The significance of language is based entirely upon a tacit social agreement to assign certain meanings to certain sounds. This precarious arrangement makes language an unstable signifier and allows for a slow but constant semantic change as words are used and abused over time. Perhaps no group of people commits more violence against language than poets. They subject words to all sorts of distortion and even perversion by forcing them to stand in for other concepts. The poet often manipulates words in such a way they serve as little more than a screen for an unspeakable idea. This act endows literary language with new and richer meanings, yet at the same time it charges the reader, and not the poet, with the task of decoding the hidden message behind the tropes. While the words on the page may appear to say one thing, figurative language points to a different meaning shielded by the literal definition of the words in front it. This makes the task of interpreting the literary text rather precarious. While on the one hand the reader may feel the need to come to a definitive conclusion as to a text’s message, the poetic language emphasizes the already polysemous nature of words. Thus an extreme attempt to interpret a text threatens to be overly reductionist, while an overly zealous insistence in the shifting significance of language verges on total linguistic relativism, which would deny the possibility for a literary text to communicate any sort of message at all. Philosophers stemming from Plato to contemporary critics have wrestled with the effects of poetic language and the ways in which a serious reader should approach it. Taking from the medieval examples of Moses Maimonides and the Ikhwān al-safā’ coupled with the theory of modern literary critics like Mikhail Bakhtin, it is possible to develop a method whereby the literary critic admits the necessity for an interpretation while avoiding reductionism by considering the work, its literary environment, social context, and historical reception. This method allows the critical reader to see the text from several different angles and gain the greatest appreciation for its form and content.

The interpretation language is a large part of the Western philosophical tradition. University students, Supreme Court Justices, and members of neighborhood book clubs all share the belief that the written word grants access to its meaning. A work’s significance, however, is often debatable because, as Maimonides understood, language, and especially poetic language, is polysemous. Literary tropes, like the metaphor and simile, for example, only gain their meaning through the unwritten connection between two disparate objects. So when Robert Burns says, “My love is a like a red, red rose” it is up to the reader to fill in the logical gap between the emotion and the physical object. In short, the reader is left with the task of interpreting. To understand the simile is more than just to understand that love describes a certain type of human emotion, that red is the physical perception of certain wavelengths of light, and that a rose is a type of plant-based life form. The reader seeks to understand the unspoken element that allows Burns to plant this simile as a logical comparison.

Plato saw the danger in the indirection of figurative language when he banished poets from his Republic. He believed that literature could only mislead and distract citizens from the truth. Aristotle, of course, offers an opposing viewpoint in his Poetics. He believes that literature can serve a good purpose because through literature one may learn about himself or herself. That is to say, that although fiction presents imagined scenarios, they also point toward a certain didactic interpretation to help the recipient reflect more upon the relation between the fictional story and the world around him. Aristotle’s view is that the literary form becomes a vehicle for a contextual meaning that must be determined by the recipient.

At least since Aristotle’s time, the reading of a text has often been synonymous with interpreting the words on the page. The modern hermeneutical approach to understanding literature is based on a traditional study of scripture—an explicit attempt to understand the one and only intended meaning of a text. E. D. Hirsch defends this traditional version of hermeneutics against a tendency that he believes will lead to total relativism. He notes that a theory of literary interpretation must attempt to counteract the tendency to add subjective meaning to a text: “the nature of a text is to mean whatever we construe it to mean . . .  we need a norm precisely because the nature of a text is to have no meaning except that which an interpreter wills into existence. We, not our texts, are the makers of the meanings we understand, a text being only occasion for meaning.” Using Kant’s ethics as a moral guide, Hirsch maintains that the reader has an ethical obligation to attempt to find the author’s meaning, and not his own: “To treat the author’s words merely as grist for one’s own mill is ethically analogous to using another man merely for one’s own purposes.” He thus criticizes those who would read Homer or Virgil as a Christian allegory, seeing this as the normative imposition of a reader’s ethical choice.

