Tuesday, 24 February 2009

Open to Interpretation

MATTERS OF INTERPRETATION often arise when I am going off on my mental meanderings or being asked to participate in a dialogue. . . and sometimes I find myself in the middle of a tug-of-war between those who believe that there are so many ways to interpret a piece of art, musical composition, literary work, theatrical show, or even everyday event that it is not proper to exclude any interpretation that comes along and those who claim that, if it is actually impossible to make definitive judgments in the world of art and culture, complex analysis is senseless.

To the latter, I must stress that, indeed, it is important to analyze art and culture-- these things can define people, tell us who we were and where we were and give us clues as to who we should be and where we might go (or even convince us that there is no need to leave what has already been found to be good); these things can help us to understand others or help us to decide what is important in life and who is living well, what concepts such as "importance" or "living well" mean, in fact. To the former, I have a more detailed admonition.

First of all, though one work may have more than one interpretation, there are certainly interpretations that are far more plausible than others. To claim that all interpretation is a matter of opinion is a very dangerous attempt to come across as inclusive that backfires into an insane asylum (the loonies, naturally, giggle and dance as the bullet passes through). Although in the case of some important artists, writers, and musicians, interpretation can be quite like trying to make one's way through a murky bog because said great talent was intentionally vague (consider some of the works of Franz Kafka), most creative people (including Kafka), have left a trail of diaries, letters, and philosophical musings that can lead to fairly certain conclusions. Also, we can piece things together through the contemplation of history-- indeed, it might be a bit amusing to give Hamlet a Freudian twist à la Olivier, or to apply feminist discourse to the tale of Griselda and then imagine how different eras and cultures might view the same story by the same author, but does this really mean that a work itself has no set meaning? Wagner clearly wanted the stories he retold in his operas to be understood a certain way, wanted the music to be seen as grand and moving and filled with German pride; one may criticize his motives or claim that he did not achieve his goals (I would argue fiercely with this person), but it would be ridiculous to attempt to interpret, say, Tannhäuser as a criticism of oppressive social norms in the Medieval era rather than a dramatic testament to the power of Christian love and a warning against blasphemy. What even a scholar might fail to realize is that seeing the opera thus would have something to do with personal prejudice rather than true understanding of the work or the intent of its creator, and that the average student/reader might take that personal prejudice to be objective fact and never delve any further into the subject.

Second of all, why would anybody perpetuate a culture in which wild uncertainty is not merely a bit of a driving force but a goal in itself? I fear that this uncertainty will merely lead to such apathy that even democratic countries will fall sway to brutal tyranny. It becomes ever clearer to me, as I ponder history, that people may have made advances in technology, but they are choosing to ignore the worthwhile things which these new breakthroughs have given them unprecedented health and free time to pursue; that is, the humanities-- the things which make us human. The ones who seek enlightenment or seek to look enlightened might find themselves at a high-brow concert on Friday evening or in the art museum on Sunday afternoon if they have the means to be in such places, but how many people actively and consciously live as beautifully as they aspire to live, or even attempt to really do so? How many people realize that a new piece of furniture or a new political leader will not transform them into greater beings, for they must first transform their minds and actions? Or will somebody merely try to tell me that what constitutes a "beautiful life" is completely open to interpretation?

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