Ashok R. Kelkar





   1.  What is interpretation?


For someone to interpret A as B is to proceed from point A to point B. Point A is sign or a sign construct (such as a text) of some sort the interpreter attends to at the start –a bodily appearance, a cloudy sky, a traffic light, a sacred rite, a word, a scientific formula, a folktale, a sacred narrative or myth, the rules of a game, a play, a poem. Point B is that which the interpreter attends to at the close as an outcome. (By a linguistic shorthand, point B is itself called an interpretation no less than the journey from point A to point B.)                                                         


   There is a possible complication. This journey may be something that has been designed by someone for the benefit of the interpreter. We say in such cases that the communicator is sending a message to the addressee by selecting or producing the message – vehicle A which manifests the message - content B. The addressee thereupon interprets A as B if the communication is successful.


   There is another possible complication. This journey may be something that has been aided and guided by someone for the benefit of the interpreter. We say in such cases that the communicator is sending a message to the addressee by selecting or producing the message-vehicle, A which manifests the message –content B.  The addressee thereupon interprets A as B if the communication is successful.


                        There is another possible complication.  This journey may be something that has been aided and guided by someone for the benefit of the interpreter.  (By another linguistic shorthand, this aiding and guiding activity is itself called interpreting. The translator or the commentator or the performer of a play1 is said to interpret A as B to the ultimate interpreter.)


                        When one thinks of the interpreting of a literary text, one realizes that both the foregoing complications are present-the literary text is addressed by the literary artist to a literary recipient and this literary recipient may accept aid an guidance form the literary commentator.   We further realize that there is an additional complication-about point B.  is point B already there ?  Does the recipient merely discover it either by himself or with the commentator’s assistance?  Is the activity of interpreting then quite simply a search for a correspondence between point A and point B Come into existence as the outcome of the process?  Are the text and its interpretation respectively the input and the output of the process (or activity) of interpreting? Is interpreting literally a question of ‘making’ sense of the text?  Our best hope with this problem, it would appear, is not a clear cut solution in one or the other direction but rather finding a way of living with it, even of exploiting it.


            Literary interpretation proceeds from A to B.  Literary manifestation presumably proceed from B to A.  One would expect, therefore, that there will be some mirror-image parallelism between the study of literary interpretation and rhetoric, the study of literary manifestation.  Interpretation undoes, as it were, what literary creativity does.


            Needless to say, we are leaving aside the sort of use of the word ‘interpretation;’ seen in, for example, Nietzsche’s disctum, “There are no facts, only interpretations.”  When point A is, say, a violent death which is a fact and when we debate as to whether it was an accident or murder or a suicide (alternate points B), obviously the proposed interpretive journey is not one form a sign to something the sign conveys.  Rather it is a journey form a fact to its placement within a larger perspective that should help us make letter ‘sense’ of it.  The two senses are related but distinct.


            11. Levels of interpreting literature

            The literary object is a complex one existing at more levels than one.  The journey form the literary object, point A, to the literary interpretation, point B has to pass through these levels.  To account for this, the following scheme of levels may be proposed.


            Input of level 1 (1-A): The literary text (consisting of sounds and prosodies, words and sentences, word senses and sentence construals) processors: (i) Competence in the language.  (ii) Inwardness to the literary conventions (inclusive of conventions that build a text out of a string of sentences).


            Out of level 1 (1-B)=Input of level 2 (2-A): The literary work of art (with its style and technique, the forming of the linguistic vehicle and experiential content) processors: (i) Literary sensibility.  (ii) Strategies of interpretation.


            Output of level 2 (2-B)= Input of level 3 (3-A): The imaginative object processors : (i) The recipient’s shared an personal experience.  (ii) The recipient’s shared and personal knowledge.


            Output of level 3(3-B): The relation between the imaginative object and rest of the world.

            The levels have been recognized to some extent by previous scholars but no terms have been widely accepted.  I propose to reserve the term interpretation for the broadcast application at any of the three levels, which may be named as follows:

            Level 1 :Exegetic level

            Level 2 :Hermeneutic level

            Level 3 :Homiletic level.

            The questions to ask at this point are : (a) why separate levels 1 and 2? (b) Why  separate levels 2 and 3? If one cannot separate, one must apply Occam’s razor and conflate


            The questions to ask at this point are : (a) why separate levels 1 and 2? (b) Why separate levels 2 and 3? If one cannot separate, one must apply Occam’s rasor and conflate the pair in question.


            Why separate levels and 2?  The recipient’s knowing the language that is used in the literary text is a necessary condition for responding to it, but it is not a sufficient condition.  The same could be said about the recipient’s knowing both the language and the literary conventions that are used in the literary text taken together.  Interpretation at the exegetic level is simply the fulfillment of this necessary condition.  Without is the literary text will not mean anything to the recipient.  However, accomplishing exegetic interpretation does not guarantee that the recipient will not be able to respond to it.  Hence, level 2.

