Hamner, Everett

GIVEN the interest in recent years in the thought of Hans-Georg Gadamer, self-consciously Gadamerian readings of literature are surprisingly rare. While much work has aimed to locate Gadamer’s thought in relation to aesthetics, ethics, and philosophical hermeneutics, very little has considered the implications of Gadamer for interpreting specific literary works. Among several intriguing exceptions are a Michael Giffm article arguing that A Passage to India represents a narrative parallel to Gadamer’s hermeneutic, a John Pizer essay that reports on “Gadamer’s Reading of Goethe,” and an article on Pride and Prejudice in which Gene Koppel credits Gadamer with offering him “an approach to Jane Austen (and to literature in general) which allows for contradictory responses to the same material without sinking into subjective morasses or following the nihilistic, reductionist theories which characterize much current literary criticism” (134).1 Koppel’s suggestion that Gadamer offers stable ground for literary critique while also remaining open even to “contradictory responses” is especially important for this essay. Like Koppel, I will pursue a Gadamerian reading of a specific literary work, one of Rilke’s Sonnets to Orpheus (2, XXVII), understanding it to suggest that recognizing ourselves as childlike in relation to the divine is the beginning of a solution to the problem of humanity’s apparent insignificance and transience. However, instead of making this argument my ultimate focus, I interweave reflection on Gadamer’s thinking with narration of my ten separate encounters with the sonnet. Thus, while this essay is undoubtedly concerned with interpreting Rilke’s sonnet, its greater purpose is to argue for the means by which I reached that understanding: a set of “necessary conditions” for authentic literary interpretation that I believe is implied by Gadamer’s hermeneutic.

For Gadamer, interpretation is a phenomenon that should occur gradually over time through a series of distinct encounters. Therefore, I have chosen to narrate my encounters in chronological order rather than attempting to “prove” my thesis as expeditiously as possible. I begin with my first three encounters with Rilke’s sonnet, which involved such basic matters as definition, tone, and rhyming, but also engaged Gadamer’s understanding of “questioning,” “imagination,” and “prejudice.” Next, I describe the risk of submitting my understanding of the poem to that of Gadamer, as laid out in his essay, “Poetry and Punctuation” (Literature and Philosophy in Dialogue 131-137). Next, I further illustrate the vulnerability that Gadamer demands of an interpreter by showing how I sought to work alongside the text to “co-construct” its form, rather than viewing interpretation as the proper application of a set of rules. Finally, I consider how my tenth encounter demonstrated that “play” between text and interpreter can be at once childlike and mature, and that it can eventually allow for a “coming to rest” in the interpretive process. Unless otherwise noted, I refer to Robert Paslick’s translation of Sonnets to Orpheus (2, XXVII), as published with Gadamer’s “Poetry and Punctuation”:

Does time really exist, time that destroys?

When, on the resting mountain, will it break the fortress asunder?

This heart, belonging infinitely to the gods,

When will it be raped by the demiurge?

Are we really so fearfully fragile

As Fate would have us believe?

Is childhood, its depths and its promise,

in the roots – later – still?

Oh, the specter of what is fleeting

moves through him who unsuspectingly

receives it, as if it were smoke.

As those who we are, those who are drifting,

We are considered by the enduring powers

as a divine usage.

In my first encounter with Rilke’s sonnet, I actually did very little and yet from Gadamer’s point of view, this may be the first “necessary condition” of true interaction with a poem. I asked questions of it as I would a conversation partner, and I tried to listen for the questions it might ask of me. Much of this dialogue now seems trivial, but it was important as a first step. I checked a dictionary to better understand the words “demiurge” and “specter”; I noted a potential connection between the “smoke” of line eleven and the description in line twelve of “those who are drifting.” I became curious about the choice between two alternate meanings of the word “through” in line ten: Does the specter simply pass through its unsuspecting receiver, or is the specter’s movement somehow enabled or furthered through that person? The importance of such patient, curious questioning is underlined by Gadamer’s response to the question of “what it is that really makes the productive scholar”:

That he has learned the methods? The person who never produces anything new has also done that. It is imagination [Phantasie] that is the decisive function of the scholar. Imagination naturally has a hermeneutical function and serves the sense for what is questionable . . . . The real power of hermeneutical consciousness is our ability to see what is questionable. (Philosophical Herineneutics 186)

Presumably, Gadamer would endorse my efforts to let the imagination run where it would, to resist the urge to rush to an understanding, and to look for what is “questionable” in Rilke’s sonnet. These may seem obvious preconditions for the development of real understanding, but as Nathan Scott, Jr., notes in an essay that relies heavily on Gadamer’s thinking, the biggest problem of many students of literature is the speed with which they rush to form conclusions. In their “eagerness for enlargement of mind and spirit,” Scott writes, they “lack any capacity for tolerance of the ambiguous and the uncertain” (50).

