• Tag Archives hermeneutics
  • An Old Idea Whose Time Has Come

    Spring                                                                           Bloodroot Moon

    In May some docent friends from the class of 2005, a rowdy class and proud of it, will go to
    Chicago for a time with the arts scene there.  Like my visit to the National Gallery a couple of weeks ago this too will be an exercise in part in discovering how to keep the arts active and alive in my life.

    One of us has decided to offer a mini-tour on an object at the Chicago Art Institute.  I decided I would do one, too.  My plan is to focus on methods of analysis, including the praxis idea I wrote about yesterday.

    Ever since I got seriously interested in Ovid, my seminary education in biblical criticism has niggled at the back of my mind.  Why?  Well, biblical criticism, the higher criticism in particular, uses scholarly methodology for exegesis.  Exegesis tries first to get at the plain meaning of the text in its context.  It precedes the task of hermeneutics, that is, interpretation of the text for a contemporary audience.  What’s niggled at me is that neither exegesis nor hermeneutics is peculiar to the study of scripture.

    In fact, exegetical method can be applied to other texts, whether in a foreign language or not, just as hermeneutics can be applied to the resulting exegesis.  As this thought persisted I kept wanting to create a method for using exegetical tools designed for literature in the service of art history.

    Well, that day has arrived.  “Exegesis includes a wide range of critical disciplines: textual criticism is the investigation into the history and origins of the text, but exegesis may include the study of the historical and cultural backgrounds for the author, the text, and the original audience. Other analysis includes classification of the type of literary genres present in the text, and an analysis of grammatical and syntactical features in the text itself.” wikipedia article

    Not sure yet whether I’ll venture into the realm of hermeneutics.  That may, in art, best be left to the viewer.

    This also raises another profound idea I learned from the philosopher of religion, Paul Ricoeur, second naivete.  Ricoeur developed this idea to explain how a student of the higher criticism might use its critical methods on scripture, then return to the text later with a second naivete, one that includes the scholarly work, or incorporates it, while at the same time allowing the text to speak again as scripture.

    My sense is that the idea applies to analysis of art as well.  That is, we can engage formal analysis, praxis analysis, style and methodological analysis, school, content analysis, then step back from all that and return to the piece with a second naivete which allows that work to enrich our immediate engagement with the work.  Anyhow, this is on my mind right now.

  • Plateaus

    Imbolc                                                                          Valentine Moon

    After the Swede saw, lunch and a nap followed by another sentence, 6 verses long, in Ovid’s retelling of the Jason and Medea narrative.  When I have a week off from translating, or almost a week, like I had when I spent time rearranging and reorganizing, I wonder if I can still do it.  Sometimes I convince myself that what I’ve learned has dropped away and I’ve wasted all the time up to that point.  Silly, yes, but real nonetheless.

    (Medea, Batumi, Georgia)

    As a result, it is a relief when I return to the work and find myself able to translate.  This time in fact I managed a translation of a clause without looking up a word.  Something is seeping into the lower crevices of my brain.  Language work, at least for me, is slog, slog, slog, plateau.  Plateau, plateau, plateau.  Slog, slog, slog, slog.  Plateau.  So on.

    Right now I’m gaining facility at recognizing words and verb forms and sussing out grammatical forms, though I’m wrong as often as I’m right.  That’s without Perseus (the online classics web engine), without Anderson (the scholarly commentator on Ovid) and without Wheelock (the grammar text).  There’s the plateau.

    I can only advance part way into the text without the books.  With the books now I increase my facility by maybe another 25%.  So a lot of the time I can translate the literal sense of Latin correctly, but at least a quarter of the time, I’m lost.  That’s where my tutor comes into play.

    (Ovid, Constanta, Romania, 2012)

    He unsticks me from my stuck places and has been invaluable as a role model for tactics and strategy when approaching unfamiliar text.  He also guided me through the initial learning phase, about two years, when the grammar and vocabulary were still largely alien (foreign) to me.

