Thoughts on Interpretation

During a drunken chat around midnight, as it’s during those intoxicated sprees that people begin to ramble on about art and culture, free from the everyday burdens of paying the bills, being on time at work, and watching Eurovision, the conversation drifted off towards writing and poetry. No sooner had we mentioned it than we started reading each other’s poems out loud, giving it a quick contemplation afterwards. My friend followed her poems with a comprehensive analysis and gave out the meaning of the poetic lines. As I stated, my poems were left free to interpret. As I noticed, my thoughts on my friend’s poems changed after she told me what her idea was behind each verse.

A deep debate came next, each of us struggling to put our words together, and as Hegel proposed in his dialectics – both approaches had their rational justification and had the potency to appeal to the reader and the writer. The debate was left unsettled, calling it a day, yet further questions appeared. What is interpretation? Who has the right to decide which interpretation is right? Is a piece of art a straight massage, a convoluted and multi-layered meaning, or can it be both? And, above all, what is the synthesis of these two contrary approaches to interpretation?

Among other, immaterial to this debate, meanings in mathematics or law, interpretation is “an explanation or opinion of what something means.” The first two places where a modern, “Western” child comes across this term are at school and in church. Both of these places value unity in thought over playful, individual thinking. [1, 2]

Imposed Interpretation, the Bible, and Set Books

In a TED talk by a contemporary education system critic, Sir Ken Robinson argues that creativity should have the same status as literacy in education. All children have a capacity for greatness, a creative talent, and – in Robinson’s words – we squander them quite ruthlessly. Kids are not afraid of being wrong, and mistakes are but stigmatized as something to avoid at all costs rather than acknowledge and learn from in the process of intellectual development. In many cases, school is about pushing the limits of your memory rather than intellect. In high school I was highly uninterested in humanity subjects, at the same time being a bookworm and learning about culture, language, and literature for extracurricular activities and competitions.

The structure of school aside, every time a poem was read out loud in class, a thorough analysis followed – each line was translated from poetic into literal, from beauty into hard data. Many poems had to do with an author’s background, philosophy, biography. Yet, even the most sublime of them were brutally stripped of their soul-touching exquisiteness and turned into the crudeness of physicality. In “Death of the Author,” Roland Byrthes makes a strong point against basing a work’s interpretation on its author’s biographical aspects, calling it a common phenomenon that’s oftentimes sloppy and imposes a limit on the text.

Wish this was Chas McDude

Following the idea of education systems, there are strict and stark borders between “right” and “wrong” interpretation. What the author really meant or didn’t mean was already studied by scholars, so why not just teach this way of thinking about this particular piece to everybody, the reasoning is. But can an interpretation ever be wrong? What gives one the power to decide how one should interpret poems, set books, or just about anything?

I understand that my point of view is heavily biased by my subjective attitude to freedom of thought and expression. In high school, I would hardly ever read a set book for the sole disdain for being told what to read. I preferred choosing the books to read on my own. Similarly today, I see myself as a proponent of freedom, ipso facto acknowledging all the ways it may go “wrong” or universal – because freedom also gives one the freedom to follow others’ interpretation and restrain from individual thought.

Nevertheless, inasmuch as I condemn imposed interpretation of poetry at school, organized religious systems are too mass thought-hindrances, cages for interpretation. Without diving too deep into spirituality, it seems to me that all these matters ought to be left alone to the individual. Christianity, as organized religions do, acts in a contrary way. There are the Vatican, priests, and all these elitists who get to interpret the Bible for the 2.3 billion people worldwide, over the centuries deciding which books fit their ideology and which should be disposed of. Different points of view and various interpretations led to the Great Schism in the 11th century. Till this day, interpretation of the Bible is still an unsettled debate. For instance, both pro-life and pro-abortion activists use the Holy Scripture of Christianity to support their opposing claims: the intentional killing of another human being under all circumstances is against the sixth commandment, yet God himself murdered more than a few unborn babies in the annihilation of Sodom and Gomorrah, which clearly undermines His pro-life attitude. [3, 4, 5, 6]

Interpretation of dreams, a topic largely elaborated upon by Sigmund Freud, along with the findings of psychology in the last century, instill us in how individual minds differ. In “A General Introduction to Psychoanalysis,” Freud writes that the more we know about a certain topic, the more specific fear we can experience – like a sailor fearing a cloud that heralds a storm, which an unseaworthy person wouldn’t pay much attention to. Our fears, desires, and feelings are the outcome of gargantuan amounts of thoughts, interactions, experiences, and knowledge. Freud’s interpretation of dreams was a convoluted process, whence he tried to put together the pieces of one’s psyche, day’s experiences, and possible neurotic fears together to tell the meaning of a dream. He did argue that there are certain dream symbols that seem to be universal, hard-wired into our collective psyche, yet interpreting them would be impossible without a lengthy talk to the person whose dream it actually was. Based on general knowledge of dreams, Freud could make individual translations of dreams.

