Tag Archives: hermeneutics

Enigma and apocalypse

When Oedipus solves the riddle of the Sphinx, the creature flings itself off a cliff to its death; conversely, his inability to solve the riddle of his own birth leads to his mother’s suicide and his own self-blinding and exile. Similarly, when in The Libation Bearers Orestes comes to kill his mother Clytemnestra and a servant cries out “The dead are killing the living!” — because Orestes was believed to be dead — Clytemnestra replies, “Ah, a riddle. I do well at riddles.” But she hasn’t done well: she never penetrated the riddling words of Cassandra, or she would not have acted as she did. And now her understanding of her own peril arrives too late to save her life.

The word there translated as “riddle” is ainigma. A form of that word appears also in the New Testament — only once, but in an especially famous verse, 1 Corinthians 13:12: “For now we see in a mirror dimly” — en ainigmati, in obscurity, enigmatically, as though riddled to — “but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known.” The key point here, I think, is that this is not a condition we can remedy through our own efforts — not even the most ingenious. In order to “see face to face,” to “know fully,” we must wait along with the whole Creation which (paraphrasing the second half of Romans 8 here) awaits its deliverance from enslavement to decay. When we are all delivered, redeemed, when the expectation of the children of God is realized, when the “great mystery” — Ephesians 5:21, not just a mysterion but a mega mysterion! — of the marriage of Christ and his church is consummated in glory, all of that will happen as an unveiling, a revelation: apokalypsin (Romans 8:21).

–Alan Jacobs, Tolkein’s riddles

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The value of texture

“To explain organic diversity, biologists have built a theory of evolution whose major tenets are couched in math and generally agreed. To explain cultural diversity, the humanities have offered only a succession of incommensurable interpretive fashions and uncountable particular studies, many of which, to be sure, enrich our understanding of this writer or that, but which only add texture to the tapestry of culture and do nothing to explain its whole.

[…]

Under the Pax Scientia criticism will continue, but be tamed. The epistemological feuds of the 20th century will yield to the technical quarrels typical of science. The scene will be less tumultuous, some will say less exciting, but it will be a renaissance.”

—Armand Marie Leroi, “One Republic of Learning”

“Leroi doesn’t seem to grasp that much criticism — and much of the criticism that has mattered the most — isn’t concerned with assigning a one-phrase summary of the “meaning” of an entire work of art, but is rather intensely focused on the details that are too small and too distinctive for algorithmic attention. When Keats writes, “Now more than ever seems it rich to die,” what does “rich” connote? Might it be ironic? (After all, the ironic use of “rich” — “Oh, that’s rich” — goes back to the seventeenth century.) No algorithm can ever tell, because algorithms aggregate, and the question here is about a single unrepeatable instance of a word. Nor can any aggregated information tell us anything about the torn cloth at the elbow of the disciple in Caravaggio’s Supper at Emmaus, or the bizarre alternations of the madly driven rhythms and ethereal voices in the Confutatis of Mozart’s Requiem.”

—Alan Jacobs, Pax Scientia: Thanks, But I’ll Pass”

Let me add a modest palimpsest to this discussion. Science can do much to describe the origins, practices, effects, and the likely purposes of humanistic values, morals, and ethics. Without claiming that science can never offer its own moral paradigm, I would like to say that the texture of the tapestry of culture, as Leroi puts it, offers itself to a number of interpretive experiences—many of them may be computable. Perhaps even all rational or theorized interpretive practices could (conceivably) be digitized and/or automated to some extent.

But there are other experiences. There is, of course, the pure experience of the tapestry: the immersive experience that is subjective and not consciously interpretive. Most academics do not write about untheorizable interpretations. Approaching a text without consciously using or being aware of some sort of systematic hermeneutic framework is nigh-unthinkable. (For a host of very good reasons.) But there is such a thing as an irrational interpretation. One that defies logic and systemization. For lack of a better word, let’s call it “mystic.”

Even if some programmer one day designs an algorithm that can assign meaning to a single, unrepeatable instance of a word, there will remain a mystic paradigm just beyond its scope. If science colonizes letters, the humanities may even actively take refuge in the mystic. Who knows if this transformation would be catastrophic, salutary, or (heaven forbid) inconsequential?

Don’t get me wrong: I am not reserving to the humanities the exclusive rights to discovering meaning. But value—perhaps that is the most mystic term of all. To the best of my understanding, there has not yet existed a value that could be signified without human(istic) intervention at some point. To understand the meaning of any value requires some sort of hermeneutics; and given the complexities of the universe—not the least part of which is irrational lil’ humanity, with its vaunted science—I do not foresee a time ever coming to pass in which the relationship between meaning and value will not require at least some flicker of mystic insight from which interpretation can begin. For value does not flow from meaning, but meaning from value. Who can explain the meaning of a tapestry’s texture unless one finds value in the texture itself?