            Now will the use of interpretative strategies at level 2 guarantee that the recipient will be able to respond?  No, a poem, for example, could begin to work on you long before you feel you have understood it.  The being of a poem, its capacity to make its presence felt, stands somewhat distinct from the meaning of a poem (as a poem, that is). Similarly, the fictional world of a novel or a play may draw you into it long before you feel you have understood what it is all about.  This openness of the recipient to a literary work is his literary sensibility.


            Why separate levels 2 and 3?  The transaction between the recipient and the literary object is not complete when the recipient enters into and inhabits the imaginative object yielded by the art object.  In some sense, the literary object has to enter into and inhabit the world that the recipient lives in.  The creation of the imaginative object at level 2 is a necessary condition for this to happen, but it is not a sufficient condition.


            A little exemplification is perhaps in order at this point. Let us take a stanza from Rigveda (10:6:71:4).

Utʹaḥ ṕaśy̌an –ná daraśā vác̄̄aḿ

Utʹa tv ạ́h  snván-ná  śṛ́noty-en̅am/

Utʹo  tˋavsmai tanva vi sˋae

jāyéva pátya  śati śūsah//


Utʹa tvaḥ ṕaśy̌an–ná dara šā vác̄̄aḿ/

Utʹa tva  šnván -ná  śṛ́noty-en̅am/

Utʹo  tˋavsmai tanva vi sˋae

jāyéva pátya  ušati sū//



On-the-one-hand the-one seeing-not see-n-has speech

 And the-one hearing-not hear-d-has her

But-then the-other-to body fully-reveal-ed-has

   Wife-like husband-to desirous well-apparelled.

First, let us take up an exegetic interpretation ----also called explication, annotation, (in Latin) subtilitas intelligendi, (in Greek) exēgēsis, (in Sanskrit vivaaa   ṭṙkā, prapan͂ ca, vyākhyā.


            Rendering the text into intelligible English will involve not only problems that have to do with the differences between Sanskrit and English, between archaic Vedic Sanskrit and Classical Sanskrit, but also-exegetic problems within the Vedic Sanskrit text.  I do not propose to go into them, but comparing the interlinear gloss with the following linear English version should give us some idea of these problems.


            The one (who is ignorant) looks at speech (but) sees not./

            He listens to her but hears not./To the other (who is knowing) (she) reveals  (her)           body in full/Even as the well-apparelled ardently longing wife (does) to her         husband.


            This stanza appears in a hymn praising transcendent knowledge and accounting for the origin of Speech (a feminine noun in Sanskrit) that is here thought of as a woman, possibly as a goddess. The syntactic structure brings out the contrast between the self contradictory parallel statements about seeing and hearing speech on the one hand and the statement of fulfillment on the other hand.  That this is a contrast between the frustrating relationship of speech to the ignorant and the fulfilling relationship of speech to the knowing is brought out by the textual context.


            The closer a recipient is to the original in respect of language, culture, and history the less dependent he will be on any tutoring from the commentator or on any homework with the reference manuals.  Under ideal conditions he will arrive at the exegetic interpretation by himself and tacitly. The more distant a recipient is, the greater the danger of errors of omission and commission.  It is interesting, for example, that glosses in some modern Indian language editions Rigveda are prudish about the loving wife simile in the last two line.


            Secondly, we take up the hermeneutic interpretation—also  called elucidation, (in Latin subtilitas explicandi, (in Greek) hermēneuia, (in Sanskrit) vtti, vyākhyāna, bhāṣya, Some reserve the term interpretation for this level only.


            The exegetic interpretation does not answer all the questions, but it permits us to see more clearly what the important questions are.  How to make sense of the self-contradictory statements concerning the frustrating relationship between the ignorant and speech?  The first two lines about not seeing and not seeing hearing convey more or less the same thing, one supposes; but is there, one wonders, some distinction? And then what are the points of contrast between the frustrating and the fulfilling relationship?

            The self-contradictory statements can make sense if one understands them as saying that some think that they can see and hear but in reality they do not see or hear.  In the context of later speculation about speech in classical India, one sees here a first anticipation of the distinction between the surface of language and the ineffable, mystical, esoteric meanings  that language is capable of conveying (parā  vāk is the speech  beyond and opposed to the laukikā vāk this-worldly language).  Not seeing and not hearing does not of course refer to the written and the spoken forms of language.  (This is just the kind of error that exegetic interpretation may fall into.  Actually it is doubtful if writing was known at all to the people who composed this stanza).  Rather this is the distinction between receiving the message-content at one stroke and receiving the message-vehicle step by step.  Perhaps one sees here an anticipation of the distinction between pašyantī (speech as ‘seen’, understood) and vaikharī (Speech heard, transmitted).   Speech, by metonymy, stands for language as such. So for someone to fail to get the message-content is as good as for him to fail to hear the language.


