It’s kind of cliche for scholars to talk about post-modernity’s effect on the discipline of hermeneutics, that is, reading what other people wrote down and understanding them correctly. Although it seems like it ought to be something more or less restricted to obscure university departments and periodicals subscribed to by laughably few, the hermeneutic problem got picked up and expanded during the culture wars of the late 90’s-2010’s. The ordinary person could care less if we can perfectly understand what someone else meant in any particular writing, but for evangelical Christians from a more or less fundamentalist background it meant that people either could or could not understand what God’s word meant. If we’re necessarily precluded from understanding it perfectly, that kind of puts us in a precarious place for dogmatic statements about what God meant by it. Not only that, but if no person – divine or otherwise – can perfectly communicate to another person, this seems to put limits on God’s ability to speak or “breathe” scripture.
On a much more ordinary level, the result of the new hermeneutical frame trickled into much more solipsistic problems. Consider, for example, the lyrics of one of the central songs Jon Brion composed for Charlie Kaufman’s Synechdoche, NY:
See there’s just one story, and everyone’s the star
And it goes like this
No one will ever love you for everything you are
And so you build up layers of deception
And you leave out things to alter the perceptions
Of the ones you love, who would never love you back
If they knew all about you, every solitary fact
And the sadness of your life is built upon this lack
Of really knowing anyone or having them know you
It’s the sadness of the world, there’s nothing left to do
To put it in a less poetic way, E.M. Forster explained in Aspects of the Novel that “we cannot reveal ourselves, even when we want to; what we call intimacy is only a makeshift; perfect knowledge is an illusion.” This isn’t exactly a problem where jokers like Derrida want to point out how fluid meaning can be and how faulty text is as a method of communication, it’s more like a logical problem. In David Foster Wallace’s Good Old Neon, his narrator puts it thus:
This is another paradox, that many of the most important impressions and thoughts in a person’s life are ones that flash through your head so fast that fast isn’t even the right word, and they seem totally different from or outside of the regular sequential clock time we all live by, and they have so little relation to the sort of linear, one-word-after-another-word English we all communicate with each other with that it could easily take a whole lifetime just to spell out the contents of one split-second’s flash of thoughts and connections, etc. … What goes on inside is just too fast and huge and all interconnected for words to do more than barely sketch the outlines of at most one tiny little part of it at any given instant. … yet at the same time English is all we have to try to understand it and try to form anything larger or more meaningful and true with anybody else, which is yet another paradox.
He follows that, saying “of course you’re a fraud, of course what people see is never you. And of course you know this, and of course you try to manage what part they see if you know it’s only a part. Who wouldn’t?” Wallace’s narrator concludes, “The fact is that we’re all lonely, of course. Everyone knows this, it’s almost a cliche.” So the constraints of writing, language, reading, and our available modes of communication itself all preclude intimate knowledge between people. In a sense, contra John Donne, every man is in some respect an island. We can send out beacons and flashes of light to each other – we can yell across misty channels between our chunks of land but never really bridge the gaps. There will always be this gap between you and whomever you want to know that simply cannot be crossed.
Even on this little island of ours, do we know ourselves? Much of Jacques Maritain’s sort of neo-Thomist philosophy is a bit beyond me maybe, but I grasped at least one meditation of his from his Existence and the Existent. In that book Maritain analyzes what subjectivity is like – that is, what the experience of being a knowing subject is. Ultimately, our own subjectivity is something of a mystery to us because we can never reach a vantage point where we perceive ourselves either absolutely as objects or completely as subjects. To consider ourselves completely as objects would be to obliterate our vantage point, to mentally disappear. To consider ourselves wholly as subjects dissolves the reality we exist in, we absorb into ourselves everything but have no relationships by which to define ourselves. Given the necessity of this middle-state of perceiving ourselves as partly mysterious “me” and partly alien “this person among other persons that I am” we find that our own actions are confusing. Maritain says that “our own acts are tolerable to ourselves only because our consciousness of them is immersed in the obscure experience of subjectivity.” That is, we’re crushed by “our own acts when, forgotten and then one day evoked by somem relic of past time, they pass to the state of objects, separated from the living waters of subjectivity.” I think a lot of people would disagree with this concept just given that our natural inclination is to say “no, no – I may make dumb decisions, but I at least know myself.” Truthfully though, if you’ve ever gone back and read old journals or a lone message sent on some social media that you don’t recall or something of the sort, you might think the same way I do: “who was I? Why did I do that? What was I thinking?” I have a hard time pinning down my own motivations in the present, much less in the distant past.