Perhaps the most important aspect of my first encounter was that it did not seek to be comprehensive; it assumed there would be subsequent readings. Indeed, I returned to the poem after setting it aside for half an hour, and thereby risked the understanding that I had gained in my first encounter. At that time, the poem had struck me as a somewhat bitter meditation on the power of time and humanity’s helplessness at the hands of Fate. This time, however, I started with a fresh copy of the sonnet, aiming to take seriously Gadamer’s insistence that “all our constructions, all our efforts to understand . . . must each time be taken back . . . We must come back again and again . . . beginning each time anew” (Gadamer in Conversation 72). At first, this may seem mere common sense – any thoughtful critic will read a poem multiple times before writing about it. However, I would emphasize an aspect of my re-reading that seems less common: I intentionally set the poem aside for a space, and for this second encounter, I used a fresh copy of the poem, unmarked by previous observations. I am under no illusion that I erased all memory of the previous encounter; however, I would argue that returning to a fresh copy of the poem allowed new questions to develop. I noted the word “considered” in line thirteen, and thus heard the poem asking, “Perhaps this is how we are considered (as “a divine usage”), but is this really all we are?” Stepping away from the poem a second time, I was less sure about its tone. Perhaps the sonnet actually doubted our enslavement to time and Fate? I also found myself thinking about the “childhood” of line seven, wondering if this is indeed a time one can rediscover, a time “in the roots – later still?” Does this “still” mean “nevertheless,” or simply “at rest”?

My third encounter with the poem extended this questioning into more technical matters of form and translation. I noted that the poem lacked end-rhymes, a basic feature of any sonnet, but I realized that this might make sense if the poem was a fairly literal translation. Most importantly, in this third sitting I began to recognize how thoroughly my “prejudices” shaped my reading of the text. Gadamer describes our prejudices as “biases of our openness to the world. They are simply conditions whereby we experience something – whereby what we encounter says something to us” (Philosophical Hermeneutics 183). This non-judgmental sense of inevitability helped me to recognize that my reading of a poem could actually be furthered – not just hindered – by the limitations of my knowledge. If I had remembered more about the sonnet form at this point, for instance, perhaps I would have asked the poem different questions and therefore heard different answers.2 The key word here, of course, is “different,” and this realization gave me new freedom in relating to the text. If one need not fear having incomplete foreknowledge, it is much easier “to expose oneself and to risk oneself.” One can grasp that “Genuinely speaking one’s mind has little to do with a mere explication and assertion of prejudices; rather, it risks our prejudices – it exposes oneself to one’s own doubt as well as to the rejoinder of the other” (“Text” 26). This was welcome news: I did not have to find a single “right” interpretation; I did not need to accumulate every possible tool for approaching such an interpretation before beginning to relate to the poem.

My fourth encounter with the poem was unique in that this time I did not engage the poem alone but alongside Gadamer. This was indeed part of my choice to focus on this sonnet: it is one of several pieces of literature to which Gadamer wrote an extended critical response, and thus it offered an unusual opportunity to compare his interpretive tendencies with my own.3 It turns out that Gadamer’s reading, found in his essay “Poetry and Punctuation,” takes an inventive approach: he claims that Rilke failed to punctuate line two in a manner appropriate to the poem’s overall voice. Our translation of the poem’s first couplet is: “Does time really exist, time that destroys? / When, on the resting mountain, will it break the fortress asunder?” To follow Gadamer’s argument, we must realize that due to differences between English and German syntax, the line we read in English as ending “the fortress asunder” ends “asunder the fortress” in the German poem. Gadamer’s argument is that a comma needs to be inserted after “asunder,” before “the fortress.” This comma would emphasize that the pronoun “it,” which comes earlier in the line, does not refer to “time,” but to “the fortress.” “The fortress” becomes an appositive rather than the object of the verb “to break.” In Gadamer’s reading, then, the sentence’s construction is comparable to the following question with which I hurriedly greeted my wife one evening during the Winter Olympics: “Did they win?” I asked, and then quickly clarified, “the Canadian skaters?” Similarly, Gadamer understands the speaker of the poem to ask, “will it break asunder?” and then add, “the fortress?”

