Logos Multilingual Portal

23 - The reference slavery

"All these signs converge to inform us that this
is a little provincial station [...]"1.

Another essay by George Steiner that is fundamental regarding reading as the first interpretive act leading to interlingual translation is Real Presences. The real presences in the title are the objects to which - it is often argued - words refer. Contrary to that common argument, Steiner believes that the reference is a real slavery.
  One of the first points made by Steiner concerns the definition of "interpretation", he explained it this way: to interpret means to decipher and communicate meanings, to translate between languages, cultures and performative conventions, it means to perform, to actualize material so as to give it an understandable life. Any reading of the text (past) makes it a (present) presence, i.e. it is an actualization of the text. Reading, in a way, means fixing an execution, an interpretation of the text in space and time. It is not essential to specify if a given reading is done for oneself or for a public audience.
  As we said - in other words - regarding semiosphere, writing is a consequence of a reflection from/on previous writings, any text is a reflection from/on previous texts

where 'reflection' signifies both a 'mirroring', however drastic the perceptual dislocation, and a 're-thinking'. It is through this internalized 're-production' of and amendment to previous representations that an artist will articulate what might appear to have been even the most spontaneous, the most realistic of his settings2.

While reading, we give the text a structure, we create divisions, classifications. While writing, on the other hand, we inescapably re-execute already written texts that we interpret in a different way, in doing so we thus criticize the text that we re-write. In saying so, we take a position within the possible ideologies of the text. There are theories of interpretation that, as their starting point, have a pre-established purpose. Other theories, conversely, take their cue from a method, but they don't establish a priori the purpose they could reach.
  Steiner uses the cabala, a Hebrew Medieval theory, as an example for the interpretation of the universe and the Bible. The interpretive method of cabalists is very interesting, because it consists in the rereading of biblical texts in order to extract from them a different meaning each time, each one more precise. The fact that re-reading a text brings one to understand it better implies a view of the text on many levels, only one of which, the simplest, most superficial being the only one immediately accessible. But it is a doctrine preconceived to prove a given: the existence of God, the sacredness of the Bible, the magic of characters and words composing it.
  When, instead, Hermeneutic method is not ideologically bridled, interpretation can run free. Steiner proposes the example of the Roman Church and the heresies. The heretic was (is) anyone considered giving an interpretation of the Scriptures that did (does) not abide by Church rules.

It follows that heresy can be defined as 'un-ending re-reading' and revaluation. [...] reinterpretations and revisions, [...] new translations, even where they profess, strategically, a return to the authentic source, even where they allege that the understanding of the primary text will be made plainer and more relevant to the needs of an unstable world, generate an open-ended, disseminative hermeneutic3.

That's the reason why Luther was considered as a heretic. Any free reader is heretic. Any reader not agreeing to prove at all costs the values of an ideology, the presence of the name of God hidden in the folds of the characters of the Torah.
  An example of interpretive theory with a ideological slant, similar to the cabala's, is in Steiner's opinion Freudian psychoanalysis, The psychoanalytic principle of free associations is very much like the principle of individual text interpretation: the patient recounting a dream, or expressing a feeling, or recalling a memory, is asked to say what occurs to him in relation to that. In these moments, the patient shows the psychoanalyst the way to get to the uncon-scious causes of a symptom.
  But, Steiner argues in Wittgenstein's wake4, any moment in which the analyst interrupts the patient because she wants to point out an interpretation, or wants to ask the patient a comment, or wants to tell him that the session is over because fifty minutes have passed or because the summer break is about to begin is an arbitrary moment. Maybe the moment immediately following the interruption would have been the conclusive moment for uncovering a fundamental aspect of the patient's unconscious workings?
  We think that such harsh criticism of psychoanalytic methods doesn't allow for the fundamental difference when comparing it with cabala ideology: even though psychoanalysis may be arbitrary in its choice of the moment of the interpretive recapitulation, it doesn't have an ideological thesis to uphold. It may have the limitation of not being a truly scientific method, because it encompasses some arbitrary decisions. On the other hand, the end of psychoanalysis can be considered reached - in the patient's arbitrary opinion - when he functions within his environment in a satisfactory way. Yes, it is an arbitrary decision, but who else should express the patient's opinion? The same goes for reading, as long as reading remains a private action within the framework of a single reader.
  As to the search for the meaning, Steiner holds that, similarly to what has just been said, interpretive methods can be helpful as long as they don't preestablish meanings to be uncovered. A word, a sentence always has multiple interpretations. Even the most elementary utterance has a context that allows to enlarge its meaning, in ever enlarging concentric circles.

These comprise the individual, subconsciously quickened language habits and associative field-mappings of the particular speaker or writer. They incorporate, in densities inaccessible to systematic inventory, the history of the given and of neighbouring tongues. Social, regional, temporal, professional specificities are of the utmost relevance5.

Possible meanings, in language in general, but particularly in literature, are the

exponential product of all possible sense or non-sense worlds as these are construed, imaged, tested, indwelt through the interaction of two liberties: that of the text, in movement across time, and that of the receiver6.

Consequently, the only theories that might be helpful in Steiner's opinion in reading and understanding are methodological descriptive theories, confining themselves to providing the tools for literary criticism, like semiotic theories.
  Validity of any temporary conclusions one may arrive at can then be controlled only one way: placing these interpretations in the common space and waiting to see what success they have with other readers.


Bibliographical references

CALVINO I. If on a Winter's Night a Traveller, translated by William Weaver, London, Vin-tage, 1998, ISBN 0-7493-9923-6.

STEINER G. After Babel. Aspects of Language and Translation. Second edition, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1992. ISBN 0-19-282874-6.

STEINER G. Real Presences. Is there anything in what we say?. London, Faber & Faber, 1989. ISBN 0-571-16356-4.

1 Calvino 1998, p. 11.
2 Steiner 1989, p. 17.
3 Steiner 1989, p. 44-45.
4 Wittgenstein in his posthumously published conversations says: "This procedure of free association and so on is queer, because Freud never shows us how we know where to stop".
5 Steiner 1989, p. 82.
6 Steiner 1989, p. 83.