Meaning and Inspiration
by Victor Genke
Reading a literary text is impossible without interpretation. Now any artistic text may be represented in letters, sounds, painting etc. If it conveys meaning, it keeps its basic nature as a text.
Many philologists still deny this. People always felt a language works like a machine: you put a meaning into a word (picture, gesture and so forth) and it mechanically presents itself to a reader as well as a listener or spectator altogether unchanged. The possibility of understanding by itself compelled people to think that reading differs from interpretation. To read, hear and see is to realize what the author meant, whereas to interpret is to distill in an artificial manner other useful meanings from a text and to do so with a didactical purpose. The point is that nobody really asked how these meanings could be derived from a text if its author had not put them there.
Interpretation presupposes multiplicity of readings, which themselves are called interpretations. Any literary text is polysemantic, therefore interpretation is indissolubly connected with reading, that is, should we be speaking about texts. However it always seemed that one meaning must be considered as central. Then it was called true, intended by the author, or anything similar. The basic intuition is as follows: if all the possible meanings (interpretations) are equal, then there will be no understanding.
Philology, having become subservient to the patterns of Latin grammarians, always stayed within the context of phrases’ petty and comfortable space. One always can find or construct more or less monosemantic phrases and work with them, thereby demonstrating how a language functions. Too often these artificial phrases are torn off linguistic reality, in fact any reality. Not by chance did Ionesco create his theatre of absurd, having been inspired by the reading of textbook exercises when he studied English. For my part, I discovered while teaching foreign languages the shock my students had experienced, that is, when they had to pass from artificial phrase-based exercises to original texts. It was especially obvious in case of Latin and other “dead” languages, which originally functioned in a very different cultural context.
Among others, this point of view has found its comprehensive expression in the works of Emile Benveniste. A phrase is determined by its constituents only; it yields to segmentation, but does not enter into any larger unities; it is the last level of the integration of linguistic signs, but itself it is not a sign.
In the 1960s this approach was challenged by Copenhagen school of structural linguistics. Hjelmslev’s glossematics determined text as its object. Hjelmslev argued that language basically exists in the form of texts. Text is a primary, basic linguistic sign from which other linguistic units are derived. Soon French structuralists — Barthes, Lacanne, Levy-Strauss and others — picked up and developed this idea. Thus text linguistics (or translinguistics) came into being whose major theme was the semantic content of a text. Its contribution to modern semiotics cannot be overemphasized, as it made a step outside the limits of a phrase, the realm of traditional philology, and faced problems which otherwise would go unsolved by remaining inside these limits.
How did scientific understanding of communication change? This essay is not the proper place to treat interpretative semantics at length. Far better accounts of its theory and methodology exist. In brief, the basic principles of the present research can be explained as follows.
It has been shown that the text is not exclusively (or even predominantly) a bearer of information inserted from outside and autonomous with regard to the text. While moving from a sender to a receiver, the text is able not only to transform a message, but even generate new messages (Y. Lotman determined the text as “an intellectual device”). As a message, meaning is immanent not to a text, but to the whole communicative situation, which includes not only these three units — information, a sender and a receiver — but also the whole range of other conditions, primarily a context. The meaning of a text is thus something rather constructed than given since its actualization is not a unique process fixed once and for all.
Text is open to other texts of a culture. These semantic links between texts affect the meaning greatly because without them the message is modified.
Here we face the basic problem for interpretative semantics: if the environment changes, then text’s content also changes because it is immanent to a communicative situation which is now different. Having come into another culture, historical period or language, the meaning grows poorer or richer, according to the structure of new relations with other texts. That is why texts are always polysemantic. The author himself cannot be a supreme guarantor of a message’s quasi “true” interpretation; the meaning is no more immanent to his mind than to the text.
In this situation we have two principal options. (1) A productive reading reinterprets a text according to the arbitrariness of a receiver. The second half of the 20th century saw a flood of such interpretations. Unfortunately the interpretative semantics were often understood as mere hunting for Freudian symbols in the works of great writers, which frightened away from it many serious scholars. (2) A descriptive reading aims to restore the content of a text and to reconstruct the original communicative situation. This task (F. Rastier called it “modest but ambitious”) demands great care and responsibility as well as in-depth encyclopedic knowledge, because texts often refer to many other texts, without which it is impossible to reach the original meaning. Only this type of reading can lead us to solutions of the problems this essay seeks to communicate.
