Speaker: Amir Harash @amirharash
Affiliation: Tel Aviv U
Title: Contemporary Readers as an Interpretive Community – Findings from a Medieval Poetry Reading Experiment
Abstract (long version below): One way to conceptualize contemporary readings of ancient texts is to think of the readers as two different groups – contemporary and ancient – and as such, as members of two different interpretive communities. A reading experiment of medieval Hebrew poetry outlined the interpretive landscape that unfolded during a reading of one ancient poem. An analysis of 158 answers to a content question, revealed two main reading strategies. The first: interpreting the text based on current ideologies like pacifism, nationalism and feminism. The second: the tendency to interpret the text according to interpretative norms that were current when the poem was written.
A large part of the world’s written cultural heritage was written in ancient times, by cultures long gone. Ancient texts present a challenge to contemporary readers. Our ability to read such texts, enjoy them and undergo a meaningful experience, is limited by difficulties in understanding the text, and by cultural, psychological, temporal, geographic and linguistic distance, thus leaving us disadvantaged in relation to readers of the past. We can help readers bridge this gap with para-textual information, such as explanations for challenging words, historical background given in footnotes, scholarly prefaces and guided readings. Even though these methods carry advantages, their ability to bring the reader closer to the text is limited, as they also undermine the intuitive and unmediated reading experience.
Another way to conceptualize contemporary readings of ancient texts is to think of the two groups of readers – contemporary and ancient – as members of two different interpretive communities. The idea of interpretive communities was first articulated by Stanley Fish (1980), who claimed that the socio-interpretive group to which readers belong to, predetermines their interpretive strategies and aesthetic notions. This approach may legitimize the way contemporary readers construct ancient texts in modern manners, using anachronisms and perspectives not necessarily befitting the ways in which the texts were read when they were originally written.
But is it justified to think of contemporary readers as a distinct interpretive community? A reading experiment of medieval Hebrew poetry that was conducted in Ben-Gurion University of the Negev outlined the interpretive landscape unfolded during a reading of one ancient poem. By using the results of this experiment, we will try to further understand the principles guiding contemporary readers’ interpretations of ancient literary texts.
The course of the experiment
227 subjects (65% of them women, 84% of them between the ages of 25-54) took part in the reading experiment that was held in the form of an online questionnaire. Most subjects were avid prose and poetry readers but possessed only a superficial knowledge of medieval Hebrew poetry. The subjects were asked to read four Hebrew medieval secular poems – two grim contemplation poems and two lust poems. After reading each poem they were asked several aesthetic questions, and one content question: “what was the poem about?”. Some results of the aesthetic questions were already presented in the previous IGEL convention (Harash and Ishay, 2022).
In the lecture, I will discuss the preliminary analysis of the answers that were given to the content question regarding the poem “Halinoti Gdud” ["“I have lodged a battalion for the night”"], (הנגיד, 2008) a grim contemplation poem written by Shmuel Ha’Nagid (993-1056 AD), a Hebrew poet active in Granada, Spain. 158 answers were given to this question and were categorized by the researchers according to their content. Four dominant interpretations arose: the most common (64 readers) befits the period in which the text was written. This interpretation claims that the poem deals with the futility of existence, serving as a poetic memento mori. The other interpretations express more modern worldviews. The second most common interpretation (49 readers) views the poem as a pacifist text, lamenting the horrors of occupation and war. The third most common interpretation (17 readers) is of a nationalist nature, expressing a yearning for Jerusalem. The fourth (only 5 readers) offers a feminist reading, which views the ruined city in the poem as an allegory to a woman exploited by men.
The findings show that contemporary readers were guided by two interpretive strategies. One strategy was to interpret the text based on current ideologies: pacifism, nationalism and feminism. A second strategy was the tendency to interpret the text according to the interpretative norms that were current when the poem was written. It seems that the ability to perform such a reading exists for some of the experiment’s participants even in the absence of para-textual information. Another finding is that linguistic and cultural distances are partly responsible for the diverging interpretations. The reason for this is that the interpretations we found are partly based on words whose meaning has shifted over the years. We argue that even though the modern interpretations were anachronistic and far from being exhaustive, they fill an important function for the readers, as they allow modern readers to relate to the text via their own world and their own lives, thus bridging the chasm of time, and keeping ancient poems relevant and vital for them.
Harash and Ishay (2022) Who likes medieval Hebrew poetry? IGEL 2022 (Who likes medieval Hebrew poetry?)
שמואל הנגיד – שירים (2007) אוניברסיטת תל אביב, ההוצאה לאור. עריכה: טובה רוזן-מוקד.