The good mess in no single, right reading and in the many (more or less) wrong ones

–An illustration that itself performs the difficulty in telling the difference between knowing what are wrong readings of a text while still not knowing what is the right one is that of literary critic, I.A. Richards. I quote from his letter to T.S. Eliot, where Richards free-associates the challenge:

This problem,—that a single line [of poetry] need have no one right reading, yet will have innumerable wrong ones; that among all the many “right” ones some at least will carry, primarily, very different interpretations. . .and yet that we must take some partial meaning, and make it deputize for the whole but without forgetting that we do so—this problem which almost every sentence of good poetry represents to us seems to me a paradigm for all the problems, big and little of life and thought. . .

By “wrong,” Richards means those “that close down other possibilities [i.e., other readings],” not least of which are the exclusionary readings that “claim to be the only right ones”. (I’d add more or less wrong to reflect the more or less complex interpretations.)

–Eliot had an example. While Goethe’s writings on science, particularly the work on plant morphology and color, have been criticized by scientists, Eliot asks:  “Is it simply a question of who was right, Goethe or the scientists? Or it is possible that Goethe was wrong only in thinking the scientists wrong, and the scientists wrong only in thinking Goethe was wrong?”

I take this to be an implication of Eliot’s point: Goethe and the scientists may have been more or less “right” as far as they went, but they in their respective ways did not go far enough, and by falling short both end up with interpretations that were “partially right” in multiple senses of that word “partial.” Seeing that and going further is a good mess to be in.

–So what? It seems to me then that we are looking for professionals less keen on “the right person asking the right questions at the right time—for the right price!—and with the right policy” and more keen on the multiple ways to go more wrong and the good messes of being less wrong and more right, case-by-case.

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