“…interpretation is the revenge of the intellect upon art. Even more. It is the revenge of the intellect upon the world. To interpret is to impoverish, to deplete the world — in order to set up a shadow world of “meanings.” It is to turn the world into this world. (‘This world!’ As if there were any other.) The world, our world, is depleted, impoverished enough. Away with all duplicates of it, until we again experience more immediately what we have.”
—Susan Sontag, “Against Interpretation”
In her seminal essay “Against Interpretation” (1966) Susan Sontag argues that it is more important to experience the art and to form terms and definitions to explain our experiences of it, engage in deep discussion of our experiences, rather than interpreting the themes and elements, i.e. finding meaning, in the art. Another way of putting it is that we should not view art as a “code” to be broken, trying to interpret what X, Y, and Z means, but rather we should embrace the experience we have with the art itself.
Why we feel compelled to interpret art, or anything for that matter, Sontag argues is because we refuse to let art stand on its own; it must be justified to exist. Post-Scientific Revolution of the 17th century, in the Age of Reason, anything we do not understand or seems off-putting must be justified. Sontag gives some examples, such as the Greek Stoic philosophers arguing away the blatant adultery regularly committed by Zeus as some symbolic matter, or Philo of Alexandria arguing away scientifically inaccurate Hebrew history in the Bible as being merely spiritual paradigms. For Sontag, in the Age of Enlightenment, such bizarre and immoral narratives could no longer justify themselves on their own, but we can neither rewrite the texts nor discard them, so we must interpret them to make them “intelligible.”
This phenomenon, the imperative need to interpret and find meaning that Sontag is critical of, is equally abused with the Hiramic Drama of the Master Mason Degree. How many times have you had to sit through a lecture by a brother who works in law enforcement, who thusly interprets the Hiramic Drama through the framework of law enforcement? How many times have you read or listened to education on the interpretation of the Hiramic Drama as the alchemical process of producing the Philosopher’s Stone? Or how the Hiramic Drama is Gnostic? Or is interpreted through the framework of Kundalini yoga? Or interprets it through rabbinical and Kabbalistic writings? Or tries to shove Hiram Abif into Joseph Campbell’s motif of the “hero’s journey”? I myself have an interest in Merovingian and Carolingian chivalric legends, so I interpret the Master Mason Degree through the legends of Renauld of Montebaun (St. Reinhold). The interpretations, or rather translations, are endless. And it is a translation. It is converting the opus into some other context with its own different set of terms, definitions, and meanings, like translating a text into another language. It is just like the old adage: all translation is a sin. Each person has their own interests and biased background of knowledge, and each sees what they want to see in the Hiramic Drama.
By the very act of interpreting the Hiramic Drama, we are resigned — resigning ourselves to defeat, admitting to ourselves that the narrative of the drama cannot justify itself and thus must be interpreted to become intelligible. Something is wrong about it, so it needs to be interpreted.
For instance, the names of the Ruffians are peculiar. Their names are almost Hebrew, similar to the brothers of Tubal Cain: Jubal and Jabal. Yet, they have non-Hebrew suffixes: -a, -o, and -um. This has been interpreted as evoking the “Aum” in Hinduism, and the proliferation of interpretations from that are excessive. There is the rather antisemitic interpretation of Jewishness (Jew-bel). They can be interpreted as the Latin feminine, masculine, and neutered declensions placed upon a Hebrew name. Et al. What is wrong with just accepting the similarity of their names designates them as brothers, and the different endings to their names simply differentiates them from each other? But the names are peculiar and therefore many feel compelled to interpret their names. I myself am guilty of trying to interpret their names.
There is something nice about their names. It works. It is kind of familiar, not too strange, but definitely foreign. There is something aesthetically appealing about saying Jubela, Jubelo, and Jubelum. It is kind of difficult to think of any other names. Gerard de Nerval would re-envision the Hiramic Drama in his tale “The Story of the Queen of the Morning and Soliman Prince of the Genii” as found in his autobiographical novel Journey to the Orient. De Nerval was not a Mason, but he knew of the Hiramic Drama and reimagined it through his own artistic vision to suit his own narrative — we should not try to interpret de Nerval’s tale through our understanding of the Hiramic Drama, but rather contemplate it on its own merit. In de Nerval’s tale, the Ruffians are renamed Phanor, Amroti, and Methousael. Maybe I’m a little biased after having heard “Jubela, Jubelo, and Jubelum” for so many years, but de Nerval’s names just don’t seem right. There is something much more enjoyable about saying “Jubela, Jubelo, and Jubelum.” Say it aloud. It feels nice to say it.
This is exactly how some… nay, many authors will write. They are calling you to read it aloud. They want you to feel those words on your tongue, between your cheeks, and across your teeth. One of my favorite passages from Moby Dick is: “Seat thyself sultanically among the moons of Saturn…” We could waste hundreds of pages of ink and paper interpreting this mere phrase, but really we should sit back and read it aloud to appreciate the way the words come out of our mouths. It’s nice, isn’t it? “Seat — thyself — sultanically… among the moons of Saturn.” “Seat — thyself — sultanically…”
Further, interpretation leads to modifications in the ritual. We know changes been made over the centuries, such as the removal of the Broached Thurnel and replacing it with the Perfect Ashlar. Masonic critics would say that the Revivalists did not understand these things (i.e. they could not intelligibly interpret them), so they removed or replaced them. We can’t really comment on whether such is a good move or not, but we will acknowledge that changes have happened, and that is what we have inherited today, with modifications, and they will continue to change.
