It’s all very well to write stories or essays, but we too often forget that works are confronted with this terrible scourge: interpretation. Between what we want to say, what we think we are saying, what we are really saying, what we believe that people have understood, what people have really understood and what they may have understood, it there’s a hell of a margin (my favorite Simpsons character, and you?). There are many examples that we won’t explore all of them here because we don’t give a damn, but here are a few.
PS: I would like to talk about the Bible but I will first do a thesis on the subject quickly and I’ll give it to you asap in 2033.
1. Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov
It’s funny how the name Lolita immediately evokes a provocative beautiful young woman who likes to seduce older men, a little damsel to whom you shouldn’t promise it… It’s all the funnier that Lolita tells above all the story of a pedophile. That of Humbert Humbert, who has become the stepfather of a 12-year-old teenager for whom he will nourish a forbidden desire.
In Nabokov’s novel, the character writes in the first person and it is through his prism that we discover this young girl. It is also through his eyes that we suppose a seductive provocation in his attitude. This is where all the ambiguity and therefore the incomprehension of this fascinating novel lies! A middle-aged man takes a totally inappropriate look at a child whom he sexualizes ignoring all prohibitions (age on the one hand, and incest, since when his wife dies, he fully fulfills the function of father to his daughter-in-law).
Why didn’t we catch anything? Nabokov specified in the preface that this book in no way made the apology of pedophilia. However, the first house to publish it in France specializes in erotic works. The others will also offer sexy, sulphurous covers.
Besides, I really like Stanley Kubrick but his adaptation is a scandal. First by choosing a 16-year-old “Lolita” and no longer 12, then by effectively showing a seductive young girl (who would later forge the tenacious symbolism of the seductive Lolita) while Nabokov only showed an absolutely seductive fantasized by a pedo-criminal. In short, all these elements have made Lolita a misunderstood novel about an alleged love story between a stepfather and his daughter while he denounces above all pedophilia by positioning himself from the point of view of the culprit.
2. Thus spoke Zarathustra, by Nietzsche
Nietzsche is a dodgy guy for two reasons: 1) nobody knows how to write his name, 2) he was the star philosopher of the Nazis. Let’s try to understand a little more about this second part of his existence.
First let’s clear up a misunderstanding, Nietzsche died in 1900. So he doesn’t give a damn about the Nazis (and I think if he were still alive, those are exactly the terms he would be using). But if we go back a few years before his death, we can pull the first strings of a misunderstanding that will remain until today.
First of all, as his first French translator Henri Albert explained, the German philosopher is famous without anyone having read his writings. “His misunderstood aphorisms are quoted on all occasions and his work still hides in the darkness of the unknown”. The terrain was conducive to twisting his thinking. This is how 30 years after his death, the philosopher has become a figure intimately linked to Hitler who uses him to justify his ideology. The texts have been transformed, erased by certain aspects (too anti-Germanic). We owe this nice work of falsification to Alfred Bäumler, a very Nazi German philosopher, who had his hours of glory under the Third Reich.
Why didn’t we catch anything? Nietzsche is nice, but he likes aphorisms. These small texts supposed to summarize a whole more complex thought. Ideal for going astray in interpretation. Moreover, he uses metaphors that appeal to nationalists: the weak are the lambs, they are eaten by the mighty eagles. So many (heavy) images that also served its detractors to associate it with the ideal of a superior and powerful race (the hobbyhorse of Nazi ideology).
Note, however, that during his lifetime, he did not care about extremists, as he writes in this letter about his essay “It’s a curious fact that I gradually became aware of. I have a certain “influence”—underground of course. Among the radical parties (socialists, nihilists, anarchists, anti-Semites, orthodox Christians, Wagnerians) I enjoy a special and almost mysterious reputation. The anti-Semites appreciate my Zarathustra, this “divine man”; there is one anti-Semitic rendition in particular that really made me laugh.”
3. Le Cri d’Edvard Munch
The story is less complex and quicker to summarize here but it joins the strange list of misunderstood paintings. What does this painting remind you of? The loneliness, the anguish, the distress… No doubt about it. Yet if we look more closely, this cry is not existential! The background landscape is in fact the eruption of the Krakatoa volcano which occurred in Indonesia in 1883. The color of the sky is reddened by the bursts of lava and the man shouts above all to ward off his imminent death in an apocalyptic atmosphere . It’s funny how we all recognized ourselves in the horror of this desperate cry with a strangely contemporary flavor.