Freedom of Interpretation

Writing, painting, dancing –  something about art moves people. These omitted and unnecessary abstracts in everyday life are inevitable to disconnect from the meaningless dullness of existence and enter a dimension of the soul. In Ecce Homo, Nietzsche’s final work, looking at Shakespeare’s work, he was awed at the extent to which art can resonate with its creator – an extent about which the “consumer” of the very same artwork will never grasp:

“When I have taken a glance at Zarathustra I walk up and down my room for half an hour unable to master an unendurable spasm of sobbing.”

I wouldn’t be surprised if Friedrich Nietzsche had an orgasm reading his own writings. In the same piece, he said that “there is no prouder and at the same time more exquisite kind of book than my books.” Newspapers that didn’t appreciate his genius were either ignorant or not bold enough to do so, he also claimed. Despite his grandiose image of himself, Nietzsche seemed to be overwhelmed by the thought that art resonated differently with different people.

David Lynch, the filmmaker madman of abstract cinema, expressed his issues with discussing his films in a 2007 BAFTA interview with David Lean:

Lynch: “Believe it or not, Eraserhead is my most spiritual film.”

Lean: “Elaborate on that.”

Lynch: “No. No one sees it.”

Googling “eraserhead meaning” will bring about hundreds of thousands of results – articles on the film’s symbolism, message, and interpretation. In the very same BAFTA interview, Lynch explains his aversion to speak up on the matter:

“The film is the thing. You work so hard […] to get this thing built, all the elements to feel correct, the whole to feel correct, in this beautiful language called cinema. The second it’s finished, people want you to change it back into words.”

Should an author be afraid of being misinterpreted? Lynch claims that it doesn’t matter what he says about his art. Whatever you get out of his film, it’s true – for you. “The more abstract a thing gets, the more varied the interpretations, but people still know inside what it is for them.” Individual freedom of interpretation is a thing not only when it comes to something as conceptual as art. A meme I saw a couple of years back, which I couldn’t find for the purpose of this piece, put me in front of a mind-stimulating conundrum: Would you kill a philosopher who would inspire a totalitarian regime? Well, then – should we blame Nietzsche for Holocaust?

Lost in Translation

Language surely has its barriers. Having written some poetry in both English and Polish, those were two different experiences for me as if they were written by two different people bearing the same name. I can’t imagine translating my Polish poems into any other language – the emotional value they possess is untranslatable and, even if translated, would possibly mean different things to Brits, Swedes, or Spaniards.

Hated by feminists, Friedrich Nietzsche’s writings were an inspiration for anarchists, fascists, Zionists, existentialists, musicians, philosophers of mathematics, and more. In the aforementioned Ecce Homo, more specifically in Why I Write Such Good Books (can you hear good ol’ Friedrich masturbating?), when quoting an excerpt from his Beyond Good and Evil on the genius of the heart, he underlined: “I forbid, by the way, any conjecture as to whom I am describing in this passage. […]” Surely, Nietzsche couldn’t add such a line of clarification to each and every one of his paragraphs. [7]

It’s common knowledge that the idea of the übermensch – the superman – was crucial to Hitler’s anti-Semitic, pseudo-scientific, vile ideology. However, so was Darwin’s work, his theory of evolution having been just as twisted and misinterpreted as the superhuman, whom Nietzsche would rather describe as curious, courageous, highly creative, and obviously a reader of Nietzsche’s books, rather than a blonde Arian. In regards to Nietzsche’s ideas on race and nationality, he was quite frequent to comment on a typical Frenchman, German, or Jew, making both negative and positive remarks on nearly all nations of then Europe. In fact, he was critical of the anti-Semitic movements of the time as well, and quite strongly. [8]

Nietzsche said women are of “vengeful nature” and that a man can “redeem” a woman by giving her a child. These statements taken out of context are easily interpreted as politically incorrect, prejudiced, or misogynist. Yet even the leftist Guardian took to explaining why Nietzsche is so misunderstood, calling to his sister Elisabeth’s mingling with Friedrich’s work and changing his writings at her will. Today we could call Nietzsche’s words “politically incorrect,” and so remain the writing of another philosopher whose work sparked up a regime – Karl Marx. Yet, there is not a word about gulags, war, or totalitarianism in the Communist Manifesto. [9]

The Philosophy of Twitter

The conundrum of interpretation goes over to contemporary social media. In the morning television I got a glimpse of a political debate after the announcement of Joe Biden’s victory and Donald Trump’s claims of fraud in the vote counting. The entire debate was based on Poland’s president Andrzej Duda’s tweet where he congratulated Biden “on a successful campaign.” What did he mean by that? Why “successful campaign” and not “victory?” Did he not acknowledge Biden’s media-loud substantial advantage granting him victory? Of course, the two sides interpreted his words differently – and they had to, to fit the political agenda of their television broadcaster, political party, or whichever interpretation-imposing entity they felt a part of.