Hirsch’s theory of how to read a text calls for an interpretation based not on what a reader sees in the words, but in what a reader believes the author meant by these words. This model of reading is not uncommon in the field of Constitutional Law, where many maintain a jurist’s obligation to understand the law as it was intended by its original framers. And while it seems ethical to give precedence to the meaning the author intended to give in the text, this method of reading is still very problematic. As W.K. Wimsatt and Monroe C. Beardsley (proponents of the “New Criticism” school or thought) later noted, there are a number of difficulties that could prevent a reader from knowing an author’s original intention.1 They go so far as to say that the intention of the author really does not matter: “The poem is not the critic’s own and not the author’s (it is detached from the author at birth and goes about the world beyond his power to intend about it or control it). The poem belongs to the public.” They call this futile attempt to understand the original meaning embedded in a text by its author the “internationalist fallacy.” They propose that the interpretation of literature be free from the exploration of extratextual information about the author or the reader, by insisting that the work’s meaning is fully contained in the text itself.

The problem with this approach, however, is that it still does not overcome the possibility for an interpretation based on the reader’s subjective vision of the meaning of the words instead of their figurative meaning. Some may see this relativism as the simple nature of a text, and reason enough to deny the possibility for any definitive interpretation at all. In her essay “Against Interpretation” published in the 1960s, Susan Sontag attempts to show that the problem with modern literary criticism stems from the roots of Greek philosophy. She argues that both Plato and Aristotle agree that “art is always figurative.” Aristotle, in defending art against Plato’s attacks, does not disagree that art is mimetic, just that mimesis has a social value. For Sontag, this line of thinking requires a separation of a text’s form from its content and requires an interpretation of the content in order to understand the essence of a text. She sees this process as a continuation of Aristotle’s attempt to justify and defend art by interpreting its meaning.

Sontag, like Hirsch, understands that a work can be interpreted to mean anything that the interpreter wants it to mean. She notes that “Interpretation is a radical strategy for conserving an old text, which is thought too precious to repudiate, by revamping it. The interpreter, without actually erasing or rewriting the text, is altering it. But he can’t admit he’s doing it. He claims to be only making it intelligible, by disclosing its true meaning.” Where Hirsch and Sontag differ, is in their approach to dealing with this problem. While Hirsch calls for an ethical consideration of the author’s intentions, Sontag would affirm that understanding the original intentions simply requires another subjective interpretation. When critics explain the meaning of a work’s content, they are simply translating a text in the most reductionist way: “By reducing the work of art to its content and then interpreting that, one tames the work of art. Interpretation makes art manageable, conformable.”

Sontag calls for a radical revolution of the way critics approach a work of art in order to avoid this reductionism. Instead of a simple interpretation of content, she believes that one must also consider a work’s form. Her ultimate conclusion is that “The function of criticism should be to show how it is what it is, even that it is what it is, rather than to show what it means” and she ends her essay by maintaining that “In place of a hermeneutics we need an erotics of art.” This final line is, itself, in need of interpretation. Sontag hopes to eliminate the focus on content and take a more holistic approach to understanding a text.

The problem with such an approach is that it denies the fact that a written text intends to convey a certain meaning through the content itself. While it seems important to resist the urge to reduce a literary work of art to the bullet points on a PowerPoint presentation, Sontag may be throwing out the baby with the bath water. Just as interpreting a work’s content does not explain the entirety of a work of art, ignoring contextual messages in literature may be equally as problematic. Imagine, for example, trying to understand Aesop’s fables without considering the allegorical nature in light of the moral being taught.

