Academic journal article Anglican Theological Review

What Does "Literal Meaning" Mean? Some Commentaries Ont He Song of Songs

Academic journal article Anglican Theological Review

What Does "Literal Meaning" Mean? Some Commentaries Ont He Song of Songs

Article excerpt


The French critic Roland Barthes, writing in (and on) The Pleasure of the Text, has remarked:

All socio-ideological analyses agree on the deceptive nature of literature.... These analyses forget (and this is normal since they are hermeneutics based on the exclusive search for the signified) the formidable reverse side of writting: jouissance [bliss, orgasmic ecstasy]: the jouissance which can explode, across the centuries, out of certain texts.l

Barthes imagines a "society of Friends of the Text," whose members would have nothing in common with one another except for a list of enemies. These enemies would be characterized by interpretative activity which leads to "foreclosure of the text and its pleasure."2 Unlike these enemies of the text, for whom the words of a text constitute a garment covering and concealing the text's true significance, a Friend of the Text "accepts the letter."3 Such a one delights, as it were, in dancing in the field of the text. For the Friend of the Text, no text is a document to be deciphered; it is a body to be embraced. The American critic Helen Vendler has characterized one who approaches the text in the latter manner as the rhapsodic critic; the decipherer she calls the scientist of the text.4

At least at first glance it would seem that almost every commentator who has ever written on the Song of Songs, or for that matter on any book of the Bible, would be on that enemy list drawn up by the Friends of the Text. As Vendler has pointed out, the approach taken by Barthes's enemies of the text is an approach rooted in the tradition of biblical commentary.

The criticism described by Barthes sets itself fiercely against the criticism which originated in biblical hermeneutics, where the motive of the critic is to interpret a sacred text written or inspired by God. When Deity is the author, that author does not write for the happiness of writing. Duty rather than pleasure must therefore be the critic's impetus also, in such a model. And not the text's power to incorporate, and confer, bliss, but rather its power to incorporate, and impose, sacred truth, is its claim to attention.5

Yet surely one could characterize the Song of Songs as a text of pleasure, and this not just on the basis of its subject matter, for "the text of pleasure is not necessarily the one that relates pleasures."6 To be sure, the letter of the Sublime Song is erotic, a fact that has been a source of embarrassment to such commentators as the late eighteenth-century Cambridge mathematician William Whiston. In a work written to prove "that the Canticles is not a Sacred Book of the Old Testament," Whiston maintained that although the work was composed by Solomon, yet it was not written in his Younger days, or when he was the Good, the Wise, the Chaste, and the Righteous Man, but long afterward when he was become Wicked, and Foolish, and Lascivious, and Idolatrous.7

In short, to Whiston the Song of Songs is the work of an impious and dirty old man which certainly does not belong in the Bible. But it is not on the basis of the celebration of the love between a man and a woman that the Sublime Song has been termed a text of jouissance. As we shall see, it has recently been argued that Barthes's understanding of the blissful text can explain the interpretation of the Song of Songs advanced in the seminal commentary on this book.

What I wish to do in this essay is to look at a very few of the vast number of interpretations given to this book throughout the centuries, exploring both how the letter was understood and how it was related to other possible understandings of the text. Does this text ever generate an explosion of Barthesian jouissance, or is its letter nothing more than a garment to be discarded in order to arrive at the naked truth?

In this examination of the ways in which the content and function of the literal meaning of the Song of Songs have been perceived, we shall confine ourselves primarily to texts of the Christian West. …

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