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).