Carnal Knowledge

The Genesis of Secrecy: On the Interpretation of Narrative

by Frank Kermode
Harvard University Press, 169 pp., $10.00

This suggestive book on the nature of interpretation, based on Frank Kermode’s recent Norton lectures, draws on his reading of works by Kafka, Henry Green, Thomas Pynchon, and James Joyce, as well as the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. From his examination of these and other texts Kermode learnedly and gracefully discusses a variety of abstract questions including the theory of interpretation (hermeneutics), New Testament exegesis, structuralism, and the theory of narrative. But what succeeds as a lecture does not always work in a book. Despite Kermode’s disarming concession that his approach is unsystematic, and despite the sharpness of his isolated apercus, I find his book to be inadequately thought out, particularly in its theoretical arguments. I am especially troubled by Kermode’s uncritical modernism (i.e., his view that the latest ideas are the most interesting), and his certainty that it is naïve to seek the correct, or definitive, interpretation of any text. But before I expand on my criticisms I should describe the intellectual background to Kermode’s book.

Theoretical interest in interpretation has recently enjoyed a revival under the label “hermeneutics,” a word associated with Hermes, the divine messenger between the gods and men. Like any other interpreter of sacred texts, Hermes conveys God’s hidden message in terms that ordinary people can understand. In fact, even the word “interpreter” comes from interpres, which was the usual epithet for Mercury, the Roman Hermes. Until the 1960s, the word “hermeneutics” was associated with biblical exegesis in Britain and America. But as early as the 1950s hermeneutics was reintroduced in the secular sphere of German literary theory, where it had lain dormant since the late nineteenth century.

The author of this secular revival was Heidegger. In Sein und Zeit (1927), Heidegger appropriated from hermeneutics the concept of Vorverständnis (pre-understanding) in order to demonstrate the impossibility of unprejudiced, objective knowledge. Traditional hermeneutic theory had taught scholars that a preliminary understanding of what a text meant in general was indispensable to understanding what any of its parts meant. Heidegger argued that all knowledge is like this. No act of knowing can be free of a “pre-knowing” that is determined by our historical, social, and personal background. In short, Heidegger appropriated a concept from biblical hermeneutics to show that all knowledge is relative; then literary theorists reappropriated Heidegger’s more general version of hermeneutics for use in textual interpretation. Kermode’s book stands in the tradition of this relativistic, Heideggerian hermeneutics.

Central to this tradition is the doctrine of “pre-understanding.” The concept arose when philosophers of interpretation, particularly Dilthey (1833-1911), developed the idea that understanding a text is necessarily a circular process. First, we encounter words and clauses which have no distinct meaning until we know how they function in the text as a whole. But since we can only know the whole meaning through the various parts of the text, and since we cannot know what the parts mean or how they work together before we know the whole text, we find ourselves in…

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