The Telegraph has a piece by Philip Pullman about his new book The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ. The book itself is a fascinating read and retells the journey to the cross: “The story I tell comes out of the tension within the dual nature of Jesus Christ, but what I do with it is my responsibility alone. Parts of it read like a novel, parts like history, and parts like a fairy tale; I wanted it to be like that because it is, among other things, a story about how stories become stories.”
What I appreciated in the essay was Pullman’s view that his books belong to their readers. He worries about authors who argue with their readers about what their books mean. “Readers may make of my work,” he tells us, “whatever they please.” And he readily concedes that some have found patterns, connections, and interpretations that escaped him. I’ve always applauded Pullman’s irreverence and his critique of institutional religion, though my students are quick to point out that Pullman, as a secular humanist, develops orthodoxies of his own. Nonetheless, I like the democratic principles at work in his decentering of authorial authority.
The problem with my telling people what I think it means is that my interpretation seems to have some extra authority and that sometimes shuts down debate: if the author himself has said it means X, then it can’t mean Y. Believing as I do in the democracy of reading, I don’t like the sort of totalitarian silence that descends when there is one authoritative reading of any text.
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