Logos Multilingual Portal

24 - Free interpretation

"You surely would want to know more about
what she's like, but instead only a few elements
surface on the written page [...]"1.

We have seen how the interpreter's focus is moved after Steiner's affirmations. The sense of a text is a consequence of the interaction of the freedom of the text evolving in time and the freedom of the reader.
  These two liberties take much importance away from the free will of he interpretive dogma, be it an ideological authority trying to force people to submit to definite interpretive rules - as in the case of religions - or an interpretation theory presupposing that the text has a 'genetic' meaning and that the reader can only be successful or unsuccessful in disclosing it.
  As to the freedom of a text to signify synchronically in a different way and to undergo a diachronic interpretive evolution, this means to take away importance to the intrinsic meaning of the single words. All theories of interpretation founded on principles like that of the intrinsic meaning of a word, of its synonyms and equivalents or alleged such, tend to trace between words and their meanings mathematical relations, equalities, equivalences, subtractions, sums, subtractions and multiplications. Such view withdraws a word, a sentence the freedom to mean something else thanks to its collocation in a different cultural context, even though unforeseen by the author.
  The Kabala theory presupposes a divine plan in the characters and the language of the Bible, within the framework of interpretation leading to support the view of Bible as text composed by God. But, maybe, even imagining to share the mystical thesis of the Bible as a divine creation, it could be considered as much or even more supernatural the fact that, after a few millenniums since its redaction, Bible still evokes in the reader interest and produces ever new interpretations of the sentences it contains, interpretations that, in most cases, are not base on the reading in Hebrew or Aramaic, but on the reading of the translated text that, according to the Kabala, should have lost any interpretive interest because most of its magic lies in the characters it is composed of and in their combinations.
  As far as the reader's freedom is concerned, it is another element decentralizing the control over meaning from the author to the rest of the world, to other chronotopes. Theories and practices of interpretation/translation of texts are gradually moving from the interest for lexicon, dictionary, equivalents, to the interest for the unsaid in cultures, for the networks of meaning, for polysemy, for non-definability of the final meaning. "There is no science of sense and no theory of meaning and effect, if these high designations are to be taken seriously"2.
  Consequently, people teaching the art of interpreting, of translating less and less coincide with the figure of the sorcerer with meanings in his pocket, of the Master knowing the correct entry in the dictionary and the wrong one you shouldn't trust, and is more and more like a geographer of the sense illustrating the different explorable lands and inciting people not to miss any of them, not to think of ever be gone as far as to have understood everything.
  Steiner locates in the period 1870-19403 the cultural revolution bringing the emancipation form reference, i.e. to the liberty to mean words not as mere 'equivalents' of objects in the extra-linguistic world. In the after-Word stage other elements have an importance over other elements:

Crucial configurations and operative modes in our moral, philosophic, psychological condition, in our aesthetics, in the formative interactions between consciousness and the pre-conscious, in the relations between the economics of need and desire on the one hand and those of social constraint on the other4.

It is a stage that Steiner defines elegantly "epilogue" because etymologically it means "again the word, over the word".
  But who gives us the right to break the covenant until now considered valid about the two-way correspondence between word and object? First and foremost the desire to give up lying. To think that the word "rose" can be put in place of the flower is a lie, because substance has inaccessible truths and not referable to one word; to think that means to permeate language with falsity or, as Mallarmé preferred to say, of impurity5.
  Mallarmé goes further, provocatingly stating that the only legitimation and force of the word rose lies in the fact that it denotes "l'absence de toute rose". We are at the central point of Steiner's essay, because here we have to distinguish between "real presences" and "true absences": the passage from the phase of logos to the phase of epílogos seems to be indicating that: it was once necessary to think that each word is matched by an object in the "true" world, now it is necessary to think that each word is matched only by other words that

any speech-act in reference to experience is always a 'saying in other words', [...] within the language system alone we possess liberties of construction and of deconstruction [...] in comparison, external reality, whatever that might or might not be, is little more than brute intractability and deprivation6.

There is, therefore, a network of words with disorderly and unstable relations among themselves, never of equality, never of dependence, of minority of majority. Words can be defined in approximate, incomplete, subjective way with other words, and the whole set of words tries to have some relation with the word of objects, not as much of representation, as of survival. In order to survive in the world of things, we use words. In some case we succeed in setting a convention such as to, on the basis of words, we succeed in getting to an agreement with someone as to some objects in the world.
  It was utilitarianism to stain the world of words reducing them to mere instruments of denotation. The emancipation of language from material world can, only, give back to words their energies of signification, that are metaphysical, i.e. go beyond physical world. Only in this way it is possible to "recuperate for human discourse the 'aura', the unlimited creativity of metaphor which is inherent in the origins of all speech"7.
  Psychoanalysis too, in Steiner's opinion, pushes in this direction, Oedipus complex is also a linguistic phenomenon. In psychoanalysis, the prepotent fatherly figure threatens to devour with its physical and moral power, the male son identity, to the point that the healthy development of the son should pass through a phase of (symbolic) suppression of the father, or negation of the father, for the son to succeed in believing that in the world there is room enough for himself and his creativity. In linguistic terms, the prepotent (fatherly) figure of speech threatens to devour our expressive immediacy (idiolect) produced by feelings, thought and needs. Our libido encourages us to anarchic, egotist and creative utterances, dreams and madness and their translations into art and poetry are our way of tending toward expressing our unconscious toward the outside, that outside made of stereotypes to which our revolution of 'epilogue' rebels to.
  Psychoanalysis reaches the causes of ambiguity of our expression explains why utterances are polysemic, because the can (must) be read on more than one level: psychoanalytic interpretation, unlike definition, translates its object into other temporary translations.


Bibliographical references

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

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

1 Calvino 1998, p. 20.
2 Steiner 1989, p. 83.
3 Steiner 1989, p. 93.
4 Steiner 1989, p. 93.
5 Steiner 1989, p. 95-96.
6 Steiner 1989, p. 97.
7 Steiner 1989, p. 98.