Google Penance time.* The Search Engine Juggernaut has been referring more than a couple people looking for information on Umberto Eco’s essay to Ye Olde Humble Blogge, so I guess I should probably give those people a hand.
First, at least part of the essay is on Google Books. Have a looksee there—Eco’s a good writer, and, in this case, the horse’s mouth is as good a place to hear things from as any.
You’ve read Eco now? Yes? Good. No? Do it later, you won’t regret it.
Interpretive theories—especially those relating to “constructive” interpretation**—have many applications, most notably in aesthetic criticism and, thanks to Ronald Dworkin, jurisprudence. Now, while I think Dworkin overstates how far you can take interpretation in law, language, and aesthetics (I may explain why later, for the three people who would ever be interested in hearing why), I do think he raises an important point: the kind of interpretation one does in legal practice is very similar, formally speaking, to the kind one does in aesthetic criticism. Thus, before I start ranting about Hart, Kripkenstein, and rule-guided behavior, let’s have some art.
Above, we have Paul Delvaux’s Sleeping Venus. For those of you not familiar with Delvaux (pretty much anyone who isn’t Belgian, really), I give you his biography (in French), and the ever-lovely Delvaux Museum in Belgium (in English, French, and Dutch). Once again, check those out, you won’t regret it.
But. Interpretation. According to Eco, there are three basic sorts of interpretation: the deconstructionist sort, which holds that there is nothing outside the text, and thus allows for a sort of “free association” when interpreting (as nothing outside the text can be admitted to guide or contradict any interpretations); overinterpretation or “the hermeneutics of suspicion,” in which one comes to the text with a preconceived notion of what should be found in the text, viewing it as a set of clues and veiled references to be unraveled by one who knows the True Meaning; finally, intentio lectoris, in which one comes to the text as an artifact in society and history, meeting it on its own terms, letting the text and context interact and guide interpretations, and, if necessary, allowing several different complimentary interpretations to coexist along with the literal one. There’s quite a bit to be said about each model, as well as those who have engaged in each form of interpretation, but, for the time being, we could probably label the three sorts as deconstructionist, suspicious, and, recognizing its historical roots, Augustinian.***
Now, back to Delvaux. That painting above is just a little strange. We wouldn’t be remiss in thinking that, like many pieces of fine art, it means something, or has some significance. We’d probably be justified in assuming that interpreting it and trying to make some sense of what’s on the canvas would be a worthwhile activity—something about it seems to indicate that it’s more than just a merely pretty picture, but could have some aesthetic or symbolic significance.
Thus, interpretation. Many of the individual objects depicted in the painting—classical buildings, skeletons, naked women, dressmaker’s dummies—have symbolic meanings in our society, certain associations in which the symbol leads to certain concepts within our language-game**** However, many of these symbols are associated with a host of meanings, some of which are contradictory. Deciding which rule we follow, which meaning we associate with the signs, is the job of interpretation.
So, interpretation #1:
In a moonlit town Venus lies asleep, watched over by a skeleton and a dressmaker’s dummy. She lies with her legs open, dreaming of the seduction of Death. Perhaps it is the combination of youthful female beauty and death, of desire and horror, that makes this painting so disturbing.
The Art Book, Phaidon, 1994
Reasonable, no? Skeletons often represent death on our society; Venus, and her nude attendants, seem to represent youth and the bloom of life, gradually fading into age and death. Of course, Venus, being an immortal goddess, can’t exactly die; perhaps, like the deathless Sybil, she wants nothing more than to defy her own everlasting nature.
Or perhaps not. Interpretation #2, courtesy the Tate:
Delvaux’s work combined classical perfection with an erotic and troubling atmosphere. The sensuousness of Sleeping Venus is set against its oppressive night-time setting. Delvaux later explained that it was painted in Brussels during the German wartime occupation and while the city was being bombed. ‘The psychology of that moment was very exceptional, full of drama and anguish’, he recalled. ‘I wanted to express this anguish in the picture, contrasted with the calm of the Venus’.
Well. There we have a quote directly from the artist. It seems that our first interpretation—a “naïve” one—wasn’t right after all. If the artist says that it represents Brussels being bombed, then it must represent Brussels while being bombed. Venus is the city sleeping, deathless, while her people panic.
Except that, well, there’s another artist quote or two to take into account.
[The skeleton] is a structure and also it is life, it is life in essence. This armature, this extraordinary thing, conserves already in itself the general forms of the human being . . . [I] have some Descents of the Cross, where I have tried to remake the life of Christ in skeleton.
— Paul Delvaux: Odyssey of a Dream, 54
[I think of] the skeleton, not as an emblem of Death, but on the contrary as an expressive and alive figure.
Oh, and let’s not forget that “The Sleeping Venus” was a mechanical device in the Spitzner Museum designed to imitate a living, breathing human being. Thus, Venus is caught between the artifice of the dummy and the structure of life, on display for those who are truly alive, terrifying them with her surreal, liminal existence, argued over by life and artifice, belonging to neither the world of human beings nor their creations.
Now what? Three interpretations, each with some validity; what’s the right answer? The deconstructionist would probably argue for the first one; after all, it’s the one that relies only on the painting, not other outside information. The suspicious interpreter might side with the second, as it’s the one the artist endorses; the other interpretations are either naïve or rely too much on extraneous information that’s best ignored.
For the Augustinian, however, they’re all right. All fit in some way with both Delvaux’s context and historical situation, as well as our own language-game; furthermore, there’s no reason why they should necessarily conflict, or why Delvaux’s painting can’t be subject to multiple correct interpretations. Of course, this doesn’t mean that there are no wrong interpretations, just because there can be several right ones; an interpretation claiming that the painting related to the Masonic Fellow Craft degree, due to the pillars on the portico of the building in the background, clearly implying the pillars of Solomon’s Porch introduced in the second degree ritual, would be wrong. Simply put, it doesn’t fit with the painting or anything one could reasonably infer from it—after all, there are six pillars on the building in question (not to mention the ones on the loggia on the left, as well as other buildings), while only two are important in Masonic ritual.
The intentions of the work itself, rather than those of the author or interpreter, are to be respected. Delvaux may have said that the work relates to the occupation of Brussels; though we should definitely keep this interpretation in mind, it doesn’t mean it’s the only correct one. We may be looking for signs of a Masonic conspiracy in paintings of the Tate Modern; however, just because we can’t find one at first glance doesn’t mean we should invent one, cooking up a conspiracy theory and finding hidden symbols evident only to someone searching for them, someone willing to do violence to the work’s intent in order to serve their own interpretive agenda.
This is the essence of intentio lectoris, then: you must respect the intent of the work itself. The historical background of the work is not the only fact you must consider, and your own agenda must be checked at the door.