Such drastic positions as Hirsch’s ethical hermeneutics and Sontag’s diatribe against interpretation are apparent in the criticism of any great literary work, especially those that are replete with different levels of meaning. Perhaps one of the greatest examples is Miguel de Cervantes’s Don Quixote. Widely considered the first modern novel, Don Quixote has elicited a broad spectrum of critical investigation since its first publication over 400 years ago. The character Don Quixote has been explained to be such disparate things as a madman, a romantic hero, a symbol of capitalism, a defender of monarchism, an early feminist, a chauvinist, and as a man going through a midlife crisis. Such a seemingly odd array of interpretations has led many to reject any undertaking to understand the text through a modern approach.

P.E. Russell, for example, sees the need to understand Don Quixote by first understanding the society in which it was written. Since there is no existing commentary from Cervantes as to the meaning of his book, there is no real way to understand his intentions.2 So Russell believes that by understanding the original reception of the book by its earliest readers he will be able to find out whether or not these modern interpretations are valid. He concludes that, “For more than one and a half centuries after the book was first published, readers, no only in Spain but in all Europe, apparently accepted without cavil that Don Quixote was simply a brilliantly successful funny book.” He comes to this conclusion not only by studying the literary critics of the 17th and 18th centuries, but also by comparing early translations to more modern translations. He notes, for example, that Don Quixote’s Spanish epithet, El caballero de la triste figura is translated in modern times as “Sir Knight of the Sorrowful Figure” or “Knight of the Sad Countenance” giving to the name the connotation of (perhaps Christ-like) suffering. Earlier translations tend to forgo the sympathy and translate triste as modifying the quality of figura, completely devoid of the emotive impact. Thus they translate it as “Knight of the Ill-Face” or “Knight of the Rueful Countenance,” terms that emphasize a cruel treatment of Don Quixote for comic effect. Russell maintains that until the German Romantics began to interpret the novel, it was clearly evident to European readers that Don Quixote was not meant to portray the tragic suffering of a the idealistic hero, but to present the ridiculous case of a man whose craze for tales of chivalry led him to believe that he could change the world with rusty armor, a skinny horse, and a stout illiterate squire.

Russell’s argument assumes two things about the nature of interpreting texts. First, that a definitive conclusion as to the meaning of a text can be understood, and second, that Cervantes’s contemporaries fully understood his work and that their interpretation is better than that given by later readers. Jorge Luis Borges gives an alternative vision of interpreting Don Quixote, most appropriately through his own work of fiction. In his typical style of presenting a fictional account as if it were an academic paper complete with references and footnotes, a fictional Borges recounts the efforts of his friend Pierre Menard who undertook the task of writing Don Quixote. The sections he was able to write before his death were exact, word-for-word, yet were not a simple transcription of the novel. The narrator affirms that despite being identical, the texts are vastly different: “Cervantes’ text and Menard’s are verbally identical, but the second is almost infinitely richer. (More ambiguous, his detractors will say, but ambiguity is richness.)”3 Both authors write, for example, in part one, chapter nine: “. . . truth, whose mother is history, rival of time, depository of deeds, witness of the past, exemplar and adviser to the present, and the future’s counselor.”4 For the fictional Borges Cervantes’s words are “a mere rhetorical praise of history.”5 But these same words reveal that “Menard, a contemporary of William James, does not define history as an inquiry into reality but as its origin. Historical truth, for him, is not what has happened; it is what we judge to have happened. The final phrases—exemplar and adviser to the present, and the future’s counselor —are brazenly pragmatic.”6

Borges seems to be showing that words are not the essence of a text. His fictional tale only highlights the fact that disparate interpretations of the Quixote are not only possible, but perhaps necessary in light of modern thinking. This in fact seems to be the position of many critics. Alison Weber traces the shifting trends that have taken place in Quixote criticism as philosophical outlooks have changed in response to political transitions: “By the late 1960s, the escalation of the Vietnam War was, as we all know, ushering in a period of profound mistrust . . . It made sense, in those days, to reread Don Quixote. . .paying heed to Cervantes’s antidogmatism, his distrust for institutionalized power, and his defense of individual ‘becoming.’” For Weber, however, these shifts are not all negative, rather, like Pierre Menard’s Quixote, provide new and interesting insights into a richly complex novel. Weber, in fact, finds its necessary to consider one’s own political views while reading a text, “I would, as I have said, like to make room for rereadings that acknowledge the reciprocal relevance of the cultural issues of different ages.” She does not go so far as to say that a critic can throw out any knowledge of the meaning the text might have had in the 17th century, but she does think that post-modernity allows a reader to consider a work in the light of the political concerns of his or her time.

