Monday, January 23, 2006

Narrative and the Secrecy of Hermeneutics Part 1

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

Chapter 1: Carnal and Spiritual Senses

"Hermes is cunning, and occasionally violent: a trickster, a robber. So it is not surprising that he is also the patron of interpreters." (1)

Interpretation, Kermode explains, is an endeavor that combines secrecy and violence, hardly motives or actions that would be considered honorable, much less ethical on the surface. But that one of the major points of Kermode's book, interpretation doesn't exist on the surface, but on the layers of meaning that are not clearly visible in the "plain text." So there is, in the act of interpretation, an assumption that what is there in the writing is not all that is there, is not all the author communicated (intentionally or otherwise), is not all that is meaningful (and has almost always a fuller meaning). A second point that Kermode makes in the opening chapter is that interpretation usually proceeds from an institutional foundation, i.e. an educational influence precedes and envelopes the interpreter's work:

"Interpreters usually belond to an institution...and as members they enjoy certain privileges and sufer certain constraints. Perhaps the most important of these are the right to affirm, and the obligation to accept, the superiority of the latent over manifest sense." (2)

Kermode's books proceeds inductively, often focusing on a particular point, passage, or question and expanding outward where his sense and knowledge allow. The passage he springboard from in the opening chapter is Mark 4:11-12 (RSV)--"To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God, but for those outside everything is in parables; so that they may indeed see but not percieve, and may indeed hear but not understand; lest they should turn again, and be forgiven." He endeavors to work with the Gospels generally and Mark specifically. Those seeking a theology will be dissapointed, but those seeking a careful consideration of the narrative activity and interpretive possibilities will find much on which to think.

The latter portion of chapter one is Kermode's interpretation of "Party Going," a novel by Henry Green. He has several observation on hermeneutics that are good to indicate: "Theory can obscure as well as facilitate" (5). "[T]he fact is that without some fore-understanding of the whole we can make no sense of the part; and our fore-understanding of the whole is largely constructed from our present understanding of the part" (5).

The first point may seem common sense (especially to anyone who has read literary, rhetorcal, or philosophical theories) but to keep it in the forefront of one's mind ought to be a corrective from overtheorizing a text or adopting the "cookie-cutting" approach that maps theory onto a text using the ambiguities and gaps inherent in all language to squeeze past critical apprehension at tension points where theory does its own violence on a text. The second observation is even more important for hermeneutic considerations. That a reader/interpreter is always anticipating a whole when examing or passing through the parts is inevitable--readers of books as well as listeners in conversation are always attempting to "make sense" of the message, to place it generally and specifically, to complete the narrative. The parts that garner interest or import always maintain an element of subjectivity and objectivity, which is the fore-understanding Kermode indicates.

"Once free of the constraints of the simply primary sense, we begin to seize on those more interesting -- let us say spiritual -- senses that failed to manifest themselves in the course of a, let us say, carnal reading." (9)
"Now interpretation abhors the random, which is one reason why, in the most modern school of criticism, it has become a dirty word, a term of censure. Interpretation will seek relations..." (9)

"This kind of reading, originating within the horizon of a particular period, cannot be disallowed; but it cannot, either, disqualify others which do not so originate, are differently focused, yet can be established as legitimate and interesting (which is practically the same thing as "institutionally acceptible"). Any one such focus is, of course, chosen at the expense of others, and is bound to ignore much of the information offered by the text..." (12)
"Yet all narratives are capable of darkness; the oracular is always there or thereabouts, accessible if only by a sensory failure; and much writing we think of as peculiarly modern is in part a rediscovery of the oracular, and sometimes an exploitation of sensory failure." (15)

The statements above reveal, more or less explicitly, Kermode's committments to a hermeneutics of secrecy, a stance toward narrative that maintains an inevitable frustration for interpretation, which is what allows interpretation to continue. It is intellectual play on an intellectual playing field, but for Kermode, the game never ceases, though it may rest or gather somewhere for a time.

The final portion of chapter one outlines six rules and cautions for approaching the Gospels and specifically Mark:

1. The book must be assured to have sufficient value, i.e. a canonical status
2. Interpretation proceeds on two levels--the outside, carnal, blatant, literal and the inside, spiritual, violent, cunning.
3. There is a moment of interpretation; a choice to make one part of the whole its centerpiece, its "impression-point around which the whole gestalt must be articulated" (16).
4. Divination requires explanation in relation to the larger whole of the text and a context.
5. Inadequacy or incompleteness of previous interpretation must be assumed (including the inadequacy and incompleteness of the author's own understanding of the text) for interpretation to proceed with novelty.
6. All texts have constraints that limit interpretations, first of which is genre. Constraints are ideological, but also necessary and inevitable.

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