    My personal goal is to be 90 to 95% successful on my own by the end of this year.  Then, I imagine, I’ll use Greg (my tutor) less often and then as a backup.  That’s unless we decide together to get back on the commentary track.  That still sounds fun to me.


  • Exegesis and Hermeneutics

    Lughnasa                                              Waning Harvest Moon

    “It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.” – Aristotle

    While the empirical method, the theory of falsifiability and scientific rigor make it an article of faith that scientists will entertain thoughts with which they may not agree, it is even more important that in the world outside the realm of science:  politics, art, sports, religion, literature, psychological therapies and commerce for example, that we insist on considering the opinions and beliefs of others without subordinating ourselves to them.

    Why more important?  Because these are the realms in which we live our lives.  The realms of home, work, play, faith, leisure and citizenship.  The crucial realms.  Science is but a helpmate, a maidservant to these much more central human activities.  Science gives us tools to use, like this computer on which I work and the communication network on which you read this, but the tool does not write the words, think the thoughts, feel the feelings.

    Science gives us a clearer and clearer picture of our world, the fundamental physical and biological components of it, but science fails when it steps into such everyday, yet critical arenas like defining life, the meaning of life, the decision between a good use of nuclear power and a dangerous one, identifying the beautiful or the just, embracing love.

    It is in these fuzzier areas, the areas marked by complexity and uncertainty, that the humanities come into focus.  The humanities allow us, demand really, to search the experience of humans who have lived before us or who live now.  We search their experiences and their thoughts and dreams through books, movies, paintings, sculpture, music, political structures, even through the medium of a blog such as this one.

    We then face the always daunting task of exegesis, that is, making sense of the thought or experience in its original context, and after this challenge, we face the even more critical task of hermeneutics, applying the wisdom of the past or of others in other places, to our own situations.

    Only when we can entertain the thoughts of others, often alien others, alien due to era or geography or culture, can we examine our own lives and situations in a broader context.  In that broader context we can see new or different ways to handle the problems we face today.


  • Text, Reader, Learning

    Lughnasa                                                                              Waning Honey Extraction Moon

    Been feelin’ tired, a bit lowdown.  Got a good nap this afternoon and better.

    Latin today was a bit more encouraging than I had anticipated.  My translation was not so far off, I hadn’t pursued sentence and clause construction quite as diligently as would have been good, but I had the right idea, for the most part.  I now see another level to this translation process and that is the one where I set off on my own, with no expectation that a tutor will read it.  Instead, I will rely on my own knowledge and skill.  That day is off a ways, but no where near so far as it was a year ago March when I began this journey.

    Greg and I had a conversation today about the classics, about language and books and translation and interpretation.  Exegesis and hermeneutics.  This is turf  I know well from my days in Sem.  I persist in believing that there is a history and an author to which texts refer and are bound.  Surprisingly, this belief is not widely shared among academics in literary fields.  They’ve ridden off on the horse of post-modernism, headed, with speed, down what Francis Bacon would have called the wrong path, a path not unlike the Scholastics, where all knowledge happens within a field of words and all conclusions come from deductive reasoning.

    Bacon said traveling down the wrong path will not lead your toward your destination and traveling faster down that path only leads you further and further away.

  • The 4th of July

    Mid-Summer                                                     Waxing Honey Flow Moon

    Independence Day.  Celebrating our ancestor’s victory over the British army and considering how their enlightenment ideals apply to our time.  Happy 4th of July!

    For an unreconstructed radical like myself, these are trying times.  I wonder where the sense of communitarian spirit has gone.  Yes, we have a can do, go it alone spirit, too and I participate in it.  The ethical underpinnings of Western civilization, however, fed by the the deep springs of Athens and Jerusalem have always reminded us that we share this journey.   Our lives are not ours alone, but belong as well to the whole, to the commonweal.  When we establish a government of the people, by the people, and FOR the people, we make this claim a part of our countries essence.

    The rugged individualist, the objectivist, the capitalist have the inclination to see the community as a source for their betterment, which is fine as long as their betterment does not come at others expense.  In that case these same perspectives become exploitative and parasitic, not interdependent, mutual.  A 5-year old knows that if all you do is take and take and take, then the other kids will no longer want to play with  you.

