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Geula Twersky has written an extra-ordinary book: start with the title, Song of Riddles, which announces immediately the approach taken in the analysis of the biblical "Song of Songs"- one of the most beautiful and, to many, puzzling, books to have been included in the collection of writings included in the Bible – and then consider the author, an award-winning artist who has exhibited in galleries around the world – go here to see some of her works – who also publishes scholarly articles in academic journals anent the study of the early Jewish texts.
The title states that the text to be analyzed is a riddle, and like any good riddle, there must be a secret meaning behind the text, pointed to, suggested, available, to the riddle breaker who invest the time and energy to unpack the "secret" meaning. Consider a classic riddle in English literature:
The following poem was published on February 2, 1833, in the Baltimore Saturday Visiter. It contains descriptions and clues of 11 famous literary figures. The poem was only attributed to "P." However, 20th century literature professor Thomas Ollive Mabbott credits Edgar Allan Poe with writing the poem. Mabbott also managed to identify all 11 literary figures hidden in the verse.
The noblest name in Allegory's page,
The hand that traced inexorable rage;
A pleasing moralist whose page refined,
Displays the deepest knowledge of the mind;
A tender poet of a foreign tongue,
(Indited in the language that he sung.)
A bard of brilliant but unlicensed page
At once the shame and glory of our age,
The prince of harmony and stirling sense,
The ancient dramatist of eminence,
The bard that paints imagination's powers,
And him whose song revives departed hours,
Once more an ancient tragic bard recall,
In boldness of design surpassing all.
These names when rightly read, a name [make] known
Which gathers all their glories in its own.
Try to solve the riddle. (Solution here.)
Twersky's approach is similar in that as she reads the "Song of Songs" - within the Jewish tradition - she finds that clues to its meaning are liberally scattered throughout the poem to be discovered and interpreted to point to an overall meaning of the work. The context for her study is the Jewish faith and the Jewish Bible. She accepts the Song as canonical and as a text that resonates because of the connections it presents that tie it thematically and metaphorically to other ideas and images in several other biblical texts. As Dr. Mordechai Z. Cohen writes, "In her sensitive treatment of the love story and its sacred implications, she brings forth aspects of the text otherwise hidden from view . . . Will inspire modern Jewish readers." Twersky argues forcefully that the riddle symbolizes the love between the Jewish People and their God – an allegory of the relationship between God and Israel. (Christians read it as celebrating the love between God and Church suggesting that, in interpretation, Context is all-important.)
Interpretations of the Song range from love and sexual longing (my reading), to the theological readings (which are not evident in the poem itself), to the more recent reading of the Song as an exemplary feminist text. (see Phyllis Trible's "Depatriachalizing in Biblical Interpretation").
It seems that from the beginning the Song has been the subject of interpretive battles. It was accepted into the Jewish canon in the second century CE, after a long period of controversy primarily because of its supposed authorship by Solomon and an allegorical reading that tames the sexual desire expressed so beautifully in the poem into talk of God's love for Israel. Later the Christians would re-interpret it as an allegory of God's love for the Church.
Meaning is a complicated business! Consider its importance in the academy. Attempting to solve the questions around meaning keep many academic departments in work now and forever.
Any discussion of meaning should begin with the classic book by Ogden and Richards. The first task is to try to get clear just what sort of question one is asking when one asks "What does that mean?" E.g., look at these examples:
- What do those flashing lights mean? [asked by a driver speeding along the Island highway]
- What do these red spots mean? [asked by a patient in the emergency room at the hospital]
- What does "retromingent" mean? [asked by a smart-ass student in grade four – our son]
- What does it mean to say "Jesus is the Lamb of God"? [asked by a reader of John]
- What do those dark clouds mean? [asked by a boater in the channel]
- What does Yeats mean when he writes "slouching toward Bethlehem"? [asked in English class]
- What does the biblical "Song of Songs" mean? [asked by a teen-aged boy, a Jew, a Christian, a feminist, a secular reader]
When reading a text there are at least three places one might look for meaning:
Three possibilities present themselves for consideration and discussion: 1. intention, 2. text, 3. interpretation. The meaning, argue some, is to be found in the intention of the author. If we could only know what the author intended then we could know what the story means, or, we could then measure the intention against the accomplishment. This approach is seen in the "let's call the author" approach to literary criticism. "If anybody knows what's going on it's bound to be the author." This approach would have us study history, psychology, biography and anthropology in order to understand texts. The New Critics reminded us that the text itself is important, although they emphasized it to the exclusion of all else. Authorial intention, they argued, is difficult if not impossible to ascertain, while the artifact itself, the text, is present to be studied. Reader response critics point out that meaning resides in the mind/brain of the reader. Everyone has sat in a literature class and wondered if there was indeed any answer to the problem of multiple interpretation other than the cynical one of giving the teacher what you think she wants.
About one thing we can agree: context is important in determining meaning.
© 2018 Bob Lane
Bob Lane is professor emeritus philosophy at Vancouver Island University.