It is important to note that below the word “text” will imply religious texts only, which in their semantic richness function very much like literary and artistic texts in general.
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When Philo read Pentateuch in the Septuagint, the communicative situation obviously differed from the times of Moses. When Origen read Romans, it could not actualize the very same meaning that it had actualized to the original St. Paul’s auditory. When Augustine read Latin Bible (it was perhaps Vetus Latina, as he disliked the translation made by Jerome, that is the Vulgate), the whole cultural context of the epoch and contemporary environment changed its meaning compared with the prophets and apostles. (We avoid the problem of translation here which will be treated at length in a separate chapter). Biblical texts interacted with other texts of a given culture and were “enciphered” by them according to new codes, thereby generating new meanings. Even in the same cultural environment readings were multiple, as some groups were less open to the context than others — compare Alexandria and Antioch (Hellenistic culture). Environments themselves can differ substantially. If we think about Syria, Carthage or Ireland, the dissimilarity between the acts of reading Scripture (and its actualized meanings) will be even more obvious. Since no supreme, ideal reader exists, a text also does not necessarily comprehend only one “true” meaning.
It has long been a commonplace to say that Philo’s allegorical approach to the Bible tried to adapt the heritage of the Hebrew culture to Hellenistic thinking. But frankly speaking, what can we really say about the intentions or driving forces of Philo as a person? What was conscious in the procedure he used and what was done instinctively and by intuition? Yes, he wanted Greeks to read biblical literature, but Scripture would be reinterpreted by the new context even without Philo. The translation of the Old Testament into koine permitted the transition of the text from one culture to another. Then the old semantic links were broken and new ones were at work. Thus new meanings freely presented themselves to the minds of those who shared the heritage of the Hellenistic culture, Philo being among many. The most characteristic feature of this new type of communicative situation was the increasing number of symbolical connections.
Philo’s texts soon enjoyed a certain authority because they accurately reflected the new situation. When Clement of Alexandria followed in his steps, he confirmed the tradition and made it legal among Christians.
The problem of multiplicity of meanings in Scripture began to fascinate Christian minds since a very early period. Origen was the first to deal with it seriously. He compared God’s Word to almonds: its literal meaning is like a bitter rind, a “killing letter.” He wants his readers to throw it away. Moral teaching is like a hard shell, which is to be broken so as to reach the hidden, mystical meaning. The principal step was made: multiplicity of meanings found its theoretical basis and was made a cornerstone of biblical exegesis.
Soon the Alexandrian approach met strong opposition, especially in Antioch, where the literal interpretation of the Bible was predominant. The problem was that interpretation was understood as a method, not as integral part of the reading process. Reading was more or less associated with getting the literal meaning. On the contrary, interpretation was associated with getting (many) allegorical meaning(s). But interpretation cannot be posterior to reading, that is, to exist separately. Hermeneutics is not finding or looking for hidden meaning behind the apparent. In the process of interpretation (understood as a technique) one recognizes the meaning which appeared to the mind of a receiver at a previous moment of understanding, and in this sense it could be truly called anamnesis.
When comparing literal and allegorical meanings, Origen regarded the latter as much more valuable and reproached those who were content with the literal which was in line with a very old tradition of dichotomy between the sacred and profane. But Origen did not despise what he called “literal meaning” as such; he was indignant with those who saw the most apparent meaning as the only possible or permissible one, that is with those who considered the biblical text to be monosemantic.
In terms of Ferdinand de Saussure Origen’s “literal” meaning is the semantic content of a usual linguistic sign, and “allegorical” meaning is the content of a symbol, a sign of more complex semantic structure, where the signifié (“what is signified” as opposed to expression or signifiant, “what signifies”) is itself a signifiant for a signifié of the second order.
For example, let us take a fish as representative of Jesus Christ. There is the word “fish” (signifiant, graphical or sound expression). Its meaning or semantic content (signifié) of the first order is ‘fish.’ Its meaning of the second order is ‘Jesus Christ.’ Here ‘fish’ being a signifié for “fish” simultaneously functions a signifiant for ‘Jesus Christ.’ To get the last meaning, one should know that ΙΧΘΥΣ is an anagram: “Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior”. Without this information we just get “fish” and no ‘Jesus Christ’ (a usual linguistic sign). As Romans, in fact, who did not understand this secret symbolon of the first Christians.
