Friday, March 24, 2017

Authorless books

I've been imagining a strange scenario. I come across a text that I know for sure was generated by an entirely random process--say, the proverbial monkeys at the typewriter. I look at it. Mirabile dictu, it's coherent and reads just like a literary masterpiece--let's say it's just like something Tolstoy would have written had he written one more novel at the peak of his creative powers.

I think reading this random text could be a disquieting experience. I could read it shallowly, the way one reads some novels for mere entertainment. And in that context, it would work just as well as shallowly reading a real novel. But of course with a masterpiece, one wants to read it more deeply. In doing so, one draws connections between different parts of the texts ("Oh! So that's what that foreshadowed!" or "Ah, so that's why she did that!"), between the content and the mode of expression ("Look at all these short words describing the rapidity of the march"), between what is overtly the text and other texts, ideas, historical events and persons, etc. Drawing such connections, whether explicitly or just as a barely conscious sensation of something there--is a part of the enjoyment of reading a literary masterpiece, when done in moderation. But in our random text, all connections are merely coincidental. Nothing is there on purpose, not even unconsciously. When we read a literary giant like a Plato or a Tolstoy, when we see a compelling connection, we have good reason to think the author meant it to be there, and that sensing the connection is a part of a good reading of the text. But in the random text, there will be no such thing as a good reading or a misreading. And that would have to be disquieting. There is a sense in which we would be inventing all the connections. Reading would be more like creating than like discovering. I suppose death-of-author people think that's already the case with normal novels. But I don't think so. Real connections differ from chance ones.

At the same time, I think that in practice if I were reading this text which is just like a literary masterpiece, I'd end up suspending my disbelief about the author, and just delight in the connections and subtleties, even if they are merely apparent.

But maybe in a world with God there is no true randomness. So maybe the hypothesis of a book where nothing is intended is impossible?


Red said...

Maybe if you believe God and gratuitous evil are compatible then this hypothesis and God are also compatible...what about a book written by AI would that be disquieting.

Alexander R Pruss said...

In the case of a novel written by a computer, we would have some hope of distinguishing between real and merely apparent connections, based on the code generating the novel.

SMatthewStolte said...

But surely God didn’t write the randomly generated book. He may have intended that the randomly generated book come to be without having intended to say what the book says. (Authors of fiction presumably intend to say something with their books.)

It doesn’t seem to me like it would be impossible for God to create an authorless book, where part of his intention included the fact that none of all of the interesting connections in the book were there ‘by chance’.

Gorod said...

Funny, while I was reading your post I was almost sure what direction your conclusion was going to go, but I was wrong.

I thought you were going to draw on your story to make an analogy with our appreciation of the logic of creation, whether you are a materialist (everything comes by chance and evolution, no author) or you believe in creation (an author). This could help show how weird it is to see all this logic, and all these connections in the world and in history, and still believe nobody wrote this story, and no logic connects the form of this "text".