Arts & Culture

How interpretation makes meaning

4 min read

In 1973, the Supreme Court, in Roe v. Wade, ruled that the U.S. Constitution protects a woman’s right to an abortion. But where did that right come from? The Constitution never mentions abortion, or the right to privacy, on which the court’s abortion decision was based.

“It’s a long story,” said Michael Sandel, the Anne T. and Robert M. Bass Professor of Government. Because Sandel had only a few minutes to speak, he gave his audience the short version, picking up the thread in 1965 with the Griswold v. Connecticut decision, in which the Court declared that states could not outlaw contraception. In writing the majority opinion, Justice William O. Douglas spoke of “penumbras” and “emanations” from Constitutional amendments protecting citizens against such things as illegal search and seizure and the quartering of troops.

“Douglas pieced together these various strands and concluded that the Constitution does protect the right to privacy,” said Sandel. Eight years later, the court extended that right to include a woman’s right to an abortion.

What this series of legal interpretations illustrates, Sandel said, is that, contrary to strict constructionists who decry “judicial activism,” it may not be possible to separate the making of laws and their interpretation.

Sandel’s presentation was part of a symposium titled “The Arts of Interpretation: Whose Meaning Is It Anyway?” The six distinguished participants lectured briefly on topics from their respective disciplines showing how interpretation can yield important insights into a text or object.

Homi Bhabha, the Anne F. Rothenberg Professor of the Humanities (who also served as moderator), showed how the story of the fall of Icarus, as told by the Roman poet Ovid, was interpreted visually by the Renaissance painter Pieter Brueghel the Elder, and then how Brueghel’s painting was interpreted from a 20th century viewpoint by the poet W.H. Auden.

Davíd Carrasco, the Neil L. Rudenstine Professor for the Study of Latin America in the Faculty of Divinity and the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, told of the efforts of scholars to interpret the symbolic meanings of an ancient Aztec codex, the Mapa de Cuauhtinchan, that had been kept out of European hands for hundreds of years.

Thomas Kelly, the Morton B. Knafel Professor of Music, played a short section of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, “the best-known piece of music by the world’s best-known composer,” and compared how the audience at the symphony’s premiere in 1824 received the work compared with how listeners hear it in our own time.

Helen Molesworth, the Maisie K. and James R. Houghton Curator of Contemporary Art at the Harvard University Art Museums, discussed the work of artist and photographer Louise Lawler, particularly her photographs of artworks in context, which invite the viewer to discover the political statements encoded in her vision.

Finally, Helen Vendler, the A. Kingsley Porter University Professor, compared the published version of Robert Lowell’s poem “Skunk Hour” with an earlier draft, showing how the poet achieved greater depth and universality by partially effacing his own persona and focusing instead on images of a down-at-the-heels Maine resort town.

A question-and-answer period followed the presentation. Many of the questions dwelt on who was best qualified to interpret a work — the author, an expert on the subject, or the ordinary reader/listener/viewer?

Kelly quoted Boston Symphony Orchestra conductor James Levine, who was asked if listeners about to hear a difficult piece of music should study it first. “No,” Levine answered. “Just go and let it happen.”

Sandel told a story in which a pair of Jewish scholars decide to ask God about the correct interpretation of a passage of Scripture. God does reply, but only to tell them, “The answer is not in heaven.”

Sandel followed this up with his own belief that “the best interpretation is the one that makes the best sense of the whole.”