            It will be limiting, however, to identify hermeneutic interpretation with a ‘prose parapharse’ on some such lines new the—

                        To the uninitiate scared language yields its message only at the ordinary,                                     public level and they remain satisfied with it; to the initiate, however,                                    scared language yields the message at the transcendent level without their                          having to work for it.


            We have already used the words frustrating and fulfilling to describe the two relationships; the use of self-contradictory statements conveys both the self-satisfaction of the really uninitiate and the frustration of those who have the appetite for the transcendent; the loving wife simile conveys the sense of fulfillment, the yielding of the previously unyielding, the trust and the desire for union (which is further brought out in the next stanza not cited here), and the removal of the obstacles.  But a cataloguing of this kind shows its own inadequacy in capturing the totality of the imaginative object.


            Finally, let us take up interpretation at the homiletic level also called moralizing, in (Latin) subtilitas aplicandi, (in late Greek) homileia.  In Quranic interpretation, one speaks of izihād for  seeking guidance form the Qurˈan on matters that the Qurˈan  does not say anything about. Very often the bahya in Sanskrit extends its scope beyond its proper, hermeneutic level into the homiletic level.


            It is obvious that at this third level there is all the room for multiple interpretations.  The present reader of this stanza being a practicing linguistic scientist has somehow felt that the stanza holds a moral for linguists like him. The moral could perhaps be phrased on some such lines---to the ordinary student of language the deeper recesses of language remain inaccessible, only to the scholar who lovingly immerses himself in language deeper recesses of language stand revealed.


            Does that sound anachronistic?  Admittedly so.  But pointless it is not2.  But we anticipate.


            This modest case study would perhaps have served to bring out the following:

            (1)  Exegetic interpretation is one of the functions of literary scholarship and its disputes   are accordingly to be settled at the factual level. Hermeneutic interpretation is one the functions of literary criticism and partakes of its essentially contested character.  A common ground for its disputes, yes, but a final resolution, hardly if ever.  Homiletic interpretation is one of the functions of cultural criticism. Any dispute about it is not a dispute about its correctness, but dispute about its relevance, felicity in relation to the text and to the concerns of the circle to which such an interpretation is being offered.


            (2)  Although theoretically separable, the three levels interpenetrate to some extent—the exegetic often anticipates the hermeneutic and the latter continues the former; the hermeneutic  often borders on the homiletic and the latter often recapitulates the former.


            (3)  If we  consider the literary object as a complex sign construct incorporating the linguistic  text but extending beyond it, then the three levels of interpretation can be seen as relating this sign-construct or semiotic object to the three well-known semiotic dimensions, namely, the syntactic, semantic and pragmatic. The exegetic level corresponds to the syntactic dimension of the sign-process relating sign to sign and thus relating the sign-construct to the sign-systems of language and literary conventions.  The hermeneutic level corresponds the semantic dimension relating sign to sign and the world of signified things and thus relating the sign-construct to the imaginative object.  The homiletic level corresponds to the pragmatic dimension relating sign to sign and the world of signified things and the world of sign-users and thus relating the sign-construct to the overlapping worlds of the literary recipient and of the literary artist.


            Perhaps for modern Indian usage, one could standardize vtti, īkā bhāṣya, respectively for interpretation (vivarna) ro nivacanra the three levels.





III. Problems and approaches at the exegetic level


To begin with, we must distinguish between the various types of problems that recipient (and therefore the commentator at his elbow) is likely to face with a linguistic (and especially a literary) text. Let us at this point note in passing that the commentator should remain at the recipient’s elbow and not breathe down his neck. (An example would be the German editor giving a history of the cypress tree down be the German editor giving a history of the cypress tree down the ages for Shakespeare’s phrase ‘sad cypress’!) Also that the problems of a literary text at this level are not essentially different from those that any non-literary text, say, a statue or a treatise, would present.  (‘Inwardness to literary conventions’ would appropriately be replaced by ‘Inwardness to legal conventions’ or the like.)



The main types of problems as follows:

            (1) Channel Noise: Communication engineers speak of signal to noise ratio: if


(2) Rapport Noise: Changing notions obscenity, heresy, frivolity, or the like or changing loyalties and affinities in politics, religion, or the like may stand in the way of a full rapport between the author of the text and its recipient and this lack of full rapport may in turn give rise to problems of interpretation.  When the recipient is not the intended addressee but simply an eavesdropper, so to say, such problems are more acute but also more obvious.  This happens, for example, when a speaker of another language, seeks to translate the text.)


