I don’t have time to pick apart the convergence and occasional quibble that connect Seth Sanders’s essay ‘Dead Words and Haunting Melody’ in the ace online journal Ancient Jew Review, but I read it with joy and intellectual excitement. Seth gets at one of the vital aspect-problems in our (broad) field, namely, the role and texture of imagination in interpretive labour. Inb what follows I’m just riffing, and delighting, and cheering, and asking, and surely getting some things wrong.
Seth’s narrative of his experience of learning a particular traditional setting of the Avina Malkeinu prayer of Yom Kippur — learning in the sense of ‘learning to play on a musical instrument’ but also ‘learning the innards, the constitution of’ — resonates with my longstanding attachment to figurative interpretation. Seth cites the evocative power of Sleep’s album ‘Jerusalem’/‘Dopesmoker’ (intended to be titled ‘Dopesmoker’, released under the title ‘Jerusalem’ in 1999, rereleased under it’s first intended title in 2003, but more or less the same album with eleven more minutes of music); he had put me onto Sleep back in May, and I’ve still listened to the album only once or twice. Seth says,
In this loud, stupid thought experiment, Jerusalem — now restored to its original title of Dopesmoker — is a Dungeons and Dragons version of prayer that can help train our imaginations by blowing our minds, or at least our eardrums. Like D&D, it lets us roleplay liturgical experience in an exaggerated form. Its larger-than-life dimensions may help illuminate some minute, faded aspects of religious texts as events.
Whatever one may think of Dopesmoker (and I’m still learning it, learning from it), Seth’s mining gold in the paragraph above. Whereas academic study of ancient texts typically focuses on translation, on technical matters of lexis and syntax, contemporaneous history, presumed patterns of influence, the vast secondary literature, and correct answers (Seth: ‘There is a melancholy that sets in once we have narrowed everything down to data. Seeing only the words, the precise textual data makes for solvable problems…’), the unspoken conductor of convincing interpretation is the imagination by which one weaves together the varied elements of an interpretation (‘… what you could call the music.’). What might be possible, and under what conditions? What might be convincing, and to whom? What gives us delight to contemplate?
Here, I’ll include John Hollander’s ‘The Widener Burying-Ground’, which I seem never to have mentioned here before, despite it being a constant refrain in my hermeneutical deliberation. It’s not relevant to one specific aspect of this topic, but it’s powerfully relevant to Seth’s narrative of imagination, liturgical invocation, memory, participation, and so many more things.
I’d presume to suggest only a few alternative angles, and angles that diverge from Seth’s only by slight degrees. First, Seth flirts with the music-as-language trope, though I think that he never trips over it; but the power of that trope is so strong, I’d wish he more explicitly disavowed it. Perhaps the essay is stronger as is, perhaps a candid refusal of that analogy/equation would itself draw resistance to the premise Seth is pursuing, but I’m inclined to press for an full-on exorcism of that elusive spectre.
Second, Seth orients his essay (both by invocation and disavowal) by the original reader/listener’s experience: absent and impossible (‘I still do not think we can get inside the heads of our subjects, between the dead listeners’ ears’), but nonetheless longed-for and to some extent authoritative (‘We can play the melodies they did, and if we are attentive enough, imagine what these past listeners heard’). This, too, is a human-made satellite posing as a pole star. Music and language signify, systematically, but isomorphically or (forgive me) iso-experientially. That’s Seth’s point, if I read him well. But as long as we allow the absent desired to make its ghastly absent presence felt, we vitiate the force of the principle that significance is something we make with texts, not the texts’ property. And here’s where Seth’s imagination steps forward and shines, fiercely; plays, deafeningly. Nobody governs the interpretive imagination, especially not haunting authority figures who lay down rules.
Something we don’t know bothers us, so we do things with it. We turn it, repeat it, analyse it, compare it to other similar and different things, we add context (historical, lexical-syntactic, anthropological, musical, literary, graphical, textural, gustatory, olfactory, personal, cultural) to find a way of fitting the initial provocation into our inhabited sensorium and imaginarium. Sharing agreed contexts helps us get on with neighbours, often especially joyfully, but there’s never a hermeneutical cop issuing tickets for interpretive jaywalking. In the hermeneutical field, we may walk along pathways paved by academic-political-cultural leaders, but we may also explore desire lines worn by other wanderers (human and non-human), or even strike out where no visible traces give clues of someone having preceded us. ‘Our vows are no longer vows, what we forbade was not forbidden, our oaths are hereby ungiven.’ And let’s sit down to listen to Avinu Malkeinu, to Jerusalem, to Seth thrashing and (if you’re indulgent) AKMA reading aloud, and let’s see what our imaginations dream up.