What a slippery, chameleon-like word this is, taking its colour from where it finds itself or sometimes dissolving into what can be felt but not translated.


  • Many years ago people warned me that the late Beethoven quartets were ‘difficult to understand’. What did that mean? Notes are surely nothing but non-linguistic noise? What did it mean (after a lot of listening) to claim that I understood these quartets  – or that (despite much listening) I do not understand much of the music being written today? The only answer that makes sense to me is that the ear has learned to expect what will follow the note, harmony, rhythm etc that it is listening to right now. If it gets a noise close enough to expectation, then something in the mind is satisfied and, as a rough label, we call it understanding. With Haydn and Mozart, this was comparatively easy. They worked within a code of expectation that was well-established and not difficult to learn. The late Beethoven was grafting a new code on to the old. Only when this new code was cracked could the listener get back to the satisfaction called ‘understanding.’
  • What is meant by ‘understanding’ a poem?  Readers might say: ‘Yes, but what does it mean’? The poet will hang on to and treasure that small initial word ‘Yes’. It might well mean that the customer is in the shop and is willing to part with money. More seriously, the poet wants the reader to experience the poem ahead of trying to translate it – and some of this experience, in sound and rhythm, will be similar to the untranslatable impact of music. Good poetry does have meaning behind it, but in one sense a poem will have failed if the reader’s first (and possibly continuing) reaction is to demand a prose translation. The response that matters is one which may go deep with the reader without him fully knowing prosaically why. It can often be that the poem asks rather than answers questions and that the poet is no wiser than the reader. The transaction can be no more than one of shared humanity.
  • Do we say that we ‘understand’ an abstract painting? If we do, I doubt if it means anything except that our eye comes to like the pattern and colour of what it sees. I confess that lengthy books offering explanations in terms of when, how and where the painter lived, historical contexts and artistic movements do not, for me, disturb this simple view. 
  • I don’t dare, so I won’t say it. But what if I said that I (a non-numerate reader of popular science) ‘understand’ Einstein’s Special Theory of Relativity? What would such a claim mean? It would mean no more than that I’m familiar with one or two of the standard illustrations and diagrams. I could almost recite the one about the light on the moving train and the carefully spaced two lights at the side of the track. I can just about follow its logic. But I don’t really understand how time can be relative. I don’t even believe it. (And it always cheers me up when mathematically expert friends – no doubt for far sounder reasons than mine – voice similar doubts.)
  • What is meant by someone saying that he ‘understands’ modern European history? It certainly doesn’t mean remembering all the detail, for nobody can manage that. Does it mean claiming an understanding of the present in terms of the past? Or claiming that history has no lessons to teach? Or teaches one lesson above all? Does it mean seeing the past with the eyes of those who were there when it was happening? Is that really possible and, if it were, would it be history?

It seems to me that in each of these examples ‘understanding’ means a different thing. Which leads me to wonder whether a word which is so adaptable can mean anything at all. 

Categorized as Memos