Monday, January 30, 2006

Narrative and the Secrecy of Hermeneutics Part 6

Summary and Review of Frank Kermode's "The Genesis of Secrecy"

Chapter 6: The Unfollowable World

The opening pages of the final chapter are spent revisiting the bipolarities of hermeneutics and the focal point of Kermode's estimations on interpretation. What his project seems to aim for is not a harmonizing of different and diverse perspectives, but a situating of them according to their reaction to an inescapable principle:

"Yet all practice divination, however intermittently, erroneously, dishonestly, or disappointedly; most of all, disappointedly. For whether one thinks that one's purpose is to re-cognize the original meaning, or to fall headlong into a text that is a treacherous network rather than a continuous and systematic sequence, one may be sure of one thing, and that is disappointment....There are certain conditions which make the task more comfortable: more or less acquiescent in the authority of institutions, more or less happy that we have an acquired taste for fulfillments, for a state of affairs in which everything hangs together, we accept a measure of private intermittency in our interpretation -- unless we are unhappy because such acquiescence is an acceptance of untruth, and prefer antinomianism and the unhappiness of an even more complete isolation. In any case, a sense of mystery is a different thing from an ability to interpret it, and the largest consolation is that without interpretation there would be no mystery." (126)

Kermode seems to be indicating that in order to make coherent, one must have the thing which is received incoherently. And it would also seem that part of the incoherence that is present in any text is at least in part identical with the incoherence of our own selves -- staring into the words on the page is like staring into a mirror:

"[W]e cannot avoid the reflection that we ourselves are intercalated into the story in precisely this way, between the long past (which we recapitulate) and the imminent ending, which is our own, and, like Mark's, no parousia but a matter of fear and silence." (127)

Notice how the earlier decision regarding his interpretation (that Mark's Gospel ends at v. 8) is played out here in his discussion of how interpretation proceeds. The incorporation of
interpretation within interpretive theory is not simply reflexive, not even predominantly reflexive, but is rhetorical -- purposed and intentionally directed. Kermode intercalates at precisely the point where he is discussion intercalation, as a kind of self-validating exercise or example. What are we to understand of such decisions and practices? How are we to interpret Kermode's interpretation of interpretation (to allow ourselves to be tossed into the vicious cycle for a moment)? Is what is going on here demonstration or advocacy or both, or neither? At least one thing can be said for certain, which Kermode's example reveals quite clearly -- decisions must be made about the questions that hermeneutics asks, even if those decisions are only temporary or are tossed aside later. And what Kermode may leave underdeveloped is that the questions that the hermeneut asks are every bit as important as the assumptions and decisions that get made before and in the process of engaging texts. Kermode says that without interpretation there would be no mystery, but it could be put in the reverse order as well; there could be no interpretation without a mystery, without a question, without a concern. And though concerns are often conditioned by one's presuppositions and institutional assumptions, they can also arise from the text itself, and at many times unbidden or unsummoned. And even those questions and concerns that do not initially inquire of the mysterious sense will often end up there.

And so Kermode desires to take up the issue of intercalation in his final chapter, of those insertions that do not make a lot of sense on the surface level of the Gospels. First, there is the death of John the Baptist in Mark's Gospel, then there is the story of the woman with the hemorrhage. Kermode questions so far as to whether Mark itself is an intercalated story. His mode of operation is one that is probing what possibilities seem warranted by the structure of the language. But Kermode does seem intent on having a controlling or influential telos or principle that hedges the expansiveness of inquisitive possibilities:

"I have been proposing that the device of intercalation in Mark's narrative is an emblem of many conjunctions and oppositions, which are found at all levels of the discourse. Like Starobinski, I think these should be attended to, and not dissolved by recognitive hermeneutical tricks [what does that mean anyway??]; for these conjunctions and oppositions reflect something of what the gospel presupposes [can language presuppose, or only persons?] of its own structure, and the structure of the world. The pursuit of such interpretations is not merely a matter of method; there has also to be divination, and divination is an art related only very dubiously to rules. When Eliot said that they only method was to be very intelligent he was both exaggerating and saying too little. Method, he meant, is secondary, for first there must be divination. Having divined, you must say something by way of explaining or communicating the experience of that bewildering minute, and then method is useful. Of course, no divination is adequate to the whole task of interpretation; it may only record a radiance." (137)

