Thursday, October 18, 2012

I’m Tired—The Madeline Kahn School of Hermeneutics

A second Federal appeals court, this one in New York, has struck down the Defense of Marriage Act and probably thereby set off another argument about interpreting the Constitution in the subterranean darkness of various Internet comment threads. I don’t propose to go there, literally or figuratively; but maybe this is a good time to dust off a meta thought I’ve had for some time that it is more or less apropos.

While the lawyers are not going to give up debating every social and political issue of the day in terms of its relationship to the Constitution—that’s what they do for a living, after all—the rest of us may be finally giving up the game of assuming the special wisdom, if not sacrality, of that document.

Any tradition based on a text has the same problem. Whether you’re a Mormon, a psychoanalyst, or a votary of Ayn Rand, you always have a choice. Even people of the most cadaver-like loyalty to the cause inevitably end up expressing their own ideas about modern problems if only because the Book didn’t cover that or because the obvious literal meaning of the Book has intolerable implications.  To defend your version of truth, you can either resort to more or less heroic exercises of interpretation and claim that you simply are returning to the true meaning of scripture or you can simply admit that the Book is, after all, a book. 

It isn’t necessarily a bad idea to opt for the first choice and reduce all legitimate thought to commentary. As the history of religion and philosophy amply demonstrate, such a strategy does not preclude creativity of the highest order. In fact, some of the most original, not to say loopy, thinking has been promoted under the slogan of back to the sources—Lacan is just Freud properly understood; Althusser is merely a close reading of Marx; the humane religion of the rabbis really is the truth of bloodthirsty Torah; the first Amendment to the Constitution doesn’t rule out punishing people for blasphemy; of course the New Testament provides a basis for infant baptism, etc.  The game gets stale at times, however; and even if its obvious fictiveness doesn’t bother you, it becomes simply exhausting. You have to give it up.* In the current political instance, you stop regarding the Constitution with absurd reverence or, at a minimum, admit that torturing it into permitting decent political institutions is a merely formal exercise.

One last note: there is an inverse to the issue of how to deal with sacred texts, for there are a class of texts that are canonically diabolical or anti-sacred. Thus the way that most academics refer to Marx’s writings is the mirror image of how the sages approached the Torah. One does not agree with other books and authors—who agrees with anybody about much, after all—but it is somehow necessary to endlessly assure everybody that you are aware of how wrong Marx is. By contrast, though I certainly don’t agree with Locke’s ideas on substance or religious toleration, I don’t find a need to cross myself when I cite him. Marx is wrong in a way that is different from ordinary wrongness, much as for a Muslim, the Koran is right in a way that is different from ordinary rightness. Maybe if we dispense with the worship of Bibles and Constitutions, we can dispense with the ritual denunciation of dangerous tomes and just read them (or not) as they turn out to be relevant or irrelevant.

*An alternative is to make fun of it. Free thinkers can make fun of tradition by producing their own commentary literature on sacred texts and lampooning the absurdities of interpretation. This was a common approach in the 16th and 17th Centuries. Pierre Bayle, the Stephen Colbert of his times, discussed all the embarrassing parts of the Bible with deadly seriousness. The pages of his Historical and Critical Dictionary (1695) are even laid out like a Talmud with tiny sections of text crowded out by commentaries and subcommentaries.

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