In a theological thread over at Reddit, I ran into the following:
A literal interpretation of Genesis has been warned against probably since the old Jewish scholars that wrote it…. You acknowledge this point, so why can’t you accept that the message of original sin is to be interpreted as well?
I think I basically agree with what this redditor is trying to say, but I’m not really interested in pursuing the question of creationism at the moment. It’s that last sentence that interests me here, as it implies that some texts are to be “interpreted” and others are not. It’s a usage of the word “interpret” that I’ve seen other places: “to interpret” means “to read in a non-literal way.” And it’s a usage that papers over the fact that all reading is interpretation.
Let’s start with an easy case. Say you’re reading T.S. Eliot famously dense poem The Waste Land and are stopped in your tracks by the first sentence:
April is the cruelest month
Breeding lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.
What in the world does this mean? Obviously, I’m going to have to interpret this sentence. But does “interpret” mean “just make any old thing up?” No – there are such things as better and worse interpretations. A worse interpretation: “These lines are about how annoying my April-born sister is!” A better interpretation: “These lines are about the deep pain behind the deceptively cheerful treatment of spring in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales.” Perhaps even that second reading is wrong, but if so, it’s wrong for the same reason it is better than the sibling-rivalry-reading. The more grounded in and justified by the text, the better the interpretation.
The raw material of the interpreter is a collection of bare facts. The fact that the poem consists in these words, the fact that they are strung together with these grammatical forms, the fact that they are in this order. The task of the interpreter is to mine these facts for meaning or sense.
We needn’t scale the perplexing heights of modernist poetry to see interpretation at work. Let’s take another, easier example. I recently gave my high school students a copy of the lyrics of “Jesus of Suburbia” by Green Day, which tells the story of a character struggling to escape from his conformist suburban background. T.S. Eliot it’s not. And yet my students had a difficult time understanding it. For most of them, it made no sense on a first reading. It was only after we had struggled with the text, interrogating its word choices, that the students were able to begin piecing together the sense of the song. While some of that included identifying themes, a great deal of the work was spent simply figuring out the plot. They were still mining the raw data of the song for meaning, even if that meaning was what we might otherwise refer to as “the literal meaning.”
You don’t have to be a literature professor (neither I nor my students are, certainly) to find yourself resorting to interpretation. You do it every time you read. (In fact, I think you do it every single time we make an inference of any sort, but that’s a somewhat different story). You are doing it right now, piecing together this essay’s meaning from the words, sentences, and paragraphs that undeniably comprise it. You do it when you watch a movie and try to piece together an overarching narrative out of the smaller units of acts, scenes, lines, and so on. You do it when you read a newspaper article and move to an understanding of some event from looking at scribbles on a page. Some of these acts of interpretation are easier than others, but they nonetheless remain acts of interpretation.
So what? Why does this have my panties in such a twist?
Any “literal sense” is itself the result of interpretation. What you think Genesis is “literally” about is the result of your having inferred meaning from a text. Branding that interpretation as “literal” and then distancing “literal” from “interpretive” gives your interpretation an artificially privileged status that exempts it from argument.
Compare this with the natural law tradition in moral philosophy. The worst strands of this tradition (most often from Catholics) take arguable positions and brand them with the concept of “nature” to place them beyond discussion. My favorite example is the (perhaps apocryphal) account of a discussion between several Catholic bishops in the early 60s about how women ought to wear skirts rather than pants, and any argument otherwise simply ignores the dictates of “nature.” Or when my bishop in graduate school argued that the Vagina Monologues were immoral because nature itself teaches us that the woman’s sexual organs are hidden, tucked away inside the body.
In both cases the rhetorical move is to mask your own inference with an appeal to some absolute, either “nature” or the “literal.” Of course, the rhetorical trickery of “the literal” pops up in discussions about the Bible. But it also rears its head quite often in politics. It’s what happens both on left and right when someone claims their reading of one article of the Constitution is “obvious” or “literal” in order to dismiss someone else’s. Just think of the debates that swirl around the 2nd and 14th Amendments. News stations do the same by branding themselves “fair and balanced” or by falsely affecting neutrality. Or on the campaign trail. I have often found myself and others defending our preferred candidate’s comments with interpretive intricacy while attacking other candidates for the “plain meaning” of their statements. In the case of Ahmadinejad’s purported comment about wiping Israel off the map, your interpretive stance may very well affect your willingness to use military might against Iran. And on and on.
So, yes, the original redditor’s comment was rather benign. But it instantiates an illegitimate distinction between “literal” and “interpreted” that can be anything but.