The Most Important Word: Hermeneutics

This past Saturday I delivered a TEDx talk here at SUNY Geneseo and I wanted to post the written transcript for those who couldn’t be there. I will only post the first third on here and then leave the rest as a comment on the blog post so that I don’t take up three feet of screen space. Reading time should be about fifteen minutes. The takeaway from the talk is that interpretation matters, but interpretation is not subjective.

“Good afternoon my name is Kyle Navratil and I am currently an undergraduate student here at SUNY Geneseo and let me just say, I love language. That’s what I study in the English Department, from writing poetry to analyzing the most influential literary texts in all of human history. I cant help but love words and believe that they have power. Not just as objects themselves but for the ideas that they convey. And I want to talk to you about what I believe to be the most important word, the word with which we understand all other words: Hermeneutics.

For those of you who do not know immediately what this word means, there is a bit of irony in this, because every single one of you that is able to interpret and understand the words that I am saying right now is actually engaging in hermeneutics, because hermeneutics is interpretation, specifically the interpretation of language. And as we talk about our visions for the future, I believe that at the very heart of this discussion is hermeneutics and the concept of interpretation.

Hermeneutics is typically associated with religious traditions as many of the world’s major religions are inextricably found in literary texts. The Bible, the Quran, the Vedas. Entire world-views are contained within these books, and the practice of rigorously analyzing and discerning the meaning of a text is called exegesis. Lawyers engage in a similar practice when interpreting legislature.

Yet the language is not the only thing that we interpret, it is merely the means we use to convey our interpretations of the world. Whether through scientific empiricism, divine inspiration, or simply asking a friend’s advice on a difficult situation, we are constantly forming interpretive frameworks that help us best understand the world and our experience within it. These are our personal hermeneutic models, and they exist beyond language. And it is through these interpretative frameworks that we vision cast into the future.

Let’s be honest, we don’t all have the same interpretation. Think of religious schisms and political controversy, both protestants and Catholics have the same Bible. Sunni and Shia have the same Quran, and Democrats and Republicans have the same constitution and you and your friend were looking at the same situation. It is not the texts, but our interpretations that vary.

And I want to say something that at first may seem a little controversial: some interpretations are better than others. Or, said inversely, some interpretations are just plain wrong.

In language, this is self evident. For instance if I say that you’re pulling my leg, are you actually pulling my leg? If I’m speaking in terms of an idiom, then no. And to interpret my words envisioning someone actually pulling on my leg would be wrong. Yet I think that misinterpretation goes beyond the semantics of language into our understanding of the future and the world as well.

Let me just tell you quick story. “

Thinking Without Words

Have you ever thought of what it would be like to think without words? What would it be like to think without pictures, syllogisms, typeset, linguistic codification in binaries, tertiaries, quaternaries, or any other “aries?” Touch has been considered a language but that is dependent on a sensory image. I am curious about the hard question, or in the human case, it is fairly grey and soft spread through a network of nerves, the question of “consciousness.”

What is it that makes us, us? I am asking because I feel like most poets have had the experience of feeling their psyche push forward into wet ink blotches quickly crossed out and written again. “driven by the wind” we say, “’driven by the wind’ just doesn’t seem right…” we wield our pen and scribble out “driven” replacing the word with “blown,” but it is still not “right.” There is something inside of us, pushing out its sentiment and taking body in our words. The sentiment must not be the words themselves then, the words are only the vessels of transmission. What is the essence of the thing that is itself transmitting though? How come our transmission, “blown by the wind,” feels inadequate still? There is another attempt, for some us endless attempts, until we say “’parted,’ yes ‘parted by the wind.’”

What was it about me, and what is it about us as poets, signaling deep inside that “parted” is more true to my sentiment than “blown” or “driven?” Some sensor, some gauge, some poetic trip-switch, always ready to tell me when my vocabulary and syntax aren’t adequate to convey some sentiment. If the metric is always measuring my words, what is it measuring them against? My soul? My innate self? How come I don’t have a word adequate to describe that?     

Mass Hierarchies and Art Monopolies

The 21st century has brought with it advancements and complications that nobody in the pre-digital age dealt with: the dotcom boom is our modern Gutenberg press.

The industrialized automaton of book printing is one thing, but the mass sales and proliferation of their hard-cover copies in an international market is another. In the most interconnected age in history, competition within art is more stratified than ever. Whether the shelves of our grandparent’s local libraries where the Book of the Month Club dished out copies of Richard Wright, or the airport bookstore’s exaltation of Stephen King’s newest novel on the top shelf, or even the Carolingian monks studiously copying Cicero in 8th century, the geography of publication always seemed limited by access; and therefore the acclaim and popularity of authors had always been restricted by access… and the total amount of authors.

