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Interpretation, literary texts, and conversation/dialogue

From: Bob S.
Sent on: Monday, April 23, 2012 1:04 AM
A woman once asked T.S. Eliot, at a reading, "Mr. Eliot, what did you mean by the line 'Lady, three white leopards sat under a juniper-tree.'"

He answered, "I meant, 'Lady, three white leopards sat under a juniper-tree.'"

He wasn't just being a smart ass. He was trying to teach the questioner something about reading--not to jump to "an interpretation": Oh, the leopards symbolize the three parts of the Trinity or some such nonsense.

Suppose that instead of your just reading this line of Eliot's, I actually took you to a place and there showed you three white leopards sitting beneath a juniper tree. Imagine this happening REALLY, ACTUALLY. It would be an astonishing encounter, wouldn't it? Something you would likely remember always. White leopards. Incredibly agile, fierce, majestic, alien creatures, but in repose, resting, all the more strange and wondrous because of their whiteness--very rare in leopards. In stark contrast to the dark forest green of the juniper. Junipers are pretty amazing. They have weird, twisted trunks that look weathered, ancient. They have dense, dark, spiky, coniferous foliage and milky blue-green berries with an ethereal, unearthly, striking aroma. What a fantastic, other-worldly scene this would be. Beautiful, white against green, but also a little scary, this fierceness in repose. What would you feel, being there, seeing this? Perhaps awe tinged with fear.

There is the kind of reading that we do for information. And then there is the reading of literature, which is something else entirely. When someone is reading a literary work well, I think, he or she is entering into the world of the work and having an experience there. The author, if she is good at the craft, has created a little world that will be, for you, the reader, a powerful and thus significant experience, one that matters, something unlike what you have done before, as jumping out of an airplane with a parachute is to one who has never done this. But if you just read the words that Eliot wrote without living, imaginatively, the experience of encountering the resting white leopards under the juniper, then you've missed what's going on. As the Vietnam vets used to say, "You wouldn't know because you weren't there, man."

Think about a time when you had a powerful conversation, the result of which was that you became more intimate with someone else. What happens in ordinary conversations is that people spend a little time thinking about what the other person said and a lot formulating responses, often responses that are delivered very, very rapidly, without pause. But in a truly intimate conversation, something else entirely happens. Each person enters into the world of the other, dwells there, sees things anew, through these different eyes. In other words, each experiences the Other, and an experience AS an Other is going to be significant because it is not the same as one's own.

Coleridge said that we should, when reading, "suspend disbelief." But this means much more than simply opening ourselves up to imagining things. It means giving ourselves over, DWELLING THERE in that other world of the work, experiencing it with the intensity of LIVED experience. Then we mull it over. What significance does this experience have? And more often than we probably usually imagine, and if the work is any good, that experience will be quite different from our own, perhaps so different that we will have to return to the experience again and again to start having any clue about it. The interpretation and, especially, the evaluation, comes latter, after we have taken the trip. But we have to take the trip, to go through the wardrobe or down the rabbit hole into the experience that is the world of the work.

Otherwise, we are like the person who changed trains once in Paris, encountered a rude teller at a ticket counter, and thinks, then, that she knows Paris. "Those Parisians, they're SO RUDE!" What would one have to do in order to "understand," in order to "interpret" Paris? To know what it is to BE a Parisian? As opposed to just knowing, by hearsay, some things about Paris and Parisians? At a minimum you would have to DWELL THERE first.

Same is true of reading well or of having truly significant dialogue with another. One has to be willing to take the trip, to set one's self and one's world aside for a bit, and dwell there. Easier said than done, and none of us does it very often, and none of us CAN do it very often. But this is what great works and great conversation both demand of us, I think.

Robert D. Shepherd
[masked]th Avenue, Apt. 213
St. Petersburg, FL 33716

[address removed]


"E questo dubbio [about the meaning of life] e impossibile a solvere a chi non fosse in simile grado fedele d'Amore." --Dante, La vita nuova

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