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  • The Presence of the Absent in Interpretation:Foucault on Velázquez, and Destéfanis and Celma on Borges
  • Jorge J. E. Gracia (bio)

An interpretation is a kind of understanding that an interpreter has of something (call this something "interpretandum"). Instances of it occur when a student understands that the meaning of "2" is two, you understand that the earth is roughly a sphere, or I understand that I am currently composing this sentence.1 However, the interpretations of art or literature seem to involve much more than the examples suggest insofar as they go beyond the interpretandum in significant ways.2 The most common approaches used today in these interpretations tend to fall into three categories. Some seek to understand the interpretandum in terms of the intention of the author.3 Others seek to understand the interpretandum in terms of what particular audiences understand, whether the audiences are historical, contemporaneous with the author, or contemporary with the interpreter.4 And still others are not concerned with the understanding of the interpretandum at all, but rather of a relation between the interpretandum and something else the interpreter brings to the hermeneutic process (Gracia 1995; 2009). Let us refer [End Page 91] to the first kind of interpretation as authorial, the second as audiencial, and the third as relational.

Authorial interpretations go beyond the understanding of the interpretandum insofar as the intention of the author of an interpretandum, in terms of which it is understood, is not present in it, even if the work as existing is in fact what the author intended. Although there are situations in which authors introduce characters in works of literature, or images in works of art, that are portraits of themselves, their intentions are never part of the works, but rather are located in the authors. According to those who favor authorial interpretation, a legitimate interpretation occurs only when the interpreter brings to the work the authorial intention in order to understand something about the work intended by the author. This happens, for example, when I understand that Cervantes intended Don Quixote to be a spoof on the adventure novels of the time. The author in question can be taken in a variety of ways, such as the historical author, a pseudo historical author, a composite figure, or even the interpreter.5

An audiencial interpretation goes beyond the interpretandum insofar as it involves an understanding of how the interpretandum is understood by a particular audience. In this sense the understanding is not of the interpretandum, but of what the pertinent audience understands. Such an interpretation takes place, for example, when I understand that Genesis was taken literally by first-century Christians. The audience in question can be any singled out by the interpreter, such as a group of people in a society at a chosen time, or even a particular person. It can be contemporary with the author of the interpretandum, contemporary with the interpreter, or neither.6

The way in which relational interpretations go beyond the understanding of the interpretandum is even more obvious, because in this case interpreters do not try to understand a work as such, but rather a relation of the work to something else that they bring into play, such as certain historical events, philosophical or social theories, and so on. A case in point is Gilles Deleuze's philosophical interpretations of Francis Bacon's works in Francis Bacon: The Logic of Sensation, or Michelangelo's artistic interpretation of the story of Genesis in the frescoes painted on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.

This "going beyond the interpretandum" suggests that interpretations [End Page 92] of literature and art introduce something in the interpretandum that is not present in it, or as put in the title of this essay, make present something that is absent. These interpretations are understandings of something that is not in the work, although it may be suggested or prompted by the consideration of the work or its components. As some prefer to put it, they make visible the invisible in a work (Carvalho 2010; 1993, 35-46).7 In the case of the artistic interpretation of literature, the interpretation presents an understanding of a literary...


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