1. What is interpretation?
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.)
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
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
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
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
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 dad̍raśā vác̄̄aḿ
Utʹa tv ạ́h sṛnván-ná śṛ́noty-en̅am/
Utʹo tˋavsmai tanva vi sˋaṙe
jāyéva pátya ǔśati śūv˃sah//
Utʹa tvaḥ ṕaśy̌an–ná dad̍ra
Utʹa tvaḥ šṛnván -ná śṛ́noty-en̅am/
Utʹo tˋavsmai tanva vi sˋaṙe
jāyéva pátya ušati sūv˃sāḥ//
seeing-not see-n-has speech
And the-one hearing-not hear-d-has her
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 vivaṛaṇa ṭṙkā,
prapan͂ ca, vyākhyā.
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.
(who is ignorant) looks at speech (but) sees not./
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.
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.
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.
we take up the hermeneutic interpretation—also
called elucidation, (in Latin subtilitas explicandi,
(in Greek) hermēneuia, (in Sanskrit) vṛtti, vyākhyāna,
bhāṣya, Some reserve the term interpretation
for this level only.
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?
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
(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.
be limiting, however, to identify hermeneutic interpretation with
a ‘prose parapharse’ on some such lines new the—
the uninitiate scared language yields its message only at the ordinary,
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.
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.
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 baṣhya
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.
sound anachronistic? Admittedly
so. But pointless it is not2. But we anticipate.
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.
for modern Indian usage, one could standardize vṛtti, ṭīkā
bhāṣya, respectively for interpretation
(vivarna) ro niṛvacanra
the three levels.
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:
Noise: Communication engineers speak of signal to noise ratio:
(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:
foreign –(land, country)
of promise (land)
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
(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
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:
Does the literary interpreter separate message-vehicle and message-content?
On the whole he does-at least at the exegetic level.
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.
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’.
Does he account for the whole text or does he leave out parts of it
(that do not
interpretation)? (If the latter is the case, he was said to be guilty
‘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.)
Does he interpret the text independently of its situational context
or does he
freely upon the situational context?
On the whole, both.
Does the believe in doing his homework (for example, look at previous
efforts bearing on the text) or in relying solely upon his untutored
competence? On the whole,
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.
Does he search for the author’s communicative intent underlying the
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:
Problems of world-making: For example, in the interpretation
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 kāvyapratyakṣa, in Sanskrit poetics,
of the poetic world that is evoked through vibāhva, anubāhva,
and sancāri-bhāva, the evocation characters
and their surroundings, their expressions, their passions, and their
Problems of displacement: In literary communication the link
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:
Let us call it form-displacement
(the oblique poetic mode recognized by some modern Western critics;
vakrokto of Sanskrit poetics),
Let us call it sense-displacement
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
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).
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
This enrichment is a sort
of bonus. (In Sanskrit poetics
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 (ulaṭahā
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
literary object is a hall of mirrors-delightful, enriching: it
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—
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
Critical didacticism (āšyavāda)
: A poem need be only in order
to mean, to
to say something worthwhile-the poet observes life and expresses his
disappointments and ideals; the poet enlightments the reader.
Critical formalism (rūpavūda)
: A poem should not mean but be, have a
form-the poet observantly participates in life and the poem is a witness
to this sensibility and creativity; the poem enriches the reader.
Crtical vitalism (jītvanavda):
A poem should be in order to mean , be a form
poet observantly participates in life and the poem enacts the poet’s
disenchantments and ideals; the poem helps the reader no mature.
Criticla bipolarism (āšayarūpavād):
A poem should mean for it to be, should
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
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
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;
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
of at least selected texts over long time spans through oral
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.)
The problem of application: The fictive world of the literary
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 Anandamaṭh
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.
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.
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,
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
The criteria of validity may be briefly presented as follows:
(1a) The interpretation should be free from
(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.)
(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
(2a1) It should not leave out any part out
(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.
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:
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.
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.)
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.
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
Thus, in staging Brandon Thomas’s popular farce Charley’s Aunt (Morūchī
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.
Patanjali in the opening section 1:1 1 his commentary (Mahābhāṣhya) 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.
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 sāhityamīmāṁsā interpretation: 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 nātyamīmāṁsā K-tr. Desai, Shantinath Saki, December
1981, pp. 71-81.
---1983. Kavitece Sāṅtepaṇa-karatepaṇa. 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
‘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.
Semiotics of Technical Names and Terms’. Reveue śemotique/semiotic
inquiry 4: 3-4: 303-2, Sept.-Dec. 1984, published 1985.
‘Critical Relativism and Literary Judgement.’ Jadavpur Journal
of Comparative Literature 26-27, 1988-89: 69-96.
Murray, 1964. A Window to Criticism. Princetion, NJ: Princeton Univ.
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.