I finally saw Sam Mendes’ epic WW I movie, “1917.” The storytelling was masterful and intimate. This harrowing movie had me sitting at the edge of my seat, my heart beating, my mind contemplating the futility of war and its attendant futile mortality. There is one scene in particular, a scene so haunting, a song sung so powerfully, that it washes over you and sticks with you forever.
After seeing the movie, I was discussing it with my mother. I was pointing out a particular scene or two, sharing the layers of its meaning and symbolism that I felt was executed so effectively.
My mother hadn’t seen the scene in the light I did, which I had assumed was the meaning of this particular scene.
It got me thinking about art, literature, film — and to distinguish secular from sacred — even the Torah.
I was also immediately reminded of an article I had just read. It was an interview with the granddaughter of the Nobel Laureate S. Y. Agnon. When she was in eighth grade, her class was studying one of Agnon’s works. The teacher turned to her student, Agnon’s granddaughter, and said, “ask your grandfather if he intended interpretation x or y.” When she approached her grandfather Agnon with the query, his response was “very interesting, it could be” — clearly indicating these two possibilities had never before entered his mind.
In another example, Agnon once asked his granddaughter whether her school assigned any projects involving his literary works. She replied, yes, in fact, she had an assignment for one of his stories due soon. He asked to see it. He proceeded to answer the questions of the assignment together with his granddaughter. When she received the marked paper back, which her grandfather had completed based on the work he himself had authored, it was graded with the imperfect 80 (out of 100).
It’s so interesting how different texts or artistic media can stimulate so many different interpretations. Once an author, producer or artist releases his or her work to the world, the work speaks for itself and can take on a life of its own, as it is seen through the eyes of the reader or viewer.
Obviously, interpretations need to be seen within a valid context or layer of meaning. Random reconstructions or flights of fancy can’t be deemed valid, but a new idea that may or may not have been the intention of the author can take flight.
As readers or viewers, we are enriched by the experience of encountering and engaging a text or a film. They can be so impactful. Depending on the prism of our purpose or experience, we can each see so many different facets in one and the same text.
In Jewish tradition, this idea takes shape in the concept of shivim panim la-Torah, “There are 70 faces to the Torah.”
Every pair of eyes, every pair of ears, and every mind, springing from their own life experience will dialogue with a text from a different perspective. While Maimonides might interpret a particular text one way, Nachmanides might interpret it in a diametrically opposing way.
Even the same text read by the same person, depending on the moment in time, can change over time. As we change and evolve, our views of the world around us — including how we see a particular text — changes with us. Year after year, we read the same Torah portion each Shabbat. With each successive reading, the previous year’s understanding now encompasses another layer of understanding of the text before us.
Even with simple childhood favorites or the classics, books I might have read and re-read 10 times, as life has changed me and I in turn have changed, my perception of the book’s text changes, too.
At a certain point, with each new reading, the author’s intent might become more and more shrouded in mystery. The author is the creator of the text, but as time goes on, a text or a film’s meaning can expand beyond the confines of its original intention.
With some texts, ambiguity is naturally and intentionally built in, so as to invite multiple interpretations, and that in and of itself can be an author’s intention. But other times, and often times, as the poet Robert Browning once responded when he was approached by a professor of literature about the meaning of one of his poems: “When I wrote the poem two persons knew its meaning; myself and G-d. Now G-d alone knows it.”
Once a text is released, so are the possibilities of interpretations into perpetuity. As the text takes on a life of its own and the layers of interpretations become so varied, they can become unknowable to the author, and become G-d’s alone.
I wonder, if Sam Mendes heard my take on “1917,” he would echo S. Y. Agnon’s sentiment in response to his granddaughter’s teacher, and simply say: “Very interesting. It could be.”