Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Interpretation

Non interludus

The action in David Lodge's novel Small World: An Academic Romance takes up ten years after that in its prequel, Changing Places: A Tale of Two Campuses. At a conference hosted at Rummidge University by English Department Chairman Philip Swallow, Euphoric State University professor Morris Zapp delivers a paper:
"You see before you," he began, "a man who once believed in the possibility of intepretation. That is, I thought that the goal of reading was to establish the meaning of texts. I used to be a Jane Austen man. I think I can say in all modesty that I was the Jane Austen man. I wrote five books on Jane Austen, the aim of which was trying to establish what her novels meant—and, naturally, to prove that no one had properly understood what they meant before. Then I began a commentary on the works of Jane Austen, the aim of which was to be utterly exhaustive, to examine the novels from every conceivable angle—historical, biographical, rhetorical, mythical, structural, Freudian, Jungian, Marxist, existentialist, Christian, allegorical, ethical, phenomenological, archetypal, you name it. So that when each commentary was written, there would be nothing further to say about the novel in question.

"Of course, I never finished it. The project was not so much Utopian as self-defeating. By that I don't just mean that if successful it would have eventually put us all out of business. I mean that it couldn't succeed because it isn't possible, and it isn't possible because of the nature of language itself, in which meaning is constantly being transferred from one signifier to another and can never be absolutely possessed.

"To understand a message is to decode it. Language is a code. But every decoding is another encoding, If you say something to me I check that I have understood your message by saying it back to you in my own words, that is, different words from the ones you used, for if I repeat your own words exactly you will doubt whether I have really understood you. But if I use my words it follows that I have changed your meaning, however slightly; and even if I were, deviantly, to indicate my comprehension by repeating back to you your own unaltered words, that is no guarantee that I have duplicated your meaning in my head, because I bring a different experience of language, literature, and non-verbal reality to those words, therefore they mean something different to me from what they mean to you. And if you think I have not understood the meaning of your message, you do not simply repeat it in the same words, you try to explain it in different words, different from the ones you used originally; but then the it is no longer the it that you started with...." [pp. 24-25]
I wrote in my post "Definitive Stop" on May 24, after quoting the corresponding passage in Changing Places: "Wouldn't it be nice if someone would write such a definitive series on religion?"

But ten years later, alas, Professor Zapp is saying that no one could possibly write such a series. While this might reassure those who hope to earn a living perpetually by writing works on religion, it could deeply trouble those who put great stock in the "Word of God" as revealed in their favorite "Holy Book"....

2 comments:

  1. Peace Moristotle,
    I may be a bit slow because I don't see how "it would deeply trouble those who put great stock in the word of God"...isn't that the beauty of it, the fact that each of us can have a deeply personal relationship with the texts?

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  2. Dear Maliha, I didn't say it would, but that it could deeply trouble...<smile>

    I like your response, looking for beauty in the situation. If I had experienced your response as the norm (rather than all the certainty among large sections of American Christians that they had interpreted exactly what God was telling us), perhaps I wouldn't spend so much time circling around this topic. Of course, most of the people of whom I speak wouldn't begin to even read my writings, or understand them if they did. Ironic that I have allowed myself (?) to be so affected by them? I suspect it's because a number of them are relatives of mine....

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