Before considering the significance of Gadamer’s added comma, we should rest assured that Gadamer is not advocating a process by which the critic should simply feel free to change whatever part of a poem that does not easily accommodate her interpretation. On the contrary, it takes Gadamer six pages of carefully reasoned argument simply to justify his addition of one punctuation mark. Gadamer argues that his re-punctuation is justified because he believes that “Punctuation does not belong to the substance of poetic discourse. It is a help for reading and, as such, an aspect of interpretation” (Literature and Philosophy in Dialogue 133). Such an assertion emphasizes the extent to which Gadamer’s hermeneutic shrinks the distance between poet and critic. In Gadamer’s mind, the interpreter sits before the text, seeking to understand it by “constructing its form” (a concept to which we will return); the poet also sits before the text, attempting to hear and represent it on the page. Neither poet nor critic is primary, because as Richard Palmer explains, for Gadamer “words are not something that belong to man, but to the situation” (Hermeneutics 203). The text is a unique entity that both poet and critic must engage in dialogue. As Ed Block, Jr., puts it, this should result in a “commonality of theme between poet and critic” (222).

We may now ask about Gadamer’s motive for his interpretive move. What does he hear the poem say that leads him to change its punctuation? It turns out that his understanding of Rilke’s sonnet is quite similar to questions I began asking in my second encounter. Gadamer believes the poem says that time does not necessarily have the power that we typically afford it; perhaps we really are not “so fearfully fragile / As Fate would have us believe.” Given this understanding of the poem as a whole, Gadamer insists that the reference of the pronoun in line two must be to “fortress,” not “time.” If “time” were referred to by “it,” the poem would suggest that time really does have the power to destroy us, to “break the fortress asunder.” But Gadamer argues that these two lines would then contradict the force of the rest of the poem, and that a more coherent reading for the poem as a whole is provided if “it” is understood to refer in advance to “the fortress.” On this reading, the whole first stanza serves to simply ask – but not yet answer – a basic question about what it means to be human: Does time really have the power to destroy our fortresses, our very hearts and souls? Do we wait for nothing more than our inevitable destruction?

My encounter with Gadamer’s critical reading, then, challenged me to modify my understanding of the sonnet. As a fellow interpreter, Gadamer contradicted my first reading’s conclusion that the poem’s tone was bitter and relatively hopeless. However, I did not simply “give in” to Gadamer’s interpretation at this point – to do so would have effectually contradicted Gadamer’s hermeneutic. Instead, I set his interpretation aside for a time, neither endorsing nor discounting it. Once again, I would leave the poem and come back, “beginfning] each time anew.” This determination to listen carefully but agree only slowly is very much in the spirit of Gadamer’s understanding of authority, and it is another of the “necessary conditions” suggested by his hermeneutic. Rather than visualizing arguments between interpreters in which one critical view simply dominates and seeks to eliminate another, Gadamer seeks the same sort of “fusion of horizons” between interpreters that he does between each interpreter and a given text.4 Authority is not something that can be seized but must develop naturally over time: “authority cannot actually be bestowed, but is acquired and must be acquired, if someone is to lay claim to it” (“Rehabilitation” 263). This accords well with what took place over my subsequent encounters with the poem. Although I was initially taken aback by what seemed an arrogant move in changing Rilke’s punctuation, I was gradually won over to Gadamer’s view – in his words, it “acquired” authority.

My fifth encounter with Rilke’s sonnet was significantly impacted by the arrival of disappointing news in the day’s mail, leaving me in a discouraged mood when I returned to Rilke’s sonnet. Indeed, I am suggesting that something as subjective as the interpreter’s mood can contribute significantly – even positively – to literary criticism. Again I am not alone in this heresy: according to Gadamer, reflection on the interpreter’s personal situation is another of the “necessary conditions” for authentic interpretation. In my case, a personal disappointment led me, paradoxically, to hear a more hopeful tone in Rilke’s sonnet. Whereas I had previously recognized only bitterness, now I identified with the poem’s concluding lines, “As those who we are, those who are drifting, / We are considered by the enduring powers / as a divine usage.” These words no longer seemed resentful, as if they only grudgingly admitted time’s power over us, but ennobling. I realized that, usually, we understand “being used” to be a negative thing, but the poem now seemed to question that assumption. This development in my dialogue with the sonnet led directly to a different kind of “speech” on my part: I found myself responding to Rilke’s sonnet with a poem of my own. I consider this a “translation poem”; I was looking at Rilke’s sonnet and offering a parallel from within my own experience, using my own language, and holding to the form of Rilke’s poem only loosely.5

