuss a social issue or his own personal dilemma. I mean he’s literally speaking to every possible reader directly, casting aside the thick veil of the novel form as it was stitched by Rousseau in the Letters of Heloise and Abelard and being entirely transparent.
That ‘thick veil’ is a natural side effect of written work, which, being an abstraction of human speech, is a layer of removal from human connection. What I just said may seem pretentious or even ridiculous, but realise the difference between personal conversation and email and you’ll see what I mean. Any prepared conversation is obviously like this.
Imagine a heavy, voluminous velvet curtain. What a good author does is lead a reader through that curtain to whatever exists on the adjacent side, through a black film where they’re blind to everything but what the author wants them to see, and then (depending on the work) leave them in a certain place inside that mass of constricting cloth.
I’m sure I had a wider notion when I started writing this but I’ll refine it later. There’s no hypothesis.