A Sign from Zeus: Andre Glucksmann on Textual Interpretation and Emphasis

A quote doesn’t get more profound than this, so I’ll post it twice (so that you’ll read it twice). It comes from the French philosopher, Andre Glucksmann:

Socrates’s uncertainty revealed a rupture that gave birth to philosophy. The divine word is a mystery; it can mean everything or nothing. Zeus neither speaks nor holds his tongue but makes a sign, as Heraclitus said. Man discovers that he himself is responsible for giving meaning to this sign. The word from above, or from elsewhere, must be deciphered. This is the Greek genius: the separation of heaven and earth.

Here it is again:

Socrates’s uncertainty revealed a rupture that gave birth to philosophy. The divine word is a mystery; it can mean everything or nothing. Zeus neither speaks nor holds his tongue but makes a sign, as Heraclitus said. Man discovers that he himself is responsible for giving meaning to this sign. The word from above, or from elsewhere, must be deciphered. This is the Greek genius: the separation of heaven and earth.

Anyone who says that the Bible (or any other “holy” text) speaks for itself and interprets itself ignores this human adventure that the ancient Greeks understood: the human being really is the measure of all things; how she interprets a text or experience, and what she chooses to emphasize about it, is open and constitutes fate. (And, as Jesus said in Luke 6:45, “Out of the abundance of the heart, a man speaketh.”)

So will you, for example, be highlighting love or hate in your reading of a text? And will you step aside from the text—whether it is the Book of God or the Book of Nature—and read it skeptically, with a critical intelligence, separating, as Glucksmann puts it, “heaven and earth”? Or will you surrender your mind to someone else’s vision, interpretation, and emphasis? Blake said, “I must make a vision / Or be enslav’d by another’s.”

Think of Oedipus before the Sphinx. The gods bring us riddles, signs, obscurities—and would confound our reason by them—but it is our job to wrestle with the gods, and make meaning of their tricks, obfuscations, and hard sayings.

Below are three images. One is of an eighteenth century sculpture of the Sphinx (at La Grange in Spain), and the other two are paintings depicting Oedipus confronting the Sphinx.

File:La Granja de San Ildefonso Sfinx01.jpg

Here’s Gustav Moreau’s Oedipus and Sphinx:

File:Gustave Moreau 005.jpg

And here’s Ingres’s Oedpius and Sphinx:

File:IngresOdipusAndSphinx.jpg

Image sources: Wikipedia Commons.

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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5 Responses to A Sign from Zeus: Andre Glucksmann on Textual Interpretation and Emphasis

  1. Jorg says:

    It’s a very pretty quote…However, the sentence “The divine word is a mystery; it can mean everything or nothing.” begs the question somewhat, don’t you think? In a way, it exemplifies everything I find distasteful about most metaphysics: shouldn’t we first ascertain whether such a beast exists, before attributing qualities to it? It reminds me of an ill-conceived (also French, I believe) attempts to research into possible mechanisms underlying astrology before finding out if there are any astrological effects at all!

    • santitafarella says:

      Jorg,

      Yes, I agree that if you take the quote literally (as opposed to metaphorically), it begs the question.

      —Santi

  2. philagon says:

    Saying that a text needs interpretation, and then in turn, implying that this demands a infinite multiplicity of possible interpretations just doesn’t follow for me.

    • santitafarella says:

      Philagon,

      I think you’ve mischaracterized the implication of the post: interpretation and emphasis has a moral component. Will you choose to read accurately and critically, with an eye on love, compassion, and the actual truth of matters? Or will you submit your intellect and will to the gods? It is the ironic metacognitive gesture that “separates heaven and earth.” Responsibility is yours: now choose. Will you let the gods tell you what their texts should and ought to mean, and what’s important about them? Are you a worm, a thing of scorn, who dares not make yourself the measure of the text? This is not a postmodern “demand” to read texts any old way, but to take responsibility for your role in interpretation and evidence. Texts don’t speak, we speak. Obviously, texts have messages, and their authors had intentions for them. But there’s no giving away your responsibility for interpretation and emphasis to others. I suppose what I salivated to in the quote, and that got me to post it in the first place, was the implication it had for hatred—people all too willing to submit to hateful religious texts to do hateful and murderous things—then blaming their behavior on the demand or permission of the texts.

      —Santi

  3. Pingback: Andre Glucksmann One More Time | Prometheus Unbound

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