While post-modernism has taken renewed interest in the problem of interpretation, this issue does not start in the twentieth century. Moses Maimonides takes up this issue in the medieval period when he lays out the principles by which one should study biblical language in his Moreh Nevukhim or Guide to the Perplexed. As Lenn Goodman notes, a typical medieval treatise on theology “first established the existence of God, then His unity and incorporeality”. Maimonides, however, takes a different tact. He understands that before one can fully understand the incorporeality of God, one must confront the fact that a literal reading of the Bible directly contradicts what Maimonides considers a necessary doctrine. He takes it as the first step of his theological explanation about God to defend his alternate reading of the Bible. He explains that the nature of God is such that it defies explanation and description, so any attempt to talk about God in human language must be metaphorical. This poetic language prevents the majority of people from understanding the true imbedded meaning, and only the wisest and most diligent scholars will be able to gain access to the wealth of knowledge held under the surface meaning of the words.

Maimonides bases his reading of the Bible on his belief in the incorporeality of God. Taking from Hebrew doctrine and neo-Platonic thought carried to him through Islamic philosophy, Maimonides finds it a logical and theological necessity to admit that God is incorporeal. Biblical language, however, seems to contradict this widely accepted point of view, so before he can prove that God is incorporeal, Maimonides knows he must confront the blaring contradiction presented by the Bible’s descriptions of God. Not to do so would be to admit that the vision of God presented in the Bible is contradictory and to make an understanding of God fall outside of his neo-Platonic logic. To avoid such issues, he establishes the fact that poetic language both reveals and conceals its own meaning. Just as Robert Burns’s simile requires the reader to establish a new connection between love and a red rose, Maimonides sees that biblical language requires from the diligent disciple an earnest effort to determine the connection between the figurative language and established doctrine.

Any description of God must be figurative, Maimonides holds, because the human language is incapable of describing God in positive attributes. This is in part because even prophetic revelation is meted out in small portions. He compares revelation as an attempt to see at night only by flashes of lightning. While for great prophets like Moses the light may seem nearly steady, for all others they are lucky if “the lightning flashes but once in all the night.” Relating such information becomes just as difficult as receiving it. Thus the prophets must necessarily speak “poetically and in riddles, using elaborate metaphors and many different kinds and types of figure.” In an effort to make the mysteries of God understandable, a prophet must translate these higher ideas into human language. This process of interpretation requires the use of imagination. God is the ultimate concept at which all men should aspire to understand through the rational intellect, but only Moses had that clear understanding of the divine. The others can only hope to approximate God by imaging the existence of these concepts. Imagination, a physical part of being for Maimonides, serves the function of representing the forms in terms that can be more easily understood. In the case of prophetic scripture, the idea of God is reduced to the poetic language used to describe Him. In reality, Maimonides believes that God defies any of these descriptions because his unity denies the possibility of any positive attributes, so a true description of God can only include negative attributes.

This presents a great difficulty for many readers of the Bible, but Maimonides knows what type of person will be able to find true knowledge. Following Jewish custom that these matters are to be taught to only one person at a time, Maimonides is explicit in pointing out that his book is not for everyone. He even begins his book as if it were a letter written to a specific student, not, as it was, to be provided to a much larger audience. While “R. Joseph” is not the only recipient of the Moreh Nevukhim, the qualities that Maimonides attributes to him are representative of the type of person that would be able to understand the true meaning of scriptural descriptions of God. He thus outlines that his work is meant for this type of people: “The object, specifically, is to awaken the mind of a godly person who is settled in his mind and committed to the soundness of our Law, who is morally and spiritually mature and solid and has engaged in philosophical studies and grasped their import.”

