Monday, January 23, 2006

Narrative and the Secrecy of Hermeneutics Part 2

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

Chapter 2: Hoti's Business: Why Are Narratives Obscure?

Kermode discusses the nature of parables in the Gospels. There are some interesting observations on hermeneutics and narratives which I will post and comments on below.

"[I]nterpreters, often quite rightly, tend to see the Problems of Interpretation. The sense of the parable, on the view just stated, must be this: being an insider is only a more elaborate way of being kept outside. This interpretation maintains that interpretation, though a proper and interesting activity, is bound to fail; it is an intrusion always, and always unsuccessful." (27)

Here we have again the expression of hermeneutics that seems to fascinate its more contemporary theorists--that interpretation folds out as well as enfolds its own attempts to understand a text's meaning. There seems to be a desire for some sort of absolute closure, knowing all the while that such closure is impossible in any circumstance of language. What exactly is to be gained or lost from exalting the failures and gaps?

Kermode also gets into a discussion about the word choice of Mark in contrast to that of Matthew (which is taken to be a later Gospel that drew upon Mark's Gospel). Again, the central text is Mark 4:11-12 (RSV):

"so that seeing they may see and not perceive, and hearing they may hear but not understand, lest at any time they should turn, and their sins be forgiven."

The "so that" in Mark is "hina" (a word that also translates "in order that") and in Matthew is "hoti" which is "because." The argument makes interesting distinctions and distinguishing points between Mark's and Matthew's accounts of the phrase (which is a allusion/quote from Isaiah). His conclusion on the accounts:

"Each of them makes the parable a bit like a riddle in a folktale, where to get the answer wrong means perdition; but hina and hoti distinguish them. One says the stories are obscure on purpose to damn the outsiders; the other, even if we state it in the toughest form the language will support, says that they are not necessarily impenetrable, but that the outsiders, being what they are, will misunderstand them anyway." (32)

And what is Kermode's intepretation of Mark's use "hina" supposed to expose? According to Kermode: "My present point is simple enough: Mark is a strong witness to the enigmatic and exclusive character of narrative, to its property of banishing interpreters from its secret places." (33-34)

The immediately following discussion highlights some examples of anagogic (spiritualized) intepretations of the parable of the Good Samartian by the early church fathers and medievals (such as Irenaeus and Augustine). These early Christians have a hermeneutic that reads redemptive history into the characters, the objects, and the narrative elements of the parable. It was Luther who rejected the analogical interpretations and stood as a first step in the movement toward what Kermode refers to as the "era of 'scientific' intepretation." Kermode reveals that sometimes the conclusions of the scientific methodology approaches similarity with the analogical, while at other times it differs greatly (38-39).

There is an especially good section that follows that I want to include in its entirety because it discusses various hermeneutic theoretical stances:

"However, there is a fashion still more recent, which revives, in its own way, the notion that the sense of the text is inexhaustibly occult, and accessible in a different form to each and every intepreter. The object of this kind of interpretation is no longer 'scientific'; one does not try, like Jeremias, to state what the narrative meant in its original, or in any later setting; one does not try to 're-cognize' it, as the more conservative hermeneutical theorists say one should. Rather one assumes, to quote an opponent of this school, that 'the meaning of a text goes beyond its author not sometimes but always' and that 'one understands differently when one understands at all.' The object of interpretation is now sometimes said to be to retrieve, if necessary by benign violence, what is called the original event of disclosure. This is the language of Heidegger; he takes the Greek word for 'truth,' aletheia, in its etymological sense, 'that which is revealed or disclosed, does not remain concealed.' Every hermeneutic encounter with a text is an encounter with Being as disclosed in it. For Heidegger indeed, it is the very fact that one is outside that makes possible the revelation of truth or meaning; being inside is like being in Plato's cave. [paragraph break] Every such hermeneutic encounter is still, in a measure, historically conditioned, though now that limitation is no longer thought of just as a limitation -- it is the prerequisite of interpretation, ech act of which is unique, one man on one stool, so to speak, seeing what no power can withhold from him, his glimpse of the radiance, his share of what is sometimes called the 'hermeneutic potential' of a text." (39-40)

You can spot the clear distinctions between how the more modern and contemporary hermeneutics are alike analogical and anagogic interpretations in the liberty they take with them, but unlike the older formulations, the modern hermeneutic theory is not tied to a tradition, or what Kermode might call an institution, but rather, the only strings attached are that the revelation be persuasive and enlightening enough to those it is offerred up to. Intellectual stimulation (however euphoric or epiphanic) seems to be the organizing principle of critical judgments. Kermode continues by addressing the arguments and evaluations that followers of the modern hermeneutic offer:

"Now that which requires to be disclosed must first have been covered, and this view of interpretation certainly implies that the sense of the parable is an occult sense. Its defenders like to say not that the interpreter illumines the text, but that the text illumines the interpreter, like a radiance [shades of Mailloux's discussion a couple of posts back come to mind here do they not?]." (40)

Strangely enough (or so it seems to me) Kermode traces this newer hermeneutic back to the Protestant tradition that rejected the institutionalized traditions of Catholicism. But more than as a seedling, Kermode sees that tradition as ultimately doomed to passing, because of the indistinguishability between secular and sacred texts that results from it. The above recognition of the radicalizing independence (and determinate principle of intellectual stimulation) of the newer hermeneutic is what Kermode sees emerging from Protestants and convering in the German idealists:

"The tradition is that of a productive encounter between the text and the reader, illuminated by a peculiar grace or, in more secular terms, a divinatory genuis, as far as possible independent of institutional or historical control. That encounter is the main concern not only of modern German hermeneutics but also, though their ways are different, of its French rivals." (40)

And from there Kermode returns to the obscurity of all narrative and the concealing and revealing operatives at work in every interpretation.

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