    The atomistic viewpoints of groups like the Tea Party and, in an insult to the Christian faith, the evangelical right, make it clear that they want the government to enforce their bigoted views of morality:  no stemcell research, homophobia and respect for only one point of view in struggle over Roe v. Wade.  They want no government aid to the poor, no environmental review for corporate projects that threaten the long term health of our natural world.  They have a vast umbrella of negatives with which they hope to block the sunshine of equality and shared responsibility.

    They want the constitution, like the bible, to be an inspired document, written not by men and women, but by gods, inviolate and sacrosanct.  It isn’t true of the bible and it is even much less so true of the constitution.  Both of these documents live, that is, they get swept into new eras, with new challenges and demand a hermeneutics for understanding their relevance.  Always.  This is an iron law of human history, no document from the past means the same thing today that it did yesterday.  That is anachronistic thinking at its most damaging, its most infantile, its most destructive.

    My sister lives in Singapore and, up until very recently, so did my brother, Mark.  This makes accessible, in a personal way, the viewpoints of other cultures toward our country.  Many people don’t like us, see us as arrogant, uncaring and ruthless.  Of course, the big kid on the block often has that reputation, deserved or undeserved, but our recent actions, Iraq and Guantanamo among them, have cemented these opinions.

    Even so, I have this urge to celebrate our country.  We are a beacon of freedom, a beloved place of opportunity and real diversity.  We have committed ourselves to constructing a nation not on history or geography, but on founding ideals of freedom and equality and brotherhood. (sic) The number and variety of persons who come to this country from all over the world, the number and variety of them who become part of the patchwork quilt that is our history and our present at its very best, attest to the essential value of our presence.  We negotiate the boundary between sending cultures and our history and, again at our best, we do it with open hands and hearts.

    Have we slaughtered Native Americans and held slaves?  Yes.  Have we engaged in first-strike aggression?  Yes.  Have we often pretended that our nation, defended by two oceans, exists alone and isolated?  Yes.  Have we laid waste to our natural resources in the name of jobs and profits?  Yes.

    We should not be, cannot be, proud of these transgressions, but I submit that we are not the Great Satan.  We are not the only nation whose actions have transgressed human decency.  Further, I would submit that we are not even the worst, not even close.  Look at the Armenian and Jewish genocides.  The pogroms in Russia and the slaughter of the Stalinist era.  The vicious regime of the Khmer Rouge.  This is a long list and it runs deep in our world history.  No, we are a nation that has blundered and made arrogant mistakes, but we are neither all bad nor all good.  We are, rather, an imperfect nation with an imperfect history.

    As I look around the world, I find no country more committed to creating a united states of freedom, no country more committed to embracing the worlds refugees, no country more aware of its errors and no country more able to make amends.  We are a young nation, barely 240 years old, maybe an early adolescent in terms of our development.

    We must not give in to the petty, the self-aggrandizing, the screw the other guy mentality of our rising political movements.  We’re better than that.

  • Hermes

    Samhain                                   Waxing Moon of the Winter Solstice

    In my session with my Latin tutor today, Greg told me I’d made good progress.  For the first 4 verses or so, he had no corrections at all.  I’m learning something.

    What I’m learning now, peeling back this onion one more layer is this:  figuring out the exact or closest to exact english that conforms to the Latin often fails to  make much sense.  There is a leap, a vault between the world of Ovid and his language and the third millennium English speaking world in which I live.  I’ve always suspected/known this and part of my purpose in setting out on this journey is to learn about that leap. More.  To investigate that process in a specific text that matters to me and to my understanding of the world.  Metamorphosis is such a text.

    So, I learn the Latin, grammar and vocabulary.  Then, I apply what I’ve learned to the Latin text.  After I’ve done that, I can begin the task of translation.  It is, I suppose, exegesis and hermeneutics, my old friends from seminary classes on the Hebrew and Christian scriptures.  Each lesson I take another step on this journey.