Of course Susan Sontag wrote a nice polemic against interpretation (when? . . . back in the ’60s?) and more than a century before that, Marx announced it was time to get beyond interpretation, to buckle down and change the world. And I learn from a friend that Vattimo retorts, mimicking Marx, that “The philosophers have only described the world in various ways; the moment now has arrived to interpret it” (Hermeneutic Communism, Columbia University Press, 2011, p. 5).
I’d like to challenge the idea that philosophers have either to describe the world, change it, or interpret it. We can dance with it in ways that renew it, reaffirm it, resuscitate it. My friend who reads Vattimo is also a musician and photographer and Thoreau reader-and-lover. I have been writing on what it’s like to write on Thoreau, and in the process have backed into the insight that in writing about his texts I am not just interpreting them. What am I doing with them, then? I think part of what I’m doing is singing them back to him, but in my own voice, and in a way that brings his words alive in new ways. That’s closer to sharing a gasp of wonder, surprise, and affirmation of what he writes than an interpretation or description of it.
A good photographer doesn’t interpret the tree she frames but gives it back to us renewed, when we had let in fall into a ‘taken-for-granted’ state of oblivion. A good jazz musician doesn’t interpret the motif just passed his way by the horn as much as give it back to us and to the horn, now renewed. Revelations are shared that way. This sharing and beholding is not representing anything, nor is it holding something at a distance and giving an interpretation. The idea that writing begins in describing or interpretation leaves out the initial gasp, the initial ‘aha’ that alerts us to the presence of something we behold, that we are taken by, that we find ourselves happily abandoned to — and perhaps some time later decide to bring alive again. Why? — because the force of our initial “Wow”” or “Aha” that gets the wheels rolling is precisely a measure of our having forgotten something, or given it up for dead or had processed it, period — a measure of the fact that our ambiance has become dull, beneath notice.
How do we find ourselves singing, or writing or photographing? What’s worthy of our efforts at interpretation or description? What triggers them — triggers the interpretation or description?
When we ‘jump alive’ at seeing a tree that “must be photographed,” or jump alive at a riff that “demands our musical response,” we are witnessing to a level of arousal that predates description or interpretation. So it’s not “interpretation all the way down.” A shimmer, or half-tone, or striking pairing of words, or languid curve of a limb snap us alert to something worth noticing.
Thus as I teach or write with Thoreau at hand, it’s incumbent on me to keep him alive, save him from a dead register of words beneath notice, restore his life and spark and the things he sparked at. It’s incumbent on me to restore revelation — the revelation that is his song. That’s neither describing nor interpreting him or his work, but sharing the snap that brings me alive to him with another who might also be snapped alive.
We’re dead (morally, aesthetically, interpersonally, religiously, ecologically . . . ) because we fail to daily and hourly revive the world’s capacity to snap us awake into life. My friend the musician shows his appreciation of another band member’s contribution to the music unfurling by a sympathetic playing of it back to and with him. It’s not a critique and not an interpretation, but a shout of “we’ve got it!” And that’s what I think we need [beyond interpretation and description and good works and establishing justice].