Interpretation, in a diluted sense
The word ‘analysis’ intimates chemistry: substances and active principles. Nothing however was ever found in any poem through analysis. This is fortunate. Even if substances had been isolated, we wouldn’t know where to place them in a periodic table. Should virgilium be to the left of homerium? Is there a difference in atomic mass between celanium and poundium? As far as poems are concerned, the word ‘analysis’ ought to be abandoned. There is no way to imagine chemistry where there is no physics. We need another word.
The word ‘interpretation’ is the best alternative. I do not think however that we should use it undiluted. ‘Interpretation’ evokes as a rule things mental; in its undiluted state, though, it also puts itself forth as consolation for the unavailability of non-mental things. The danger in the word ‘analysis’ is that of suggesting substances where there isn’t anything; that of the undiluted sense of the word ‘interpretation’ is suggesting that interpretation is an alternative to analysis.
The interpretation of a poem cannot do much with the ideas of substances or active principles; it never quite knows what to do with instruments or methods. It is not an alternative to what does not exist. If there are no microscopes or substances it is pointless to procure them in softer guises, in plasticine or chocolate, from special epistemological warehouses. The alternative to unnecessary chemistry is not imaginary chemistry. The interpretation of a poem is not the imaginary analysis of a poem. There are no imaginary mental things.
However, speaking about the interpretation of a poem, even assuming that there is a difference between interpretation and analysis, often prompts a resurgence of one’s former patachemical beliefs. This is the belief that one interprets a poem to find things in that poem. Those things might perhaps no longer be quite substance-like; but they may at any rate be found, and by people like ourselves. In conversation we call them ‘the meaning of the poem.’
The meaning of the poem is almost always dealt with as if it were some mental treasure. It is often assumed that whoever made the poem has buried some mental entities therein; and this to our benefit. Our role would be to dig such entities up. This theory assumes that we issue from a benevolent race of crossword-puzzle experts. The notion that the main concern of our ancestors was our mental gratification is too self-serving to be taken seriously. Our mental gratification comes more often from what we have found out about those ancestors, unbeknownst to them.
The notion that the value of a poem lies in its utility is very odd. Our lives are improved by refrigerators and courts of law; but not in the same way by art. Only by courtesy can the interpretation of a poem be understood as the benefit we get from it. At any rate we are generally bad at explaining utility; and, perhaps because of that, at explaining poems.
Miguel Tamen teaches in the Program in Literary Theory, University of Lisbon, and is currently Dean of the School of Arts and Humanities. He recently wrote (with António M. Feijó) A universidade como deve ser [The University As Should Be] (2017).