Artistic Interpretations and Eisegesis

I recently saw an interesting commentary on my video about the validity of multiple artistic interpretations:

(If the embed is broken, Joseph Dooley said, “The danger of interpretation, or theory, is in eisegesis: the eschewing of shared reality and embrace of subjective lensing.”)

If you’re not familiar with the term eisegesis, it’s the opposite of exegesis: instead of explaining what is in the text, it is explaining things into the text. That is, rather than helping people to get more out of the text, one tries to supplant the text and claim its authority for one’s own ideas. This is more relevant to authoritative texts than to fiction, of course, but the analogy there is fairly clear. And Mr. Dooley is correct, that one danger of artistic interpretation is that two people may get different things out of the same work, which in effect removes it from being part of their shared culture. This danger is minor in many if not most cases.

Before I explain why, I want to give a super-brief recap of my argument for why multiple artistic interpretations can be valid: artistic works, being made by men and not by God, are always under-specified. Key information necessary to understanding the meaning of the work is missing and must be supplied by the viewer. To pick an example at random, we assume that Hamlet is an only child because no siblings of his are ever mentioned, but we are not told this. Many things in the play would be strange, but nothing would be contradicted, if Hamlet had an older brother or a younger sister or was the fourth of eight children. How many siblings we assign to Hamlet is a question of artistic interpretation, and each answer we give changes the meaning of other things in the play. Such interpretation is valid when it does not contradict anything and, critically, when it yields some truth about real life. That is my conclusion.

Differing interpretations will, by their nature, produce different insights into real life; as such when two people prefer different interpretations, they get different things out of the work, and it is not a shared experience. This is not, however, an all-or-nothing proposition. Very few works are so under-specified that artistic interpretations completely change them.

The danger of two interpretations resulting in the same work being taken in two entirely different ways is probably greatest in the interpretation of songs, since songs are so often oblique, minimalist, and often intentionally under-specified even by human standards. An example which comes to mind is the song Can’t Feel My Face by The Weekend. One interpretation is that the song is about a romantic relationship. Another is that the singer is singing about cocaine. The latter is probably the intended interpretation; cocaine is a topical anesthetic and is actually used for that purpose within medicine to this day where its other property of being a vasoconstrictor is helpful, such as when an incision is going to be made. These are essentially two different songs, depending on whether you want to take the song to be addressed to a human being or to a recreational drug, personified.

Most works don’t have this property, though, at least for interpretations which aren’t trying to outright change the meaning of the work. It’s pretty much always possible to begin with “what if this is a dream visited to a person by a demon trying to trick him”. The universality of this possibility tends to make it uninteresting to all but teenagers trying to prove how clever they are. Apart from such intentionally perverse interpretations, most interpretations involve supplying unspecified details which change far less about the work. Given that, if two people have different interpretations they will still have much that is common to both of their interpretations and thus they will still have a large part of the work as shared culture.

The other problem is that you can’t avoid artistic interpretation. When a character says that a meal is delicious and the scene is not about finding out whether he really does enjoy the food, you have to either assume that he’s telling the truth or that he isn’t. If you conclude that he isn’t telling the truth, you must further assume whether he’s intentionally lying to manipulate people or merely being polite in order to avoid offending. The only alternative to making some sort of interpretation about what happened is to forget that it happened.

This need for interpretation is perhaps made clear by how all performances of a play are interpretations of it. When MacBeth says, “She should have died hereafter. There would have been a time for such a word. Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow creeps in this petty pace from day to day to the last syllable of recorded time and all our yesterdays have lighted fools the way to dusty death. Out! Out! brief candle. Life’s but a walking shadow. A poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage, and then is heard no more. It is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing,” how does he say it? Is he angry? Sad? Resigned? First angry then resigned? Resigned then angry then resigned again? If you ever try reading this speech aloud, you will find that there are many convincing ways to say it which fit in which the character of MacBeth. Each way means something a little different, and if you say it out loud, you have to pick some way of saying it because you can’t read it without some sort of expression. If you were to read it in a flat monotone with no variation of pacing, like a computer from fifteen years ago, that would turn it into comedy, which is, after all, just another interpretation of it.

This same problem obtains when you merely read the text to yourself, though. You have to read it somehow or other, and however you read it, it probably won’t be the same as how somebody else reads it. In the end it doesn’t really matter that there is the danger in artistic interpretations that they take one work and make it several, doing less to bridge the gap between people than we might wish. You can’t do without artistic interpretations; the best you can do is work to pick a valid interpretation. That and share your preferred interpretation in case it helps others.

3 thoughts on “Artistic Interpretations and Eisegesis

  1. Paul (Drak Bibliophile) Howard

    There was a story about Isaac Asimov (noted SF Author) listening to a College Professor talking about the “meaning” of one of Asimov’s stories.

    When asked about that “meaning” Asimov apparently said “What do I know, I just wrote the story”. 😀

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Mary

    I once read an interpretation of Hamlet that the ghost was a devil sent to tempt Hamlet into the sin of revenge.

    It was actually kinda clever, starting with the observation that the ghost vanished when Horatio said, Angels and ministers of grace, protect us.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. To be fair, even Hamlet considers that possibility—which is why he tests what the ghost tells him. I will agree that Hamlet’s choice of wrath over justice makes the possibility that the ghost was a demon working for the ruin of Hamlet by simply telling him the truth is a plausible interpretation. The devil, by reputation, does like to lie with the truth.


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