The Fear of Misinterpretation

Nietzsche Misinterpreted

 

“I know my destiny. There will come a day when my name will recall the memory of something formidable – a crisis the like of which has never been known on earth, the memory of the most profound clash of consciences, and the passing of a sentence upon all that which theretofore had been believed, exacted and hallowed. I am not a man, I am dynamite.”

– Friedrich Nietzsche

 

A natural cause of anxiety among writers is that, one day, our delicate arrangements of painstakingly chosen words may be misconstrued by readers, to some detrimental effect or another.

It is fashionable, desirable and in many ways admirable these days to leave some elements of a fictional narrative open to reader interpretation. This practice not only challenges the reader’s perceptiveness and intellect, thus engaging them in more profound ways than would otherwise be possible, but it also offers fodder for discussion and lively debate among the literary community.

The fear though, is fully justified. Since the fascinating Dionysian writings of Nietzsche were distorted, manipulated and misinterpreted by militant German nationalists and infused into the Nazi party’s hateful rhetoric, it has become clear that a writer’s legacy is never truly set. Passages may be chosen selectively, taken out of context, and used to fan the wild flames of intolerance, prejudice and hatred.

But lets not get too ahead of ourselves. It is highly unlikely that any texts produced by this current generation of writers will prove to inspire such horrific acts. However, the dangers of misinterpretation in the context of today’s society are very real. A text needn’t be a philosophical masterpiece in order to influence the behaviour of its reader. The debate over depictions of violence in other media – specifically cinema, television, music and video gaming – and the effect it may or may not have on audiences is one that rages on. And yet, the written word never seems to get a mention, despite the fact that many novels require the reader to empathise, on some level at least, with a murderous, disturbed narrator.

A perfect example would be Bret Easton Ellis’ fantastic modern classic, American Psycho. Here we have a narrator who, for the most part, makes no bones about his psychopathic tendencies. To 99% of readers, the razor sharp satire at the heart of the novel may be obvious, and the black comedy which arises from the outrageous and highly unlikely plot may be greatly entertaining. But what of the other 1%? Patrick Bateman – the book’s narrator – is young, handsome, charming and incredibly successful. He lives in a fabulous New York apartment, wears sleek designer suits and dines in exclusive restaurants. In terms of desirability, it’s a lifestyle almost on par with that of James Bond. Surely, the idea that a young male reader – lacking, perhaps, the critical thinking required to recognise or fully understand Ellis’ statement – may find himself so taken with the character that he will excuse Bateman’s coldblooded killing sprees, is not unbelievable by any means. And what behaviours may result from such empathetic, yet shallow reading?

My point here is not that books are likely to inspire kids to commit violent acts – though such a misinterpretation of this post would be quite ironic. However, there is a discussion to be had here among writers. Do those of us who write with both artistic and commercial intent have a responsibility to make our works’ messages clear? Or should we refuse to ‘dumb down’ our work? What of the editor’s role in all of this? Nietzsche’s work was posthumously edited by his sister – a Nazi sympathiser, and a woefully inattentive reader it would seem – with terrible results.

It all comes down to this: how far do we trust our readers, of this generation and the future alike, to interpret our work correctly? And is it even our concern?

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