The Stability of Meaning in Written Texts – 2

Stability of meaning

Discussing some of the reasons why written texts cannot be assumed to be reliable, undermining the stability of meaning. Pt2.

Click HERE for Part I.

… Stability of meaning may remain unreliable, but no accusation of inscription inadequacy can reasonably be made. We project meaning without acknowledging much of the casket is missing, and some depictions make little sense to the twenty-first century eye. That lack of sense might be dismissed as an exuberance of artistic license, though it could just as easily be explained by one of the absent sections lost to history.

A text may also be considered unstable when intended for performance. A play often includes directions, typographical indicators of tone or stress; just as it may specify a setting such as Hamlet’s Elsinore. Perhaps none of these elements are present, leaving the performance to provide context; in so doing, meaning is defined visually, verbally and in action.

Reinterpretation continues to challenge textual stability today. ‘The Revenant’ by Michael Punke was not written for performance; in the text, Hugh Glass’ vengeance is limited to the court-martial of Fitzgerald. In the film, Glass floats Fitzgerald to his death at the hands of the Arikara. The film departs so markedly from the book; it can only claim to be based in part on the text from which it takes its name.

It may be arrogant to assume we better understand the language of years past than a contemporary writer. Perhaps we fail to adequately consider what is absent, as well as what exists. Perhaps the meaning and stability of any written form is ‘not worth the paper it is written on’.7 Purpose may be constant whilst meaning evolves; from an author’s first draft, through definitive work to subsequent reinterpretation.

We must assume responsibility for the context we assign a written work, just as the writer must accept that whilst his words are his own, his meaning will be determined by others. An author’s success might most accurately be measured by the amount of time others spend in attempting to derive that meaning.

7  ‘not worth the paper it is written on.’ Cambridge Idioms Dictionary, 2nd ed. 2006. Cambridge University Press

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Cambridge Idioms Dictionary, 2nd ed. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006).

Beer, Arthur, ‘Hartner and the Riddle of the Golden Horns’, in Journal for the History of Astronomy, Vol.1(Cambridge: Science History Publications Ltd, 1970).

Bulman, James C, Shakespeare, Theory and Performance (London: Routledge, 1995).

Moltke, Erik, Runes and their Origin: Denmark and Elsewhere (Copenhagen: National Museum of Denmark, 1980).

Page, Raymond. I, An Introduction to English Runes (Woodbridge: Boydell, 1999).

Penzl, Herbert, ‘The Horn of Gallehus and the Subgrouping of the Germanic Languages’, in Languages and Cultures. Studies in Honor of Edgar C. Polomé, ed. by Mohammad A. Jazayery and Werner Winter (Berlin: de Gruyter, 1988).

Punke, Michael, The Revenant, (New York: Picador, 2015).

Webster, Leslie, The Franks Casket, The Blackwell Encyclopedia of Anglo-Saxon England (New Jersey: Wiley-Blackwell, 2000).

Worthen, William B, Shakespeare and the Authority of Performance (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997).