My sixth experience with Rilke’s poem took place hours later. This time, instead of writing a whole “translation poem,” I simply took each sentence of Rilke’s sonnet and sought to recapture it in my own language. For instance, lines five-six, “Are we really so fearfully fragile / As Fate would have us believe?” became “Are the fears I hide behind just excuses?” My most significant translation was that of lines seven-eight, which in later encounters became central to my interpretation of the poem. “Is childhood, its depths and its promise, / in the roots – later – still” became, “Could my best years still be before me?” Along with the previous encounter, this sixth engagement relied to an extraordinary degree on Gadamer’s insistence that reading well is a personal act, occurring in a specific time and space, and that an interpreter has reached no understanding of a literary work at all if he has not achieved some sort of personal application. In Truth and Method Gadamer insisted that “we consider application to be just as integral a part of the hermeneutical process as are understanding and interpretation” (308). Much later in life his argument had not changed: he said that a literary text “has something to say to us either through the question it awakens, or the question it answers,” and an interpreter should “find oneself directly affected” (Gadamer in Conversation 70). This “being affected” is not necessarily a pleasant experience; Gadamer wants more than sentimentality here. In his mind, “The intimacy with which the work of art touches us is at the same time, in enigmatic fashion, a shattering and demolition of the familiar. It is not only the ‘This art thou!’ disclosed in a joyous and frightening shock; it also says to us; ‘Thou must alter thy life!'” (Philosophical Hermeneutics 104).

One way to better understand this “necessary condition” of the interpreter’s personal involvement with the work is through the metaphor of “play.” In the title essay in The Relevance of the Beautiful, Gadamer suggests that play has a “nonpurposive rationality.” On one hand, the primary purpose of play is not utilitarian, and what happens in play is often difficult to explain logically; on the other hand, there is still some sort of reason operating in most playing. As Gadamer puts it, in our playing “we actually intend something with effort, ambition, and profound commitment.” We labor with sand to build a “castle”; we concentrate in order to strike out a batter; we move our rook only after careful thought. In each of these games, we participate wholeheartedly according to the rules, regardless of the fact that none of these activities serves any significant purpose outside the game-world. Likewise, relating to a literary text requires us to accept the basic rules of its world, rather than trying to stand outside it as disengaged observers. This personal engagement is necessary for authentic interpretation, because for Gadamer, “The act of playing always requires a playing along with” (23). Since play “does not really acknowledge the distance separating the one who plays and the one who watches the play” (24), the interpreter must choose to participate in the world of the text.

My fifth and sixth engagements with Rilke’s sonnet demonstrate this sort of “playing along,” I believe, in that I responded to the poem creatively, but not randomly. I allowed it to speak to me and responded both artfully and rationally. I “played” with the text, as Gadamer would say, with the understanding that “tradition means transmission rather than conservation.” I did not merely seek to preserve the poem intact for future generations, like a librarian locking the most valuable books away in airtight storage, but dialogued with it, even built upon it. In Gadamer’s eyes, such play is appropriate, because “the ossified language of literature only becomes art when it becomes part of our own language” (The Relevance of the Beautiful 49). A poem is not art unless we encounter it dialectically, with a readiness not only to listen, but also to speak. In other words,

To understand a text is to come to understand oneself in a kind of dialogue. . . . One must take up into himself what is said to him in such a fashion that it speaks and finds an answer in the words of his own language. (Philosophical Hermeneutics 57)

This is exactly what occurred in my fifth and sixth experiences with Rilke’s sonnet: My “play” with the text allowed it to “find expression” in my own language.6

ALTHOUGH I had wondered as early as my third encounter with the poem about issues of form and translation, it was not until my seventh, eighth, and ninth readings that I began to engage these issues directly. Here, I sought to attend to form while maintaining an emphasis on “saying power” that is often lost in literary criticism. Since we have established that in Gadamer’s eyes personal circumstances are significant for interpretation, I may explain that a colleague was offering a lecture on sonnets that led me to reconsider the poem more particularly as an Italian or Petrarchan sonnet. A common characteristic of this category is that the first eight lines of the poem, the “octave,” establish a problem or statement that the last six lines, the “sestet,” resolve or qualify. Again, I found myself translating the poem into my own language. The octave seemed to be saying, “Maybe it’s just an illusion that time is rushing irrevocably by,” while the sestet seemed to respond, “But we do still experience it this way – we are finite beings.”