Once someone has gained the necessary knowledge to interpret biblical language in its figurative sense, Maimonides says he or she will find that scripture holds great value below its surface. While Maimonides believes that there is some value to a literal reading of the Bible, it pales in comparison to the richness of finding the inner truth of the words. This he likens to a golden apple covered with a silver ornamentation: “Seen casually or from a distance, the object is taken for a silver apple, but a keen observer who examines it will see the inside and realize that it’s gold. Likewise the poetry of the prophets (peace be unto them) holds a wealth of practical wisdom on the surface … But the inner sense is a wisdom useful in a different way, instilling in us true convictions about the Real.” When Maimonides says “the Real” he is referring to God in a neo-platonic sense, in that God represents the ultimate idea.

In part one of The Guide to the Perplexed, Maimonides then outlines how he will go about determining which language is figurative. What is important to note is that his interpretation is guided by an a priori notion of God’s incorporeality as understood by Maimonides’s understanding of neo-Platonic philosophy. From this premise, he is able to find the language that directly contradicts this view and to make use of his pre-established position that the meaning of words is relative. Maimonides discounts any positive attribute given to God as a mere linguistic trope meant to compensate for the deficiency of human language.

The goal of interpreting scripture for Maimonides is to gain access to the forms and ideas, and these are represented by the imperfect language that must be decoded to gain that understanding. In this sense Maimonides is aware that he is directly confronting the concern that a reader should only look at the text, and not to some other source of knowledge. He plants the dilemma that hypothetically perplexed must confront:

Should he follow his reason and reject what he sees as the sense of those terms, and so assume that he has cast off core principles of the Law? Or should he hold fast to what he gathers from such language and resist the tug of reason, balk and dig in his heels, all the while feeling that reason has done him injury and tainted his piety? That would leave in place the fantasies that fed his turmoil and troublement, his heartache and deep perplexity unabated.

He concludes that reason should take precedence over the surface meaning of words, and he seeks out to prove that those words which conflict with logic can actually be understood as supporting his philosophical doctrine.

In comparison with Hirsh, Maimonides is quite similar, but with one major difference. Both understand that poetic language contains a meaning below its surface, and that the dedicated reader has the duty of discovering this meaning. They also both believe that by closely studying the written words one can come to an interpretation of the true meaning of these tropes. The difference, however, is that Maimonides does not limit himself to an ethical obligation to understanding the author’s intentions. While he would probably hope that the intentions of the authors of scripture is in agreement with his own understanding of the nature of God, he does not bind himself to this undeterminable possibility. Since the prophets, other than Moses, may have a weak comprehension of what was revealed to them, it seems unlikely that there is a moral obligation, as Hirsch would put it, to hold their intended meaning as the only textual truth. Scriptural language may be based on nothing more than a prophets imaginative representation of God despite a full understanding of the divine idea. For Maimonides, his philosophical rationale trumps the literal meaning of the words the prophets use to describe God. And he can support this interpretation with extratextual evidence that shows the dual meaning of several of the words that could be construed as proof of God’s corporeality.

The introduction to The Guide to the Perplexed is a justification of Maimonides’s method of interpreting biblical language in its non-literal sense. His reading of the Bible shows that the polysemous nature of language makes it necessary for the diligent reader to use his or her own logic to find the correct meaning. While Sontag might claim that this tendency is the unfortunate result of western philosophy’s influence on modern society, she fails to mention that there are a wide number of texts that were written within this same philosophical influence. These texts often call for the same kind of contextual interpretation that Sontag condemns.