Charles S. Pierce is credited with having pointed out the three dimensions of signs, which are concerned with, respectively, the body or medium of the sign, the object that the sign designates, and the interpretant of the sign (clearly, symbolical sign). To actualize…to make available for a receiver…a symbolical meaning of the second order, additional knowledge is required which functions as an interpretant.
Thus Saussure distinguished between non conventional signs and symbols, which he termed as conventional signs (“scales,” the symbol for ‘justice,’ cannot be changed for anything, “waggon” for example), in which some rudiment of natural relationship between signifiant and signifié can be traced. But he reasoned on the level of words, where it is very easy to speak about literal and allegorical, usual signs and symbols, non conventional and conventional. But on the level of texts the situation is infinitely more complex.
In a communicative situation external interpretants (other texts of a given culture) are able to actualize in a text not only inherent meanings but those which are afferent. They provide codes enabling alteration of the message, and these codes are freely superposed on the language’s functional system where “fish” always means ‘fish’ and nothing more. Cultural context can actualize in a receiver’s mind a wide range of semantic links which would never function should a word or a phrase be taken separately or when they are always mere signs or “regular” symbols which require the operation of social convention. “Waggon” can refer to ‘justice,’ if this word is not taken separately, but in a text. Everything depends on the context and interpretants which encode the message at the moment of perception. The whole process is largely unconscious. For example, how many of us begin to speak louder when a person resembling one’s father is present in the same room? When we get the meaning ‘father’ through certain appearance (which never designate ‘father’ in any other communicative situation, except for those who share the same cultural background…children of the same family for example) the situation prompts us to self-affirmation without our realizing it.
Thus Origen’s opposition of “literal” vs “allegorical” text interpretation was not altogether correct. The first meaning coming to a receiver’s mind is not necessarily the usual one, based on the functional system of the language, or “literal” meaning. In certain contexts one can go directly to the afferent meanings. In the act of reading, inherent and afferent meanings enter into a complex interaction, so that it is no longer possible to distinguish between them clearly. Even more important, such complex referential links may be characteristic not only for later readings, but also for the original communicative situation. Compare the Book of Ruth where everything points to the rights of David for kingship or in the words of Dr. J. B. Jordan, this “underground pro-Davidic propaganda.” If we see the Book of Ruth as just a story about women and their relationships, we miss the whole point. But to get the original meaning we are to use a descriptive procedure.
On the contrary, in Alexandria productive reading flourished. Allegorical method allowed seeing any meaning in anything; moreover, these new interpretations began to be used as arguments in theological debates. It could not remain a minor problem of Christian exegesis: at that time Bible began to be viewed not only as a source of truth, but also as its canon or criterion. And the notion of truth is very hard to be reconciled with the notion of multiplicity. Truth is unique. Augustine thus wrote:
Whoever takes another meaning out of Scripture than the writer intended, goes astray, but not through any falsehood in Scripture. Nevertheless, as I was going to say, if his mistaken interpretation tends to build up love, which is the end of the commandment, he goes astray in much the same way as a man who by mistake quits the high road, but yet reaches through the fields the same place to which the road leads.
But immediately he adds:
He is to be corrected, however, and to be shown how much better it is not to quit the straight road, lest, if he get into a habit of going astray, he may sometimes take cross roads, or even go in the wrong direction altogether. (De Doctrina Christiana, I, 36).
Augustine saw that meanings are multiple. However, Scripture never lies. How could he say that many meanings are true? What if they contradict? Thus Augustine made a great step: he called them valid, provided they served to build up love. If so, they lead to the same truth. (He clearly understood how many dangers await Christians on this way. Was he himself sure he had the meaning “that the author intended”?) This distinction between truth and meaning was too artificial, however, as a solution, as a logical operation, it cannot be overestimated. Nevertheless love as a criterion of permissible interpretations (vaguely identified with the true ones) do not serve as a good tool in controversial times. To be sure, Christianity rarely saw other times.
Thus gradually, from Origen to Pope Gregory the Great the western theory of the three (and later even four) scriptural meanings was formed. One cannot help wondering how little it affected the development of the Christian teaching. In the West “scholastic” theology was clearly opposed to “spiritual.” Going directly to Scripture multiplied interpretations, and when a doctrine was going to be acknowledged as true, Churchmen headed not for interpretations of “spiritualists” useful for didactic purposes only, but rather for agreement between the most influential theological schools or authoritative doctors. This phantom of universal consensus blinded many. Vincent of Lerins wrote:
Moreover, in the Catholic Church itself, all possible care must be taken, that we hold that faith which has been believed everywhere, always, by all. (Commonitorium, II, 6).