            (3) Code noise: In technical communication the sender and the recipient are supposed to share a uniform and relatively stable set of conventions for the interpretation of signs. This is not so in ordinary communication and even less so in literary communication3.  One of two things may happen that will give rise to a code gap between the sender and the recipient and consequently, to problems of interpretation: participants in literary transactions learn to live with anticipate problems of this kind. Either the recipient may not be one of the original addressees (audience or reading public) of the text and so removed from the author in respect of language or language variety or literary convention or the author may have deliberately departed from the received code through  selection  and exclusion, extension and restriction, modification and distortion, revival and innovation of linguistic patterns-which are the very stuff of literary technique.


            (4) Noise traceable to absence of shared body of previous communication: Successful ordinary communication or even more so successful literary communication presupposes not so much a body of set conventions as a gradually shifting but essentially shared body of contextualization.  Thus, words like ‘land’ or ‘country’ derive their scenes from widely familiar textual frames such as the following:

                        town and—(country)

                        foreign –(land, country)

                        --scape (land)

                        of promise (land)

                        dream –(land)

                        --liquor (country)


The shared contexts of course may be not so much shared textual frames as shared situational frames.  Thus, the generation of Indians who passed through the freedom struggle shares a body of expression and a body of interpretations of certain expressions that are not available to the latter generations.  Indeed the use of allusion, whether mythical, legendry, topical, or any other, exploits this fact about language to the hilt.  Now, if there is insufficient overlap between the previous communicative exposure of the author of the text and that of the recipient, there is danger of incomprehension or miscomprehension and the commentator’s assistance is then necessary.


            (5)  Apparently defective sign-to-sense relationship: Technical communication is ideally supposed to be free from the following defects:


            (a) No vagueness; everything is precisely conveyed

            (b) No ambiguity; every sign is univocal

            (c) No equivalences; very choice between roughly synonymous expressions is motivated.


            (d) No opacity; very complex sign is transparent and so derives its meaning entirely from the constituent signs and the construction


            (e) No incoherence; everything hangs together yielding a coherent message


            (f) No context-bondage; every sign is univocal whatever the context.  This is not as all the case in ordinary communication and even less so in literary communication.  The recipient has to decide whether the apparent vagueness, ambiguity, equivalence, opacity, incoherence, or context-bondage invites its removal at all.  If it doesn’t, the recipient has to motivate it or account for it—what is the point of the vagueness (politeness?), ambiguity (pun?), equivalence (display? Prosody?), opacity (idiom?), incoherence (characterisation?) ? If it does so invite removal, the recipient has to clarify disambiguate, discriminate, derive, bring about coherence, or differentiate between contexts.



            So much for the types of problems.  While literary communication may share them with ordinary or even technical communication, the approach to tackling the foregoing problems (as we have already hinted at in speaking of ‘accepting’ apparent defects) is going to be quite different from that of, say, the legal interpreter. The strategy of the literary interpreter at the exegetic level may be defined in the following terms:


(1)   Does the literary interpreter separate message-vehicle and message-content?

On the whole he does-at least at the exegetic level.


(2)               Does he read with a special purpose (as a counsel reads any documents so as to further his client’s interests) or with a relatively open mind?  One the whole, the latter.

(3)    Does he interpret parts in the light of the whole or the whole in the light of

the parts?  On the whole, he shamelessly accepts the so-called ‘hermeneutic circle’.


(4)   Does he account for the whole text or does he leave out parts of it (that do not

fit his interpretation)? (If the latter is the case, he was said to be guilty of   šrutapartiyāga ‘leaving aside something eard’) and does the limit himself to the text or does he bring new matter into text? (If the latter is the case, he was said to be guidly of  ašrutaklpanā  ‘making up something not heard’.)  One the whole, the literary interpreter goes by the text, the whole text, and nothing but the text.  (The two  ‘guidts’ may turn out to be useful strategies for appropriate non-literary or non exegetic purposes.)


(5)   Does he interpret the text independently of its situational context or does he

draw freely upon the situational context?  On the whole, both.


(6)   Does the believe in doing his homework (for example, look at previous

exegetical efforts bearing on the text) or in relying solely upon his untutored competence?  On the whole, the former.


(7)   Does he go by the community expectations or look for deviations?  For the sake of methodological economy, he will accept deviant interpretations only when he must.  Moreover, he will specially attend to the conventions of the literary genre to which the work belongs.



(8)   Does he search for the author’s communicative intent underlying the text or

for the average recipient’s response to the text? On the whole, the former, again, at the exegetic level. Thus, he cannot overlook that Wisdom has rather negative connotations for W.B. Yeats—contrary to prevailing English positive response to that word.