With educational opportunities abounding, the brightest amongst us have access to the literary craft and artistic domain like never before. Yet the massive marketplace available through Amazon and other distributers makes a few favored authors the catch all for book sales. Where poets could once be “the best around,” it seems to be noticed one needs to be the “best” period. How many brilliant artists are lost in the river of an oversaturated, never-going-to-be-egalitarian-and-that’s-ok kind of market?

For those familiar with the infamous Pareto distribution, it seems the swimming pool for creatives is only getting bigger and a few fish fatter. But where does that leave the novice poet? A job in academia? Well statistics are equally dismal.

The bottom line is that we all want to be published and we all want to be read. Hopefully making enough income so that we don’t become the emaciated embodiment of a “starving artist.” But I don’t think that’s possible… I think the only thing that I am left with is the desperation, joy, and final conclusion that despite overwhelming odds, I will choose to write; and as I do so with the hope of being published one day, all that I can strive for is to write something worth reading.

The Jungian Revelation: The “Unconsciousness” and Inspiration

In Carl Jung’s influential essay “Approaching the unconscious,” found in the larger work Man and his Symbols, Jung defines cryptomnesia or “concealed recollection” in relationship to a passage in Nietzsche’s Thus Spake Zarathustra:

“I myself found a fascinating example of this in Nietzsche’s book Thus Spake Zarathustra, where the author reproduces almost word for word an incident reported in a ship’s log for the year 1686. By sheer chance I had read this seaman’s yarn in a book published about 1835 (half a century before Nietzsche wrote); and when I found the similar passage in Thus Spake Zarathustra , I was struck by its peculiar style, which was different from Nietzsche’s usual language… I wrote to his sister who was still alive, and she confirmed that she and her brother had in fact read the book together when he was 11 years old. I think, from the context, it is inconceivable that Nietzsche had any idea that he was plagiarizing this story. I believe that fifty years later it had unexpectedly slipped into focus in his conscious mind.” (37)

Jung is exploring the relationship between our “conscious” and “unconscious” knowledge. As part of a psychological model that includes the “unconscious” as an objective component of what it means to be human, Jung believes that our attentional focus can only perceive a certain amount of what our cognition is experiencing, the “conscious” part, and that thoughts can “slip” into our conscious experience without our realizing of it. In addition to cryptomnesia, he defines dreams as the primary mode of communication between the “unconscious” and “conscious,” stating:

“The British author Robert Louis Stevenson had spent years looking for a story that would fit his “strong sense of man’s double being,” when the plot of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde was suddenly revealed to him in a dream.” (38)

A dream, an “unconscious” crytpomnesia, and the “muse”? What I am most interested in, is if these are synonyms. I don’t think that it would be too much to posit that Jung believed the “muse” of old was the inspiriting “unconscious;” thrusting a new connection, absurd synthesis, or in the case of Nietzsche, an unknown regurgitation of a former story into the passionate fervor of an author. How much artistic plagiarism is intentional? How much is malevolent? How much is our rearticulating of themes found from the dawn of literature explicit plagiarism opposed to unintentional association?

If in poetry, there is a sentiment to “stop being logical,” I am curious if this decommissioning of focus on the executive functions of conscious experience has been the means for individuals to try and let “unconscious” associations flow forth and rearticulate the world in a dreamy, dare I say, poetic sense.

The Line Between Logical and Literary.

What does it mean to straddle the line between the logical and the literary? Our vernacular use of the word “literal” has the connotation of “intended” or “most obvious and easily deciphered,” yet that which is heralded as the most literary is typically the most cryptic and confusing blend of metaphor, allegory, intertextuality, and imagined exploration into realms that are not “obvious” nor “intended.”

Think of David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest. At once absurd it is also methodically organized, showcasing Wallace’s expansive philosophic and technical vocabulary through pharmacological language and his pioneering use of footnotes. These become integral to a canonical “literary” text of the late 20th century. So where does this then leave the dichotomy between inspiration and rationalism? In reading of the Duende, the writer’s vehement assertion of the inspired and literary as of more value to the poet than the logical is clear. Yet, an irony remains as poetry ascribes body to sentiment in the form of words and letters, compressing inarticulable thoughts into tiny lines and swoops on paper. Our words are technically syllogisms combining to form sums of sentences necessary to create any literary sentiment or symbolism. In other words, the literary is dependent on the logical.

