The Beautiful Book
There is a sense in which you can take any sign whatsoever, whether a tree, a musical note, a word, and find ambiguity, find a space that resonates and echoes until you lose it completely and you wonder, What did that mean?
There is also a sense in which you can take any sign and apply it almost exactly, precisely to a given situation. You have the sense that you know it completely.
Signs are like this, like a jazz composition, that the composer has written down and gives to a few different bands to play. All the bands have the same musical notations, the signs, and they appears exactly the same on the page. Yet all the bands will play a different song, if only slightly different, playing within the ambiguous space of the composer’s signs.
That is language.
Everyone knows what it is; and no one knows what it is.
Nietzsche apparently felt that truth is a “mobile army of metaphors, metonymies and anthropomorphisms...illusions whose illusory nature has been forgotten.” Umberto Eco apparently disagreed. When reading semioticians my mind fogs. But however Eco dismantled Nietzsche, the philosopher caught that sweeping nature of signs, of pointing to an expanding truth, but a truth that is vaporous and that does not have a distinctness to it. You simply cannot draw an outline around the truth and shade it all in, point to it, and say, There! That’s it.
So when I listen and read the evangelical predisposition to absolute truth as written in the inspired Word of God, the Bible, I am predisposed myself to add a rejoinder: Have you never thought about the words? The words themselves? What do you know about them? What can you know about them?
I am going to guess that after studying Eco and all the other great semioticians one would, if even a little like me, still be left a bit askew. It’s a tall task. It is a task that few even seem to know exists: a bit like not noticing that, Ah! Over there is a mountain called Everest. Never noticed it before! How’d I miss that?
Here is a bit, as explanation, of Eco’s formula (taken from an online lecture by Gary Genosko:
Consider, then, the nuts and bolts of Eco’s model. A sender makes reference to presupposed codes (and the circumstances orienting these) and selected subcodes in the formation of a message that flows through channel; this message is a source of information (expression) with contextual and circumstantial settings (settings that are coded according to cultural conventions or remain relatively uncoded or not yet coded such as biological constraints). The addressee receives the message and with reference to his or her own presupposed codes (and the actual circumstances, which may deviate from the presuppositions) and selected subcodes, the selection of which may be indicated by the context and circumstances, interprets the message text (content). Here, Eco adopts from Metz the redefinition of message as text as “the results of the coexistence of many codes (or, at least, many subcodes).” ((A Theory of Semiotics, p. 57.)) The structuralist disconnection of the message-text from authorial intention helps to underline Eco’s sense of the interpretive freedom found in certain kinds of decoding that eludes such a point of reference.
Well, that clears it up.
It must be clear that our texts, and our cultural assignations of that text, and our interpretations of that text, the connotative and denotative meanings, and so forth, render meaning inescapably...fuzzy.
Back to our jazz band. Let’s suppose that the musical score is Genesis (an analogy). Each of our jazz bands takes the notes and interprets them differently, each sees some freedom within the signs and toots out a different tune. Chord changes occur quite apart from the text itself, but one’s interpretation of signs leads to different outcomes. A different song appears, and not just between the three bands, but if allowed to play the tune again, each time it becomes something else.
This is not merely true of music. This is what happens to language.
The Bible is not language embedded in concrete. It is musical. It is interpretive. It is fuzzy. That is just the way it is, you cannot get around it, though many pretend otherwise.
An evangelical fundamentalist reads Genesis and interprets the melody, calculates the rests and time signature, and concludes that the earth is 4500 years old, give or take. He calculates that we came from one man, Adam. He calculates that God walked the earth and gave him fruit to eat but that Adam disobeyed and ate of that one tree he should not have eaten from. He further calculates that evolution is crap and a whole lot of people walked the earth named Abraham, Isaac, Jacob/Israel, Moses. And so forth. He closes the canon and declares it Good! (But homosexuality is very bad!)
Such is the result of not knowing much about semiotics, language interpretation, mythic reading, translation theory, or much about anything. This is what ignorance does, propping up mis-readings as idol-worship, as bibliolatry.
There is a cure for this sort of destructive non-interpretive mode of reading the Bible: it is to read it as Art. William Blake thought of the Bible as the Great Code of Art. And so it is, but only if you understand how language works, how the hidden inconsistencies (actually, they are not so hidden but are quite openly declared if you choose to see them) within the Bible show humanity’s grappling with the warring tendencies of life, how life is this and that, at the same time; Job resisting the impulse to curse God but pretty much cursing him anyway; God telling Job who he is talking to...and not telling him anything; psalms of great praise to God and psalms questioning God’s goodness. And that is just the Old Testament. There is a lot here in the Bible; a lot that needs digesting. But don’t think that it actually can be digested, that it can be made sense of. It cannot. You have to hold the warring factions in your head all at once, as if a Zen koan; the Jehovah of death and destruction alongside the Adonai of Jesus. The sound of one hand clapping.
Beautiful things have tension, lack perfect symmetry. They say: A terrible beauty. They emerge, beautiful things do, out of time and space and history, full of noise and terror and cradled softness: it comes and then it goes, born to die. It is not easy, this sort of book, and neither should it be.