Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Reading Against Oneself

Prelude: sometimes when my students arrive in class, having encountered a particularly difficult selection of text by a 19th-century writer, I hear them muttering, "I didn't know what was going on in this essay," and, "It was like he was drawing random words out of a hat and putting them on the page--I couldn't make sense of it." All this when the writer is someone like William James or Ralph Waldo Emerson. I say to them in response, "Sometimes it may be wise, when you encounter a text that seems not to make sense to you, to blame yourself, rather than the author." After all, I mean to imply, you're an 18-year old punk at an average college; William James is William James.

In the same way I try to remember to reproach myself as I read any of the "sacred" scriptures: if the text does not move me, does not speak to me, I tell myself that it's more likely that I'm reading wrong than it is that 2,000 years of reverence is misleading. Perhaps not surprisingly, most holy texts actively encourage this kind of self-examination. Part of Chapter 5 in my Dhammapada reads,
If you find no one to support you on the spiritual path, walk alone. There is no companionship with the immature. They think, "These children are mine; this wealth is mine." They cannot even call themselves their own, much less their children or wealth.
Reading carelessly, I have stumbled here--have breezed through this confidently, eager to heed Buddha's advice and avoid immature persons. But the next stanza insists that I back up, slow down, check myself:
The immature who know they are immature have a little wisdom. But the immature who look on themselves as wise are utterly foolish...
And there I'm caught "red-egoed." I read the first stanza and automatically associated with wisdom, rather than with immaturity. If Buddha had not thrown in the warning, I would have gone on, an imbecile content in his imbecility.

I'm reminded of one more example: when Nathaniel Hawthorne published The Marble Faun in 1860, the public was largely unimpressed. Indeed, a majority of 20th-century scholars explained The Faun away, arguing that Hawthorne's romantic prowess had simply waned by 1860, and that the book was an imperfect attempt to reiterate his earlier successes. Hawthorne was unperturbed by the cool response. He did get a few appreciative responses amid the general disappointment, however. In response to one of these, he wrote: “…you take the book precisely as I meant it [whereas] these beer-sodden English beefeaters do not know how to read a Romance; neither can they praise it rightly, if ever so well disposed." To another appreciative reader he wrote,
I somewhat doubt whether your dull English public will quite appreciate its excellencies. It depends upon the view a reader happens to take of it, whether it shall appear very clever or very absurd.
So I make an effort in my reading: not to be the dull English reader, the beer-sodden derelict who takes the author, rather than himself, to be the problem.

One other angle: when I was about 24, I was quick to be morally disgusted by what I saw as the nihilistic work of Jackson Pollock. I railed against his work as indicative of all that had gone wrong with civilization in the 20th century--I called it irresponsible and "remorseless." A friend worked on me and worked on me, proselytizing on Pollock's behalf. I had never smoked pot, but she made me that day: "Look again," she told me after; and when I finally looked with fair eyes, I saw a high beauty in some of Pollock's early work, which eventually helped me to understand the arc of his career and so much of mid-century painting that had been inaccessible to me before. In relinquishing my moral outrage, my vision was renewed. Maybe not surprisingly, it was the painting below, titled Blue (Moby Dick) that won me over:

To wrap up, a quote from Moby-Dick itself (chapter 3), reminding readers to look again, and again, to re-orient themselves until the object of contemplation comes into focus:
Entering that gable-ended Spouter-Inn, you found yourself in a wide, low, straggling entry with old-fashioned wainscots, reminding one of the bulwarks of some condemned old craft. On one side hung a very large oil painting so thoroughly besmoked, and every way defaced, that in the unequal crosslights by which you viewed it, it was only by diligent study and a series of systematic visits to it, and careful inquiry of the neighbors, that you could any way arrive at an understanding of its purpose. Such unaccountable masses of shades and shadows, that at first you almost thought some ambitious young artist, in the time of the New England hags, had endeavored to delineate chaos bewitched. But by dint of much and earnest contemplation, and oft repeated ponderings, and especially by throwing open the little window towards the back of the entry, you at last come to the conclusion that such an idea, however wild, might not be altogether unwarranted.
P.S. -- anyone remember when Grandma had the print of an autostereogram? Oh, this gives me a terrific idea for a whole post (tomorrow?)!


  1. My dad likes to respond to the student complaint "this sucks" with "have you ever considered the possibility that you suck." My father, ladies and gentlemen--I love him!

  2. Precisely!--and more lyrical than my retort.