Interpretation in our own time, however, is even more complex. For
the contemporary zeal for the project of interpretation is often
prompted not by piety toward the troublesome text (which may conceal
an aggression), but by an open aggressiveness, an overt contempt for
appearances. The old style of interpretation was insistent, but
respectful; it erected another meaning on top of the literal one.
The modern style of interpretation excavates, and as it excavates,
destroys; it digs
behind the text, to find a sub-text which
is the true one. The most celebrated and influential modern
doctrines, those of Marx and Freud, actually amount to elaborate
systems of hermeneutics, aggressive and impious theories of
interpretation. All observable phenomena are bracketed, in Freud’s
phrase, as manifest content. This manifest content must be probed
and pushed aside to find the true meaning–the latent content–beneath.
For Marx, social events like revolutions and wars; for Freud, the
events of individual lives (like neurotic symptoms and slips of the
tongue) as well as texts (like a dream or a work of art)–all are
treated as occasions for interpretation. According to Marx and
Freud, these events only seem to be intelligible. Actually, they
have no meaning without interpretation. To understand is to
interpret. And to interpret is to restate the phenomenon, in effect
to find an equivalent for it.
Thus, interpretation is not (as most people assume) an absolute
value, a gesture of the mind situated in some timeless realm of
capabilities. Interpretation must itself be evaluated, within a
historical view of human consciousness. In some cultural contexts,
interpretation is a liberating act. It is a means of revising, of
transvaluing, of escaping the dead past. In other cultural
contexts, it is reactionary, impertinent, cowardly, stifling.
Today is such a time, when the project of interpretation is largely
reactionary, stifling. Like the fumes of the automobile and of
heavy industry which befoul the urban atmosphere, the effusion of
interpretations of art today poisons our sensibilities. In a
culture whose already classical dilemma is the hypertrophy of the
intellect at the expense of energy and sensual capability,
interpretation is the revenge of the intellect upon art.
Even more. It is the revenge of the intellect upon the world. To
interpret is to impoverish, to deplete the world–in order to set
up a shadow world of
meanings. It is to turn the world into
this world. (
This world! As if there were any other.)
The world, our world, is depleted, impoverished enough. Away with
all duplicates of it, until we again experience more immediately
what we have.
In most modern instances, interpretation amounts to the philistine
refusal to leave the work of art alone. Real art has the capacity
to make us nervous. By reducing the work of art to its content and
then interpreting that, one tames the work of art. Interpretation
makes art manageable, conformable.
This philistinism of interpretation is more rife in literature than
in any other art. For decades now, literary critics have understood
it to be their task to translate the elements of the poem or play
or novel or story into something else. Sometimes a writer will be
so uneasy before the naked power of his art that he will install
within the work itself–albeit with a little shyness, a touch of
the good taste of irony–the clear and explicit interpretation of
it. Thomas Mann is an example of such an overcooperative author. In
the case of more stubborn authors, the critic is only too happy to
perform the job.
The work of Kafka, for example, has been subjected to a mass
ravishment by no less than three armies of interpreters. Those who
read Kafka as a social allegory see case studies of the
frustrations and insanity of modern bureaucracy and its ultimate
issuance in the totalitarian state. Those who read Kafka as a
psychoanalytic allegory see desperate revelations of Kafka’s fear
of his father, his castration anxieties, his sense of his own
impotence, his thralldom to his dreams. Those who read Kafka as a
religious allegory explain that K. in The
Castle is trying to gain access to heaven, that Joseph K. in
The Trial is being judged by the
inexorable and mysterious justice of God…. Another oeuvre that
has attracted interpreters like leeches is that of Samuel Beckett.
Beckett’s delicate dramas of the withdrawn consciousness–pared
down to essentials, cut off, often represented as physically
immobilized–are read as statements about modern man’s alienation
from meaning or from God, or as an allegory of psychopathology.
Proust, Joyce, Faulkner, Rilke, Lawrence, Gide … one could go on
citing author after author; the list is endless of those around
whom thick encrustations of interpretation have taken hold. But it
should be noted that interpretation is not simply the compliment
that mediocrity pays to genius. It is, indeed, the modern way of
understanding something, and is applied to works of every quality.
Thus, in the notes that Elia Kazan published on his production of
A Streetcar Named Desire, it becomes
clear that, in order to direct the play, Kazan had to discover that
Stanley Kowalski represented the sensual and vengeful barbarism
that was engulfing our culture, while Blanche Du Bois was Western
civilization, poetry, delicate apparel, dim lighting, refined
feelings and all, though a little worse for wear to be sure.
Tennessee Williams’ forceful psychological melodrama now became
intelligible: it was about something, about the decline of
Western civliization. Apparently, were it to go on being a play
about a handsome brute named Stanley Kowalski and a faded mangy
belle named Blanche Du Bois, it would not be manageable.
— Susan Sontag (1964/1966), Against Interpretation, in Against Interpretation, 6–9.