Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Against Interpretation

I don’t trust interpretation. I take very little stock in it.

Many years ago, a scholar (and now sometime New York Times columnist) Stanley Fish wrote a fairly famous essay called “How to Recognize a Poem When You See One.” The essay is terribly interesting because it reveals how great, consistent interpretations can be made without any basis in reality. An interpretation is very much a work of art. It is much less so a legitimate hypothesis about the world.

I’ll try to summarize what I see as the important part of the essay. Fish’s students, who are learning about English religious poetry of the seventeenth century, walk into their classroom and see this on the chalkboard:
Ohman (?)
This list had been put on the board for the class preceding the one on religious poetry. It is actually a list of surnames. These are linguists and literary theorists: Roderick Jacobs, Peter Rosenbaum, Samuel Levin, J. P. Thorne, and so on.

Here’s what happens next, according to Fish:
When the members of the second class filed in I told them that what they saw on the blackboard was a religious poem of the kind they had been studying and I asked them to interpret it. Immediately they began to perform in a manner that, for reasons which will become clear, was more or less predictable. The first student to speak pointed out that the poem was probably a hieroglyph, although he was not sure whether it was in the shape of a cross or an altar. This question was set aside as the other students, following his lead, began to concentrate on individual words, interrupting each other with suggestions that came so quickly that they seemed spontaneous. The first line of the poem (the very order of events assumed the already constituted status of the object) received the most attention: Jacobs was explicated as a reference to Jacob's ladder, traditionally allegorized as a figure for the Christian ascent to heaven. In this poem, however, or so my students told me, the means of ascent is not a ladder but a tree, a rose tree or rosenbaum. This was seen to be an obvious reference to the Virgin Mary who was often characterized as a rose without thorns, itself an emblem of the immaculate conception. At this point the poem appeared to the students to be operating in the familiar manner of an iconographic riddle. It at once posed the question, "How is it that a man can climb to heaven by means of a rose tree?" and directed the reader to the inevitable answer: by the fruit of that tree, the fruit of Mary's womb, Jesus. Once this interpretation was established it received support from, and conferred significance on, the word "thorne," which could only be an allusion to the crown of thorns, a symbol of the trial suffered by Jesus and of the price he paid to save us all. It was only a short step (really no step at all) from this insight to the recognition of Levin as a double reference, first to the tribe of Levi, of whose priestly function Christ was the fulfillment, and second to the unleavened bread carried by the children of Israel on their exodus from Egypt, the place of sin, and in response to the call of Moses, perhaps the most familiar of the old testament types of Christ. The final word of the poem was given at least three complementary readings: it could be "omen," especially since so much of the poem is concerned with foreshadowing and prophecy; it could be Oh Man, since it is man’s story as it intersects with the divine plan that is the poem's subject; and it could, of course, be simply "amen," the proper conclusion to a poem celebrating the love and mercy shown by a God who gave his only begotten son so that we may live.
I ask you: how can you trust interpretation after reading this? Anything, anything at all, can be interpreted. And it can be interpreted in ways that are insightful, sensible, and worldview-changing.

These students get an interpretive frame – it’s a religious poem – and then proceed to hook up the text to the frame. I have no doubt that the students could have developed an equally viable interpretation with a different frame.

And this is why I find a religious view of the world hard to take seriously: it’s just a frame, after all. However happy religious adherents claim to be, however beautiful their cities, however tender their friendships, however healthy their children, however skilled their artists, however abundant their harvests, and however kind their weather – the religious view is just a frame. (Forgive me, Ursula K. Le Guin.)

An interpretive frame is not reality, and it need not be reality. Rather, it is a fiction, a scenario, an imposition. Reality and truth are incidental, maybe even accidental, to the frame. Don’t get me wrong, interpretations are great. I love ‘em. But I don’t trust ‘em. They seem to me like the object of caution in Bob Dylan's song: “And don't go mistaking Paradise / For that home across the road.”

Now, some smart person might rightly challenge that I should examine and criticize my own interpretive frames. I go after the religious frame, that person will say, so why not go after the non-religious frame too? This would be a fair question, but let's remember that the religious frame dictates, among other things, the existence of an interventionalist supernatural being that cannot be seen or independently verified. Indeed, only texts and tradition insist that such a being exists or ever has existed. In its positive claims about reality, the religious frame imposes a more restrictive view than an atheist frame.

My atheist frame, too, is an imposition, but one that does not introduce an inscrutable being. It is less restrictive than the religious frame insofar as it does not necessarily rule out a god or gods. In other words, the atheist frame is not necessarily anti-theist whereas the theist frame is automatically anti-atheist. The difference between religious and atheist frames is one of degree rather than kind: the religious frame assumes the existence of things, and their fundamental stability, when it has no justification to do so. The atheist frame makes assumptions and claims about reality, but invites the independent testing and questioning of these assumptions and claims.

Regardless of whether one applies a religious or an atheist frame to some text, interpretation is suspect. The worst interpretations seek to confirm the frame itself, and confirm it from within rather than independently. For instance, they will approach a poem as a religious artifact, and they will produce a reading shows the poem expressing religious ideas. This inside operation - also known as confirmation bias - is the sort of reasoning we need to be cognizant of and that we need to avoid, if our goal is to get closer to reality.

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