School for bandits
To interpret a poem is to wrestle with an angel who acts like a bandit. Perhaps all texts that matter have images and allegories about reading and interpreting. In the primordial text, the Genesis, we find the story of Jacob’s wrestle with the angel. It is an enigmatic episode which precedes the cinematic telling of Jacob’s reconciliation with his twin, Esau, who he had betrayed years ago. During the night, alone, Jacob is tackled by a stranger, with whom he wrestles till dawn. What could this being want, he whom the sacred narrative simply describes as “a man”, whilst the Midrash and Christian hermeneutics take him to be an angel? No one knows what he wants, not even Jacob. The two wrestle in silence till the break of dawn. When he realises he cannot win, the stranger strikes Jacob on the leg, leaving a wound on the sciatic nerve. Jacob is left with a limp for the rest of his days. Still, the son of Isaac stands firm, braves on and captures his aggressor, who pleads with him: “Let me depart as daylight is nigh.” It’s as if the light of dawn could break a spell and relegate him to a state of vulnerability or impotence. Jacob lays down his demands: “I shall not let you go until you bless me.” In exchange for this manumission, the bandit concedes and awards Jacob a new name, one which will become the symbol of the vocation of a whole people. “Your name shall no longer be Jacob but Israel because you have fought against God and against men and you were able to prevail.” Jacob acquires a new identity. When the sun rises in the horizon, he departs to find his deceived brother – limping.
This fighting module to which we call interpretation simulates the wrestle of Jacob against the angel. Firstly, the fight happens during the night and, if successful, ends at the dim light of dawn. We start from the unknown, from ignorance (sometimes of ourselves or our purposes), we cannot access all information and we can never reach clarity by the time daylight triumphs. It is only later – tomorrow, in a few weeks, months or even much later – that we reach enlightenment towards what we had been seeking, about facets of the work we had delved into, facets we had once thought opaque and are suddenly rendered surprisingly transparent.
Secondly, interpretation is akin to corporal fight. We struggle against the poem, we restrain it beyond reasonability, we force it to give us its blessing, be it an angel or a bandit. In a book about the Psalms, C.S. Lewis says that a revelationwaits in the exact place we face a hindrance. As soon as the poem concedes something, albeit reluctantly, we release it. Sometimes, it gives us what we did not think it could give us. This fight is also a nocturnal embrace: we can’t tell the body of the reader from the body of the text, the contours have faded. The moment of reading is the moment we know nothing of each other, or of each other’s limits: is it in the poem this meaning resides, or is it in me, the reader, that it lies, having only awaited the right moment to manifest itself? We read the poem and we read ourselves in the poem.
Jacob is wounded from the fight. The experience of interpretation leaves us scarred, wounded. A poem which doesn’t change our gait hasn’t been truly read. The poem does not merely give us its blessing, its solace – it also gives us a good beating. We end up cross-eyed, limping. Sometimes, we are taken to intensive care. We think of reading as amplification, as strengthening to some extent. But actually the best a poem can offer may simply be the impairment of our faculties, even of our potency to explain, because it forces us to face our own failure, because it discloses, before our very eyes, the radical insufficiency of every name. We limp, on our way to reconciliation.
Translated by Rita Faria
Pedro Sobrado is an Administrator at the Teatro Nacional São João (Oporto). He also teaches at the Universidade Lusófona (OPorto). He has written on authors such as Gil Vicente, Almada Negreiros, Bertolt Brecht, Walter Benjamin, Karl Kraus, Robert Walser, Flannery O’Connor, among others.