Illicit Pleasures

I realized recently that if I don’t start reading again, I may lose the will even to try.

It’s hard to clear my mind enough to read a serious printed work, and the tenor of Seabury life militates against thinking of reading as something more than a self-indulgence. That’s a fatal attitude, though, and I simply have to read a number of works to prepare for my inaugural lecture in the spring. Today Yesterday I indulged myself with a dip into the essays of David Jones, an English artist-writer who had a special interest in meaning, the topic of my lecture.

Reading Jones has helped me see the discipline of biblical hermeneutics as having hobbled itself by taking the special case of “translation” as the fundamental model for the much broader phenomenon of signification and interpretation. The notion of textual univocity loses its sense of coherence if the text in question is, for instance, an image (what’s the single correct meaning of the “Mona Lisa” in a non-da Vinci Code universe?). Meaning doesn’t cooperate with human (academic) efforts to constrain it to equivalences. (One idea I had for the lecture was to present my talk with a soundtrack; a strictly textual version would thereby signify very differently, in a way that most observers would acknowledge.)

Jones makes the point that sacraments (in a lower-case sense) surround us, and we participate in them daily, as our actions bespeak a meaning greater than their explicit, objective definition. Tonight Laura reminded me of an example from her caring for her grandmother, who died Sunday night. If a sacrament is “the outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace,” then much more sacramental activity is going on all the time than only the church’s seven sacraments (that’s right, Protestant readers, I said “seven”). But when we locate the matter of signification in the domain of sacramentality, we situate our participation in the economy of singification (and in the ecology of signification) in a context that far surpasses our capacity to pin down or to limit to the narrow model of formulating ideal textual equivalences (What’s the meaning of anointing Grandmother’s feet with lotion? Don’t equivocate, now!). Moreover, a sacramental context appropriately invokes the liturgical, doxological dimensions of our acts of interpretation (biblical and otherwise). When we venture into the realm of signification, we can’t invoke any consoling regulative principles to protect ourselves from criticism, to ensure that we did the unassailably right thing; signification doesn’t work that way.

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