VIEWSnThe Terror of the ObviousnThere is a painting on my wall that fascinates me.nThat is partly because it is beautiful, partly because ofnthe story it tells. It is a large Dutch oil of 1658 by Hendriknvan Vliet, better known for his church interiors, and it showsntwo men solemnly seated at a dark table lit only by ancandle — the one speaking from a book under his left hand,nthe other about to reply. The most probable view is that thenfirst man is Nicodemus who, according to St. John’s gospel,ncame to Jesus by night. The second man, in that case, whosenshadow crosses the wall to touch him, is Jesus.nNicodemus has been the type of the literal man for twonmillennia, which is why, being literal myself, the storynfascinates me. He is saying that one can only be born once,nand he is about to be told that one can be born of the fleshnand of the spirit: twice-born, in fact. One day he will helpnbury his master. In Renaissance English the adjectivennicodemical is fairiy common, meaning excessively literal;nand there is even one recorded use of the verb to nicodemize,nin 1624, meaning to misinterpret by failing to note thatnsomething is metaphorically meant.nGeorge Watson, a fellow of St. John’s College,nCambridge, is editor of the New Cambridge Bibliographynof English Literature (Cambridge University Press) andnauthor of The Certainty of Literature and BritishnLiterature Since 1945 (St. Martin’s Press).n16/CHRONICLESnby George WatsonnnnIn academia, at least, there are not many Nicodemusesnnow, and few enough in any literary age. Fame has notnbrought him honor. Though a learned man and a membernof the Sanhedrin, he was never a hero, and his famousnobjection in the third chapter of St. John, like his help tonJoseph of Arimathea after the crucifixion, assures him at bestnof a secondary role. The literal man, it is widely felt, is thenone who gets it wrong — to be corrected, once and for all, bynthe seer and the prophet of God. Since the modern critic, atnhis most ambitious, sometimes aspires to be a seer, anyonenwho in academic debate denies that an author is writingnmetaphorically or symbolically is likely to lose points, and “Inthink he just meant it literally” is not a seminar remark likelynto excite much approval. All that needs to be seen, as annanalogy, in context. In a secular age the critic’s claims arennot to the miraculous but to the hermeneutical; and it isnsignificant that hermeneutics, which once meant biblicalninterpretation conducted by believers, has long since becomenthe familiar tool of secular analysts who interpretnworks that, as they imagine, call for no commitment or faith.nIn the past quarter-century interpretation of that sort hasnpowerfully invaded criticism from the austere world of Oldnand New Testament studies — Frank Kermode’s lively andnelegant book The Genesis of Secrecy: On the Interpretationnof Narrative (1979) is a classic instance — and recedingnlayers of meaning, as they are laid bare to view, are supposedn