That type of faith never existed. On the contrary, the debates in the West grew increasingly violent especially since the time of anti-Augustinian reaction. Capitula of various synods began to contradict each other, for at different times the majority of people were easily led by every wind of doctrine and thus supported a variety of interpretations. This only irritated systematic minds which sought a sure and stable foundation as well as unequivocal solutions. The problem of biblical truth became so acute that it motivated Luther to proclaim the literal meaning alone as true. But taking this radical decision he “splashed the water together with the child,” as the Russian proverb says. Compared with the times of Origen, nothing drastically changed in the understanding of communication, so Luther operated with old ambiguous and inadequate terms. He obviously tried to formulate the principles of descriptive reading, but lacked the appropriate tools. It was very easy to say that the serpent of Genesis designated a real snake and that it was not some vague allegory. But what to do with semantic richness of Jeremiah or Isaiah, where everything is based on afferent meanings and every line refers to some external text, thereby demanding additional knowledge about Hebrew culture? The original context was lost and neither Luther nor his collaborators were able to restore it apart from a few simple passages.
When Rationalism brought its scientific means of research into biblical exegesis, it also brought all the pitfalls of philology which were characteristic for that time. Word was still considered as a mere carrier of information, and this instrumental conception of the language was largely supported by the general trend of western idealism. This brings us to the very heart of the present discussion.
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Different viewpoints on the problem allow two positions or choices: which item in the communicative situation is emphasized and how the correlation of the text and meaning is understood. Usually the true biblical meaning is conceived as the meaning intended by the author. Various arguments are used to convince us that Moses, Jeremiah or St. Paul wanted to say this or that. Thus the sender becomes the key figure. Meanings not intended by him are illicit. Very often this conviction is accompanied by unshakable belief that Scripture has only one true meaning. It is especially characteristic for modern Protestant exegesis which is deeply affected by Rationalism. At other times meaning of an inspired text is emphasized as something God-given and preexisting the author, biblical or patristic. Meanings are understood as multiple but basically in agreement with each other (though the human mind in this life is often unable to see how exactly), and thus all the meanings are taken as true. This position is more characteristic for Roman Catholicism as well as Orthodoxy although with minor reservations for the latter.
However, as it was stated above, from the point of view of interpretative semantics the meaning is not immanent to either of the different aspects of the communicative situation taken separately. Should we emphasize the sender of the message or the message itself (or even the receiver, as various forms of productive reading do), we will never achieve adequate solutions. Western idealism accustomed us to take a radical separation between that which is intelligible and sensible, an idea and matter, subject and object. But the meaning is immanent to the whole communicative situation where this dichotomy clearly fails. If we use it, it brings us back to the old instrumental conception of the language where we must divide the indivisible and complex communication process into pairs — the sender and the message; the message and the receiver — which can never exist or function without other components. In this case the context is either neglected, or insufficiently taken into account. Modern semiotics contributes to the destruction of this artificial vis-à-vis, which other disciplines are slowly accomplishing as well. For example, quantum mechanics has been able to prove that a fact is trine, being composed out of an observer, an object and a site or environment. Dualism obviously leads to false conclusions.
I first presented a research based on interpretative semantics methodology to a good friend who is Roman Catholic. I tried to show that certain symbolical connections made by modern commentators with regards to the works of St. Gregory of Nyssa could not be operative at the time of St. Gregory. Thus they are in fact the result of later productive reading. The reaction was rather reserved. Trying to ascertain when, under what conditions and how the generation of certain meanings became possible seemed to be mere “seeking sources to the point of reductionism.” The implication was that inspired texts cannot be studied as any other texts. If eternal God is the source of such-and-such truth, temporal criteria are of little value. It was very interesting to interact with such a thoroughly Platonic approach.
If semiosis is understood as perception of eternal forms which pertain to the purely spiritual world of ideas, it is very hard to admit that the information received this way can be so much influenced and mutilated by such “earthly” factors as historical or cultural context and similar circumstances. Does not this consist of relativizing the eternal truth and subjecting it to temporal things? Speaking about “generation” of the meaning under the influence of those circumstances is even more repulsive which to all appearance contradicts the supernatural origin of the inspired meaning. Furthermore, such a position presumably denies God as the ultimate Author of the Bible and tries to explain everything by “material” causes.
