Death of interpretation



addtext_05-24-116774076726424213157.jpgThere was an age in which Susan Sontags wrote about the art of interpretation, of the strife between the intellectual and the artist. The struggle, both external and within. It was a time when people read books, of many hundreds of pages, when the protagonist dipped cakes in tea and relished it, a moment, a emotion suspended in time. Every frame invited a pause, to sit back and reflect. There were plays, and cinema that ran alternate narratives, and people had all the patience and the time for such idiosyncrasies.


Psychological metaphors ruled not just art, but life itself. People used to meet in person, anecdotes and incidents were narrated, even ones of the most personal nature. But no matter how close you were to the other person, addtext_05-24-117239891939389253512.jpgyou would not truly come out of the closet, never lay yourself bare. There was a lot in people’s lives that ran solely on interpretation.


Things changed drastically with the advent of internet. It came without warning and tsunamied into people’s lives. Creation and consumption of content became faster than our interpretative faculties. To add to the turmoil, entered social media. So now not only did you not have too many things to watch, too many to read, too many to hear, but too many people to discuss it with.

It wasn’t a bad development either. There were choices now, too many options. People connected even with ones they wouldn’t, even with whom they didn’t get along. You came across a wide spectrum of thoughts and opinions on any subject, and you were almost coerced to form one, or offer one.

Interpretation hit the expressway, thereby losing its insight but covering a lot of distance. The readers of Sontag might reject what we call analysis as instant coffee, but they were a deprived lot, who had to go to libraries and theatres and listened to news.

News too went micro, there was now a constant craving to catch attention, both at the corporate level and at a personal one. Society had no choice but to forfeit tact and metaphors in order to present the bare facts, minimal art that leaves no space for analysis. Either it just hits you, or it doesn’t. Also, you have to move on to the next.

The only thing still left for interpretation was statistics, viewership, upvotes and last  but not the least, what did the comments really mean. You would scroll the thread, hopeful of finding some straw to hold on to till you hit one written in all capitals.

Deprived of their favorite past time, the intellectuals, if not the artists tried to revolt. They kept on denouncing short content, the short movies, tv series made of bits andimage pieces giving a sense of shortness, instant poetry, programmed virtual art. It was time for revolutionary movements, of people meeting in person, in forums and cafes.

But once there, selfies had to be taken to furnish as a proof of the revolt. And once you are on the selfie wagon, there is no turning back.

In spite of all these obstacles and temptations, the age old custom of interpretation flourished, if only in small niches. Discussions without emojis seemed obscure, but still within reach as long as you could navigate in the alcohol fumes and intoxicating smokes.

And then came Covid 19.



The success of any engagement, or encounter, hinges not on the connection or say the chemistry, but on it’s ambivalence.

A resonance of mutual ambivalence plants the seeds of possibilities, it paves the way to the unknown, of achieving something that is not just beyond the reach of the participating individuals but also beyond the summation of their imagination.

Why then do we lean away from people who do not acquiesce. Being wary of non-committal people comes naturally to most of us. How do we judge someone who goes without a definite point of view, someone lacking an allegiance. Even if it’s limiting, a fixed set of ideas is preferable to a flexibility of accommodating more. Maybe deep down, there is a fear of trying to achieve something that we know we don’t deserve, or what we cannot handle. This inherent fear, or rather the vertigo of the proverbial apex, keeps us grounded, but also ties us down.

On the other hand, people who profess the virtues of ambivalence are usually the ones who ooze confidence, overestimating their abilities and talents. But these people inadvertently create far-fetched horizons for themselves, from which they always fall short. And even if it doesn’t mean they are miserable, there is continuous look out for some kind of solace. Solace, that can only be found in the bedrock of an unwavering devotion, maybe an undeterred faith in fellow beings, hope in the face of adversity, each of which is something this category of people are not capable of.

Neither of these two opposing groups concedes defeat in this debate of wrongs and rights. They go on living their own ways, or so they think, unaware of the fact that each has chosen to live with a member of the opposing group. And the ones who are alone keep looking for that one person who would commit, not to them but their ambivalence.