Our situation: we don’t really know or understand ourselves outside (and maybe even including) the present moment, alienated from our own island by constantly shifting sands. We don’t really understand other people, given first our own faulty knowledge of ourselves and the unbridgeable waters and between us and others that we toss language at like driftwood, hoping it will be sturdy enough to walk across. Wallace’s narrator was right: the fact is we’re all lonely.
Is there a way out of this? Maybe. Maybe not. I think there’s three ways to think about our problem that doesn’t leave us just resigned to loneliness.
First, we can consider what kinds of things could bridge the gap between our experience and others. On the one hand you have hermeneuticists like Hans-Georg Gadamer who acknowledged the impossibility of a perfect reading of any text but held out hope for a “fusion of horizons” where we get closer and closer to having our own limits of understanding meet the limit of expression of the original author. To use our metaphor, just because our islands can’t connect doesn’t mean we can’t swim out and at least talk to one another – it doesn’t mean there’s no communication just because it’s faulty. That doesn’t offer much comfort to the would-be scriptural dogmatist, but it means that if we really work at it (read: study, contextualize, study more) we can at least grasp what one human being wrote to another across gaps of ages and place well enough to have received at least their general intention. The horizons get close enough that (for example) when Jesus tells me to care for widows and orphans I receive that moral imperative, I receive the duty I can’t interpret away as something lost to time and place. Wallace himself didn’t meet a happy end (for complicated reasons), but Lipsky’s comment in the conclusion of End of the Tour was poignant: “Wallace thought books existed to stop you from feeling lonely.” Forster’s acknowledgement of the problem had a limited solution: homo fictus. Fictional characters are the only people about whom we know everything, because we are both their audience and their creator. The goal of literature isn’t to cross Gadamer’s horizons, but to perfectly unite us with characters that aren’t real that we can actually know and by analogy know something about their creators. Forster’s grave had the phrase “ONLY CONNECT” chiseled into it, and this is the goal we instinctively know we need to pursue.
Second, we can question some of the assumptions that make our situation seem so desperate. One of the fundamental problems here is based around the problem of phenomenology, that is, that we only really know things as they appear to us. Vladimir Solovyov, a Russian philosopher summed up the problem in one of his dialogues between a “Philosopher” and a personified wisdom/beauty named “Sophia.” Sophia says, “You no doubt know me as a phenomenon, that is, insofar as I exist for you or in my external manifestation. You cannot know me as I am in myself, that is, my thoughts and intimate feelings as they are in me and for me.” The philosopher responds, “And yet, when I look into the deep azure of your eyes, when I hear the music of your voice, is it outward phenomena of sight and sound that I perceive? My God! I know your thoughts and feelings, and, by your thoughts and feelings, I know your inner being.” He argues that the “arbitrary separation” of phenomena and knowing things in themselves is false. His Sophia claims that “to pretend that you can know a being-in-itself other than by its manifestation is the same thing as pretending to perceive colors other than through vision, and sound other than through hearing. It is impossible, not because of an imperfection or limits in the knowing subject, but because of the absurdity of it.” The philosopher realizes that “those brave people who so vaunt their principle that one cannot know being-in-itself are doing nothing more than stating a tautology, as if they were saying that to be in oneself is to be in oneself.” So here we arrive at something that isn’t a bridge, but something that realizes the absurdity of the whole metaphor: if we say that to know another person means to be another person, of course two knowing subjects can’t know one another by any means – to do so would destroy the difference between them we desire to bridge! This isn’t totally unfamiliar to the much-thrown-around-little-understood concepts of Martin Buber, the Jewish theologian famous for his concept of an “I-Thou” relationship being the fundamental reality of properly dualistic monotheism v. a sort of advaita monistic theism, at least I think so.
Third, we can rely on a tertium quid – within a worldview that accepts some concept of the distinction between subject and object we can ask what a thing would be that transcended those kinds of distinctions. Maritain’s understanding of the problem posited this: that God knows us not as objects, but as subjects. This means that “to know that I am known as subject in all the dimensions of my being is not only to know that my truth is known, and that in this knowledge justice is done me, it is also to know that I am understood.” You’ll recall Maritain’s explanation of the problem was that we could neither be wholly subjects or wholly objects – but what he saw as a way out was a different anchor of reality rather than our subjective selves or objective non-selves. God, “Who knows all these in their subjectivity, in the nakedness of their wounds and their secret evil, must know also the secret beauty of that nature which He has bestowed upon them, the slightest sparks of good and liberty they give forth, all the travail and the impulses of good-will that they drag from the womb to the grave, the recesses of goodness of which they themselves have no notion.” Our participation in God’s graceful knowing lets us commune with others in truth; “by love, finally, is shattered the impossibility of knowing another except as object.”