4. 1984, de George Orwell
George Orwell must have had a little balls. After spending his life rather in the shadows, he publishes 1984 and died a year later of tuberculosis before he really knew the fame that awaited him. In this cult book, he described the grip of a totalitarian regime with elaborate propaganda tools. A scathing criticism of the Soviet hell (never named) which has been recovered as often by a whole bunch of people who have not picked up anything semolina.
Whether the Committee of Orwellians created by Natacha Polony within Le Figaro and which positions itself clearly against Europeanism even though Orwell was on the left all his life and a fervent defender of a union of European countries; let it be those who saw in it an anti-communist manifesto and therefore a perfect pro-globalization lever even though Orwell was defending socialism… We recall that his numerous reports as a journalist led him to frequent the lower social classes poorest in Great Britain and have forged its political culture as a big leftist, so to speak. In short, 1984 is a very practical object to put under the elbow to put everything and anything behind this mysterious “Big Brother”.
5. A Clockwork Orange, by Anthony Burgess
We are familiar with Kubrick’s film, this genius filmmaker who was not always the shrewdest in his adaptations as we have already seen (see point 1 in case you have a memory of red poiscaille). We know less about the novel by Anthony Burgess from which the film was adapted. If the book was written in three weeks just to get excited, Burgess regrets that this is the only novel that will be remembered from his work. Especially since he shits on Kubrick’s ultra-violent adaptation, which he considers totally off the mark.
To Kubrick’s defense, Burgess agreed to have his book published in the United States before he even finished writing his final chapter. His work was therefore published only in the United States without this last element which could undoubtedly have brought some clarification. However, Kubrick’s film is based on this American edition, which is therefore incomplete.
Moreover, Burgess told in his book the story of a transition to adulthood, it is above all the story of an adolescent crisis that leads to maturity. Admittedly, there are scenes of physical assault and rape, but the famous missing last chapter of the book also tells how the main character, Alex, matures after his time in prison, finds one of his old friends who has married at the age of 20 and finally plans to put an end to his violent past. It’s still a different kind of message sent to us than in Kubrick’s film. No wonder it’s one of the very different books from their adaptation.
6. Fahrenheit 451, de Ray Bradbury
The message behind the work of Bradbury also known thanks to the adaptation of François Truffaut seems limpid: in a company with the name and at the time indefinite, Montag is a firefighter charged to burn the books which one estimates that they prevent citizens to be happy. His meeting with a teacher will give him a taste for reading.
In short, we quickly believe that the work praises the merits of reading and condemns book burning and all forms of authoritarian measures that limit our access to culture. So yes, of course it’s about that, but it’s so obvious that you have to dig a little deeper to grasp the subtext…
Behind this story, Bradbury actually criticizes television, which he sees as a medium promoting consumerism that puts an end to our capacity for critical analysis. In fact, he does not so much criticize a totalitarian regime as that of a society in the grip of ignorance, because it prefers the ease of television programs to the detriment of reading. The poor, if he had known Tik-Tok he would have had the seum.
7. The Prince, Machiavelli
In this small treatise of 26 chapters written in the 16th century, Nicolas Machiavelli lavishes a sort of manual on becoming a prince and above all on remaining so. For this, he relies on many historical examples. His work was quickly used to instruct the monarchy. However, the work does not position itself specifically in favor of this model and rather shows how power (and in particular the excess of power) can lead a person to appear cruel and selfish.
This confusion is all the more noticeable since the name of Machiavelli has been made into Machiavellianism, a doctrine based on trickery and manipulation. It shows to what extent we have a reductive vision of this essay.
8. Space Oddity, de David Bowie
The song is mistakenly associated with the first steps on the Moon. Must say that it was released in 69 so the news played rather in favor of this interpretation. In fact the song is above all a reference to Kubrick’s film (still there çuilà) 2001, A Space Odyssey.
It tells the story of an astronaut, Major Tom, with whom the control tower loses contact. Where is he ? What becomes of it? Response a few years later in 1980 in the song Ashes to Ashes. We find Major Tom who has in fact become a tramp. Nice no?