No Right Interpretation

*Written by spcnet

Excerpts from a college paper:

Through the process of reading literature or examining different forms of art, it is difficult to stray away from the often ingrained impression of what something is "supposed" to mean. The viewer is almost afraid to rely on his own first rush of emotions from seeing a piece of work because of interpretations that have become accepted cliches. The interpretation itself has already "seen" the piece of work for the viewer and has left an imprint of what it is supposed to be.

It is what Susan Sontag writes as "the revenge of the intellect upon the world" (758) in Against Interpretation. Interpretation, she states, "is "to impoverish, to deplete the world to set up a shadow world of meanings" (758). She claims that interpretation as defined, "a conscious act of the mind which illustrates a certain code, certain 'rules' of interpretation" (756), establishes for the viewer a structured method of how to read, how to see, and even how to think.

Sontag suggests that the observer is directed toward interpretation as a mechanism of masking a lack of understanding. "Real art has the capacity to make us nervous" (759) and when we come across something that does not have a clear meaning, we try to "[dig] 'behind' the text, to find a sub-text which is the true one" (758). Interpretation is thereby, a means of the interpreter to mold the piece of work into something "manageable" (760) and intelligible.

Interpretation is also an act of the interpreter to satiate the ego. Because something is incomprehensible to the viewer, he is naturally urged to extract a meaning from it. Things, objects, and events that are without meaning to the viewer makes the viewer appear inferior to himself and so in order to re-inflate the ego, the job of the interpreter is to "[reduce] the work of art to its content and then interpreting that, one tames the work of art" (Sontag, 759). It is like bringing something to the viewer's level of understanding.

Take for instance, Thomas Aquinas, who is a firm advocate for human intellect and reasoning of the Middle Ages, theorized that anything and everything can be deduced to a finite value through rational reasoning. When presented with the baffling case of God, that which represented an unknown and infinite commodity, Aquinas tackles the rationality of God by attempting the feat of proving God's existence through scientific principles in five ways. In one of the five, Aquinas reasons that all things that move must first have the potential to move. All things that are in motion had to be first moved by something else (this we also know to be Newton's first law of motion which states that an object will remain at equilibrium unless acted upon by an unbalanced force). Aquinas concludes his reasoning by claiming "We are therefore bound to arrive at a first mover which is not moved by anything, and all men understand that this is God" (qtd. in Cantor, 299)--that God must be the first mover of all motion. Thus, Aquinas re-affirms his ego and his trusted belief in human intellect because he believed he had defined God's existence. Yet limiting God to a definite, finite being is detracting from the transcendence of God--if there is one. As in the case of art, trying to define art or literature would be like putting brackets on its transcendence.

Perhaps what frightens people and that which veers them toward the tendency of interpretation is anything that is without meaning. When reading any piece of literature there has to be a moral or some purpose to the story. It is easier to bear anything when there is a reason for it, and when there is none, we invent one. It is the natural habit of people to find meaning, to create an illusionary "shadow world of meanings" (Sontag, 758) and to seek the aesthetics to what they see and encounter in life.

...interpretation may not "poison our sensibilities" (Sontag, 758) when it is practiced purely on an individual basis. As long as the interpreter does not try to impose his or her interpretation on another, interpretation is harmless.

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