IV. Problems and approaches at the hermeneutic level


            The problems at the hermeneutic level encompass problems at the lower level, but go beyond them.  This is the case because the literary artist transforms the available linguistic medium of communication into the literary artist is not merely medium of artistic expression.  In a literary text the literary artist is not merely employing or falling back  on some available code but also superimposing a fresh code.  This fresh code is designed to transform the message-vehicle and the message-content into the literary medium. It is through this medium in which the work has it being; it is this medium that render any paraphrase of a poem sound so heretically otiose. (Sanskrit poetics speaks here of asavašabdavācyatā  ‘not-own-words-effable-ness’.)


            The problems that the interpreter faces at the hermeneutic level fall into one of the following categories:


(1)          Problems of world-making: For example, in the interpretation of the

Denmark of Shakespeare’s Hamlet a question that many have asked themselves is how to account for the dilatoriness in Hamlet’s revenge.  Of course, not all the portions of this world are well-lit.  Making a search for the curriculum of the University of Writtenburg that Hamlet attended (as some have done) is as pointless as making a census of Lady Macbeth’s children (as other have done).  Just as a poet’s word may be deliberately imprecise, his delineation of his world may also be at points deliberately out of focus.  (Consider  the notion of  kāvyapratyaka, in Sanskrit poetics, of the poetic world that is evoked through vibāhva, anubāhva, sattvaja-bhāva, and sancāri-bhāva, the evocation characters and their surroundings, their expressions, their passions, and their moods.)


(2)          Problems of displacement: In literary communication the link between

the message-vehicle and the message-content may be other than the obvious one. This displacement may be presented in either of the following perspectives:

(1)     form                                                    Sense







Let us call it form-displacement (the oblique poetic mode recognized by some modern Western critics; vakrokto of Sanskrit poetics),


(ii)                                                                                                                sense






                        form                                                     sense

                        selected                                                available


Let us call it sense-displacement (lakaṇā Sankrit poetics; the term metabole may be proposed as a cover term for metaphor, metonymy, and irony, the cardinal figures of sense-displacement).  Form-displacement (vakrokti) and sense displacement (lakaṇā) are, moment’s  thought will show, not two different things at all but two sides of the same linguistic coin.  Hermeneutic interpretation has to take a special note of sustained displacement especially seen in some literary genres-allegory being a sort of sustained metaphor, parable being a sort of sustained metonymy, and of course sustained irony (as with Jonathan Swift’s A Modest Proposal).


(3)               Problems of enrichment: While displacement involves the rejection of the available form (saralokti-tyāga ‘straight-speech-discarding’ or of available sense (vācyārtha-bādhā available-sense-unavailability’), enrichment involves no such rejection.


Form                                                    sense                                                    sense

Available                                               available                                             enriching

& selected                                            & intended


This enrichment is a sort of bonus.  (In Sanskrit poetics vyānjanā’ power of pointing away’ is left to contribute to atišayokti ‘laden-speech’.  While vāyajan a contrasts with the abhidhā, ‘power to convey available sense’ responsible for vācyarthā; atišayokti contrasts with svabhvokti, ‘nature-hugging speech’ which latter depends simply on the careful selection of available forms.)  It will be noticed that the displacement may itself be a point of take off for enrichment metaphor or simile thus often suggests much more than simple resemblance across categories; likewise, a rhetorical question betrys a certain residue of doubt behind the confident statement it intends to make.  While an allegory may depend on such simple resemblance, symbolism resonates with steadily enlarging circles of suggestion.  Vagueness, ambiguity, incoherence, or the like ‘defects’ may also be exploited by the literary artist for a similar purpose: they are the very stuff of the  compact style  (samāsokti) or of the difficult style (kūṭokti) of the Medieval Indian bhakti poets (ulaahā and sandhyā bhāsā) and   modernist Western or Westernised poets (obscure style; paradoxical juxtaposition of opposites extolled by Coleridge and the New Critics).


            In tackling such problems of interpretation at the hermeneutic level, certain interpretative strategies of the exegetic level may have to be reversed.  These new strategies are based on the two related assumptions of (a) of fusion of vehicle-form and content-form (sahitatva in Sanskrit poetics; the identity of form and content of contemporary critics) and (b) the need for the recipient to break the fresh code rather than merely decode form he available code (a need that stems form the renewal of language on the part of the literary artist).


            There are two somewhat opposed approaches to the application of these strategies for the tackling of interpretative problems at the hermeneutic level.  These two approaches may be presented in the form of two metaphors (modified somewhat form Krieger 1964: Chapter 1):


(i) The literary object is a hall of mirrors-delightful, enriching: it

autonomously presents a alternative to or intensification of reality.