These objections are conditioned by the identification of truth and true meaning. Meaning can be only relatively true (in the current philosophical meaning of the term “truth”).
Plato was fascinated by the fact that the word “Socrates” for example means (signifies, refers to, denotes) that philosopher. Thus he reasoned that the meaning of the word is the tie that connects it with its referent. Regarding proper names as words par excellence, he extended the referential model of meaning to all of the other classes of words. Just as the referent of the word “Socrates” in the sentence “Socrates is wise” is Socrates himself as a real person, so also the word “wise” refers to the form of wisdom. But names are very untypical words. The difficulty represented by this approach increases as we try to find appropriate referents for verbs, prepositions, and so on. The referential theory of meaning involves the whole range of other problems.
Gottlob Frege has shown that two expressions may have the same referent without having the same meaning. For example, “the Morning Star” and “the Evening Star” refer to the same planet, yet the two phrases do not have the same meaning. Thus, even in case of names, or expressions equivalent to names, one has to distinguish between the denotation or reference of the name and its connotation or meaning. One more problem is that phrases can be meaningful, but refer to nothing. Various aletheic semantic theories, which claim that the notion of meaning can be explained in other terms than reference, do not solve the problem. Alfred Tarski, who in 1930s proposed the famous [T] formula, had to restrict his theory of semantic truth to clearly formalized, artificial languages.
Thus inspired biblical meaning is clearly not the same thing as eternal divine truth. To avoid lengthy philosophical discussion, let us simply define truth as the information, which God intends to be received by people. In this essay it will not be discussed in detail in which form this kind of information exists before it becomes available for human mind or outside this situation. Perhaps the best way will be describing such modus existendi in terms of Platonic philosophy. But the only possible way to communicate something to people is sending a message in the form of meaning, which is now immanent to a communicative situation as a whole, and thus is no more autonomous. In this case sharp distinction of “ideal” and “corporeal” where the former is largely independent with respect to the latter, only mislead a researcher.
Does it mean that the Spirit of God is helpless before these functional rules? Not at all, as our God is truly omnipotent. He certainly can avoid them, because He can change the ordo et connexio rerum in physical reality, and we are familiar with many instances; but what concerns semiological reality we have no examples. The basic point of this discussion is that God wants to be understood by human creatures. He conveys meanings according to the usual rules of communication which as far as we know, are the only possible means to transmit information. Is this fact a result of the Fall? Perhaps it would be a good topic for a larger essay sometime in the future.
Now let us consider one specific example. Imagine that in an Icelandic saga we read:
When he went to the Althing, he had on a sand-colored cloak.
Which meaning will be actualized in the minds of 99% of the members of modern western society, who have never had any interest in Icelandic culture and have never been to Iceland? Of course they will be sure that this cloak was of yellow or gray hue. (I have read this sentence to lots of people; the result was always the same). However, in Iceland sand is volcanic, and for native Icelandic-speakers the color of sand is definitively black.
Outside the original communicative situation the message automatically gets into the cultural context of a receiver and is recoded, the receiver himself having no idea with regards to the process. Now let us imagine that this is an inspired text written by an Icelandic Saint. I think the implications are rather clear: in a different culture the message will be thoroughly modified. Moreover, even when we learn that for Icelanders sand is black, we cannot think about sand as something really black. This link does not exist in our semiotic world. We can keep it in mind while reading Icelandic texts, but we cannot react as Icelanders. We are not moved by instinct, we have to deliberate, which process often fails to give us the same encoded information that really exists in a message and is proper for it, but is indecipherable or hardly visible for us. Now imagine the whole complex of such relationships, altogether alien for our civilization. We can study them, as we do with regard to the Prophet Elijah’s or Apostle Paul’s times, but too much is lost irrevocably. Even what we can learn (that is concerning specific afferent meanings characteristic for such-and-such words or lexemes), we cannot get into our heads as semiological instincts. To laugh or cry in a due moment of a movie, one has to live for quite a long time in the country which produced it. However we are free to laugh or cry whenever we feel merry or sad, notwithstanding the original context or the idea of a film director.
Thus many problems regarded as theological are in fact semiological and have to be regarded as such.
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