Literary and unliterary reading

For myself, I split the reading of literature into two broad groups, namely the literary and the unliterary. The unliterary reader approaches a piece of fiction, or a poem, the way they would if it were any other text. They are epistemic and systematic, and so we can perceive the impact a book (etc.) has on them almost immediately, since their experience of it is not mediated by other concerns beyond “what does this tell me”. The literary reader’s experience is reflected, however, and so a text can fruitfully be read and reread. It is in this sense, like Montaigne in his tower, reading his 5,000 book library over and over, a little at a time, that such literary readers may be considered gnostic. It is the continued experience of the text that defines them, because they are an element of a community of interpreters. This goes for all readers of texts, including films, comics, magazine articles, etc. If you have at any stage debated the merits of a particular text, or suggested “what if they had casted X rather than Y”, or played some variation of “name your top 5 villains of all time, and say why”, then you are a member of this interpretive community. You are a literary reader. 

This community is very loosely bound, constituted only by an agreement that texts are worth reading and talking about. Yet this secular spirit, this conversation is an emblem of the clearest society of humans, one which is voluntary, and not mercenary – it is not limited in duration to the completion of a task. It sees something worthwhile in what the unliterary mind will dismiss as “pointless”, or more tellingly, “useless”. To return for a minute to my use of the adjective “gnostic”, and I admit that this might seem an abstruse concept to deploy, but I do so for a reason. Gnosis is often translated as knowledge, but the “sis” implies a process, the fact that it is ongoing, and it implicates our experience in this process. It is a seeking to know, and this is something that cannot rest content in having found the truth. I deploy it in this basic sense. It is by no means mystical, or wishy-washy. It has been difficult to hold on to this notion of gnosis when it has had such a tortured history. The need to say “I know” or “we know” or “this is known”, this dogmatic impulse, drowns out all desires for subtle attempts to explore and consider a thing or idea again and again. The impulse is ever to set a thing down, to categorise, to have a set method. Even the exclusionary measure of gnosis being lumped in with mysticism is a part of this.

So, when I write about a community, I mean it in this sense of a voluntary community that is cohered by its approach (rather than a method, an approach is amenable to change). Literary reading will not work if we seek to make our approach systematic, to turn it into a method. We are creatures who are blown off course. Contrast these two styles via Homer. The first word of The Odyssey is ândra“, man, and the entire work is about our capacity to thrive and succeed in a general wandering, as much as it is about specific and focused deeds and keeping “on course”. The first word of The Iliad, by contrast, is “mênis”, anger. The rage of one man, focused on one end, to the destruction of all (coincidentally, Brad Pitt evinces this blinded wrath as both Akhilleus in the movie Troy, and at the end of Se7en). We stand in a gnostic relationship to literature, since it is experience that produces it, and experience that compels us to read and re-read. It is not about goals, or time-limits, or compulsion, or necessity. The good readers, and the interesting critics, members of this community all know this. Literature for them tells stories, and we talk to each other in this way. We weave a narrative out of the canon of the great works, to better know ourselves and each other.

This canon is not a collection of boxes to be ticked off (“we need more Irish authors, ok now three exiles, ok now something about the Gulag…”), but rather it is a conversation. It’s ok to disagree, but to say that canons themselves are ipso facto wrong is the sign of an unliterary reader. They read in order to complete some task, be that social or political or whatever. I think that this is in some ways why a lot of what we are taught about literature begins with the lyric poem, for this introduces us to a complete world, perfect and lapidary. We have an opportunity to hold the gem in our hands, and to talk about what we see. In this, we talk to each other as fellow students, and even the teacher gets down from the lectern to an extent, and engages, since they are rereading, and the students reading for the first time, and everybody is at that moment a part of the ideal literary community. We cannot read a book, play, comic, poem, movie, picture in the same way as we would read a textbook or a manual or a timetable because literature is not about imparting information. We sometimes neglect to remember, given the preeminence of the information technology metaphor, that this is a partisan interpretation of human communication. It is most human of all not to consider oneself as there to serve an end.

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2 thoughts on “Literary and unliterary reading

  1. Pingback: Reading through allegory and metaphor « Wetwiring

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