Gadamer as Literary Critic: "Authentic Interpretation" of a Rilke Sonnet

By Hamner, Everett | Renascence: Essays on Values in Literature, Summer 2004 | Go to article overview

Gadamer as Literary Critic: "Authentic Interpretation" of a Rilke Sonnet


Hamner, Everett, Renascence: Essays on Values in Literature


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 Giffin 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. …

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