One Meaning To Rule Them All

Roland Boer and Loren Rosson (here and here) have fallen into a spiral of arguments that don’t quite engage one another; both claim to have insight into the true character of the Lord of the Rings, its qualities and its meaning. They occasionally invoke the question of authorial intent, but the broader discussion departs often enough from a strict discussion of Tolkien’s intent to general hermeneutics and to specific claims about the real meaning of LOTR.
This sort of controversy illustrates the reasons I cobbled together my approach to hermeneutics, and perhaps the reason so few people affirm it, and thus the reason I often hesitate to participate in this sort of discussion. Relative to the first reason: both Loren and Roland advance evidence to support their readings of LOTR; neither of them just says “Neener neener” and puts out his tongue at the other. If we grant that both are more-or-less careful readers, we’re left with the conclusion that despite their careful reading, one of them must be ignorant of some vital consideration, or ideologically beclouded, or mentally impaired, or incapable of disinterested evaluation. “Must be,” that is, so long as there is only one privileged account of the meaning and quality of LOTR. If we can tolerate the idea that there might be two or more justifiable readings of LOTR, each operating on the basis of somewhat different premises and interpretive logics, the pertinent question shifts from “Which of these two (if either) has truly attained the One Meaning that trumps every other?” to “Why are these two excellent readers squabbling over which one is right, when each is conducting a different interpretive exercise?” But again: my position allows for the possible excellence and soundness of alternative readings at the cost of anyone having the grounds to claim that everyone else is just flat wrong.
Relative to the second “reason” to which I alluded above, most interpreters will not renounce the idea that somewhere, somehow, there subsists a uniquely true and authoritative interpretation that (if discovered) justifies claims that all ones interlocutors have erred. Many sophisticated interpreters will decline explicitly to endorse this notion, but then re-enact the pantomime of drubbing-the-Other as soon as someone challenges their favorite interpretive axiom. If more people tried to live without access to the One Meaning, we could argue with one another over stronger or weaker, more or less plausible, lovelier or uglier interpretations without worrying about whether our colleagues have ignored any necessary, transcendent, absolute, intrinsic interpretive imperatives. Those absolute interpretive axioms, however, keep sneaking back into our discourse, since they so conveniently tend always to support our side of an argument, and always to discountenance those others. Hence, a hermeneutic without One Meaning finds relatively few takers.
And relative to the third “reason” — well, I deplore repeating oneself, and I have no ambition to provide a meta-hermeneutics that resolves all interpretive conflict. My main interest involves getting at interpretive difference in ways that don’t require invoking the One Meaning to which somebody has privileged access, via the privileged method. The practice of interpretation apart from subsistent meaning strikes me as a much more interesting and productive field of discourse; but then, we can easily display evidence that almost everyone would rather propose absolute interpretations of the One Meaning than hash out the pluses and minuses of various non-absolute alternatives.
So it strikes me as perfectly intelligible that Roland thinks LOTR should be characterized as “[a] boring fable. . . an elaborate and multilayered allegory of the Second World War (during which much of it was written), of the evils of capitalism and industrialisation, of Roman Catholic enchantment versus Protestant worldliness.” I’d be much more surprised were he to confess to admiring appreciation of Tolkien’s fantasy epic. And although I’m not as well acquainted with Loren, I know plenty of folks who share his sense that such an evaluation of LOTR gravely misconstrues what Loren identifies as “the greatest story ever told,” “emphatically not an allegory,” and so on.
The problem isn’t the innate characteristics of LOTR, or authorial intention, or whether John Milbank really comments on blogs under a pseudonym, or any of a dozen other controverted points. If we assent to the dogma of the One Meaning, then we always participate under the sign of interpretive correctness, and in hoc signo vinces. Me, I’d rather that we allow that every expression is susceptible to infinite interpretations, some more plausible and some less, some that we will allow and some that we forbid, but none of them final and authoritative — in short, that we renounce the notion that any of us is in the position to grasp or wield the One Meaning. But other, better, wiser, more erudite observers indicate unwavering confidence that they have hold of The Meaning, that it’s not a matter of their interest or advantage, and that interpretive necessity obliges them to trounce anyone who questions their point. That I remain unconvinced by anyone’s claim to that effect presumably shows my own folly.

6 comments / Add your comment below

  1. Isn’t the “point” of religion, in particular the three main book based religions, to claim that their version of the truth is the only one and the purpose of the official church to maintain that truth in the face of alternatives.

    I have always reckoned that we are bizarrely alike in our views in some ways and aren’t you arguing for the more general, serious interest in man’s spirituality and desire to collectively work towards greater understanding that non-religious folks like me find so fascinating?

  2. AKMA, I’m on board with you in this folly, for the most part. I’ve never been able to satisfactorily answer by what criteria we deem “some [interpretations] more plausible and some less, some that we will allow and some that we forbid” without recourse to some of the same criteria one points to in one’s grasping for the One Meaning.

  3. Euan,

    at the risk of seeming disagreeable, I think your “point” is one that very few religious would agree with. Leaving aside the truism that believing something also means believing that that something is true, I haven’t seen arguments about rival “truths” taking up very much of theological discussion as a proportion of Christian teachings. My (poorly informed) impression of Judaic teachings is that they are even less concerned about that idea than Christians are. I don’t feel competent to characterize Islam on that score.

    Just as a thought experiment, pretend you are a true believing member of some sort of religious group, or even some other sort of society which holds some sort of common beliefs and practices. Maybe a climatologist. How much of your time do you really think you are going to spend going around saying, “this stuff is really REALLY true.” Perhaps you’ll put someone on a PR committee to be in charge of putting your arguments out in public, but spending all your time arguing about the “truth” is not going to be very productive.

  4. In that case Paul what is the point of the books and why have so many wars been fought over adherence to their contents?

  5. Just as an intro, I do want to acknowledge, as perhaps I didn’t fully before, that there is SOME merit to your original point. Within Christian theology this is what is called apologetics and there are quite a few folks who put a lot of time and effort into it. Some better than others, of course.

    “In that case Paul what is the point of the books …”
    This is obviously going to get beyond anything that can be discussed within a blog comment. Most churches have Bible studies, and I would bet you could find one which would be happy to have you there. I don’t mean that to be snarky, just that learning what the scriptures are about has been a life-long pursuit of mine. The best I would be able to do would be to point you towards some starting points if you were really curious. Jews and Muslims of course have their own scholarly traditions you could probably track down.

    “…and why have so many wars been fought over adherence to their contents?”

    This particular point I’ve come to believe has been overstated. Specifically regarding the “war of religion” which occurred in the aftermath of the Reformation I can heartily recommend the work of William T Cavanaugh in his book _Theopolitical Imagination_. Cavanaugh brings to light the results of scholarship showing that the lines of that particular war seemed to have much more to do with the preceding political situation than with religious concerns.

    On the matter of the Crusades and related conflicts, I certainly offer no excuses for the violence perpetrated by Christians. I take the position (and I believe that AKMA is of much the same mind here) that for Christians to actually follow Christ should mean that they renounce violence, even under the severest of provocations.

    That being said, I believe even here that the specifically religious character of those conflicts has been overstated. Just as a single example, I know that the (Christian) Byzantine empire was perfectly willing to side WITH Islamic nations against other Christians when it seemed to be in their best military-political interest to do so.

    Again Islamic perspectives on this issue appear to me to be quite different, but again I wouldn’t be the person to ask about such perspectives.

  6. Thanks for the thoughtful response Paul and sorry it took me so long to respond! I guess my feeling is that people find enough reasons to beat each other up without adding more divisions to give them the excuse.

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