The eight archetypes of meaning describe emotional contours although we have been trained to look past them and to see only the idea at the center, not the feelings that surround it. We value the pearl for the sand grain instead of the layers of nacre coating it. From the time we start reading in school, we learn to think of meaning as existing within the text. We employ various interpretive methods to bring the meaning out. The text remains the object of inquiry.
Such critical investigations of the text disrespect the reader. We insist that reading is important, that it matters in the world. The only way it can be important is through the reader; it must affect the reader’s life fundamentally. If we expect serious readers to hang their lives on a book, the drama must occur inside them, not on the page. Some mechanism of the soul converts the words into thoughts that readers believe in enough to test themselves, often at some risk. None of these things happens unless readers put emotional force behind them. We need a language to articulate the various transformations that occur within readers, one that doesn’t attribute everything to the text. The previous posts that illustrate the eight archetypes point to the fulfillment of readers’ common emotional needs. Sometimes we need a revelation to turn a gray world into exciting colors. Or we look for order when the world threatens chaos. Or we thirst for beauty, and so on. In this way, the eight archetypes of meaning help us to explore readers’ experiences without plunging back into the text.
The archetypes start to demarcate the large, hitherto empty region between the extremes where we conventionally allow the text to function for readers. On the one hand, we make the humanistic assumption that the text appeals to readers universally. “I am a human,” said the Roman playwright Terence. “Nothing human is foreign to me.” The New Critics in the middle of the 20th century believed each text contained a single line of meaning that the author expected every reader to follow. People would inevitably grasp this meaning if they read acutely enough. On the other hand, we acknowledge that readers can relate to books subjectively. A particular reader has lived in a way that other readers have not, and he or she relates the text to that experience. Life as a woman or an African-American permits us to see meanings in a text that escape people with other social profiles. Or we accept as legitimate any interpretation of a poem simply because someone read it that way.
The archetypes of meaning strike a compromise between the universal and the subjective. We have all encountered depth, recognition, innovation, and the other patterns. We know what they feel like. Nevertheless, we differ in the emphasis we give to them. We need different types of meaning at different times, depending on our circumstances. And our character tends to favor one or a few archetypes over others just as depth mattered most to Dodds and order to Verrall. Unconsciously, we search for meaning in a text based on our predilections.
The meaning of a text arises from the interaction of the words with the needs that the reader brings to them. The eight archetypes give us a way to distinguish between the various demands a reader might make. We do not have to see any single interpretation as unavoidable. Instead, we can view it as a choice determined by the inner necessity of the reader. Again, we experience meaning rather than deduce it or absorb it from somewhere else, and that experience comes in the form of a feeling. We can therefore ascribe to ourselves—to our own perceptions, our own creativity—a significance that we had before projected onto the text or the author. In effect, the archetypes convert what previously seemed to be solid literary structures into suppositions that must prove their utility to us.
For example, some readers talk about tradition as though it were an objective reality. They will describe, say, the “Western literary tradition” by tracing themes, such as individualism and realism, across centuries. These themes supposedly explain who we are today and why we think the way we do. In this way, tradition tells a coherent story about a past that actually consisted of many different kinds of books, written by many different kinds of authors, in many different kinds of circumstances, for many different purposes, at many different times, in many different places. Nothing obligates us to see threads of continuity in these works, but readers choose to impose the framework of tradition on authors and texts because it satisfies their need to have a precedent. It legitimizes today’s ideas.
Any form of meaning, including tradition, does violence to its subject because we cannot help seeing the subject through the filter of our own needs. The invention of a tradition requires readers to pick out a specific set of texts, between which they trace lines of influence that tell a coherent story, and to ignore other texts that don’t fit the narrative. “Western literature” starts with Homer and continues with the great books up to James Joyce’s Ulysses and beyond. Along the way, we omit or ignore hundreds of “lesser” writers—Statius and Samuel Daniel and many more authors once important but now scarcely known. Nevertheless, we would be able to choose another set of texts from the whole universe of Western books and thereby construct quite a different Western tradition. In fact, we could create many different Western literary traditions, depending on the books we select. Each tradition would highlight some authors and ideas at the expense of other authors and ideas. Imagine Shakespeare falling out of our collective memory—it wouldn’t be the first time that had happened. By proposing one particular tradition, we don’t “discover” some objective reality about Western literature that always awaited us on library shelves. Rather, we trick ourselves into making the creative leap of inventing a Western tradition. We wish the comfortable feeling of tradition were real, so we treat it as such.
The emotional allure of any type of meaning captivates us. Once we find a satisfactory interpretation of something we hold it so close that we narrow our field of view and don’t bother to look for other possibilities. If we make the eight archetypes explicit, we can use them to question our own emotional needs, and perhaps gain a little more freedom of thought.
If we trace meanings back to one of the eight archetypes, we can follow out at least seven other routes that will lead us to new meanings beside the one that we are most drawn to. I happened to pick the archetype of depth for my reading of The Bacchae. I didn’t have to. I have had experiences of meaning that fit into each of the eight categories. All eight are emotionally accessible to me. If I see meaning as my own feeling, not something inherent in the text, I gain the freedom to choose the emotional framework within which to read it. What would The Bacchae mean from the point of view of beauty or boundary-crossing? I can play with the archetypes until I find the emotional range that satisfies me best.
Awareness of the emotional underpinning of meaning gives us more control over the feelings we experience when we read so that we can turn in many directions until we earn the biggest profit from the book. If we focus on what we feel, we no longer have to be the recipients or excavators of an external meaning. We can take control of meaning by deciding for ourselves what it will look like. Think of the surprise and pleasure that rush through us when we discover something. It’s different from the surprise and pleasure when we encounter beauty. Although meaning can evoke various feelings, the patterns of meaning fulfill the same general function and are interchangeable in that way. We can try them out one by one, applying them to an object that interests us until we find the pattern that suits our needs of the moment. Once we know the pattern, we can fill in the content of the meaning by rearranging our thoughts about the object.