Sunday, November 29, 2009

Writing and Interpretation

In September, I posted an article by Jean-Paul Sartre titled “What is Writing?” The essay is concerned primarily with differentiating prose writing from other sorts of art—explicitly visual art and poetry. It’s a great article; if you didn’t read it before I’d suggest reading it now if you have the time (which, alas, you probably don’t). Since September, we’ve worked with several writers with close ties to Sartre, so I’d like to look beyond Sartre’s differentiation of prose and poetry to what that means for art. Heidegger and Gadamer seem relevant here.

With Heidegger we learned about the hermeneutic circle, or the idea that all knowledge or understanding is a continuous cycle of interpretation, in which the unfamiliar or concealed becomes disclosed, and the familiar becomes foreign. This conception of knowledge runs counter to modernist iterations (i.e. Locke’s tabula rasa, the idea that we begin life with a sort of blank slate on which the world writes through experience) in that it presupposes some sort of inherent understanding about the world; neither the completely alien nor the completely familiar have any bearing on our experience. This is reflected in Heidegger’s assertion that we must take for granted the “thingness” of an object-to-be-interpreted before we can perform any sort of interpretation. This is what phenomenologists like Merleau-Ponty and hermeneutic philosophers like Gadamer are getting at when they use the phrase “always already;” we are always already experiencing the world because we live within it. As such, we cannot hope to view the world objectively or from outside ourselves, something Nagel terms the “view from nowhere.”

For Heidegger, all this means that artwork should disclose something: that truth itself is disclosure. Art makes the unfamiliar familiar and vice versa; this is its sort of first-order function. More than that, though, art shows us that truth is itself an act of disclosure. It seems to me that Gadamer’s view on abstract art falls into this articulation as well; by depicting color and shape rather than things, abstract artists more directly arrive at the Heideggerian goal of disclosure about disclosure. Abstract art takes such recognizable and familiar concepts as color and shape and arranges them in a foreign way; humans tend to experience these concepts as aspects of things rather than things-in-themselves, and so the experience of, say, a Rothko painting (example, "No.3/No.13," to the left), requires a new sort of interpretive engagement with the work, one that leads to a realization of the interpretive act itself.

Here we come to the ultimate difference between prose writing and visual art. Sartre puts it this way: “The writer can guide you and, if he describes a hovel, make it seem the symbol of social injustice and provoke your indignation. The painter is mute. He presents you with a hovel, that’s all. You are free to see in it what you like” (27). With this, Sartre differentiates writing from other artforms, including poetry, by showing that writing utilizes representational language to convey meaning; it is not the images depicted in the writing that have meaning (as in poetry), but the language used to present these images: “The art of prose is employed in discourse; its substance is by nature significative—that is, the words are first of all not objects but designations for objects. It is not first of all a matter of knowing whether they please or displease in themselves; it is a matter of knowing whether they correctly indicate a certain thing or a certain notion. Thus, it often happens that we find ourselves possessing a certain idea that someone has taught us by means of words without being able to recall a single one of the words which have transmitted it to us” (35). Our experience of a novel may be tied to the language used by the author, but the take-away is largely representational; we remember things like plot, character, and narration, but we can remember these things without necessarily remembering the author’s language. To remember an artwork, one must remember the content of the piece rather than its external reference.

To choose to convey an idea through prose, then, is to choose action by disclosure—to act such that “nobody can be ignorant of the world” (38). While a painter may disclose the world by presenting something in the world, thus making it available for interpretation, the writer actively imbues such an image with potential meanings beyond the image itself. This is, to a great extent, a function of language, which Sartre positions as a key factor in perception: “We are within language as within our body. We feel it spontaneously while going beyond it towards other ends, as we feel our hands and our feet; we perceive it when it is someone else who is using it, as we perceive the limbs of others” (35). The function of style is to push the reader through and give value to the content of the prose, but not to be self-evident: content is what matters—language and style change to fit the subject. “In prose the aesthetic pleasure is pure only if it is thrown in into the bargain” (39).

So it seems that prose writing can have the same effect as visual art insofar as both require the viewer (or reader or audience) to interact with and interpret the work, thus fulfilling Heidegger’s assertion that art discloses the truth of disclosure. However, writing extends past visual art in that it refers to something beyond itself; moreover, the interpretive task the reader faces is more complex. While both a novel and a painting can have a multitude of viable interpretations, the novel has certain “landmarks” set by the author, a sort of roadmap for potential meanings. The reader/viewer, though, bears the responsibility of creating the meaning of the work (this is a fancy way of saying that we get from an interpretive object what we put into it; a work is only meaningful when its audience interprets it). While it seems unlikely that there could be a “bad” or “wrong” interpretation of a visual artwork (this is arguable, but I’m working here with abstract art in mind, which would seem to place few restrictions—if any—on interpretation), the written work has a certain limit to interpretation. This comes less from the author than the interpretive community in which the work takes hold, which is to say that certain interpretations of a work come to be considered “correct”—or at least compelling—as a result of the metaphorical “vocabulary” of the community critically examining the work. The task of the reader, then, is to interpret individual or personal meaning from a work without losing sight of the actual content of the work itself.

Works Cited
Sartre, Jean-Paul. “What is Writing?” What is Literature? Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1988. pp. 25-47.


  1. The concept of drawing the connections between abstract art and literature is interesting. As you say both must be interpreted, for if they weren't we would not gain anything from them save some vague sensory pleasure from viewing them. Of course it also makes me think of the classic question as to how far interpretation can truly go before it has left the original work behind completely. I agree that we have to put our interpretation of texts in the context of the author's history. If we don't any interpretations we make will lack the ability to hold power and truth in relation to us understanding some new concept. Disclosedness can be determinate upont he author's intent. The question is though does this meant that our own histories are to be ignored when we begin to interpret a text?

  2. Interpretation is an individuated action that takes place within the world, which is to say that it's impossible to ignore one's own context (historical, cultural, linguistic, or otherwise) in the process of interpreting. When I talk about the author having a hand in guiding interpretation, I don't mean to say that we must consider the author as an individual (i.e. I can appreciate Raymond Carver's work despite his reputation as a violent drunk), as this puts heavy limits on the interpretations available to us. I don't think this is what you were suggesting, necessarily, but it could use some clarification.

    The biggest tension in arguments about interpretation, particularly of literary texts, is whether the work should be viewed within its historical context or from a sort of decontextualized standpoint, the latter of which would seem to allow the broadest range of interpretations. I think that we have to find a balance between the two, as the complete decontextualization of a work ignores the inherent contingencies of that work on history and language. On the other hand, we have to look at works from our own perspectives; understanding how a work was interpreted during its author's lifetime is wholly different from understanding the work as individually meaningful or relevant.

    In his essay "Why Write?", which comes after "What is Writing?" in his book What is Literature, Sartre deals more directly with the relationship between author and reader; though both are necessary agents in the act of writing (Sartre argues that no one writes for himself; all art is meant for others), the reader bears ultimate responsibility for creating the meaning of the work. This means that, as readers, we have to understand a work for ourselves.