One such text is the Ikhwān al-safā’s The Case of the Animals versus Man before the King of the Jinn. This book comes as part of a series of essays intended to explore various scientific, philosophical, and cultural issues. Their explanation of the world of animals takes a different tact, or, as Goodman notes, “the Brethren break away from their usual expository format and fly up into the realm of fable.” This obviously conscious choice to choose the form of literature over their typical scientific prose, reveals how the Ikhwān al-safā’ not only understood the natural richness of poetic speech but also how they used it for their own purpose of interpreting the world around them.

Maimonides notes that there are certain topics in the Bible that should not be taught in public, specifically the account of creation and the account of the chariot. Both of these deal with the relation between infinite divinity and finite mortality, a relationship that can not be easily explained. The prophets who wrote biblical verses were forced to speak in poetic terms, and the Ikhwān take a similar tact by explaining the world and its creations through a parable. Fashioning the work as an extended metaphor allows them to speak the unspeakable, using the indirection of poetic speech to simultaneously conceal and reveal the eternal truths about God and creation. And as Goodman notes, by allowing the animals to speak, the Ikhwān al-safā change the narrative point of enunciation, which gives them further freedom in the topics they discuss and how they discuss them. The use of animals, as Goodman, mentions, gives the poet the ability to express “lightly veiled satire and social critique” while using the animals to “shield authors from counter-strikes.”

Here the form of the parable is a vehicle for the content that the Ikhwān al-safā want to study. The text shows a tendency within the parable to digress into taxonomical explanation of the animals being described. As different groups of animals gather, for example, the narrative delves into a scientific description of the groups and subgroups of the separate species. The authors are able to use the narrative structure to describe, in naturalistic terms, the attributes and characteristics of a wide range of animals. The Ikhwān al-safā seem willing to divorce form from content in order to expound upon the subject matter at hand. Their text is not meant as some esoteric work calling for “an erotics of art.” Rather they have a defined subject matter at hand and are hoping to express certain scientific and cultural values that the reader should be able to interpret from the allegory.

The brethren chose a literary form because they wanted to do more than just give a list and a description of different animals. The taxonomy, although apparent, gives way to the allegory. This is clear, as Goodman notes, in the exposition of water animals. Although it defies their taxonomical purposes, the frog is classified among the fishes of the sea, not just because it is amphibious, but mainly because “the Ikhwān need to class the frog as a water creature partly to facilitate a land journey to the court of the jinni king by an aquatic delegate with a voice.” So while the taxonomy helps this work fit within the larger collection of scientific treatises on nature, the literary nature of The Case of the Animals versus Man before the King of the Jinn signals that its meaning runs deeper.

Poetic language allows the Ikhwān to lace the work with several moralistic and theological lessons—didactic examples that can only be understood if the reader engages the text in a sort of interpretation. The text presents, for example, the kings of all the different classes of animals, as well as that of the Jinn. These rulers take on a decidedly positive aspect in the work, making them a reflection of the normative virtues the brethren see necessary for a good ruler.7 The lion, king of the wild beasts, for example, uses his judicious advisors to learn the qualities he should seek out in a good representative. The king of the swarming creatures, the bee, finds that he has an even harder time deciding who to send for his people. Moved by compassion for his vassals, the bee king decides it is he who should go defend their interests before the court. The King of Jinn takes note of this, and has a lengthy conversation with Ya‘sūb, because as a jinni servant notes: “Kings converse with their peers, who have leadership and authority in common with them, even if they differ in outward appearance and manner of rule.” This extended dialogue between two kings calls attention to the royal example the Ikhwān seem to be setting for rulers. But these lessons can only be understood if the reader is willing to see the bee not as some fanciful creation of art, but as a textual symbol for the values necessary for the proper care and maintenance of a kingdom.

