29 April, 2006

Hermeneutic circle

Tonight we went to see 'Back to Back Beckett', a collection of 9 short pieces put on by some graduate students here at ASU. It wasn't bad at all; the more challenging verbal performances, Play (1963) and Not I (1972), were handled deftly, and the simpler Catastrophe (1982), with which John Gielgud recently ended his career in a Channel 4 production, was particularly strong. Mrs. Roth wasn't very taken with the evening's performances; but then, Beckett's pieces all inhabit the same universe, and the more familiar you are with it, the more interesting you find each work.

This is a general problem of appreciation, known as the 'hermeneutic circle', and is the basis of the work of Friedrich Schleiermacher, whom I've been reading lately. To know the parts you must know the whole, and to know the whole you must know the parts. Our understanding, said Schleiermacher (and he was referring especially to the New Testament), is a continual process of re-evaluation, each new piece of information assessed in light of its unified context, and each new piece causing that context to be itself reassessed. We understand the exterior, grammatical aspects of a work first; these help us to understand the interior, psychological aspects; these in turn regenerate our understanding of the exterior aspects. When writing a biography, therefore,
The task is to grasp what is inward in the man with such certainty that it can be said: I can say with a measure of assurance how what is outward with respect to the man would have been, if what affected him and also what he affected had been different.
More than with any other writer, Beckett's works resemble propositions of metaphysics, stated according to a hidden and unique set of axioms; each piece, a small gesture, we make sense of in relation to our knowledge of these axioms, and each in its turn reveals a little more of the whole.

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