My new awareness of the sonnet form also increased my curiosity about the original German poem.7 Having attained a copy of the German original, I turned in my next encounter to an examination of the poem’s rhyming pattern, which is abab cdcd eefeef. Realizing now that couplets in sonnets generally express a single idea, and that the poem’s introductory stanza is made up of two couplets, I discovered a new rationale for Gadamer’s punctuation of line two. As we have seen, one of Gadamer’s motives for adding a comma between the German words for “asunder” and “the fortress” was that he thought the poem’s first two lines needed to express essentially the same idea as the next two. Indeed, in looking closely at the poem’s structure, we find additional support for this assumption. Since lines one-two rhyme ab and then are immediately repeated by lines three-four (also ab), and since this pattern is again repeated in lines five-eight (cdcd), we can assume that the main idea of lines one-two should be expanded on by lines three-four, just as the main idea of lines five-six is expanded on by lines seven-eight. Thus, it is unlikely that line two is saying that time really has the power to break our fortresses asunder, not only because this would contradict the poem’s overall “saying power,” but also because it would violate the traditional sonnet format to little or no effect.8

Although I began with no such intention, my ninth encounter brought an insight that strengthened Gadamer’s argument even further. After looking at an alternative English translation (Norton 1962), I realized that for lines three-four to be compatible with lines one-two, the referent of the pronoun “it” in line four would have to be compatible with the referent of the “it” in line two. Here are lines one-four once again: “Does time really exist, time that destroys? / When, on the resting mountain, will it break the fortress asunder? / This heart, belonging infinitely to the gods, / When will it be raped by the demiurge?” Since “it” in line four clearly refers to “this heart” in line three, I was left with the question of which possible referent of the earlier “it” in line two would also be compatible with “this heart.” Did “heart” better correspond with “time” (line one) or, as Gadamer argues, with “fortress” (line two)? I found the latter possibility much more likely. The question in line four is when the “heart” will be “raped;” the parallel question in line two is when “the fortress” will “break asunder.”

How does such careful attention to matters of form accord with Gadamer’s hermeneutic? In contrast to Paul Ricoeur’s objection to the title of Gadamer’s magnum opus, claiming that it should instead be named “Truth OR Method” (“The Task of Hermeneutics” 60), I am arguing that Gadamer cares a great deal about matters of form and method, despite his somewhat unusual approach. As is evident in his re-punctuation of Rilke’s sonnet, Gadamer sees form as something that the interpreter must discover, rather than something that the artist imposes. he asks, “What is it that is so distinctive about form? The answer is that we must trace it out as we see it because we must construct it actively – something required by every composition, graphic or musical, in drama or in reading. There is constant cooperative activity here” (The Relevance of the Beautiful 27, emphasis added). Gadamer views the interpreter as actively involved in the construction of a poem’s form, which is quite different from ignoring method in favor of “truth.” Instead, he rejects the tendency of literary criticism to focus only on form and method, to the exclusion of content and the consideration of a work’s “saying power.” As Charles Ringma notes, Gadamer is quite frustrated with “the literary critic [who] is concerned about form and style but ‘has given up the claim that his texts have a normative validity for him'” (39). Gadamer explains, “It is a secondary procedure if we abstract from whatever meaningfully addresses us in the work of art and wholly restrict ourselves to a ‘purely aesthetic’ evaluation” (The Relevance of the Beautiful 29). We should note here that Gadamer is not claiming that “aesthetic evaluations” have no place; he is simply arguing that they must not become primary. He writes,

When we become aware of an actor or singer or any creative artist as mediator, we exercise a secondary level of reflection. When the complete experience of a work of art is genuine, however, what amazes us is precisely the unobtrusiveness of the performers. (The Relevance of the Beautiful 52)

This balancing of form and “saying power” is indeed another of Gadamer’s “necessary conditions” for the practice of genuine literary interpretation. Earlier, we looked at how Gadamer’s hermeneutic blurs the line between poet and critic. Here, I would point out that Gadamer is also quietly subverting the distinction between philosophy and literature, a move that many would welcome. In an article entitled “Literature and Philosophy at the Crossroads,” for instance, Kathleen Wright explores the different directions that Gadamer and Derrida would take in understanding the relationship between literature and philosophy. Preferring Gadamer’s alternative, Wright explains that Gadamer understands that the two disciplines “cross each other constantly” (245).9 Gerald Brans goes even further in arguing for the breakdown of this distinction:

doing so might open up the possibility of a truly reflective interest in the literary work, that is, an interest in what the work has to say to us, how it bears upon our life in the world, quite apart from what it means in relation to itself – quite apart, in other words, from whatever aesthetic or technical interest we might take in its genesis and structure, how it is made and how it works. (246)

