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What is involved in the associative level of literary (poetry) analysis? Why is it not enough for the reader to interpret the images as he pictures them in order to arrive at the meaning or significance of the poem? What is meant by meaning in the poem?
Perhaps, the foregoing questions could be answered if the third question were clarified first. What, indeed, is meaning?
From the previous discussions, it is plain that what the reader is after is some kind of “significance” from the objective result of artistic activity. This significance is derivable from as many planes as there are experiential levels.
Thus, the beholder may realize a simple sensory meaning (using the word—sensory—loosely to signify organic responses; i.e. the senses responding to their proper stimuli; viz., visual senses to light and its various compositions like colour). This significance is normally derived from the primary materials of the medium; i.e., the colour in painting, the orthographic symbols used by written language in literature, etcetera.
The content or subject matter of the work of art is the proper material for intellectual associations and/or relations; viz., the figures of a mother and child in Picasso’s “Artists” may be responded to by the appreciator apart from the colours used by the artist (in this case, pale grey for the flesh, and cool colours for their clothes). The figures provide a shape to the articulated medium. It is this element which provides the intellectual meaning of the physical structure coming to the beholder as a painting. (Intellectual, because the figures are those chosen by the imagination and interpreted by the intellect as appropriate to the artist’s aesthetic experience). Intuitively, an appreciator may respond forthrightly to a discerned form – and sans sensory apprehension or intellectual comprehension of the form (as unified in a gestalt), he feels a significant reaction. Thus, the age-old “goose pimples”, “chill”, or “thrill” criteria for “good” art. This may be categorized as the emotional meaning of the work of art.
It is normally this “significance” which satisfies the aesthetic attitude (taste and experience of beauty).
Strict interpretation of “meaning”, however, demands the three levels co-functioning with each other in the unified form concretizing the artist’s aesthetic response to any type of stimulus he “takes fancy on.”
Ultimately, meaning will depend on how the appreciator recognizes the elements articulated in the form; what significance he associates to these (a meaning qualified and delimited by the context or the content he perceives in the form); and, finally, on what value he assigns to the feeling he has for the defined experience which should, anteriorly, have satisfied his taste.
While the beholder may be able to respond aesthetically to a work of art according to his private and even esoteric interpretation (which may even be irrelevant to what was purposely shaped by the artist), this may not come any closer to the ultimate function of art which is to come closer to truth (knowledge), the distinct awareness and understanding of things, conditions sine qua non to the perfection of man’s essence (the end of art being things realized in the rational nature of man). This restates the classical view of the function of art:
“…that art is formative in the most valuable sense by assisting man to fulfill his own end. For man’s end is to complete himself; to carry out, to the fullest extent, what is best and most distinctive in him. And what is best in him as an aware creature, is the capacity to realize what is without, to profit and grow by means of this knowledge, and to react and desire in accordance with the awareness that has informed him. ‘Freedom and self-fulfillment arise’, in Samuel Johnson’s noble phrase, only as the mind can ‘repose on the stability of truth.’”
In the associative level of analysis, the appreciator abstracts the meaning of the object of art from the recognized elements articulated in the form. This activity involves familiarity with the materials articulated in the medium, qualities and significance reflected in them which ordinarily should satisfy the aesthetic attitude when recognized an interpreted; the peculiar semantic energies of these materials, their emotional and intellectual meaning (assigned by the appreciator) structured by the artist, and such other free associations coming from the environmental influence or communal awareness of things.
The outline in the accompanying chart assumes that the appreciator understands the meaning of the elements included under the Contextual and Structural Meaning of the object of art (the poem). It also assumes that he understands how each element contributes to the definition of the art’s meaning.
Contextual elements refer to the content or subject matter chosen by the artist to objectify or concretize his experience with, and to all other devices or materials pre-figured or formed in the content. Structural elements refer to all objective forms recognized in the physical structure of the object of art from which significance related to the artist’s experience may be derived. These elements delimit the range of meaning to be assigned by the appreciator. It confines the boundaries of meaning to that configurated in the text or unified form. Any significance that strays from these boundaries is irrelevant, consequently, misleading, confusing, and will ultimately not serve the art’s formative function.
(Next: Associative Level of Analysis applied in Frost’s “Desert Places.” (A Practicum)