            (ii) The literary object is a room with a view-edifying, lively: it transitively presents an imitation of or improvement on reality.  Elsewhere (Kelkar 1988) I have shown how there are five basic critical positions in respect of the way one relates the being of a poem and the meaning of a poem—


(1)   Critical hedonism (ānāndavādā) : A poem need be only in order to delight,

 to evince aesthetic quality-the poet participates in life and expresses his dreams and pains; the poet hypnotises the reader.


(2)   Critical didacticism (āšyavāda) : A poem  need be only in order to mean, to

communicate, to say something worthwhile-the poet observes life and expresses his disappointments and ideals; the poet enlightments the reader.


(3)   Critical formalism (rūpavūda) : A poem should not mean but be, have a

certain form-the poet observantly participates in life and the poem is a witness to this sensibility and creativity; the poem enriches the reader.

(4)   Crtical vitalism (jītvanavda): A poem should be in order to mean , be a form

life-the poet observantly participates in life and the poem enacts the poet’s disenchantments and ideals; the poem helps the reader no mature.


(5)   Criticla bipolarism (āšayarūpavād): A poem should mean for it to be, should

impart certain form to life, a poem is a poem and not another thing-the poet observantly participates  in life and tires to say the ordinarily unsayable and in exploring the possibilities of language the poet explores the possibilities of life: the poet  enriches the reader, helps  the reader to mature.4


            Critical hedonism, critical formalism, and critical bipolarism adopt the first, all-or-mirrors approach to the literary object as a self-sufficient autonomous domain.  Naturally, interpreters of this persuasion are rather suspicious of the whole enterprise of hermeneutic interpretation.  (See Susan Sontag’s Against interpretation, 1964 for a powerful brief for this approach.)


            Critical didacticism, critical vitalism and (naturally again) critical bipolarism adopt the second, room-with-a-view approach to the literary object as self-extending, transitive.  Naturally, interpreters of this persuasion set great store by hermeneutic commentary—after all, the recipient most of the time accomplishes hermeneutic interpretation tacitly and on his own without the benefit of any ready-made interpretation any commentator may have to offer.)


            At this point, the reassertion of a discrimination is necessary, namely, the one made earlier between the semantic and the pragmatic modes of relating a sign-construct (in the present case the literary object) to the rest of the world.  In the semantic mode, the sign-construct selects the topic, the universe of discourse that it regards as salient, interesting, relevant-this is the world as offered by the sing-construct (prāstuta). Thus, any reference to the real world in a literary work is necessarily through the fictive world of a literary object.  In the pragmatic mode, the sign-construct is embedded in the situation in which it is being used the communicative situation between the sender and the receiver the cultural bond that ensures their rapport-this is world as given (prāta).  Thus, the literary object is liable to be catapulted into a cultural situation removed in history from the cultural situation in which it was addressed to its original audience or reading public.


            As we have already said, hermeneutic interpretation relates the literary object to the world as offered, that is, relates it in the pragmatic mode.


V. Problems and Approaches at the homiletic level


            Homolietic interpretation relates the literary object to the world of the literary artist and to the world of the literary recipient.


            Ideally, and for the major part of man’s history, we could comfortably live wih the following two assumptions about literary worlds:

(i)                  the world of the literary artist and that of the literary recipient is the same; the two belong to the same community at a particular juncture of its history;


(ii)                the community to which the literary artist and/or the literary recipient belong is a relatively homogeneous one is respect of its literary sensibility and the critical position and the worldview underlying that sensibility.   


The transmission of at least selected texts over long time spans through oral

Transmission, manuscript copying, translation and adaptation, printing or the mass media and the historical unification of local cultures into vast civilizations and of vast civilizations into a singly human oikoumēnē through migration, borrowal of folkways, trade, proselytization, the teaching of literary texts, or conquest have progressively undermined the first of these assumptions. Further, the rise of philosophical speculation and religious schisms, the uneven confluence of radically different cultures and civilizations with their differing sensibilities and worldviews, and the precipitation of the internal contradictions in the life of a community have progressively eroded the second of these assumptions.  The typical Western literary community today is rent with literary and other ideologies. The literary world today is at once more unified and more divided than its was ever before in history.


            It must be pointed out nevertheless that the giving up of these two assumptions has only complicated the business of homiletic interpretation-it is not as if this new predicament is responsible for its basic problems.


            The twin basic problems of homiletic interpretations are centred respectively on the relation between the literary object and the literary recipient’s life and on the relation between the literary object and the literary artist’s life. The literary work emerges out of the literary artist’s life.  The literary work emerges out of the literary artist’s world and enters into the literary recipient’s world. (The recipient and the artist are the two ‘users’ of the sign-construct, which performs some job for either of them.)