For Bruns as for Gadamer, it is a considerable problem that “the practice of literary study has been assimilated – swallowed up, consumed, wasted – in the technique of it” (235). As evident in my seventh, eighth, and ninth readings of Rilke’s sonnet, consideration of form can contribute greatly to the process of hearing a poem’s voice; the problem arises when attention to form obfuscates rather than elucidates the work’s “saying power.” Gadamer would have us avoid both of two extremes:

on the one hand, an artistic intent that manipulates us for a particular purpose and finds expression in kitsch; and on the other, total obliviousness to the real appeal that the work of art addresses to us in favor of a quite secondary level in which we delight in aesthetic taste for its own sake. (The Relevance of the Beautiful 52)

On my tenth encounter with Rilke’s poem, I found myself ready to “answer” the poem directly. I do not mean that I viewed the poem simply as a puzzle to be solved and then put away; I intend only to identify a transition. Whereas to this point I had asked questions of the poem, written poetry in response, and investigated aesthetic concerns, I now found myself directly responding to the questions posed by the sonnet’s octave. “Does time really exist, time that destroys?” the poem asked. If so, it need not be feared; it is not just a destroyer, I responded. “When, on the resting mountain, will it break asunder, the fortress?”10 My “fortress,” my spirit, may be broken, stretched, ravaged – but it need not be destroyed. “This heart, belonging infinitely to the gods, / When will it be raped by the demiurge?” Must it ever? “Are we really so fearfully fragile / As Fate would have us believe?” No – we are fragile, but we need not be fearfully fragile. “Is childhood, its depths and its promise, / in the roots – later – still?” Yes, just maybe yes . . . .

This “yes” represented a turning point in my readings of Rilke’s sonnet. With my new awareness of the traditional relationship between octave and sestet, I recognized lines seven-eight as the hinge on which the sonnet swings. What is it that allows the shift from the octave’s hard questions about the power of time and Fate? Only accepting our relative “childhood, its depths and its promise.” In other words, I located the center of the poem in the chlja’s uncalculating wonder at the world around him. The sestet confirms this center: re-membering our childlikeness is required if we are to “unsuspectingly receive” that which is “fleeting,” rather than grasping at it or fighting against it. Accordingly, time passes on by “as if it were smoke,” and we can accept our identities as “those who are drifting,” those who wonder what it means to be “divine usagefs].” I do not mean these reflections to suggest that I have come full circle, replacing the bitter poem of my first reading with a lighthearted one here. My tenth experience with the poem did not hear it telling us that we are really immortal, or no longer subject to time’s ravages. Instead, it recognized that the poem offers a valuable key to dealing with the harsh realities it expresses. The sonnet suggests that true maturity involves returning to an understanding of ourselves as relatively childlike, and that only thus may we begin to accept our position in relation to the divine.

AN important question that arises at this point is whether or not there is really anything in Gadamer’s hermeneutic that allows me to bring my interpretation to such a “conclusion.” In other words, what is the status of my tenth encounter with the poem in relation to my previous ones? My answer is closely tied to Gadamer’s concept of “tarrying,” which is as close as he comes to offering a formula for the interpretation of art and literature. By tarrying, Gadamer means taking time with a work of art, leaving it and coming back, and restraining oneself from fixing a “final” interpretation. Gadamer says of this process, “When we dwell upon the work, there is no tedium involved, for the longer we allow ourselves, the more it displays its manifold riches to us. The essence of our temporal experience of art is in learning how to tarry in this way” (The Relevance of the Beautiful 45). Perhaps the best example of Gadamer modeling this practice is found in one of his recorded conversations with Garsten Dutt, in which he points out a painting in his study and reflects on the thirty years over which he has contemplated it:

Again and again as I sit where you are now sitting, I begin to reflect and I ask myself: What do I really see there? I look at it, but I do not write an interpretation. So, what do I see? What does it really say? Je ne sais quoi [I don’t know what]. . . . the picture constantly speaks with me. I look at it again and again. It compels me to come back to it over and over. (Gadamer in Conversation 72)

