… A meaning only reveals its depths once is has encountered and come into contact with another, foreign meaning …
This is from Speech Genres & Other Late Essays by M.M. Bakhtin (1986):
… Works break through the boundaries of their own time, they live in centuries, that is, in great time and frequently (with great works, always) their lives there are more intense and fuller than are their lives within their own time.
… It seems paradoxical that … works continue to live in the distant future. In the process of their posthumous life they are enriched with new meanings, new significance: it is as though these works outgrow what they were in the epoch of their creation. We can say that neither Shakespeare himself nor his contemporaries knew that “great Shakespeare” whom we know now. There is no possibility of squeezing our Shakespeare into the Elizabethan epoch. Belinsky in his day spoke of the fact that each epoch always discovers something new in the great works of the past.
[line break added] But do we then attribute to Shakespeare’s works something that was not there, do we modernize and distort them? Modernization and distortion, of course, have existed and will continue to exist. But that is not the reason why Shakespeare has grown. He has grown because of that which actually has been and continues to be found in his works, but which neither he himself nor his contemporaries could consciously perceive and evaluate in the context of the culture of their epoch.
… Genres are of special significance. Genres (of literature and speech) throughout the centuries of their life accumulate forms of seeing and interpreting particular aspects of the world. For the writer-craftsman the genre serves as an external template, but the great artist awakens the semantic possibilities that lie within it.
[line break added] Shakespeare took advantage of and included in his works immense treasures of potential meaning that could not be fully revealed or recognized in his epoch. The author himself and his contemporaries see, recognize, and evaluate primarily that which is close to their own day. The author is a captive of his epoch, and his own present. Subsequent times liberate him from this captivity, and literary scholarship is called upon to assist in this liberation.
It certainly does not follow from what we have said that the writer’s own epoch can somehow be ignored, that his creativity can be cast back into the past or projected into the future. One’s own present retains all of its immense and, in many respects, decisive significance. Scholarly analysis can proceed only from it and must always refer to it in its subsequent development. A work of literature, as we said above, is revealed primarily in the differentiated unity of the culture of the epoch in which it was created, but it cannot be closed off in this epoch: its fullness is revealed only in great time.
But even the culture of an epoch, however temporally distant from us it may be, cannot be enclosed within itself as something readymade, completely finalized, and irrevocably departed, deceased.
… Antiquity itself did not know the antiquity that we know now. There used to be a school joke: the ancient Greeks did not know the main thing about themselves, that they were ancient Greeks, and they never called themselves that. But in fact that temporal distance that transformed the Greeks into ancient Greeks had an immense transformational significance: it was filled with increasing discoveries of new semantic values in antiquity, values of which the Greeks were in fact unaware, although they themselves created them.
… We must emphasize that we are speaking here about new semantic depths that lie embedded in the cultures of the past epochs and not about the expansion of our factual, material knowledge of them — which we are constantly gaining through archeological excavations, discoveries and of new texts, improvement in deciphering them, reconstructions, and so forth. In those instances we acquire new material bearers of meaning, as it were, bodies of meaning.
[line break added] But one cannot draw an absolute distinction between body and meaning in the area of culture: culture is not made of dead elements, for even a simple brick … in the hands of a builder expresses something through its form. Therefore new discoveries of material bearers of meaning alter our semantic concepts, and they can also force us to restructure them radically.
There exists a very strong, but one-sided and thus untrustworthy, idea that in order better to understand a foreign culture, one must enter into it, forgetting one’s own, and view the world through the eyes of this foreign culture. This idea, as I said, is one-sided. Of course, a certain entry as a living being into a foreign culture, the possibility of seeing the world through its eyes, is a necessary part of the process of understanding it; but if this were the only aspect of this understanding, it would merely be duplication and would not entail anything new or enriching.
[line break added] Creative understanding does not renounce itself, its own place in time, its own culture; and it forgets nothing. In order to understand, it is immensely important for the person who understands to be located outside the object of his or her creative understanding — in time, in space, in culture. For one cannot even really see one’s own exterior and comprehend it as a whole, and no mirrors or photographs can help; our real exterior can be seen and understood only by other people, because they are located outside us in space and because they are others.
In the realm of culture, outsideness is a most powerful factor in understanding. It is only in the eyes of another culture that foreign culture reveals itself fully and profoundly (but not maximally fully, because there will be cultures that see and understand even more). A meaning only reveals its depths once is has encountered and come into contact with another, foreign meaning: they engage in a kind of dialogue, which surmounts the closedness and one-sidedness of these particular meanings, these cultures.