(1)               The problem of application: The fictive world of the literary object

impinges on and makes a difference to the given world in which the literary object is being encountered and thus renewed.  Drawing a moral form a parable or an animal fable is only the most rudimentary form of homiletic application; another example is the use of a song from Bankimachandra Chatterji’s nove Anandamah as the anthem of India’s freedom struggle. The jeu d’espirt that draws a moral from the fairly tale.  Little Red Riding Hood, that one had better keep away from innocent looking young girls is an elementary piece of deconstruction.  More sophisticated examples of application are the relating of Katherine Mansfield’s classic short story The Fly to the war experience; the Medieval Christian theologians’ anagogē permitting him to identify Virgin Mary and Eve as the mother of all living (Genesis 3:15-20); the modernist English poet’s finding a kinship with the seventeenth-century Metaphysical  poets (especially Donne); and various feminist reinterpretations of either gender literary artists of older times.  Application tends to center on the recipient’s response and to establish a kind of tēlos for the liteary work.


(2)               The problem of explanation: The given world in which the literary artist has already impinged on and made a world of difference to the fictive world of the literary object.  (The pun is entirely intended!) Tracing a poem to a spell of divine inspiration (as with the Vedic hymns, the Quranic verses) or to a moment of self-realization (as with Christian, Sufi, and Hindu bhaki poets) or to a falling in love are only early examples of homiletic explanations. Taine’s formula, the race, the moment, and the milieu is a more recent explanatory programme.  The whole Marxist and/or Freudian effort to discriminate between the manifest content and the latent content (these terms are of course Fred’s, not Marx’s )is a recent example of homiletic explanation. (The latter is not, space Sontag, merely the ordinary mind’s attempt to tame the disturbing work of art, though the reductionist ‘nothing-but’ phraseology of Freudians and Marxists often suggests a dismissive stance.) The recognition of the sympathetic character of satan and the repellant character of God in Milton’s Paradise Lost is an early attempt at deconstruction; some have further sought to ‘explain’ in terms of Milton’s close identification with the grand Rebellion of the Puritans against the English monarchy, aristocracy, and the established Church. Explanation tends to center on the author’s creative effort and to establish a kind of arkhē for the literary work.


Are there any interpretive strategies specific to the homiletic level?  I have already mentioned some in passing- anagogē deconstruction, and search for latent content.  There are probably others.  The methodological problem that homiletic interpretation forces on our attention, however, is not so much the critical problem of strategies as the metacritical problem of the validation of the interpretation offered by the critic for a given literary work.  (Validation is here understood as determining how a given interpretation is found acceptable or aberrant, at least plausible or implausible in comparison with other, presumably competing, interpretations.)


            The canons of validation will bear some resemblance to the canons of validations for an empirical science; but the resemblance should not be pushed too far. Further, the application of these cannons will be relative to the level of interpretation. Thus, the validation of exegetic interpretation will be, as pointed out earlier, largely factual. Also, in actual practice there is a fair amount of confusion between levels.  For example, a homiletic interpretation will be presented as if it is a hermeneutic interpretation and/or will be judged by others as if it is a hermeneutic interpretation.  Such confusions need to be avoided or removed before an interpretation could be properly validated.


            The criteria of validity may be briefly presented as follows:

(1)   Internal criteria

 (1a) The interpretation should be free from tautology.

(Circularity is only a hidden and therefore insidious form of tautology.     Thus it is not uncommon to find statements of the type ‘P, on the ground that Q’ where P and Q are simply paraphrases of each other.)

(1b) It should be free from inconsistency or self-contradiction.  (Again, inconsistency is often hidden. Of course, the interpretation bringing out the inconsistencies or irreducible paradoxes in a literary work should itself be free from inconsistency.)

(2)   External criteria

(2a) It should be consistence with the observations and insights resulting from an observant participation of the literary experience or encountering the literary text/the literary object/the imaginative object.

(2a1) It should not leave out any part out a account.

(2a2) It should not postulate foreign material that is not a part.

(2b1) It should be consistent with previously accepted non-competing interpretation of the text or of related texts or of the literary corpus of which the text forms a part unless there are good grounds to call the previous acceptance or the need for consistency with it into serious question.

(2c)   It should compete successfully with alternate or competing interpretations in that it should minimize cost or (what comes to the same thing) it should maximize revenue (cost will be measured in terms of upsetting or adding to available concepts and insights, revenue will be measured in terms of applicability to details other than those which constituted the original problem.


         Some observations on these canons are necessary:

(i)                  Canons 2a1 and 2a2 have an ethical slant in that the recipient would want to be fair to the author and fair to himself at the same time.

