Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

Hero Worship and Hermeneutic Dialectics: John Irving's 'A Prayer for Owen Meany.'

Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

Hero Worship and Hermeneutic Dialectics: John Irving's 'A Prayer for Owen Meany.'

Article excerpt

In the Western tradition of hermeneutics, two ways of knowing have often been contrasted. One, usually considered inferior, is a process - earthbound and empirical - which moves logically from step to step, and is communicable, repeatable and transferable. The conclusions reached by this method always remain hypotheses and thus are subject to dispute and revision. The second - presumed superior - form of knowing is an upward leap that relies on unpredictable flashes of insight. Such knowing requires not merely reason and logic but all of our human - often some superhuman - faculties, and as a result tends to be noncommunicable and nonreplicable.

In The Republic, for example, Plato distinguishes thinking (dianoia) from intelligence (noesis): with the former the mind "is compelled to pursue its inquiry by starting from assumptions and travelling, not up to a principle, but down to a conclusion," whereas with the latter "the mind moves in the other direction, from an assumption up towards a principle which is not hypothetical" (6.509). Plato's distinctions are analogous to Milton's "Discursive" and "Intuitive" reason, the former most often used by humans and the latter most often by angels (Paradise Lost 5.486-90).

Similarly, William James distinguishes between "naturalism" and "supernaturalism" (384), between nonreligious and religious experience. In analyzing Martin Luther's faith, James differentiates between the "intellectual" part and the "far more vital" part, "something not intellectual but immediate and intuitive" (200). He associates this second mode with the "affective experience," the "saintly character," and the "mystical state" (201,219, 335). For James, the religious way of knowing is characterized by its transforming effect, by its inclusion of a broader range of experience than is encompassed by the nonreligious or "rationalistic consciousness" (335), and by its lack of transferability to another human: "Feeling is private and dumb" (341).

More recently, Paul Ricoeur explores the difference between explanation (explication, Erklarung) and understanding (comprehension, Verstandnis). Borrowed from the natural sciences, the former is "methodic" ("Explanation" 165) and proceeds in piecemeal fashion: "in explanation we ex-plicate or unfold the range of propositions and meanings"; explanation consists of "external facts to observe, hypotheses to be submitted to empirical verification, general laws for covering such facts, theories to encompass the scattered laws in a systematic whole, and subordination of empirical generalizations to hypothetic-deductive procedures" (Interpretation 72). In contrast, understanding is "the nonmethodic moment" ("Explanation" 165) in which one holistically discovers meaning: "in understanding we comprehend or grasp as a whole the chain of partial meaning in one act of synthesis"; rather than focusing on external facts, it requires "the transference of ourselves into another's psychic life" (Interpretation 72, 73).

For Ricoeur, the two forms of knowing are neither hierarchical nor mutually exclusive, but form a "highly mediated dialectic" (Interpretation 74). The inquiry into a given text proceeds through a "hermeneutical arc" ("Text" 60): from a preliminary, naive understanding (a "guess"), through an analytic explanation, to a more sophisticated comprehensive understanding (Interpretation 87, 74-79). Ricoeur defines this experience of "follow[ing] the path of thought opened by the text" as interpretation (interpretation, Deutung), which, by completing the hermeneutical circle, "culminates in the self-interpretation of a subject who thenceforth understands himself better, understands himself differently, or simply begins to understand himself" ("Text" 61, 57).

In A Prayer for Owen Meany (1989), John Irving plays with this hermeneutical dialectic. He sets up an apparent dichotomy between the two traditional ways of knowing, but simultaneously he parodies each approach, unravels the distinction between them, and half-mockingly offers common sense as a third alternative. …

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