Thursday, July 06, 2017

Interpretation and appropriation

This post:

generated a question, and I'd like to expand on my answer. There are Southerners who take umbrage at the Battle Hymn of the Republic because it was originally an anti-Confederate war song. 

i) At the outset, permit me to say that most patriotic music has no emotional resonance for me. That's in part because most patriotic music is bad poetry set to bad music. Both musically and rhetorically, I think the Battle Hymn of the Republic is several notches above most patriotic music.

ii) The question is worth discussing because it goes to larger principles. In a qualified sense, I think original intent is authoritative for interpretive purposes. When we interpret songs, paintings, movies, and texts, I think the intentions of the creative artist are fairly authoritative. They usually know better than anyone else what they had in mind. 

iii) However, there's a caveat. Some creative artists, like Da Vinci, T. S. Elliot, James Joyce, and Alfred Hitchcock are very conscious of what they are doing and why they are doing it. They'd be excellent interpreters of their own work. 

However, other artists are more spontaneous. There's less intellectual mediation between subconscious inspiration and the final product. If you were to ask David Lynch what a scene in Muholland Dr. means, I doubt he could give you an accurate answer. It's like a dream. We're getting their unfiltered emotion or imagination. 

And there's another layer. For there's the additional question of what Angelo Badalamenti was thinking when he set the scene to music. And even if he knew what he was thinking, I don't know what he was thinking. I lack access to his mental state at the time. 

So there are limitations to original intent. 

iv) Here we need to draw a crucial distinction between inspired and uninspired works. In the case of Scripture, original intent dovetails with divine intent. God uses the Biblical writer as an instrument. 

v) Furthermore, not only is original intent authoritative in the interpretation of Scripture, but Scripture obligates consent. In the case of Scripture, original intent is authoritative, not merely at the level of interpretation, but appropriation.

vi) But therein lies a critical contrast between inspired and uninspired works. The agenda of a creative artist is not authoritative for a listener, reader, or viewer. His motivations don't obligate consent.

How I appropriate an uninspired work is independent of what the creative artist had in mind. It may have a personal significance that's unrelated to what the artist meant.

In appropriation, I'm not primarily attempting to interpret the work. Rather, I'm using the work to interpret life. Many people find a particular song or story or movie meaningful to them. They use that as an interpretive filter to reflect on life. 

To take a dramatic example, I had a relative whose husband died when a song was playing in the background. After that, whenever she heard that song, it triggered the memory of her husband's death. Now, the intrinsic meaning of the song is entirely separate from that adventitious association.  

To take another comparison, there's lots of political allegory in Bunyan's fiction, and knowing the historical background is highly germane to the interpretation of Bunyan–yet his fiction transcends the provincial context of 17C church history and political history. His fiction has universal value. 

No comments:

Post a Comment