(ii)                Canons 2a and 2b have a political slant that the desire for intersubjective validity is not merely a desire for minimizing cost (one wants to be sure that two interpreters are talking about the same text!) but also a desire for communal participation in literary judgement (you not only know what you like, but you like to know that your fellow beings are with you in the judgement.)

(iii)               Interpretative judgements of criticism are no different form evaluate judgments of criticism in their logical and epistemic properties.  Interpretative judgements of literary scholarship often have an evaluative component, but they are essentially like judgements of historical scholarships.


Finally, we return to the complication in respect of point B in literary interpretation at this metacritical level.  Is the interpretation arrived at to be judged as a discovery or an invention, to put it crudely?  Does the community of interpreters keep the search on for the one right interpretation or evaluation (critical absolutism) or does it settle for a policy of the-more-the-merrier (critical anarchism) or does it go for the via media of a policy of the-fewer-the-merrier (critical relativism)? But a fuller consideration of these three metacritical approaches-particularly topical for the homiletic level-will take us further a field.  (See Kelkar 1989.) But at least an indication of these three alternatives would seems appropriate in a discussion of the interpretation of literature.




1.      Thus, in staging Brandon Thomas’s popular farce Charley’s Aunt (Morūchī

māvashī in the Marathi adaptation), the players may add a touch of satire by having the actor playing Lord Fancourt Babberely to impersonate the Wealthy aunt with only moderate success so that the blindness of greed on the part of others who let themselves be taken in is brought home to the playgoers more strongly.  The players is brought home to the playgoer to interpret the play as a bit of satire; by shorthand the players interpret the play to the playgoer as a bit of a satire.


2. Actually Patanjali in the opening section 1:1 1 his commentary (Mahābhāhya) on Panini’s grammar of Sanskrit cites this stanza is justify the importance of the study of grammar an identifies the initiate with those well-versed in grammar.


3.For an extended account of the three-way distinction between technical,

ordinary, and stylized (literary) language use, see Kelkar 1985 : section I.


            4. Cf. the 13th-century Marahthi poet, Jnaeshvar, in his poetic recreation of the Bhagavadgīta, Jñāneshwvarī 6:36, saying: bolīn arūpācen rūpa dāvīna/atīndriya pari bhogavīna/indiryan akaravīn /’(I) shal show in speech othe the form of the formless,/cause to partake the beyond-senses/that is, cause) the senses (to partake)’//’




Kelkar, Ashok R 1979, Prācīna bhāratīya sāhityamīmāinterpretation: Eka ākalana.  Paamaa (Marathi) April-July 1979.  pp. 3-78. Also reprinted as a Poona, 1979. 78pp. Kannada translation of a chapter as Prācīna bhāratīya nātyamīmāK-tr. Desai, Shantinath Saki, December 1981, pp. 71-81.


---1983. Kavitece Sātepaa-karatepaa. In: Saundaryavīcāra (Proceedings of Seminar, Bombay, 1980).  Bombay: Mumbai Marathi Sahitya Sahitya Sangha, 1983. pp. 1-14. Hindi translation Kāvita kucha kahe, kucha kare. H-tr. By the Author Pūrvagraha, May-August 1988. pp. 93-104. English tr. By the Author: The meaning of a poem and the meaning of poetry. Unpublished.


---1984. ‘Classical Sanskrit poetics: Then and now. ‘The Literary Criterion 19:1: 18-29. Reprinted in: Narasimhiah, C. D.; Srinath, C.N., ed. A Common Poetic for Indian literatures.  Mysore: Dhanyloka, 1984. pp. 18-29. Sections I, II based on Kelkar 1979. A revised and extended version Unpublished.


---1985.‘The Semiotics of Technical Names and Terms’. Reveue śemotique/semiotic inquiry 4: 3-4: 303-2, Sept.-Dec. 1984, published 1985.


---1989. ‘Critical Relativism and Literary Judgement.’ Jadavpur Journal of Comparative Literature 26-27, 1988-89: 69-96.


Krieger, Murray, 1964. A Window to Criticism. Princetion, NJ: Princeton Univ. Press.


Sontag, Susan. 1964. ‘Against interpretation’. Evergreen Review. Reprinted in her: Against Interpretation and Other Essays, New York: Dell, 1965; London: Eyre & Spottiswoode, 1967.




            This was presented in a seminar on Literary Interpretation, Department of English, Mrathiweda University, Aurangabad, Feb 1985. Also as the 4th Dr. Bririnchi kumar Barua Memorial Lecture, at Guwahati, June 1990. Published  in: Horzons of Culture, Ed. Choudhury. Amarjyoti; Mahanta, Pradipyoti, Guwahati: Assam Academy of Cultural Relations, 2000, p 48-70.