Gadamer’s emphases here are on leaving and coming back to a work of art and on refusing to fix a final interpretation. We might note that he says he does not “write an interpretation,” but Gadamer’s own writing of literary critical essays should not lead us to conclude that to put an interpretation in written form makes it absolute. Instead, he wants us to be able to recognize the inexhaustibility of potential interpretations, while concurrently leaving room in the interpretive process for “coming to rest,” as I call it. As interpreters, we should feel free to publicize a given interpretation – but we must concurrently reserve the right to offer a new, even contradictory one at a later time. What Gadamer’s concept of tarrying offers us, essentially, is the opportunity to “come to know something more authentically than we were able to do when caught up in our first encounter with it” (The Relevance of the Beautiful 47) – yet without delegitimizing the earlier interpretation. This is an authenticity that comes only with time spent in honest relationship with a work of art, submitting one’s prejudices to it and taking the risk that one might be changed by the encounter. It does not result in exhaustive or all-conclusive readings, but it does allow the critic either to continue revising or to rest in an interpretation.

Perhaps the implications of Gadamer’s hermeneutic for literary criticism are clearest when we consider Gadamer’s reflection on the “alternative time” into which art and literature invite us. For Gadamer, tarrying requires that we leave “clock time” behind. In clock time, the “two extremes of bustle and boredom both represent time in the same way: we fill our time with something or we have nothing to do. Either way time is not experienced in its own right, but as something that has to be spent” (The Relevance of the Beautiful 42). By contrast, Gadamer invites us into a kind of time like that of “the festival”: a separate space that “profferfs] time, arresting it and allowing it to tarry. . . . The calculating way in which we normally manage and dispose of our time is, as it were, brought to a standstill” (The Relevance of the Beautiful 42). Interestingly, Gadamer’s use of the “festival” metaphor here is extremely close to Mikhail Bakhtin’s notion of the “carnival.” As Scott explains, Bakhtin’s carnival is a time in which “life [is] drawn out of its usual rut,” when “all the customary hierarchical structures and all the conventional norms and protocols are suspended” (52). Also fascinating here is the similarity that both Gadamer’s and Bakhtin’s “alternative times” bear to the understanding of time we have found in Rilke’s poem. The poem does not deny that “clock time” exists, or even that at some level it has power to destroy; nonetheless, Rilke’s sonnet invites us into a different time entirely, one in which we rediscover childhood’s “depths and its promise.” This is the “autonomous temporality” (The Relevance of the Beautiful 43) of the festival and of the game, and to the extent we enter it as true participants, we become capable of authentic encounters with works of art.11

Indeed, in presenting my progress through ten encounters with Rilke’s sonnet, my aim has been to demonstrate this sort of encounter by moving constantly between the “autonomous temporality” of Rilke’s poem and the “clock time” in which 1 have considered Gadamer as literary critic. 1 have found that Gadamer encourages a patient questioning of a literary work, always under the assumption that our prejudices may be valuable, not just hindrances. By dialoguing with Gadamer as a fellow interpreter of Rilke’s poem, I have sought to demonstrate how Gadamer’s hermeneutic implies an “authority” that is acquired rather than bestowed. This can only occur through personal encounter, and therefore reference to personal experience in the interpretive process is not irrelevant, as some would claim, but crucial. I have also argued that to value individual experience does not excuse sloppy reading: Gadamer would have us pay as much attention to matters of form as anyone, so long as they serve our pursuit of meaning rather than overshadowing it. Finally, I have sought to demonstrate that Gadamer’s idea of tarrying supports both an inexhaustible range of interpretations and the possibility of real progress in the interpretive process. Like the artist, the interpreter may say, “It is finished,” while remaining free to return another day, saying, “It begins anew.”12


1) Also, for a helpful consideration of how Gadamer’s thinking has impacted several literary theorists (Hans Robert Jauss, Emil Staiger, Michael Riffaterre, Stanley Fish, and Harold Bloom) that lacks only interaction with specific works of literature, see David Hoy’s The Critical Circle.

2) For instance, given unlimited time to interpret the poem, I would have instinctively sought biographical information about Rilke. However, Gadamer argues that “It would be an inadmissible abstraction to contend that we must first have achieved a contemporaneousness with the author or the original reader by means of a reconstruction of his historical horizon before we could begin to grasp the meaning of what is said” (Philosophical Hermeneutics 101).

