Saturday, June 25, 2011

From Fragmentation to Integration 13

A Foray into Hermeneutics

Copy of Biblical Latin Text, in Gaelic Script, Glendalough, May, 2011
Professor Levine surprises this reader continually.  As I continue to read Poiesis: The Language of psychology and the Speech of the Soul (Jessica Kingley, London, 1997), I am surprised with his references to religious language and theology.  At the end of the chapter on "Image Abuse and the Dialectics of Interpretation" Levine spends some two pages discussing the relevance of hermeneutics in the interpretation of images.  Now "hemeneutics" is a word which brings the present author back years to his theological training somewhere way back in the mists of the past.  Hermeneutics, with its etymological roots in the Greek god Hermes, the messenger of the gods, refers to the theory and practice of understanding and interpreting texts, biblical and otherwise.  Originally it was confined to the interpretation of Biblical texts, but as it grew as a scientific approach to textual interpretation it began to be found useful in interpreting other more secular texts.  Hermeneutics basically seeks to (i) establish the original meaning of a text in its particular historical context and (ii) express that meaning today in contemporary terms meaningful to modern readers.

Hermeneutics recognizes that any particular text can contain and convey meaning that goes beyond the original author's explicit intention.  As a field of study it draws on many other disciplines, too, e.g., philology (= the study of language in written historical sources; it is a combination of literary studies, history and linguistics), history, literary criticism and sociology and philosophy (why as humans we needs to create and read texts).  Hence, it is an intricate and complex science of interpretation.  despite the distance between individual minds and cultures (past and present), our common humanity bridges the gap to allow texts to be understood and interpreted.

The Healthy Tension of Opposites

Levine, as we have seen, goes to extreme lengths to point out the importance of the healthy tension (dialectics) of opposites in interpreting any image and in tracing its origins back to its primal source in Creative and Expressive Arts Therapy.  In our last few posts we discussed this and underlined that an image has a polarity of associations, viz., the sacred (on the one hand) and the pathological (on the other), and that these two must be held in a healthy tension or polarity if the image is to be healing for the client/patient.

Levine, in the last two pages of this chapter, underlines the fact that interpretation in depth psychology has a transcendent meaning (let me call this a height dimension as opposed to a depth one!).  The study of interpretation, or hermeneutics, he argues begins with the exegesis of biblical texts.  The underlying premise is that the text is a distorted expression of the word of God. (By way of eludation, fundamentalist interpreters of the Bible would have absolutely no truck with or need of hermeneutics as for them the meaning is literal and that's that - hence the text could never be distorted.  For the more liberal, balanced and modern Christian the texts were written by a human author, all too fallible, but were guided by the inspiration of the divine.  There is much subtlety of thought and belief here on the part of modern Christians!) The task of interpretation, Levine argues, is to find the transcendent meaning contained within the distortion of the text.

A monk scribe would have worked here: Glendalough
 Our learned professor then outlines a second approach to interpreting a text, and it's not just a biblical text Levine has in mind.  This approach is the opposite of that described in the preceding paragraph.  It is one that seeks to "demystify" the text - namely this is a sacred text, written in sublime language and it has to be demystified - in other words it has to be reduced from being "sacred" to being more ordinary and profane.  He places Nietzsche, Marx and Freud firmly within this category of interpreters.  Highly fanciful and mystified language has to be brought down to earth, as it were, in this approach to interpretation.  He maintains that Nietzsche, Marx and Freud treated the major cultural texts as ideology or "a cover-up for baser motives." (Op. cit., p.73).

Paul Ricoeur:

Levine then brings to our attention some insights from the philosopher Paul Ricoeur, who did an extensive re-reading of Freud's work and has shown that there is a "teleological" dimension as well as an "archaeological" one to the latter's oeuvres.  Ricoeur uses two interesting terms, arguing that there should always be a balanced hermeneutics, namely a "hermeneutics of generosity" as well as a "hermeneutics of suspicion."  In other words if we are to read an image or a text "forward and upward, to see its transcendent dimension" we must take an attitude of generosity.  (Ibid., p. 73)  However. we must be able to read the same image and text with a suspicious eye too, namely to read that image or text downward and backward to where it conceals suffering and anguish.  Then Levine sums up his argumentation in the following words:

A general rule of interpretation might be to suspect the sacred image and to generously see more in the profane one than it sees in itself.  If we stand within the dialectical nature of interpretation, ready to go up and down wherever the image may lead us, then we will neither abuse the image by reducing it to our demonic drives nor will we inflate it by casting it in angelic robes (Ibid., p. 74)
It appears to this reader that Levine has been most succinct and far clearer in his above nigh concluding paragraph than he has been at any stage in the present chapter.  I certainly got lost in the thickets of his not overly clear prose.  The reader has a lot of spade work to do to assimilate what he is saying.  I appreciate that he is setting out the philosophical foundations for his theory and practice of Expressive Arts Therapy, but I believe he could have made the task much simpler both for himself and the reader by being clearer and more structured in his approach to this chapter where he appears to be pulling in examples from all over the place willy nilly.

He finishes by telling us that the human being stands somewhere between the demons and the angels and that if we abuse the images offered by the client by faulty and superficial interpretation we will lose our way on the road to healing.  What a pity he did not tell us these things simply at the start of the chapter and then build up an understanding of a two-pronged or dialectical approach to interpretation from there.  I, for one, got lost in the undergrowth of verbiage and seemingly unconnected allusions.  However, I have garnered much from this chapter through hard work, but the reader need not have sweated so much in this task had Levine been clearer and far more logical and structured in building up his argumentation. 

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