Moby Dick, Melville rambles…

Retrospection usually leads to insight, or realizations that the present deprives us of. We see patterns in behavior, common threads of logical reasoning of the events in our past, all in all it shows us the bigger picture, distant and therefore abstract. Rarely however, it makes us aware of the power of the present, the here and now person that we really are, the present that exposes the true existential nature of our being. No rhyme or reason explains certain things of the past, of our past. And often, for our own sake we tend to leave these anomalies unexplained, unreasoned, unacknowledged. Until it starts to bother us.

One such instance is my reading of the book ‘Moby Dick’. Unlike the momentary, or at least short-lived nature of strange behavior, reading a book takes time, way too much time when you read by taking notes, pausing to highlight a piece of text, imagine, or when you try to give a shape to the scene or a conversation. But with this particular book, the pace is forced upon you, as if the author desired the book to be read with much effort, and not finished. It took me months to finish it, and I did, to my own surprise. But there were many days, or rather nights when I almost gave up, cursing the author, the writing style, the recurring digressions and the incessant drag.

‘The White Whale swam before him as the monomaniac incarnation of all those malicious agencies which some deep men feel eating in them’ – Chap 41.

It was not an easy read, not entertaining in the way classics usually are, but for some reason, I knew I couldn’t do an Ulysses on this. Ulysses is the book I have tried to read at least three times and wasn’t able to go beyond five pages. So I read, and read, as they say. Even after I was done with Moby Dick, I minced no words in telling my friends that it wasn’t worth the time I spent on it, and that I won’t recommend this book to anyone, not even one who enjoyed Wuthering Heights.

But does it mean that I didn’t like it?

Even now, I can’t answer that truthfully. I am not sure. For some time after finishing, I thought maybe it’s better to leave it at that, leave it in the cabinet of the unexplained and unreasoned and move on. But Ahab, the ship, the sea, the soliloquies, the whales, and the novel style of writing kept coming back, as if I almost wished there were a few more chapters. I knew I had to write about this book, not as a review but as a closure on the strangeness of my undertaking and the toiling that just went on and on. This consciousness of madness, and the futility in any attempt to get over is an overwhelming feeling that only a higher level of madness can comprehend.

‘They think me mad—Starbuck does; but I’m demoniac, I am madness maddened! That wild madness that’s only calm to comprehend itself! The prophecy was that I should be dismembered; and—Aye! I lost this leg. I now prophesy that I will dismember my dismemberer. Now, then, be the prophet and the fulfiller one.’ – Chap 37

So yes, in retrospect, it seems as if I was in the grip of the central theme of this book. If there was a central theme that is. The curious thing about the best in literature is how they make you realize that the cost of acquiring a conviction doesn’t ever justify the comfort or the authority that comes with it. Monomania seeped into me, and once you are caught in its debilitating grip there is no escape. I was obsessed with finishing the book like Ahab was with killing the great white whale. If Ahab had his missing leg to justify his madness, I had my Ulysses.

‘What is it, what nameless, inscrutable, unearthly thing is it; what cozening, hidden lord and master, and cruel, remorseless emperor commands me; that against all natural lovings and longings, I so keep pushing, and crowding, and jamming myself on all the time; recklessly making me ready to do what in my own proper, natural heart, I durst not so much as dare? Is Ahab, Ahab?’ – Chap 132

But the book is not about monomania, it is, even to the most untrained eyes – about many more things, a fact that is made evident from the beginning chapters. People who look for narrative are going to be disappointed, especially after being charmed by the beginning, and not just the celebrated opening line. At first you start to think that the author is rambling, straying into a space because he knows what he is doing, and it might be relevant to the ultimate narrative, and it’s already too late when it hits you that narrative was never the real purpose. Melville makes it very obvious that this is a clever book, full of allegorical constructs, theology and philosophy written in a way that feels mundane. It is because he makes the heavy subjects so relatable, so down to earth that you tend to overlook, and keep searching for the narrative.

