All ends with beginnings
Random Access Memories (2013)
No one in their right mind would have thought the shot was any good when it departed the man’s club; no one reading the man’s card, later, would have thought it anything less than majestic. Standing at the sixth tee on Streamsong’s Red Course, displaying a form that most professionals would have described as “slouchy,” the man searched after his pellet with worried eyes as it took off at an angle best referred to as “obtuse” in a direction usually noted in connection with the phrase “last seen.” The ball had not, in short, behaved in the manner the golfer had intended—even though the evidence of the scorecard might appear to differ.
The sixth on the Red is a short par three, with a pond to the right and a large bunker—so inviting to the pond’s resident alligators—intervening between the pond and the green. There is a dune to the left that forms the base for seventh hole’s tee box slightly in front of the green, and another dune farther on, creating about a twenty-yard space between the two dunes that is hidden from the tee. The golfer’s ball had disappeared into this space, and since both of the dunes were covered with tall grass and brush, it seemed likely that we had already lost sight of that ball for the last time.
Somehow, however, as you have likely already guessed, the ball reappeared from behind the dune it had not buried itself in and sped, as if shot by an improbably goodhearted troll, towards the green’s flagstick, which it struck directly and then, guided inexorably by the laws of physics, buried itself underground like an especially amiable corpse. An “ace,” a hole-in-one: golf’s holy grail, with the kicker that it was not found (or created) by some wizened, ascetic practitioner. It was as if, instead of Don Quixote, Sancho Panza, seated on his ass, had charged the windmills. And won.
It was perhaps the most spectacular instantiation of the maddening phrase amateur golfers are so fond of repeating: “better to be lucky than good”—a phrase that is all too often invoked, not merely in golf, but in wider arenas also. Such as, for instance, in the business of interpreting.
“If I say, ‘I promise to loan you five pounds,’ but as the words cross my lips have no intention of doing so, I have still promised,” writes the British literary critic Terry Eagleton. That’s because the “promising is built into the situation”—promising isn’t, Eagleton claims, “a ghostly impulse in my skull.” All that matters is whether I have said the words that make a promise, not whether I intended to promise or not—a view that is a kind of restatement of the golfer’s adage.
Think, for example, of the home run. “If a batter in a softball game hits a fair ball into the stands,” asks Walter Benn Michaels, “it is not evidence she hit a home run; it is a home run.” When it comes to home runs, the intention of the batter does not matter: as Michaels says, “[w]e do not care whether she was trying to hit a home run, or whether she even meant to swing.” Just as a promise is a promise, a home run is a home run; one reason perhaps why the foreign Marxist Eagleton could share a view of intention with a justice of the United State Supreme Court not known for his sympathies for the revolution: Antonin Scalia.
“What we are looking for when we construe a statute,” Scalia once wrote to describe his approach to interpreting the law, is not “what the legislature intended” but instead “what it said.” Scalia, like Eagleton, refuses to play the game of climbing inside another’s mind.
That’s why, in the words of one of Scalia’s readers (the literary scholar Walter Benn Michaels), what Scalia claims to be interested in is not “what the authors meant by the words … but in the meaning of the words themselves.” Scalia’s claim, in other words, is that words have a meaning that is independent of the uses a writer might put them towards.
It’s an approach that, like Eagleton’s description, has the virtue of appearing to wash its hands of the messy business of discovering the inside of an author’s mind and instead focus on what might seem to be the only tangible evidence available: in this case, the words on the page. Interpreting a law ought to be as simple as recognizing an ace, Scalia wants to say. Intention shouldn’t matter.
Yet to erase intention from the act of construing meaning is, Michaels wants to say, as ridiculous as excluding water from Niagara Falls: without it, there’s nothing left. It’s a point Michaels (along with Stephen Knapp) made thirty years ago in an article entitled “Against Theory”: an article that contains its own knockdown anecdote. Instead of a sports analogy, however, Knapp and Michaels’ account is about a visit to the shore.
“Suppose that you’re walking along a beach,” this story goes, “and you come upon a curious sequence of squiggles in the sand.” On further examination, you find that the squiggles greatly resemble several lines of Wordsworth’s “A Slumber.” How, Michaels and Knapp ask, would we respond to such a discovery?
If we are curious, we might want to think about what might have generated the squiggles—yet while there might be many possible candidates, all of them reduce to two categories. “You will either be ascribing these marks to some agent capable of intentions (the living sea, the haunting Wordsworth, etc.),” Knapp and Michaels say, “or you will count them as nonintentional effects of mechanical processes (erosion, percolation, etc.).” And so the point arrives: if it is demonstrated that the squiggles are produced by some natural cause, “will they still seem to be words?”
The answer clearly is no—the squiggles “will merely seem to resemble words.” As one who agrees with Knapp and Michaels’ view, Stanley Fish, put the point in a column for the New York Times: “The moment you decide that nature caused the effect,” whatever that effect is, “you will have lost all interest in interpreting the formation, because you no longer believe that it has been produced intentionally, and therefore you no longer believe that it’s a word, a bearer of meaning.” The sudden appearance of a seeming depiction of the True Cross on a water-stained wall, or a human face on Mars, is only interesting insofar as we believe that some agent (whether God or aliens) caused the appearance; once we discover that it is only the residue of a mechanical failure in the pipes, or an especially blurry photographic development, coupled with the human brain’s tendency to search for patterns, the phenomena is no longer interesting. Messages are only meaningful inasmuch as they are produced by agents; anything else is not a message at all.
In that way, a home run (or an ace), can only be thought of as having a meaning insofar as it is a purposive act: only a home run hit by a god—that is, a home run hit by a being who can hit (or not hit) home runs as he chooses—could possess meaning. We can know this because even the greatest of home run hitters cannot produce one at will (despite what is rumored about the 1932 World Series and Babe Ruth): hitting a home run requires the cooperation of sudden bursts of wind and other hidden forces beyond the control of any single person. In other words, hitting a home run, or a hole-in-one, might seem like the most intentional act possible—but it isn’t, as the “better to be lucky” adage ruefully communicates. Both are somewhere between a face on Mars and a message, and probably more like the former than the latter.
Antonin Scalia’s dream, in short, of a perfectly communicated law, one that is as easily interpreted as a hole-in-one, is an impossible one: anything so easily understood would not be worth the (minimal) effort it would take to understand. As Fish says, intention “is not something added to language; it is what must already be assumed if what are otherwise mere physical phenomena (rocks or scratch marks) are to be experienced as language.” Which, one supposes, is why hole-in-ones are so fascinating to golfers: they are a moment of in which the physical, non-human world appears to take an interest in our affairs, a moment where the divine appears, for just a moment, to intervene. The reason they can appear so is because of their strange mixture of both intention and random chance, which blurs a line so definitively drawn.
Perhaps that is the reason for the adage: it may be that human beings long for release from the consequences of their own actions—which is to say, release from a world so divided between human actions and natural events. If there is a link between that longing, and the world we now have—one in which, for example, torture is acceptable behavior, but the connection between productivity and wages has been effectively severed—it is probably too much to say that such is the shared intention of the foreign Marxist and the Supreme Court justice. But I may be a poor kind of reader for the purposes of these gentlemen: unlike them, I would rather be good than lucky.