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On Hermeneutical Despair

I try not to really, I do, but when I come across passages like these I despair, I do, I really do. I try to muster all the courage and pluck I can; I begin to call myself Pollyanna in hopes that the name will stick; but, alas, even alack, I despair.

Augustine, Contra Mendacium:

If we consider carefully and with a view to the faith what Jacob did at the instigation of his mother [dressing up like Essau to steal away the blessing], with the result that he seems to have deceived his father, it is not a lie but a mysterium. Were we to call his deeds lies, then one would call lies all the figures that are meant to signify some realities (res), which figures are not to be taken literally but in which one should understand some other dissimilar thing. This should by no means be done… These things are called true, not false, because, either in word or in deed they signify truths, not falsehoods.

And, this passage from Don Cameron Allen’s excellent study on Renaissance allegory Mysteriously Meant: The Rediscovery of Pagan Symbolism and Allegorical Interpretation in the Renaissance.

De Sponde [as in Jean de Sponde, the French Baroque poet] traces the origi of poetry to the singing of the angelic choirs at the end of the sixth day of Creation. Human poetry was somewhat delayed, but as soon as man had an alphabet he wrote poetry, which, contrary to the opinion of some experts, was prior to oratory. “Poetry is God’s first gift to man and man’s first response to God.” Pure song, contaminated before the Flood, was preserved by Noah but dissipated by the dispersal at Babel. Though preserved in its prime state by David and Solomon, poetry has flowed since its origin through filthy and poisonous sewers; hence, the reader must attempt to penetrate to its deeper, purer meanings as he has learned to do when his Bible speaks metaphorically of “the Lion of Judah” or of “the serpent in the wilderness,” or relates truth upon truth in the Song of Songs. Mysterious meanings of the same nature are to be found hidden in pagan literature. Orpheus describes the Mosaic Creation in his “Hymn to Night.” The Christian struggle of the Sun (Son) with the world is described in Apollo’s killing of the Python. The Greek poets refer to wisdom as “the bread of Heaven,” and Christ declared, “I am the bread of life.” Castor and Pollux are the premonstrative pagan counterparts of John the Baptist and Christ. Although de Sponde omitted the customary allegorical readings from his footnotes, his preface leaves little doubt about his personal attitude toward the true nature of the Homeric poems.

It is not that they would read this way that disturbs me; for verily it is so, humans have read in this manner since poetry began—it would seem, if we are to believe de Sponde, since the beginning of oratory, if oratory and exegesis go hand in hand. It is that this is decidedly not the way I read. Indubitably, de Sponde (who learned this form of reading from Renassaince scholars, who learned it from the Patriarchs and from Classical exegetes, whose schools of reading were the ones that informed much of Patriarchal exegesis) does not read as his Renaissance precursors did (indeed, who provide anything but a consensus on how to read, and how to apply allegoresis to exegesis—it would be wrong to use the word hermeneutics here, since it is a late Baroque German coinage/cognate of Aristotle) nor as Augustine would… but, there is an underground river connecting them, from which they drink.

My despair, though, has little to do, I think, at least, with wanting to read this way, with wanting this to be my operating paradigm, but it is so strange a way of reading. Instead, my despair has to do with the fear that I will never understand the Renaissance and the Baroque, that there is no connection between now and then, even between now and Augustine.



Well, your relation to texts must be different than theirs. How could either either Augustine or De Sponde have imagined that you would today be sitting in your study, surrounded by shelves of books and virtual copies not only of everything they wrote but also of everything they read available in seconds thanks to a search in the Google? Perhaps there is comfort to be had in knowing that they would never be able to understand you: why wouldn’t they read through allegory with so little to read?

If you want to understand them that way, you might try limiting your reading to a few texts which you read over and again, like Harold Bloom.