The writing style is distracting, and makes reading more arduous than what the incongruous content of the many small chapters would have warranted. The long sentences, use of semicolon; and the hyphen; the endless digressions exacerbate the issue of the author relapsing into another essay – on whales and whaling. But once you get into the groove, you start seeing the greatness it is trying to achieve, as you can see in the excerpt below.

‘but lulled into such an opium- like listlessness of vacant, unconscious reverie is this absent- minded youth by the blending cadence of waves with thoughts, that at last he loses his identity; takes the mystic ocean at his feet for the visible image of that deep, blue, bottomless soul, pervading mankind and nature; and every strange, half- seen, gliding, beautiful thing that eludes him; every dimly- discovered, uprising fin of some undiscernible form, seems to him the embodiment of those elusive thoughts that only people the soul by continually flitting through it. In this enchanted mood, thy spirit ebbs away to whence it came; becomes diffused through time and space;’ – Chap 35

All the chapters on whales, their types, physiology, color achieve nothing in terms of creating a clear picture of the whale. All they highlight is how difficult it is to correctly assess the enormity and the significance of the species. But the pursuit goes on, or the lack of it, as we are made to dive into yet another attempt, and yet another chapter. For Ahab, it translates to defining the ultimate purpose of life, for what we ultimately desire is difficult to describe, it’s as unassailable as the task of achieving the goal. A perfect life, a flawless philosophy, a definitive theory of God, a meaning to the world, none of which can ever be clearly defined. All this makes you wonder, if in a way, we all spend the lifetime chasing our own great white whales.

But this is one of the many such thoughts that visit you during the course of reading the book. Melville gives more than just hints on the interpretative nature of the text. The religious topics come with biblical language and characters, philosophical ramblings employ natural phenomena and human nature, poetics are overtly presented, even in the most unpoetic of the contexts.

‘Other poets have warbled the praises of the soft eye of the antelope, and the lovely plumage of the bird that never alights; less celestial, I celebrate a tail.’ – Chap 86

‘The sky looks lacquered; clouds there are none; the horizon floats; and this nakedness of unrelieved radiance is as the insufferable splendors of God’s throne.’ – Chap 118

‘when all the waves rolled by like scrolls of silver; and, by their soft, suffusing seethings, made what seemed a silvery silence, not a solitude;’ – Chap 51

Now that I see the list of highlights and notes on my Kindle, I realize how leisurely I have gone about reading this book. Even reading the notes, one can see how Melville uses the alternative chapters on the materialistic topics, like whales, whaling and history, following it with chapters on human nature in the form of ruminations by the characters, expositions on morals, and rationality. Even intertwining the poetic prose with lacklustre; run on sentences describing the ordinary is striking. This book is full of analogies, the contrast between nature and the world juxtaposed with soul, and thoughts, is beautifully presented.

‘O Nature, and O soul of man! how far beyond all utterance are your linked analogies; not the smallest atom stirs or lives on matter, but has its cunning duplicate in mind.’ – Chap 70

The amount of research Melville must have done to write this book must be as lengthy as this book has turned out to be. He seems to be the type of author who goes deep into a subject, including its peripheries. The reason why he stopped where he did can only be due to the lack of available resources. But it is evident that he didn’t let any of it go waste, all the hours spent on research didn’t just participate in creating the backdrop of the story as sensible writers do. Instead, all of the research have been made part of the novel, and in a way that the reader starts seeing a purpose, and the relevance in the grand scheme of the novel. It is a rambling, but an unabashed and put-to-good-use kind of rambling that is unparalleled in other works of fiction that I have read.

‘God keep me from ever completing anything. This whole book is but a draught—nay, but the draught of a draught. Oh, Time, Strength, Cash, and Patience!’ – Chap 32

Maybe there in lies it’s charm, maybe this is what kept me going on. In retrospect, it seems like madness to read this tedious, digressive, rambling of so many chapters, but it is a madness fueled by things a reader longs for, when reading a book. I still won’t recommend this book to anyone, but I am sure whoever reads it wouldn’t find it a waste of time and effort, at least not after the madness of reaching the end and killing your white whale of the never-ending book fades away. In retrospect, it was a strangely fulfilling experience.

