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Multileveled reading - The Phantom Librarian
Spewing out too many words since November 2003
Multileveled reading
One of my favorite things that I've learned since I started studying Judaism is an old method of textual exegesis that becomes the acronym PaRDeS (Paradise)--it shows four different approaches to a text, which can all be present simultaneously. Of course, in Jewish tradition, it is applied to the Bible and other sacred texts, but the method, the layers, are there in every good and meaningful text in existence, from Harry Potter novels to the U.S. Constitution.

(I hope it's not irreligious to do this; no one has ever told me that it can only be applied to sacred texts.)

The four letters of the acronym PaRDeS (Hebrew vowels are added later) stand for p'shat, remez, derash, and sod, each of which is a different way of reading the same text, a different view of meaning. I think that all good texts can be read on all four levels, depending on what the reader needs from them.

P'shat is the literal meaning of the text. It's the blurb on the back of the book, the summary--"This is the story of what happened when Anakin Skywalker was discoved by the Jedi"; "This is what happened when Harry Potter learned he was a wizard." I will get into the more esoteric meanings, but I want to stress--can't stress highly enough--that the p'shat matters, both as a writer and as a reader. It's all well and good to talk about how Willow Rosenberg's nickname, Will, refers to free choice and determination, and important factor in the thematic structure of Buffy (and, oh, isn't it interesting that this might also have been Spike's nickname as the mortal William? Does he ever call her Will?)--but don't forget the p'shat: Her name is Willow, not Wilhelmina. She's a redhead and she goes through a character arc involving mastering magical powers. In her case, her p'shat does foster the "will" observation (and "Willow," as she bends in the wind but doesn't break), but if you took an interpretation of "Willow" to mean not only bendable but receptive, it would be ignoring the p'shat that she in fact becomes quite dominant. P'shat--what happens in the text happens. You have to deal with it in one way or another.

Nonfictionally, to take the U.S. Constitution, you have to deal with the things it actually says in order to interpret it. This, to my mind, doesn't amount to minimalism, because I think the other levels are present as well, but if you're going to build a logical system of government, it has to be demonstrably related to what is actually in the text.

Remez: What the text is pointing toward. This is sort of a theme question. (Please, anyone familiar with this, jump in--the difference between remez and sod confuses me a bit.) For instance, in Star Wars, over and over again, we see images of people who overreach with their power, who try to grab too much of it, or misuse what they have. A remez look at Star Wars might deal with the corrupting nature of power. Harry Potter deals with this also (thematically, the two are quite similar). Buffy tends to deal more with the source of strength and the nature of identity.

Derash is rational extrapolation. This is the primary realm of fan fiction, of course. We saw x happening, could y be happening at the same time? Could w have been the preceding event that set it up? And if we take a different turn at v, what would x have really looked like? It's also the essence of legal rulings and court decisions. The Constitution says that cruel and unusual punishment is forbidden. What does that include and how do we define it? What happens when new punishment methods unknown to the framers come into practice?

Sod is the mystical meaning of a text, the ultimate truth of it. Harry Potter is about love and its power; so, ultimately, is Star Wars. Buffy deals with love, but the focus on souls and destiny suggests to me that it's really about the discovery of the self. The Constitution is about governing in such a way that "We the people" can create "a more perfect union"--that's where the strict p'shat reading of it is simply wrong and totally ignores the purpose of the document.

Anyway, I may expand this later, but I have to go now (lunch hour is over).

Today's story is a Remus Lupin story, Lines of Descent, in which the p'shat is: This is what happened when a six year old boy tried to pet a werewolf. It follows Remus and the werewolf who bit him over twenty years of their relationship. I'll leave the remez to the reader. :)

I feel a bit...: geeky geeky

4 comments or Leave a comment
sonetka From: sonetka Date: February 11th, 2004 08:38 pm (UTC) (Link)
Just wanted to say, I really, really liked the Remus story. Not sure who I felt worse for, him or Elizabeth (knowing that you were the unwitting killer of your husband, as well as everything else - dear God). Well done.
ladyelaine From: ladyelaine Date: February 11th, 2004 10:22 pm (UTC) (Link)
That multileveled reading thing is very interesting, both as a reader and as a writer. Thanks!
(Deleted comment)
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: February 12th, 2004 06:45 pm (UTC) (Link)


Ah, okay. Iz goot, then--remez is the symbolic and thematic meaning, while sod is the secret and mysterious meaning... aka, the puzzle to figure out. Which is also fun. (I don't know if I believe gematriya, but I do think it's great fun.)

limegreen_sloth From: limegreen_sloth Date: February 12th, 2004 12:00 pm (UTC) (Link)
Your journal fascinates me.
4 comments or Leave a comment