I’ve Got Mail!

From a letter sent me on or around August 4th:

The way you parse texts just amazes me. I was hoping you could provide a little advice, what direction I should be going in to hone my interpretive faculties.

Thanks for the praise. I’m very grateful you’re reading. I think the best way to start here is to start with what I get wrong.

I’ll be the first to admit that maybe 75% of the blog needs serious editing. There are plenty of entries which flat out don’t make sense or have reasoning that’s far too clipped for any reader but myself to understand. And as I get older, I forget what I was thinking about at the time.

That having been said, the blog isn’t a final product. It’s really a notebook, a peek into how to go about analyzing things. And ay, there’s the rub yet again. There are plenty of analyses of things that are much clearer than what I’m doing. So what exactly is happening here that might be of use to someone who wants to work through texts for themselves?

I think there’s two things of value: first, dissatisfaction with obvious readings as some kind of gold standard. Strauss is quoted by Benardete somewhere as saying something to the effect of “if your title gives away what you’re talking about, why did you write anything to begin with?” (This is not advice to be taken when writing scholarly papers). I don’t think anything is obvious – what has always taken me aback is how rare this magical thing we call common sense is.

I’m not saying throw out obvious readings. The best approach to them is to summarize them and identify a weakness. This is much harder than it looks, because of the second thing of value: the relevance of someone’s speech is what you’re aiming for, and if someone’s speech is relevant, it speaks to a number of issues, not just one. A good example of this is Lincoln’s Second Inaugural. The nation needs healing; the rhetoric should be simple and to the point. But Lincoln goes and wrestles with divine judgment, knowing that the deeper issue is how democracy itself – our own claim to represent the rights of man – has been and will be judged. You can see how easy it is to get lost in this sort of web of themes.

So some practical advice, which I’m sure you’re already putting to use:

  • Start small. You don’t need to write an interpretation of the whole of the Odyssey. But if you work through a puzzling scene and come to a good question, who cares if you’re exactly right or not? The goal is to do justice to the work.
  • Context & your audience. You can pull stuff out of context, but be really clear. Again, this is not something I practice perfectly – not even close – but you have to be attentive to your audience even when writing privately. You’ve got to ask yourself why you’re writing what you’re writing, why you’ve made the interpretative leap you’ve made. That means establishing for some audience why you’re doing what you’re doing. It means, probably, establishing at least two contexts: that of your inquiry and the one the work is situated in.
  • Bring up the questions that occur in your everyday life without using fancy texts. You don’t need to write about how some piece of legislation you’re for or against is reminiscent of Tocqueville or not. That’s actually something I’ve tried hard to steer away from recently. Yeah, debates and themes recur over and over again. That’s not why they’re relevant. They’re relevant because you’re seeing something that’s important to you.
  • Read everything, though some books are more valuable than others. The books which helped me the most: Aeneid, The Case of Wagner, Plato’s Symposium (Strauss’ lectures highly recommended), Xenophon’s Apology and Symposium, Thucydides’ Peloponnesian War, Plato’s Minos, Bacon’s New Atlantis. I’m not putting this list down to be like “look at all the learned stuff I read.” Rather, each work listed engages a number of metaphors and themes which show up in nearly everything else. And I mean everything. I actually can’t recommend Xenophon enough for seeing how what is “obvious” fails for those who really want to get the most out of a book.

1 Comment

  1. Indeed, pushing past obvious readings–or as Roland Barthes said, “reading against the grain”–is one of the most important lessons for good blogging. You do, even besides that, however, have a way of writing compellingly about the kinds of everyday thoughts everyone struggles with. I’m not sure how you do it!

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