‘rainbows do not visit the clear air; they only irradiate vapor. And so, through all the thick mists of the dim doubts in my mind, divine intuitions now and then shoot, enkindling my fog with a heavenly ray. And for this I thank God; for all have doubts; many deny; but doubts or denials, few along with them, have intuitions. Doubts of all things earthly, and intuitions of some things heavenly; this combination makes neither believer nor infidel, but makes a man who regards them both with equal eye.’ – Chap 85


Links to posts during my ‘reading the Mody Dick’ days:

Lightning strikes in Moby Dick and South Carolina

Whale meat tastes like nationalism

Link to my review of ‘Wuthering Heights’:

Wuthering Heights


Momentary lapses

The difference between poetry and prose is the same as that between love and making love.

You may read prose, and try to imagine, relive, identify yourself with the characters and the story. But when it comes to poetry, you just have let it take hold of you, to overwhelm your senses, transport you. It’s not always a pleasant feeling though, don’t we all like to be in charge, to make love instead of being in love.

Throughout the history of mankind, philosophy and science have been fighting this feeling, to break free and not be at the mercy of elements beyond comprehension. But what about the artist, or the lover, who live their lives wondering why the heart beats with an urgency, as if life is running out, and where does it want to go, it’s not the moon, or the stars or back to that bench by the lake.

You wonder and wonder, till the wee hours of the night only to realise you were really looking for that lost metaphor in the hundred lines of the beautiful verse. It’s always about a lost moment, when on the bench she paused between her beautiful laughs and gave you that meaningful look. You let it pass then, only to be haunted by it every other night. Why do these moment lasts forever.

You can’t sleep, and you know you have to take control of the situation. Life is no poetry. The story must go on, to the next chapter, and many such moments which you would let go unnoticed. This one was not so unique. You were never in love. You seem convinced, if only because you know without this hope you would never wake up from these momentary lapses, the ones that won’t let you read more prose.


The old tree

I pause everyday when I pass by the old tree, with shedding bark and roots bulging out of the hard soil, and reaching almost to the edge of the road. It somehow makes me wonder that somewhere, in this whole wide world, or probably in my mind there lies a undeterred clarity that I seek. A phophetic, disturbing clarity that will anhiliate everything, not just my doubts, or my concerns, and probably everything I think I am.

But the same mind mocks at the tree, and any such notion of a universal, absolute truth. With its various appendages borne out of conceit and an arrogance of wisdom, the mind uses its tools like imagination, ego, acumen, enabling us means to break free and to soar high in the sky beyond our mere existence.

If there is anything that acts as a check and keeps us down to earth, it is our past. The past that forms the roots of the tree that we are with all the branching persona, the manifestations of self that we have experienced. To get rid of the past, of all the conditioning that the world has brought unto us therefore feels like liberation.

But isn’t liberation just another form of condemnation, once liberated are we not condemned to become the masters of our fate, relinquishing the cushions of faith and destiny, and forfeiting the sympathies of the social norms. All these safeguards are there for a purpose, and used as excuses by the rational men, though deep down we all know it is a small price to pay to get that high, of breaking free.

But as I go further on that road, shedding the inhibitions, unchained and untethered, and as I come out of the shackles, I realise how I resemble an uprooted tree, standing exposed, bent and broken as the present ticks away and the shadow of helplessness obstructs the future. I know it’s not the right way, acceptance is the first step to shunning, the old tree seems to be telling me.

‘But what would you achieve standing erect like the old tree, without any seeming purpose, facing the winds and braving the storms’, they ask.

I attempt to answer, if only to myself, but all that comes to me at such times is my past. The anguish of living in an unfair world instills a scorn for everything, if not hatred. But I have been no different, it tells me. That sweet taste of freedom which lingered momentarily on the tip of my tongue everytime came at the cost of bitter memories. These victories and failures, by which I assess my existence remain etched at the back of the mind, choking me everytime I stand in front of the sad, stolid tree, standing undeterred by anything that happens around.

If only it had a conscience, I say and walk away.