The Genesis of Secrecy: On the Interpretation of Narrative
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 naĂŻve 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 VorverstĂ¤ndnis (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 a logical puzzle, a circularity. This is the famous “hermeneutic circle.” It can be broken only by resolving the question of which came first the chicken or the egg, the whole or the part. By general agreement, from which there has been virtually no dissent, the question of priority is decided in favor of the whole. The whole must be known in some fashion before we know the part. For how can I know that I am seeing a nose unless I first know that I am seeing a face? And from the doctrine of the priority of the whole came the doctrine of pre-understanding. Since we must know the whole before the part, we must assume some kind of pre-understanding in all interpretation.
This history, as Blake said in another context, has been adopted by both parties. It was used by Dilthey in his campaign against “the constant outbreak of romantic arbitrariness and skeptical subjectivity” in interpretation. And it is now being used by the literary followers of Heidegger to defend skeptical subjectivity as a necessary virtue. But in fact the doctrine of pre-understanding is a widely accepted structural principle in a variety of fields. In the theory of science, for instance, it corresponds to the doctrine that you cannot make sense of data without a hypothesis, and you must have a hypothesis before you can have meaningful data. The same idea is widely accepted by psychologists who suggest that you can make sense of an experience only if you can fit it into some previously existent schema in your mind. These are different versions of a single idea which has gained acceptance by objectivists and relativists alike. While pre-understanding is an interesting and illuminating idea in its own right it is also a universal feature of all hermeneutic theories, and cannot be used as the distinctive principle of any hermeneutical school. What is worrying and questionable is that relativists like Kermode sometimes use the terms “pre-understanding” and “prejudice” as interchangeable terms.
Why have secular literary theorists come so tardily to the theory of interpretation, a subject that has preoccupied the textual scholars of every religion with traditional sacred writings? Certainly, interpretation has not figured significantly in the intellectual history of literary theory. Ever since Plato, literary theory has concerned itself almost exclusively with the problem of value, e.g., “Are the ancients better than the moderns?” “Are standards of judgment universal?” You can read through virtually all the major works of the important literary critics before the twentieth century without finding an extended discussion of the problem of interpretation. In Britain, writers like Sidney, Pope, Hume, Johnson, Coleridge, and Arnold simply did not question their interpretations of the texts they read. They asked of a piece of writing, “Is it good?” or “Why is it good?” rather than “What does it mean?”
By contrast, ever since the revolution begun by the New Critics during the 1940s, and the enormous increase in the numbers of academic interpreters over the past forty years, the question of value has fallen into the background and the question of interpretation has come to the fore. Kermode is right to say that nowadays the value of a literary text within the canon of studied works is simply taken for granted. In this new situation, the value of the literary text is no more open to dispute than the value of a sacred text. You would no more call into question the value of Ulysses than you would call into question the value of Genesis. So the only important questions left for literary theorists to answer seem to be those of hermeneutic theory. Practical and theoretical energies are devoted to the task of Hermes, which in Kermode’s view is an endless, even heroically Sisyphean task.
Like the notion of the hermeneutic circle this idea that the task of interpretation is endless is also agreed upon by all hermeneutic theorists. But in this case the idea is very differently conceived by the two chief schools of hermeneutics. One, the “reader-based theory,” represented by Kermode, holds that interpretation must be endless because textual meaning is ever different for different readers. On the other side, the more traditional “author-based theory” holds that the task of interpretation is endless because the meaning of a text must ever be explained differently to different readers.
Kermode’s idea of endlessness arises as follows. He argues that after a text has been around a long time it is impossible for a modern reader to have all of the cultural and linguistic knowledge that the original author assumed his original readers would have. Just as a secular reader cannot hope to recover the sacred meaning of the gospel narratives, so a modern reader cannot possibly understand accurately what a long dead author such as Shakespeare intended to convey. The only truly descriptive theory of interpretation is therefore one which takes account of the ways many different interpreters have conferred many different meanings on the same text. Interpretation is never definitive, so each new generation of interpreters has something to do.
The author-based theory of interpretation sees the interpretative moment as the starting point of a very different process. It assumes that the recovery of original meaning is not inherently impossible, and may have been achieved by some of those who read the text before. It attributes interpretative disagreements to lack of decisive evidence about the author’s intention, and it attributes agreements to the persuasiveness of the evidence about that intention. All historical scholarship in the domain of textual interpretation, including the scholarship devoted to establishing a text, has followed this model. Reader-based theories overlook the inconvenient truth that the older texts being interpreted were invariably established by scholars who believed that the authors’ intentions could be known and agreed upon. In fact without the norm of authorial intention we could not establish definitive texts.
These two norms, the reader norm and the author norm, can be shown to exhaust the possibilities of workable norms for interpretation. Any attempt to make a compromise between them will logically reduce to one or the other of these two principles. By definition, the reader norm allows us to accept as valid an indefinite number of interpretations, whereas the author norm inherently gives authority to a single kind of reading. Theorists such as Kermode, who attempt to limit the number of acceptable reader-interpretations, are inviting logical embarrassments; while those who suggest that it is possible to combine a number of authorial interpretations take a logically indefensible position. For example, that Blake changed his mind about the meaning of “The Tyger,” as he undoubtedly did, doesn’t authorize two different interpretations of Blake’s meaning; it simply presents two separate interpretative problems, each with a single solution.
The chief virtue of reader-based interpretation is said to be its power to keep the old texts alive and valuable. (In just this way Kermode revives the Gospel narratives as secular texts about how to read and make sense of a story.) In the more traditional, author-based hermeneutics, it was the task of what was called applicatio to carry out such an aim. Interpretatio implied an understanding of the author’s meaning, while applicatio implied making that meaning significant and valuable for a particular audience. Thus it was said that the interpreter should be an expert both in the ars intelligendi and the ars explicandi, the art of understanding and the art of presentation. The endlessness of interpretation lay in this ever-changing task of presentation. Reader-based theories like Kermode’s collapse the double task, making interpretation and application one. Each reader finds his own significance without asking whether it bears any relation to the author’s intended meaning.
So much by way of theoretical background. The novelty of Kermode’s exposition lies less in his theories than in the way he draws on both secular and scriptural examples, comparing, for instance, the different ways that Kafka and St. Mark include what they both call “parables” within their larger narratives. Sometimes Kermode’s cross references between the literary and the scriptural can be extraordinarily illuminating, as in the following remark on how moments in the New Testament were prefigured in the Old: