Sunday, 4 July 2010

Interpretation and Overinterpretation by Umberto Eco

Interpretation and Overinterpretation by Umberto Eco with Richard Rorty, Jonathan Culler and Christine Brooke-Rose (Cambridge University Press 1992)

In 1990, Umberto Eco was invited by Cambridge University to give the annual Tanner Lecture. He chose for his topic the somewhat academically contentious area of literary interpretation or rather the question of whether one can set limits to the range of what a text can be said to mean. Over the course of three lectures Eco tries to establish that, whilst it may not be possible to prove which of any competing interpretations is correct, one may be able to point out those interpretations which are perhaps unfounded. Following the three lectures are responses by Richard Rorty, Jonathan Culler and Christine Brooke-Rose with a final reply to his critics by Eco although in this review I shall focus upon Eco's lectures..

In his first lecture on 'interpretation and history' Eco traces the history of Hermetic tradition in interpretation dating back from the dialogues of Hermes Trismegistus (one of my favourite names from philosophy, Trismegistus meaning thrice wise). He shows how, if we accept Hermetic thought, interpretation is essentially endless. "A plant is not defined in terms of its morphological and functional characteristics but on the basis of its resemblance, albeit only partial, to another element in the cosmos. If it is vaguely like part of the human body, then it has meaning because it refers to the body. But that part of the body has meaning because it refers to a star, and the latter has meaning because it refers to a musical scale, and this in turn because it refers to a hierarchy of angels, and so on ad infinitum'. Essentially a text would never have meaning because each interpretation could lead to another leaving the text as a meaningless shell. If we reject this theory, he argues, we arrive at the conclusion that a text has meaning. We are "not entitled to say that the message can mean everything. It can mean many things, but there are senses which it would be preposterous to suggest". This is the theme he takes up in his second lecture.

Overinterpreting texts is the subject of the second lecture and Eco starts by listing the ways in which images or words can be connected, the very basis of semiosis, by similitude, by homonymy, by irony, by sign and so on. Similarity is important for interpretation because 'the interpreter has the right and the duty to suspect that what one believed to be the meaning of a sign is in fact the sign for a further meaning'. However, as Eco puts it, 'the passage from similarity to semiosis is not automatic'.  In other words if a text suggests something to you by means of similarity does not mean to say that it is a valid or useful interpretation of the text. Eco shows how Gabriele Rossetti's attempt to interpret Dante in the light of Masonic-Rosicrucian symbolism is ill-fated as he goes in search of a pelican and a rose. "Rossetti, in his desperate and rather pathetic fowling, could find in the divine poem seven fowls and eleven birds and ascribe them all to the pelican family: but he would find them all far from the rose". Rossetti's interpretation had another pitfall to overcome, that he was looking for symbolism that was not conceived until after Dante had written his Divine Comedy.

In the third lecture Eco poses the question of whether 'we should still be concerned with the empirical author of a text', his rather surprising answer is not really. Taking an example from his own work The Name of the Rose, in the trial scene William is asked 'What terrifies you most in purity?' and he responds 'haste'. On the same page 'Bernard Gui, threatening the cellarer with torture, says 'Justice is not inspired by haste, as the Pseudo Apostles believe, and the justice of God has centuries at its disposal'. A reader asked Umberto Eco what connection he had meant to establish 'between the haste feared by William and the absence of haste extolled by Bernard. The answer was that the author had intended no connection but that the text had created its effects whether he wanted them or not.

The responses are interesting. Richard Rorty, ever the pragmatist argues that interpretations are essentially pointless and what is more important is how we use and enjoy literature. Jonathan Culler attacks Eco's notion of overinterpretation and takes up his example of Rossetti's Dante interpretation arguing that it is in fact underinterpretation as Rossetti had been following false leads rather than positing valid interpretations of the material that was actually there. Finally Christine Brooke-Rose rather side-steps the debate with a lecture on Palimpsest history.

It is certainly an interesting debate and Eco makes his arguments with his usual charm and good humour (I would love to see him talk). Sadly it appears that Eco's respondents were not supplied with his lectures in advance which meant that Rorty's response was to an earlier piece by Eco in which he put forward a different argument and Brooke-Rose was off-topic nearly altogether but the most interesting aspect of the book is Eco himself. His general principle is spot on, there definitely has to be scope for determining the degree to which any given interpretation is valid. He is also right in suggesting that once a text has been created that it takes upon a life independent of its empirical author therefore any appeal to the author for a 'correct interpretation' is not strictly valid.

I also agree with Jonathan Culler that this framework should not be used to discourage the search for meaning in texts. "At the beginning of his second lecture Umberto Eco linked overinterpretation to what he called an 'excess of wonder'...this deformation professionelle, which inclines critics to puzzle over element is a text, seems to me, on the contrary, the best source of insights into language and literature that we seek, a quality to be cultivated rather than shunned'. Basically I'm saying feel free to interpret texts any way you like but I reserve the right to say that you've overinterpretted.

In sum, the book would have been better if all speakers were singing from the same hymn sheet although what does get said is very interesting.