3) It was only after my first three encounters with the poem that my interpretation began to be shaped by Gadamer’s essay on it. In choosing Rilke’s sonnet for this essay, I only skimmed over Gadamer’s essay closely enough to ensure that he had indeed written an essay focused on this poem.

4) This “fusion” is often misunderstood to suggest the complete assimilation of the text into the reader’s horizon, or alternatively, the complete assimilation of the reader into the text’s horizon. As Ringma indicates, however, “Gadamer argues for a distinguishing (Abhebung) and a fusion (Verschmelzung)” (51). Likewise, Block recognizes that the otherness of both parties must be maintained if an authentic “conversation” between text and interpreter is to occur. Block appreciates that “For Gadamer otherness is not the frightening, disorienting hierophany that it seems to be for . . . other critics” (214). Finally, David Haney’s clarification here is worth noting: “A person or a text is present – in the sense that he, she, or it must be faced and questioned – to the degree that the person or text maintains its otherness and that he, she, or it has not been relegated to a clearly understood place in a system of conceptual or representational presence” (39).

5) I quote the poem not as a demonstration of my creative prowess, but in order to suggest how dramatically Gadamer’s hermeneutic may blur the line between interpretation and invention:

6) While this essay cannot attempt an exploration of the relationship between the thinking of Gadamer and Jacques Derrida, it is worth noting here that the concept of “play” figures prominently in the work of both philosophers. For Gary Madison, comparing these treatments of play reveals significant differences. Derrida is said to “joyfully embrace a Nietzchean notion of play, a groundless and aimless play in which all standards and distinctions are meaningless, a form of play which rules out in advance any notion of ‘progress’ (progression) and in which meaning is forever deferred in an endless supplementarity.” While Madison admits that Gadamer’s play is also “goal-less,” in that it does not aim at a “final, ultimate meaning,” he also argues that “it is not, however, without meaning” – which is found in “the enhanced self-understanding the player receives as a result of the play of understanding” (133-134). For further consideration of Gadamer’s conception of play, and especially its relationship to Wittgenstein’s idea of “language games,” see Christopher Lawn’s “Gadamer on Poetic and Everyday Language.”

7) The translatability of poetry is itself questionable. Gadamer, for instance, would deny that the English translation with which I am working is truly the same German poem he analyzes in his essay. he once said that “The meaning of a work of art can never be simply transferred. A work of art must itself be there. . . . You cannot paraphrase a poem” (Gadamer in Conversation 71). In addressing Derrida in Paris, he confirmed that “every translation, even the so-called literal reproduction, is a sort of interpretation” (“Text” 32). Thus, “the best we can hope for is that one poet should come across another and put a new poetic work, as it were, in place of the original by creating an equivalent with the materials of a different language” (The Relevance of the Beautiful 111). I am indebted to Dr. David Clemens [personal conversation] for the additional suggestion that what we have, then, arc not multiple poems, but one poem (in the original language) and “successive approximations” in other languages.

8) This is not to say that good poetry never defies tradition, but only that it must do so coherently and consciously. One cannot break tradition meaningfully unless one first understands its rules.

9) Lawn is even more extreme in his assessment of Gadamer’s understanding of the relationship between these disciplines: “Gadamer’s Heidegger-inspired turn to the poetic in his later writing is, it seems to me, a genuine subversion of the literature-philosophy divide, and it also represents a turn away from the discipline of philosophy towards poetry as a more revealing, truthful, activity” (125).

10) I use the German syntax and Gadamer’s punctuation here.

11) In a brief essay on Gadamer’s philosophical aesthetic, Joan Stambaugh puts it this way: “It is this dwelling in the autonomous time of the artwork that constitutes an essential moment of its spiritual dimension, a dimension becoming increasingly difficult to discern in our own disenchanted time” (134).

12) I would like to express my gratitude to an anonymous referee and to Dr. Charles Ringma, whose seminar in philosophical hermeneutics at Regent College (Vancouver, BC) occasioned the original draft of this essay.

Works Cited

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Bruns, Gerald L. “Between Philosophy and Literature: Theory, Practice, and Significance in Literary Study.” Renascence 41.4 (1989): 233-251.

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___. “The Rehabilitation of Authority and Tradition.” The Hermeneutics Reader: Texts of the German Tradition from the Enlightenment to the Present. Ed. Kurt Mueller-Vollmer. New York: Continuum, 1990. 261-267.

___. The Relevance of the Beautiful. Trans. Nicholas Walker. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1986.

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___, ed. Gadamer in Conversation: Reflections and Commentary. New Haven: Yale UP, 2001.

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