The concept of “Death of the Author” in lit circles just means that once an author has put a work of fiction out into the public, the work speaks for itself, and the Author doesn’t get to speak for it. If a reader can make a case for the Star Wars prequels portraying Padme and Obi Wan carrying on an affair, and point to in-text support of this, then the author’s protests that “This is not what I intended” don’t really mean much. Whether or not they intended it, it’s in the text. As the old joke about the rabbi’s goes, his is just one opinion*.
(*for those unfamiliar, the joke being that five rabbis are arguing with one novice rabbi about scriptural interpreation, and all five disagree with him. They tell him “It’s five and against one, surely you can see you’re wrong!” and he says “Even so, I know I’m right! I call upon God himself to side with me!” The voice of God booms down from the heavens “The kid’s right, actually.” The five older rabbis confer with themselves for a while, then finally turn to the young rabbi and say “Ok, so now it’s five against two!”)
It’s not unlike highfalutin Fan Theories, come to think of it.
Not too long ago I discovered my interpretation of an old Neil deGrasse Tyson quote was wrong. He’s famous for observing that the more educated some one is, the less likely they are to be religious, going through categories of increasing education and showing decreasing rate-of-belief, until he ends up at the elite scientists at the NAS having a belief rate of only 7%. He then went on about those 7% for a while. My interpretation of his point was “What is wrong with these 7%? Until we can find out what’s going on with those 7% of scientists, we can’t truly fault anyone else, cuz if those 7% can get bamboozled, so can anyone.”
Turns out what he actually meant was “Look, even 7% of the most elite scientists in the country have religion. So until you can convince even those 7%, you can’t say that religion is entirely wrong.”
Which, wow. Boy was I way off!
I was raised Jehovah’s Witness. They have a hymnal book and everyone is expected to sing a couple, as a congregation, at every major meeting (Of which there’s two per week). One of the songs contains the lyrics
Kiss the Son
Lest God be angry,
And you’ll perish in the way
There’s two ways to interpret this. The most obvious is as a threat. You should “Kiss the Son.” If you don’t God may be angry, and you’ll perish (be killed).
The less obvious is an injunction against hypocrisy. If someone “Kisses the Son” merely because they are afraid that God will be angry, then they’ll perish anyway. It is important to actually mean it and really love Jesus, rather than just going through the motions because you’re scared of a threat. Yes, it requires that one assume an implicit “If you” at the beginning of the verse, but people assume implicits all the time. (Like the assumption that #BlackLivesMatter ends with an implicit “Too”)
For as long as I was religious, I clung to this second interpretation. I knew, even then, that it was a bit of a stretch. It was my personal interpretation. I didn’t share it with anyone, because I was scared they would tell me that no, it really was supposed to be a threat. Even back then I couldn’t accept a hateful, wrath-filled god.
Nowadays, even though I realize my interpretations in both cases were factually incorrect, I stand by those interpretations. I take the principle of Death of the Author and extend it to further domains. Meaning is where you find it.
When NdGT laid out his progression of disbelief and drew attention to the final 7% he made a hell of an observation. He demonstrated was that there is something seriously wrong with humans, to the point that even 7% of the most elite scientists in the nation can be snookered by religion! And I do not care if that is not the point he intended to make. It is the most important point that this line of thinking leads to, regardless of his intention. Death of the Author.
When the Jehovah’s Witnesses used poetic language to threaten their listeners, someone coming from a background of “God is Love” and “Hypocrisy is Bad” can interpret those lines to say “Don’t be a hypocrite, it won’t help you anyway.” If one assumes that “God is Love,” it is the only consistent way to interpret those lines, regardless of what their intent was. Death of the Author.
And I don’t think there’s anything wrong with this. Interpretation of facts or statements in a light other than that which they were first presented in has lead to some pretty fascinating insights and advances by humanity. It’s what much of Copenhagen Interpretation vs Many Worlds comes down to, right? (Yes, I know, both sides are now furious at me.)
So long as no one tries to quote those people to misrepresent their true position, I think this practice should be embraced. Don’t attribute an intention to anyone unless they’ve publicly declared that intention themselves! But feel free to borrow and interpret things in a way that is beneficial as long as it is consistent with observable reality. (Or in the case of religion, any which way you want, since religion doesn’t have anything to do with observable reality anyway).
V – the caveat
Just be careful about this in your personal life. I found myself interpreting the actions and statements of someone close to me in the most positive way possible for a long time, for emotional reasons. This led to a distorted view of reality, and really bit me in the ass once that view was abruptly corrected. Someone’s intentions don’t particularly matter when you are in the abstract world of interpreting data. They matter a hell of a lot when you entangle your life with someone and much rides upon their disposition and intentions.