While Sontag might argue that giving a certain interpretation to a text strips the context of its form and leaves it a fraction of what it used to be. The brethren, on the other hand, seem not only to encourage and interpretation, but would require one for the reader to gain the most from the work. This does not mean, however, that the allegory needs to be read in an overly deterministic manner. This, like any other literary text, depends upon language, with all its natural slippages. It, therefore, is subject to a subjective interpretation by individual readers. This, however, is not necessarily a bad thing for the Ikhwān al-safā. The apparent goal of this work is not to give one predetermined point of view that appeals to a narrow spectrum of the world’s population. Rather the text has a universal appeal that generalizes the best qualities and traits and attributes them to several different groups of men and animals while condemning the worst traits in a heavy handed didactic manner.

While there exists within the text a certain tension in regards to the ideological outlook of the various authors of the text, there is also a strong sense that the work is intended to have a universal appeal. First, by endowing the animals with noble characteristics, the authors suggest that these virtues are natural and, if they can be obtained by simple animals, are available to all men. The most obvious example of the universal nature of the Ikhwān al-safā’s worldview is the manner in which the humans ultimately win their case. Despite the fact that the animals have given ample evidence to show that they have been unfairly treated by humans, and the feeling that the jinni have all but made up their mind to support the animals, one wise man finally gives the reasoning that turns the tide in favor of the humans. What is important here is not the reason the man gives, but the description that is given of him: “He was Persian by breeding, Arabian by faith, a hanīf by confession, Iraqi in culture, Hebrew in lore, Christian in manner, Damascene in devotion, Greek in science, Indian in discernment, Sufi in intimations, regal in character, masterful in thought, and divine in awareness.” While it may seem essentialist to endow certain ethnic and national identities with specific qualities, by giving all these qualities to one man, the brethren show their belief that these virtues can  (and perhaps should) be sought after by everyone.

This is important, not because the Ikhwān have become a sort of international outreach organization, but because it shows that their book is destined for a wide appeal because of the virtues it teaches. The didactic aim of this text is to spread both theological and moral doctrine to the world. To carry out such a goal the work must necessarily be understood by a wide range of readers while giving the guidance necessary to bring these readers to certain conclusions about the work. Without interpretation, the text is nothing more than a caricaturised, cartoonish episode of one of the William Shatner Star Treks. But at the same time an overly deterministic reading of the text may cause a reader to miss out on the richness of meaning that the work gains by its employment of literary language.

When approaching a text the reader has a precarious task. If that text consists of poetic language, the task becomes even more hazardous. Because figurative language acts like a screen that simultaneously conceals and reveals a certain meaning, the diligent reader may wonder what lies behind the literary form. But in the zeal to interpret, the reader may reduce a work of art to nothing more than a formless summary. So how does the reader or the literary critic walk such a line, avoiding being overly deterministic but still coming to a conclusion about the meaning transmitted by a literary work?

One must avoid the trap Sontag explores, by resisting the urge to eternally divorce form from content, forgetting the fact that figurative language depends just as much on its form as on its content. With this in mind, the critic can move to further understand a work, like Maimonides does, by using his or her own logic to take into account the extratextual evidences that can shed further light onto the nature of the text and the time and place in which it was written. But in doing this, one need not come to the conclusion that the meaning of a literary work is static. The constant change in language is a direct result of social transformations. New readings of an old text may not approximate an author’s original intention, but they can help shed light onto the ideological outlook of the interpreters of that text.

Although some critics like Whimsatt and Beardsley would argue that any extratextual evidence misconstrues the true meaning of a text, taking from the example of Maimonides one can see the benefits of looking outside the words on a page. As meanings change based on their context and history, a diligent reader must look at more than just the surface meaning of words. This might involve several layers of investigation of a text. One useful model is that explained by the Russian critic Mikhail Bakhtin. In his article, “The Object, Tasks, and Methods of Literary History,” Bakhtin outlines a method whereby a critic can reasonably incorporate extratextual information in order to better understand a text. The critic must first consider the words on the page as they are written, but not limit himself to them: “The literary work is an immediate part of the literary environment, the aggregate of all the socially active literary works of a given epoch and social group.” A consideration of a single literary work depends on its intertextual relationship with other writings, and its relationship to the social context in which it was written. One can imagine the range of a textual analysis as concentric circles. The critic first considers the text as it is found on the page. This consideration is then extended to the literary environment in which the work is found to understand the relation this text has with others. This, as Bakhtin notes, is only possible if one also considers the larger social issues at work in the formation of these literary works.