Could this be just another expression of the primeval dichotomy between order and chaos? Writers use both revision and inspiration. Syllogisms and sentiment. Perhaps it is not that logic is the issue, but an illogical emphasis on its utility. Engineers build bridges between lands, while artists build bridges between minds. As much as we encourage our engineers to have some sense of aesthetic, we should not discourage our writers to have some sense of rationality.    

Senses Fail and Nas, an Unlikely Source of the Muse.

I learned poetry through hip-hop. I didn’t grow up quoting Virgil and Wordsworth, but dipping class and cyphering with my friends, imitating the flow-schemes of Big L and Nas. Standing on the glossy wooden benches of the boy’s locker room, we’d unfold wrinkled sheets of notebook paper with blotted ink squiggled across its pages, jagged handwriting containing our rhymes about the 21st century teenage life. While the content was typically restricted to misogyny and glorifying drug use, my interests in the world around me permeated through the lyrics: “we need less Jihadis and more Mahatma Ghandis”

My punkish angst caught somewhere between the suicidal lyrics of Senses Fail and “N.Y. State of Mind” found body in lyrically tapdancing across rhythmic 808s and YouTube beats humming through my headphones and a portable speaker. It taught me that poetry was above all else, supposed to say something. Pompous emphasis. Elaborate surprises. Express one of two extremes, either the shear meaninglessness of everything or the absolutely undeniable awesomeness of yourself and your life. Mix proving you’re the GOAT with a knack for reckless behavior because “who cares” and you’ll get a taste for the origins of my poetic sentiment.

For a while I stopped rapping. Granted, I had bigger issues than a lack of creativity considering I was blowing lines of heroin four years ago and dealing with a whole lotta spiritual vexation. Yet once I had my house placed back in order by Jesus, and had my entire worldview flipped inside out, I now channel that lingering youthful poetic sentiment into prose and art that reflects a rightly placed pomp on the glory of God.

I love translating abstract academic concepts into narratives, I love singing sounds and phonemes about the world into rhythm, and I love pulling apart the symbolic depictions of our diction.

This Ethreal Basilica

I believe that the word inspiration speaks volumes to what happens as I engage in poetry, to be in-spired is to be spirited with a zealous creative bent splattering the canvas of my mind with words and colors and narrative imagery. I draw from this to create a “piece” and the “piece” is rightly described as only a fragment of the inner realm. That’s my source. It’s a chipped and beaten brick from my private gallery.

For me, I find the question best rephrased given this metaphor: what are the building materials of this inner life and who is the architect?

This is a mystery for me and a question fascinating to ruminate upon. I believe that the primal source is my spiritual life. I truly believe that I commune with my God and whether it is the doctrine of the Holy Spirit indwelling within me or images of Ezekiel before the throne of the Father, my Christian faith provides more than enough fervent energy to impassion my art. From the depths of Sheol in the Psalms to the Most High depicted as Alpha and Omega in Revelation, The Bible has been the foundational literary source for my sense of existential truth; and therefore I cannot help but watch it bleed up into everything I do.

Recognizing the foundation, I turn now to the walls and to the pillars upholding this ethereal basilica…

Philia-Sophia also known as philosophy or the love of wisdom. I love to discover new and needlessly complex words for simple concepts like “ontological” synonymous with “what has being.”

I love abstractions and dwelling on the particulars of words and the most simple of concepts. I am the person that makes mountains out of molehills.

Beyond philosophic ideas and texts, I find that innumerable scientific models of the world through contemporary advancements in neuroscience, biology, astronomy, psychology, and physics, all congeal into a symbiotic pillar.

Third, I’d say the relevant personal experiences with the world from my memories on high school sports teams to the back of cop cars, psych wards, and the Grand Canyon; from living in Cambodia for 5 months and hiking to Everest Base Camp in Nepal, to rebuilding homes in Toa Baja and walking the cobblestone streets of Prague; my experiences have each significantly challenged the global and interpersonal perspective that I have. Hilarious day to day experiences and soul-crippling stares into the abyss of tragedy are what I lean on as another personal pillar.

Lastly, in this meta-basilica, is reverberating the eclectic sounds of the rap group “beautiful eulogy” and alternative-rock Christian worship music from the bands “Kings Kaleidoscope,” “Citizens and Saints,” and “Ghost Ship.” Hymns and pleas and jam sessions galore, countless other bands and musical artists have sang and played in this cathedral and I know they have each had their role in carving into my walls.

I think that it is under these three pillars: philosophy, science, and experience, and in the presence of much music and art, that my stain-glassed pupils attempt to project out onto the page a poem, a picture, or some other piece of prose.