In his book, Real Presences, George Steiner asserts a “wager on transcendence.” He is referring to
“the wager on the meaning of meaning, on the potential of insight and response when one human voice addresses another, when we come face to face with the text and work of art or music, which is to say when we encounter the other in its condition of freedom, is a wager on transcendence.” (4)
He argues for that which is real or substantiated when people use language or create forms, when in making meaning they arrive at “meaningfulness.” Now, all that is possible, Steiner argues, because God is present and is the transcendent reality that makes it possible for us to truly create art and to communicate.
We are talking about interpretation or hermeneutics in class. Steiner writes that hermeneutics defines “the enactment of answerable understanding, of active apprehension.” We may have to unpack that a bit in class . . . .
He also mentions three “principal senses” of interpretation:
An interpreter is:
- a decipherer and communicator of meanings;
- a translator between languages, between cultures and between performative conventions;
- in essence, an executant, one who “acts out” the material before him so as to give it intelligible life.
An actor interprets Agamemnon or Ophelia. A dancer interprets Balanchine’s choreography. A violinist a Bach partita. In each of these instances, interpretation is understanding in action; it is the immediacy of translation. (8)
Another quote from Steiner–and though he refers to music, theatre, art and poetry, he also refers to “non-dramatic literature,” which of course can mean for us the more “typical” primary source texts in history, whatever they would be–dealing with the moral aspect of interpretation and the question is “the reviewer, the critic, the academic expert accountable?”
Interpretive response under pressure of enactment I shall, using a dated word, call answerability. The authentic experience of understanding, when we are spoken to by another human being or by a poem, is one of responding responsibly. We are answerable to the text, to the work of art, to the musical offering, in a very specific sense, at once moral, spiritual and psychological. (8)
Steiner has much more to say, but for our purposes right now, these points may help us to reflect on how we examine and analyse historical source documents or other primary source artifacts in our study of history. This means that as historians we are not just examining evidence from the past. We are serving as interpreters, translators in an important sense. This kind of study requires us to be fully engaged and surprisingly deeply committed to what it is we think is important about the past. In this kind of study we actually become historians in much more personal, intellectual and spiritual ways. We gain new understanding about our own moral sensibilities and responsibilities. So, we are involved in an exciting, holistic, human pursuit.
Sooner or later we all experience the challenge or delight of “interpretive response under pressure of enactment.” Actually, in a sense, we face this each day; there is no day when we are not required to be answerable or responsible, even in the “everyday” or mundane things. To propose a point to ponder: was not Jesus the Christ, the incarnate God, the ultimate enactor-responder-artist of humanity, the model not just of a fully-realized humanity but of the immanence of God–God’s very presence in human person and community? And even in his earthly, human life, did he not show us the extraordinary dimensions of wholeness as well as holiness? And why should we not strive to realize, to find him “made real” in every part of our individual and social lives? Even in a history class? Let’s think about it and try it out.
Quotations from George Steiner, Real Presences, University of Chicago Press, 1989.