Here one can add that an adequate textual analysis must take into account the historical changes that have occurred from the time that the text was written to the time in which it is read. Maimonides does so when he considers the etymological roots of certain words and the contextual meaning in other texts and the mistakes that misinformed readers have made. But by extending this to consider not only what a text means, but the various ways in which a text has been interpreted over time, one can gain a unique perspective, not necessarily of an ultimate definition of the text, but an increased understanding of those who have given the interpretation. This, in fact, is the real value of articles like that of Weber. While she is unable (as anyone would be) to give a definitive reading of Don Quixote, her analysis of Cervantine criticism shows the social changes in the twentieth century that led to a change in literary interpretation.

Including a consideration of how different critics have brought changing perspectives to read old texts in new ways also helps remind the reader of his or her own subjective point of view. By viewing how disparate interpretations have been accepted according to changes in society, it becomes increasingly evident that any type of semiotic communication lends itself to multiple interpretations and that the continued interpretation of these signs over time only multiplies the number of possible understandings. While a critic need not accept every reading of a text as giving equal access to the unspoken meaning hidden behind figurative language, there is no need to dogmatically reject any interpretation that does not coincide with the most widely accepted understanding. In contrast, every interpretation has some sort of value, either helping one understand more about the text or about the person reading it. A reader must not hold an author’s intention as some transcendental guide to understanding a text. Not only is there limited to no access to the true intent of an author, but adhering to the supposed intention is an attempt to divorce the text from the world in which it was written. A thorough consideration of a text must take into account the mutually determining act that reading has upon both the text and its recipient.

Any figurative language challenges a reader to understand the meaning left unsaid by misdirecting words. The slippery nature of language makes the task of coming to a definitive meaning difficult for the reader, but that does not mean that important conclusions can never be reached. Instead of adhering to the misguided notion that the ultimate interpretation of a text can only lie in either the nebulous intention of the author, the ever-changing meaning of the words on the page, or the subjective viewpoint of the individual reader, it seems more productive to consider all three of these possibilities. By moving from the text, to the literary environment, to the society in which it was produced, and onto the historical reception of a work, the critic can come close to understanding the multifaceted nature of the literary work and appreciate the richness of the poetic language it uses. Just as Maimonides and the Ikhwān advocate, a text deserves to be interpreted, but one should not take this task lightly.

[1] The term “New Criticism” is derived from the book The New Criticism by John Crowe Ransom published in 1941.

[2] Even if this hypothetical commentary did exist, it still would simply be another linguistic based explanation that, in turn, would be subject to individual, subjective interpretation.

[3] “El texto de Cervantes y el de Menard son verbalmente idénticos, pero el segundo es casi infinitamente más rico. (Más ambiguo, dirán sus detractores; pero la ambigüedad es una riqueza).

[4] “… la verdad, cuya madre es la historia, émula del tiempo, depósito de las acciones, testigo de lo pasado, ejemplo y aviso de lo presente, advertencia de lo por venir.

[5] “un mero elogio retórico de la historia.

[6] “Menard, contemporáneo de William James, no define la historia como una indagación de la realidad sino como su origen. La verdad histórica, para él, no es lo que sucedió; es lo que juzgamos que sucedió. Las cláusulas finales —ejemplo y aviso de lo presente, advertencia de lo por venir— son descaradamente pragmáticas.

[7] This becomes even more evident if one considers that the Ikhwān wrote this text in a time when they were ideologically opposed to the current ruling body by which they were governed.

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Jaideep A. Prabhu is a specialist in foreign and nuclear policy; he also pokes his nose in energy and defence related matters.

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