Friday, January 27, 2006

Narrative and the Secrecy of Hermeneutics Part 3

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

Chapter 3: The Man in the Macintosh, the Boy in the Shirt

The third chapter of Kermode's book compares an obscure character in James Joyce's Ulysses (Macintosh) and an obscure character in Mark's Gospel (the young man who shed his clothing). The central question under question seems to be about why it is that we (human beings) are compelled to make sense of the obscurities, to invest them (whether through recognitive discovery or cognitive imputation) with meaning. Kermode sets it up this way:

"Another view is that MacIntosh is absolutely gratuitous and fortuitous, a mere disturbance of the surface of the narrative. So Robert M. Adams, who says that Joyce is just playing with our 'unfulfilled curiosity'....The real question is, why do we want to solve it anyway? Why does the view of Adams commend itself to us not at once, not as intuitively right, but as somehow more surprising and recondite than the attempts to make sense of MacIntosh? Why, in fact, does it require a more strenuous effort to believe that a narrative lacks coherence than to believe that somehow, if we could only find out, it doesn't." (52-53)

Kermode's initial preliminary answer: "[W]ithin a text no part is less privileged than the other parts. All may receive the same quality and manner of attention; to prevent this one would need to use metatextual indicators (typographical variation, for example) and there are no such indicators in the present instance." (53)

He goes on to discuss the various approaches to such "fractures" in a text's coherent surface, which fall into the extremes: one of trying to reconcile into coherence everything in a text and the other of trying to see the fractures as the only meaningful elements meant to allow for the most interpretive freedom. And overarching these is the institutional power that has set and solidified the standards for "normal" research regarding Joyce in particular and literary studies in general.

From here it is on to the Mark text where Kermode revisits a fundamental hermeneutic principle: "[W]here enigmas are credibly thought to exist in a text, it is virtually impossible to maintain that some parts of it are certainly not enigmatic. This is a principle important to the history of interpretation, and it was by carefully violating it with his fractured-surface theory that Robert Adams upset people." (57)

Kermode then discusses two interpretations of the difficult passage, one of which takes its departure from historiographical materials and the other which takes its departure from literary critical materials. Kermode indicates that the "establishment" and/or "institution" (I'm guess this must mean the established consensus of Biblical Studies scholars?) rejected the literary interpretation because it was too literary; running dangerously close to making Mark out to be more artistically fictive than transparently historical.

Then the chapter returns to the question of the desire for coherence and the fact that some see it as occurring as a result of the way language is learned and linked syntactically and redundantly and orally. Others prefer to see deception and disappointment as more honest encounters with narrative. The former stance is more prevalent of course, in the very least because it is more natural, simple, and satisfying--even when a text seems overtly clumsy or ill constructed for coherence.

The final portion of the chapter is devoted to the disputed ending of Mark's Gospel, where the more ancient (typically taken as more reliable) manuscripts stop at 16:8 whereas the less ancient manuscripts have either parts or all of vv. 9-20. The text is more enigmatic if it ends at v. 8 "for they were afraid" and so Kermode investigates the ramifications of the dual possibilities. One of the more interesting comments is:

"Now all interpretation proceeds from prejudice, and without prejudice there can be no interpretation; but this is to use an institutional prejudice (Form-criticism) in order to disarm exegesis founded on more interesting personal preferences. If it comes to a choice between saying Mark is original and upholding 'the whole method of form-criticism' the judgment is unhesitating: Mark is not original." (68)

Kermode will obviously privilege the more literary stance, which takes Mark as the singular constructor of the Gospel we have for the most part, finally intact. But it is at the end of the chapter where Kermode brings in the matter of fore-understanding, which is the most applicable commentary the chapter contributes to the topic of hermeneutics:

"Even at the level of the sentence we have some ability to understand a statement before we have heard it all, or at any rate to follow it with a decent provisional sense of its outcome; and we can do this only because we bring to our interpretation of the sentence a pre-understanding of its totality. We may be wrong on detail, but not, as a rule, wholly wrong; there may be some unforeseen peripeteia or irony, but the effect even of that would depend upon our having had this prior provisional understanding. We must sense the genre of the utterance. [paragraph break] Fore-understanding is made possible by a measure of redundancy in the message which restricts, in whatever degree, the possible range of its sense. Some theorists, mostly French, hold that a fictive mark or reference inevitably pre-exists the determination of a structure; this idea is not so remote from Vorverstandnis [fore-understanding] as it may sound, but it is so stated as to entitle the theorist to complain that such a center must inevitably have an ideological bearing." (70-71)

Kermode points out, and I would tend to agree, that ideological and institutional constraints are inevitable. I would add that the fuzziness of our understandings of the origins of language and narrative preclude us from deciding once-for-all whether ideology precedes or follows language formation, construction, and intention. Yet it is clear that there is no escaping ideological influence in our present and recorded history of language use and interpretation. And as Kermode remarks, it is the institutional and ideological nature of hermeneutics that allows for outsiders to produce "radiant" (Kermode's term) and/or radical interpretations. It remains, and may always remain, that hermeneutics seeks out and calls forth coherence from a text (to whatever degree and for whatever moment in time and space).

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