Sunday, April 29, 2018

Amos Oz and Fania Oz-Salzburger on Hermeneutics

Not surprisingly, Jews and Words, the short collection of essays by the Israeli novelist, Amos Oz, and his historian daughter, Fania Oz-Salzburger, is replete with insightful comments about the process of interpretation:
"We do not oppose the rabbinical habit, old and new, of playing around with the meaning of ancient verses. How can we? In this book we are doing much the same. But there are some differences. Unlike ultra-Orthodoxy, we are not trying to denounce, confine, or silence anyone. More to the point, our approach to the very act of interpretation is different from the traditional rabbis'. For us, the rules are something like this: Read in growing circles around your quotation rather than pluck it out of context. Cherish discovery and surprise more than your own agenda. Acknowledge the shortcomings of texts and authors you love, and the merits of those you dislike. Look hard to see the inner logic of a paragraph, a page, and a chapter." (60-61)

"Reading the words in their contexts, many times over, can reward the reader with an increasing sense of familiarity. Despite recent theoretical skepticism, we do believe that an experienced and sensitive nose can sniff out a trace of the original meaning even of very ancient texts. The original meaning! 'What the author had in mind'! One can smile at a simile, mouth a metaphor, or taste a turn of phrase, getting a sense of what their earliest listeners or readers experienced. We probably miss a great part of the tenor and 'feel' of ancient usage, and often enough we are bound to misunderstand completely, but at times we can grasp it. The careful reader can follow subtle shifts of meaning, trace transformations of a word's role." (158-9).
~ Amos Oz and Fania Oz-Salzberger, Jews and Words (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2012).
On a related note, I am now listening to Amos Oz's memoir, A Tale of Love and Darkness, on my ride to and from the library where I spend my week-days. It is by turns laugh-out-loud funny--which feels a bit strange when I'm cycling along a busy Cambridge street--and heartbreakingly sad. I can't recommend it highly enough.

Friday, April 20, 2018

Martyrdom and Motivation: Robert Falcon Scott, Roald Amundson, and the Cambridge Polar Museum

"Youth" by Kathleen Scott
My daughter and I took an Easter break outing to The Polar Museum at the Scott Polar Research Institute last week. The Institute takes its name from Robert Falcon Scott, who arrived at the South Pole on 17 January 1912 only to find that the Norwegian explorer, Roald Amundson, had got there 34 days before him. The bodies of Scott and his companions were found on their return journey just 11 miles from a cache of food and supplies. Scott's diary, discovered at the site, chronicles the ill-fated expedition's harrowing final days, and concludes with the plea "for God’s sake look after our people."

It was a bit odd, I thought, to name a research institute after an explorer who came in second and who did not live to tell the tale. But when the diary was published it caused a sensation. So much money poured in to "look after our people" that some was set aside to found the institute. The story about the heroic explorers was used to drum up support for the first world war. Perhaps it is no coincidence that the Scott Polar Research Institute was built right beside the church of "Our Lady and the English Martyrs" or that a sculpture donated to the institute by Scott's widow, Kathleen, looks rather like a crucifix. 

Scholars debate why Scott failed and Amundson succeeded, but the museum keeps it simple, explaining that Amundson beat Scott to the South Pole because he had only one goal--to be the first one to reach the South Pole--and he pursued it single-mindedly. I'm sure there's a lesson there somewhere...

(In case you are wondering, s. enjoyed sitting by the Cam and feeding swans much more than the museum.)