Divination, as I understand it, relates directly to the subject of questions and questioning. Divination is in large part response. It is a response to the text, to what it may mean, and such response is conditioned by the question it asks of the text. Those "radiances" are what come from asking the right questions. And, as divination is difficult to organize by rule, so too are the right questions for any given text. It may also be said that though a plurality of right questions exist for any text, their are some whose radiance is brighter, as there are divinations that are brighter, as there are interpretations. But I am saying nothing here that Kermode and others haven't already said, though perhaps in different words. Though I would offer that by returning to the questioning of what one's questions of the text are provide a corrective for the interpreter who is accused (by others or by self) of serving a method or an institution blindly.

Kermode himself seems uninfluenced by certain original questions:

"[W]hatever we may find to say about the community for which it was originally written (and the evidence will come largely from the gospel itself, in defeating circularity) it is far beyond us to reproduce the tacit understandings that existed between this dead writer and his dead audience. Those accords are lost. We cannot know the original generic set of Mark; and to read it against our own is to read it differently. We have internalized expectations created by kinds of narrative, historical and fictive, and by kinds of poetry, quite unfamiliar to those original readers. We should remember this, and allow our sense of difference to exercise some control over our divinations; but in the end we have to think of the book as a sample of what we take literature to be, and avoid all means by which that confrontation may be prevented." (138)
Is it possible that Kermode's questions are somewhat institutionalized here, as a literary scholar? Why is what we take literature to be the confrontation that must be permitted? Why should the original confrontation of the literature with its readers be passed over? Is it very much less certain to attempt to recreate an historical world than it is to try and wrap one's mind around the present one? Even to accept that an estimation of literature is central, why is our present take more central than any other historical take? Kermode's skepticism toward the historical setting of Mark is unwarranted, and his conclusion that the largest amount of evidence comes directly from the Gospel is neither self-defeating circularity nor does it make that evidence the most revealing. Here is not the place for a lesson in historical backgrounds of the New Testament, and I am not the one to be giving such lessons anyhow, but I am aware enough of the subject to know that a wealth of historical material exists that helps us to identify "an original generic set" for Mark. What I am not attempting here is to paint Kermode as ignorant, fallacious, or uncharitable in his analysis, but what I am attempting is to point out where he is being selective as an interpreter. His interests are more recognizably literary than they are historical, theological, or even cultural. And the history of Biblical studies (especially in the 19th century) I would agree very well warrant the kind of focus Kermode is offering, but not to disillusionment or disavowal of the kinds of questions that have come before. It seems best, at least to my feeble judgment, that it is to the broadest range of lived and living human history which belongs the interpreter's most reasonable controlling context -- and for the particular text, where it originates is that point from which the larger applied interpretation springs forth.

To put it enigmatically: What a text means is more than what it is meaning and a text's meaning is always less than meaningful when it ignores what a text was meant to be.

More simply: The attempt to understand a text's meaning is always more than what present interpreters are saying it means and a text's meaning is always more meaningful when it attempts to consider what that text was intended to be, as well as what is has come to be.

Perhaps I am beating a dead horse, or perhaps what I'm saying is as simple as saying sugar is sweet and should be so. I do look forward to days when my own thinking is more clear, if such days are ahead.

To bring things to a close, it is fitting from where I stand someone who writes to leave the writer with the last word, since he is unable to defend himself or correct understandings that mistake his intentions (can you sense where I stand upon the hermeneutical playing field?):

"What is the interpreter t make of secrecy considered as a property of all narrative, provided it is suitably attended to? Outsiders see but do not perceive. Insiders read and perceive, but always in a different sense. We glimpse the secrecy through the meshes of a text; this is divination, but what is divined is what is visible from our angle. It is a momentary radiance, delusive or not, as in Kafka's parable. When we come to relate that part to the whole, the divined glimmer to the fire we suppose to be its source, we see why Hermes is the patron of so many other trades besides interpretation. There has to be trickery. And we interpret always as transients -- of whom he is also patron -- both in the book and in the world which resembles the book....World and book, it may be, are hopelessly plural, endlessly disappointing; we stand alone before them, aware of their arbitrariness and impenetrability, knowing that they may be narratives only because of our impudent intervention, and susceptible of interpretation only by our hermeneutic tricks." (144-145)

No comments: