Sigal Samuel’s Hermeneutics

mystics of mile endIn Sigal Samuel’s recent novel The Mystics of Mile End everyone is looking for a message. There’s the Meyer family, with David interpreting the vague murmurs of his erratic heart; his son Lev deciphering the flower caught in his teacher’s bicycle; and his daughter Samara seeking keys to climb the Tree of Life in order to fulfill her Kabbalistic journey. Lev and Samara’s childhood friend Alex listens to everything from stars to dishwashers in the attempt to intercept messages from extraterrestrial life. And Mr. Katz hooks up a series of tin can telephones in his old oak tree presumably in order to receive messages from God.

What drives this novel is not necessarily religious crisis, but rather a crisis of interpretation. No one is stricken with lack of faith per se, that ever-present theme of Protestantism. (Even budding astronomer Alex, an atheist, is portrayed as a most unshakable believer in life beyond planet Earth.) Instead, they employ their faith in God, logic, intellectual discovery, scientific instruments, etc., to decode symbols they encounter. The question is not “Is there a God?” but rather, can we ever reliably interpret the messages we receive? Follow-up question, do those messages ever lead to some understanding of what lies beyond us?

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The Millennium Trilogy and Relearning to Read the “Readerly” Text


There was not – if I’m being honest – much thought behind my decision to suddenly drop everything nothing and finally read Stieg Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy. Not that I insist on putting too much thought into one’s choice of reading material. In fact, I would call myself a proponent of the spin-around-in-bookshop-and-point strategy of literary selection. But I had in fact made myself a post-dissertation reading list full of gems that I have been meaning to enjoy for years. (PS – I finished my dissertation. I’m a doctor. A book doctor.) On the list were many names (Margaret Atwood, Haruki Murakami, Zadie Smith, Somerset Maugham, Marlon James) but Stieg Larsson, certainly not. This absence was based on nothing other than the fact that, since I’d been living without him for this long, I could go on doing so. In fact, this is the only sound reason for not reading anything ever.

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why studying literature will break your heart, rot your brain, and destroy all your chances of happiness

Hey – yeah, you there. Did you know that the lover’s discourse is today of an extreme solitude? (1) * Oh, you weren’t aware?

Well, maybe you already knew that the whole time you were sitting, alone, at the bar, expecting your date to walk in any minute, you were in fact singing a syntactical aria. (6) No? You weren’t informed? Oh, well, have I got news for you. You weren’t actually furious at all. No, that was the syntactical fury belonging to a figure called Waiting. It felt like extreme anger and insecurity and sadness, but it was most definitely syntax.

Feel better? No?

It’s not so bad, because these bundles of sentences (7) eating your brain, have absolutely no horizontal order and have been thrown together at random. So, there’s that.

Novel? No, of course you aren’t writing the novel of your life! Ha! No, there’s no transcendence and no deliverance either.

Oh, you were expecting a great romance? I’m so sorry.

Well, cheer up! All these horrifically painful moments (combined, of course, with the fantastically beautiful ones) are episodes endowed with meaning!

No really, this is good. This is the love story.

Your love story? No, no, I’m talking about the love story subjugated to the great narrative Other.

What do you mean it’s got nothing to do with you? It’s got everything to do with you! In fact, you’re the only one it’s got anything to do with!

You’re right, that doesn’t sound too good.

Ahem…um… Is this seat taken?

*Did you say Barthes? Page numbers taken from the 1990 Howard translation of A Lover’s Discourse.

S/Z, or, the “if you give a mouse a cookie” of theory

S/Z is the first work of proper “lit’r’y theory” I ever picked up. It was a required course for comp lit majors, and I have my suspicions that this was the first work listed on the syllabus precisely so that we could take the appropriate advantage of drop/add week. Years later, and after having read much more of notre cher Roland, I came back to it, and I have a theory of my own. That it’s probably the most important book you could ever read if  you are invested in the study of literature. Particularly if you want to teach literature. This theory has a secondary component, which is that S/Z can also devolve pretty significantly if not done correctly.

Barthes claims that the author is dead. But there is a responsibility that comes with believing his claim. And if you neglect that specific responsibility, you will slowly but surely (or, in fact, quite quickly) unravel the possibility of any contextual knowledge.

Remember that story “If you give a mouse a cookie”? All about the inescapable and uncontrollable series of events that come disastrously to pass with the smallest of acts? There’s a trajectory that one can trace, should one have a relationship with Barthes, that follows a similar process of cause and effect. Allow me to demonstrate…

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