Polish Parliament

In Poland, the right-left struggle is a great example of how interpretation of abstract ideas, such as a nation, can divide people unable to acknowledge the ambiguity and duality of human reasoning. In a very dialectic way, such values as heterosexual family, tradition, and Christianity are the meaning of “Polish” to the right-wingers, while freedom, beneficial international relations, and fighting climate change should belong to the definition of “Polish” to the left-leaners. Hence, people of the same national identity interpret their own identity differently, sometimes calling the other side “traitors of their own nation.” If Hegel was right, a synthesis of these two seemingly opposite approaches will emerge from this fight. As Yuval Noah Harari noted in “21 Lessons for the 21st Century,” Poland is whatever Poles make of it, as are countless other conceptions and social norms. The very same debate could be seen during the months before the American election – both Biden and Trump supporters saying that if the other candidate wins, it will be an inevitable end of all American values and everything that the glorious United States of America stand for, whatever that means.

Modern public intellectuals and controversy-hell-raisers such as Milo Yiannopoulos or Jordan Peterson would get a lot of questions about their tweets and retweets too, to the extent that Peterson updated his bio: “NOTE: RTs/follows are not to be read unfailingly as endorsements. I sometimes post material with which I do not agree.” We’re so preoccupied with social media that the interpretation of retweets is the subject of political debate. In fact, it’s not stated anywhere in the privacy policy of Twitter (at least I wouldn’t expect it to be there, I’m not a maniac to have read that) or a user’s manual what it means to retweet. The philosophy of Twitter remains to be in the eye of the beholder. What was the intention of the retweeter? Can a tweeter (is that even a proper name to call somebody using Twitter?) be differentiated from his tweets? Social media aside, how is it with art?

Artist Versus Art

George Orwell said that “If there really is such a thing as turning in one’s grave, Shakespeare must get a lot of exercise.” Would Shakespeare really feel vexed at your English teacher’s interpretation and understanding of Hamlet? As a matter of fact, even the Orwell quotation above can have a variety of interpretations.

“I am one thing, my writings are another,” said the aforementioned womanliness-respecting misogynist and anti-Semitic inspiration for Hitler, Friedrich Nietzsche. Can art – especially writing – be seen as a separate entity? According to Joss Whedon, “All worthy work is open to interpretations the author did not intend. Art isn’t your pet – it’s your kid. It grows up and talks back to you.”

What if it’s not the interpretation of a work, but the author herself whose morality and opinions ought to be questioned? J.K Rowling has lost a lion’s share of her readership’s goodwill when she entered the debate on transgenderism over the “people who menstruate” phrasing. The author of weird and horror fiction and the creator of Cthulhu, H.P. Lovecraft, however good his books might be, had some funny ideas about race and culture, “On the Creation of Niggers” being a poem worth every contempt from a modern, open-minded person who doesn’t limit their sight with skin colour and treats racism with the utmost antipathy.

What if the art becomes a manifesto of an artist just as an artist is a manifesto of their art? The poets and writers of the Beat Generation – a literary countercultural movement of the 1950s and 1960s in the US preceding the hippies – didn’t just criticize television, the American Dream, and other values imposed by the society; they lived accordingly. According to John Locke, “the actions of men [are] the best interpreters of their thoughts.” Was there any room left for interpretation of Kerouac’s hitchhiking across the US and then writing about it literally as it was? There surely was more to say, as there always is more to say about subliminal meaning of just about anything one does or says. 

Interpretation of writing can lead to some serious identity problems. In a 1978 documentary on Hunter S. Thompson, the Gonzo journalist and a maverick of American counterculture confessed he felt that people expected him to be Duke (a fictional character being his own exaggeration and the main protagonist of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas) rather than Thompson.

During the artist’s life, the thin border between their work and themselves can indeed be troublesome. Posthumously though, their works keep developing and evolving in the minds of beholders, leaving them no liberty to clarify any sentence, paint-brush stroke, or musical note. The difference between the art and the artists is to be assessed by the consumer of that very art, leaving it open for interpretation, regardless of the artist’s intention and attitude towards the freedom to draw one’s own conclusions.

Existentialist Art

Umbrellas and Guilt

Interpreting people’s words, actions, or art can lead to serious problems, ranging from a misunderstanding, through anxiety, to mass murder. Friedrich Nietzsche’s “I have forgotten my umbrella” is a phrase quoted among philosophy blogs, clever writers trying to break down the sentence, give it meaning, interpret it.

Whatever we do – in action or artwork – we have to be ready for others’ interpretation. I see the case as especially paramount in writing. “There is no such thing as an innocent reading, we must ask what reading we are guilty of,” said Louis Althusser. Maybe you can attach an “interpreter’s guide” to your poems, but can you really make sure that people won’t draw their own conclusions? When writing on politics and LGBT in Poland, I was criticized for not saying certain things, not making them clear. Apparently, lack of words is in itself a subject of interpretation, as is silence and inertia.

Reading this article you will find your own interpretation of it – with your own conclusions, confusing bits, and parts where we might disagree – and there’s nothing wrong about it. Different points of view, exchanging opinions, and dialogue are exactly the things that help us progress in virtually every aspect of this term. Writing, painting, human nature, photography, poetry, the Bible, identity, the meaning of life… though we’d like them to be clear-cut recipes, they all depend on one’s point of view. “There are no facts, only interpretations,” said Nietzsche, and even the understanding of this very aphorism is, no doubt, open to interpretation.

Published by Dawid Tysowski


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