Analysis and “Ruining the Fun”

  • “Secondly, and more seriously, it has been deduced from this belief that you are liable to destroy the poem if its meaning is discovered, that it is important to preserve one’s innocence about the meaning of verses, that one must use sensibility, and as little intelligence as possible.”

This is from William Empson’s Seven Types of Ambiguity (originally published in 1930; this is from the revised third edition, page 20). He’s talking about analyzing poetry, but you could apply his view to any art. The central idea is simply that using your intelligence to understand a work of art will not ruin good art, and any view that seeks to restrict your appreciation to the so-called innocence of “non-understanding” is mistaken.

Empson elaborates on this as the quotation continues: “People suspect analysis, often rightly, as the refuge of the emotionally sterile, but that is only to say that analysis is often done badly. In so far as such destruction occurs because you have used your intelligence it must be accepted, and you may reasonably expect to become interested in another poem, so that the loss is not permanent, because that is the normal process of learning to appreciate poetry” (21).

Achebe and English

  • “The price a world language must be prepared to pay is submission to many different kinds of use.” Chinua Achebe.

Writer and critic Chinua Achebe (1930-2013) is here commenting on the fate of his writing in a “world language” such as English, rather than in a language native to Nigeria, where he was born. Achebe explained that he wrote in English in order to present “African experience in a world-wide language” and also to create a new English with the ability to “carry the weight of my African experience.”

The statement is also a reminder to those who use English as a native language that their pride in its seeming universality must share space with respect for the expressive and creative uses inevitably coming down the road. The line above is from Achebe’s Morning Yet on Creation Day (1975) and can be found in an essay anthologized as “The African Writer and the English Language” in Colonial Discourse and Post-Colonial Theory: A Reader, edited by Patrick Williams and Laura Christman (Columbia UP). (Originally posted March 22, 2013)