Instead of speaking of nature and nurture, determinism and free will, let’s think about the extent to which you are an audience to and the author of your own life.
We are all undeniably audience to our own life. We don’t choose to be born at all, nor who our parents are (or whether they raise us, or who does) or what nation we grow up in—or what part of history!
Moreover, we cannot rewrite the life we have lived up until now. We are an audience to our own past, disclosed to us through memories and stories about ourself we are told by others.
On the other hand, we are the author of our life. The choices we make not only influence our future, but change the meaning of our life as a whole. If you spend very little time with your family because of how demanding your job is, this will ultimately mean very different things if:
- You then gamble all of the money away.
- You have a specific milestone you want to reach before dialing back your work hours and spending more time with your family, and you stick to this plan.
- You then start having an affair.
- You inherit enough money to live comfortably but still spend the same amount of time at work.
Your future can considerably alter the meaning of your past. The present is nothing but the moment of overlap, when you can be author to your future, and through your future, your past.
But you are also an audience to your future, because so much of it unfolds to us rather than is written by us. But being an audience is not a passive role. As the meaning is determined by context, and context is boundless, the audience necessarily becomes a participant in the life of a creative work or text; they come to it with their own horizon of understanding, and must translate it into terms that can be understood within that horizon. I owe this argument to Gadamer, who argued that this process of translation is also necessarily a transformation, both of what is being understood and of our understanding. This does not mean something is “lost in translation”; it means the work itself is transformed by the audience, and the audience is transformed by the work. We do not merely expand our horizon to include the new thing we perceive; it is integrated into our horizon through a creative event. This transformative event allows us to both understand and participate in the creative work.
To make this a bit less abstract: we understand events that took place in our life as a nine year old differently when we are looking back on them as a twelve year old than we do when looking back on those same events as a forty year old. Looking back as a forty year old is not simply a rote recollection, like a computer accessing an item in a database. It is a creative event, in which the meaning of those childhood moments is transformed in the recollection.
This transformation is done not in our role as author, but as an audience to our own lives. Unlike authorship, we do not have a monopoly on the creative power of the audience even where our own life is concerned. Others observe us and form memories about us. Still others are told stories about us, or encounter us in any number of indirect ways. All of them bring their own horizons of understanding to their observations of us, and so all of them perform creative integrations of those pieces of our life they come into contact with—to a more or less meaningful degree.
Authors who have a very rigid vision of what their novels mean are invariably frustrated and disappointed in how they are received by their audience. Even—perhaps especially—among those who enthusiastically praise the novel. If the author feels that he has been misunderstood, praise from those who misunderstand will ring hollow.
But once the novel is out in the world, the author becomes, in many ways, just another member of the audience. Authorial intent is certainly an important piece of context, if it is available, but there is much more context to consider than that. When the sculptor of Civic Virtue created the work, he simply intended to draw on classical themes to celebrate the spirit of public mindedness. Nevertheless, by depicting a muscle-bound man stomping down on two women, his intentions cannot change the meaning conveyed by the piece, particularly the implications about manly virtue and womanly vice, and thus also implications about the relationship between men and women. As the piece was completed in the heyday of first wave feminism, you can be sure that this unintended meaning was called out quite loudly.
A novelist has certain liberties that any given member of the audience does not. He can revise future editions of his novel. He can write a sequel which has implications for the meaning of the first book. But beyond this, his participation in the meaning of his book is done in his role as member of the audience. George Bernard Shaw wrote endless essays about how Higgins and Eliza do not get married at the end of Pygmalion. But he did not revise the play, so these essays are equivalent to that of any critic—-who is, ultimately, a member of the audience.
Shaw may have had more expertise on the subject than most critics. But he was not necessarily the foremost expert. The society he set the play in, and the sorts of people the characters are, bring a much larger context into the play than what is either written or intended. Genre conventions matter, too—a critic who had read and watched a much broader set of plays than Shaw would have legitimate expertise with which to contest Shaw’s own interpretations.
So at stake is not simply the meaning of your life to you. It is the meaning of your life, period. What makes you different from just any audience to your life is that you occupy the dual role as author of it.
An important part of living well is to take ownership of your life, both as author and as audience. Don’t distance yourself from your past and any mistakes in it, but really own them, integrating them into the future that you are still authoring and experiencing.