And this is another aspect of interpreting the content of the Degrees of Masonry: changes and additions will proliferate. It may be minor and is modified to emphasize something someone interprets in the ritual. For instance, in Colorado ritual, at the start of the enactment of the Hiramic Drama, the candidate is conducted from the East to the West in a sort of arc, then straight toward the altar, then directly South for the first encounter. This makes the letter G, and it is stated in our ritual books to do this exactly for the purpose of creating the letter G. Likely someone noticed this procession kind of looked like the letter G and decided to modify the floorwork to actualize it. We certainly do not see anything like this in the earliest Masonic exposés.
Another factor that arises from interpreting the Hiramic Drama is the perception that things are missing and need to be filled in. Obviously, the Master’s Word is lost, so that needs to be filled in, and that’s how we got the Royal Arch. Access to the Secret Vault in the Royal Arch leads to the Royal and Select Master Degrees. The opening of the Secret Vault is interpreted as the removal of the keystone, and thus the Mark Master Degree gets modified to include a lengthy pageant. The modified Mark Master only features the finding of the keystone, not the setting of it in the arch, so there is another gap that needs to be filled by the creation of the Most Excellent Master Degree. Et cetera. Et al. Et merda.
In the 19th century, there were many Masons who were critical of these new degrees and new Masonic bodies. Lawrence Greenleaf would state: “Ancient Craft Masonry and its integrity is destroyed, for the multiplication of degrees and its extension would be limitless.” And with the creation of new bodies to fill in interpretative gaps in the degrees, new bodies are created for no other purpose than creating new bodies, and Greenleaf would say once more: “…and so the craze for innovation goes merrily on. Next!” Henry P. H. Bromwell would also echo a similar sentiment, emphatically stating: “There are three degrees and no more.”
All of this is rooted in the dangers of interpreting the Hiramic Drama. You will note that I specifically call it the “Hiramic Drama,” not the “Hiramic Legend.” It is first and foremost a drama, then a legend second. As a drama, it is conducted for the experience of an audience of one: the candidate. It is meant to be experienced, not something to be nitpicked apart for inconsistencies and missing pieces to interpret and make sense of.
For all that we talk about the “initiatic experience,” we sure do spend a lot of time interpreting something that might be one of, if not the most powerful experience a man will have in his life. I stand by my conviction that the Master Mason Degree is the most powerful degree in all of Masonry. No other degree compares to it. Period. For all that the Order of the Temple is really powerful, it still does not come close to the Master Mason Degree, not by a long shot.
I still remember my raising vividly. I remember that I had a nervous smile when making the encounters. I remember the shock of the third encounter. I remember while sitting there constantly thinking to myself: “Wow, I’m symbolically dead! Like… I’m dead!” I remember how heightened my sense of sound was, being blindfolded, feeling the floor stomped upon, hearing voices calling around the room. Et cetera. It is the most intense and powerful experience I have personally been through, and I have been to six Slayer concerts.
That is what makes these so-called “higher” degrees deceptive. They present themselves as “more” Masonry, and after such a powerful experience as the Master Mason Degree, we think we will get more, even something greater than the Third Degree, and it is such a letdown. The experience of the Hiramic Drama is what makes it powerful; not the interpretation and the subsequent infilling of so-called “missing parts.” Why continue to denigrate the most powerful experience a Mason will have in their life with a plethora of experiences that always seem to come up short?
Let us do as Susan Sontag advises: let us just experience it. Let us stop trying to make sense of some things and just be present in the moment and have a heightened awareness of our own reactions to what is occurring. Not that one can no longer interpret what is happening to them during the Third Degree, what they perceive and understand about it, especially if it is contributing and even enhancing their experience of the degree. However, I would very seriously be curious to see an intensive study of the varieties of experiences Masons have had in the Masonic Degrees, similar in categorization and exploration as William James did in his Varieties of Religious Experience. Perhaps when we actually talk about “initiatic experience,” we can actually focus on our inner experiences, our ineffable and numinous experiences, rather than just using it as a springboard for interpreting the Third Degree.
Patrick M. Dey is a Past Master of Nevada Lodge No. 4 in the ghost town of Nevadaville, Colorado, and currently serves as their Secretary, and is also a Past Master of Research Lodge of Colorado. He is a Past High Priest of Keystone Chapter No. 8, Past Illustrious Master of Hiram Council No. 7, Past Commander of Flatirons Commandery No. 7, and serves as the Secretary-Recorder of all three. He currently serves as the Exponent (Suffragan) of Colorado College, SRICF of which he is VIII Grade (Magister), and is a member of Gofannin Council No. 315 AMD and Kincora Council No. 8 Knight Masons. He is a facilitator for the Masonic Legacy Society, is the Editor of the Rocky Mountain Mason magazine, serves on the Board of Directors of the Grand Lodge of Colorado’s Library and Museum Association, and is the Deputy Grand Bartender of the Grand Lodge of Colorado (an ad hoc, joke position he is very proud to hold). He holds a Masters of Architecture degree from the University of Colorado, Denver, and works in the field of architecture in Denver, where he resides with wife and son.