Thursday, July 1, 2010

The Pleasures of Reading by Robert Alter

A distinguished critic rescues literature from the ivory tower and reestablishes reading as a personal source of complex pleasure and insight.

A good many of the most influential currents in criticism and literary theory today can be traced back to the late 1960s. That was a time which seemed to many full of promise and intellectual excitement. In France, where most of the new trends began, the stodginess of academic criticism was dramatically displaced by a bold enterprise of systematic analysis, drawing on linguistics and anthropology, that sought to situate literary studies among the sciences humaines; by a radical questioning of Western philosophic premises undertaken through the combined investigation of literary and and philosophic texts; by scrutinizing literature through the lens of a drastically revised Freudianism or Marxism or a “discourse”-based historicism that at once incorporated and transcended both.

The discussion of literature would no longer be the province of the proverbial English professor with a comfortable tweed jacket and pipe luxuriating in his chatty complacent learning. Literature at last would be studied with intellectual vigor, against a background of philosophy, psychology, anthropology, and linguistics; and the most urgent issues of politics, history, personal and gender identity, would be boldly exposed through the analysis of literary texts. . .

In fact, for many of the new trends in literary studies, the object of the preposition “about” is often no longer literature. The great prefix of the day is meta - : metalanguage, metatext, metadiscourse. To be sure, a discussion of the premises of discussion, talk about how we talk about literature, is necessary for the maintenance of methodological scrupulosity. What is distressing is that such discussion to the second degree should in many instances displace the discussion of literature itself. One can read article after article, hear lecture after lecture, in which no literary work is ever quoted and no real reading experience is registered. I strongly suspect that many young people now earning undergraduate degrees in English or French at our most prestigious institutions have read two or three pages of Lacan, Derrida, Foucault, and Kristeva for every page of George Eliot or Stendhal.

Analysis of this sort may have its own compelling character, but it is disquieting to contemplate the prospect of literature programs in which such analysis is proffered not as a complementary alternative but as the predominant, or even the “correct” approach. The neo-Marxist Terry Eagleton shows admirable candor and consistency in proposing that a curricular move be made from literature to “discourse studies”, so that instructors would be free to teach Shakespeare, television scripts, government memoranda, comic books, and advertising copy in a single program as instances of the language of power. What is regrettable, though also characteristic of a certain prevalent ideological coerciveness, is that Eagleton also proposes the abolition of departments of literature, having demonstrated, at least to his own satisfaction, that there is no coherent phenomena that can be called literature.

I am not suggesting that students should be turned back to some imagined idyllic age when literature and only literature was read. By this point in time, the value of large intellectual overviews and interdisciplinary perspectives should be self-evident. What is at issue is a matter of proportion: with finite time granted to anyone for reading, whether or not in or out of the university, should a person drawn to literature be encouraged to devote more attention to Lacan than Poe, to Barthes than to Balzac? One might further question whether the best guidance is provided by this particular cluster of speculative thinkers who as Luc Ferry and Alain Renaut have shrewdly argued, represent a reductive French rhetorical radicalization of German thought - - Nietzsche, Marx, Freud, and Heidegger – that may lead to an intellectual dead end ( La pensee 68 , Paris, 1985).

The burden of this whole book, however, is that there is a great deal in the intrinsic operations of literature vitally calling our attention, however much we may also want to look beyond the literary text to its multifarious contexts. Attention of this sort, moreover, by no means implies a commitment either to “monumentalize” the texts under consideration or to regard them as pure aesthetic objects. On the contrary, many - perhaps even most – original works of literature are themselves powerful vehicles of subversion, variously directed against prevalent beliefs and ideologies, received social and moral attitudes, literary tradition, against the very conception of what literature is.

The minute attention to how literature speaks through its own complex and distinctive language is an indispensable step in fully realizing the subversive power of the text, and one could scarcely find a better example than Moby-Dick, with its extraordinary deployment of imagery, symbol, allusion, scene and even rhythmic movement to effect a radical redefinition of nature, historical time, meaning and value.

As readers, we live in a constant unfathomable intercourse with the written word – that mere artifice which ensconces itself in the inner sanctum of our imagination, delights us in odd and unpredictable ways , even effects our perceptions of the world. The capacity of literary texts, as intricately structured vehicles of communication - to stimulate some readings and interpretations while excluding others – is essential to what I call the high fun of literature. It is “high” because, unlike, say, the fun of coming down a water slide or watching a clown get splattered in the face with a cream pie, it engages a good many of our most complicated faculties of perception – our nuanced knowledge of language, people, social institutions, politics, history, morality; our ability to grasp analogies, parallelisms, antithesis, significant repetitions, ellipses, ironies, double meanings, even cryptograms.

It is “fun” because of our response as readers to the beauty, the wit, the profuse inventiveness of the text's language (style) and of its constructed world (character). To translate this aesthetic response in cognitive terms, the high fun of reading is also the pleasure we take in the exercise of all those faculties of perception, our enlistment by the text as players in one of the most elaborate and various games that human culture has devised; a kind of communication that, unlike graffiti or bumper stickers or telegrams, offer a rich, open-ended multiplicity of messages that put the mind in a restless pleasing motion that is a constant source experiential knowledge and delight.

1 comment:

  1. In his chapter on Perspective, the author examines several distinctive narrative forms deployed in novels – figural, analytical, psycho-narration and narrative monologue- their historical antecedents, the different effects they are able to achieve, and how they are often intertwined in the same passages of text. His use of a passage near the end of Joseph Conrad's “The Secret Agent” ( When Mrs. Verloc goes after her husband with a knife) is especially pleasing. He rewrites the passage in all four forms as a way illustrating the careful balance and flow that Conrad achieved in that particular instance, certainly one of the great “tours de force” of modern fiction and literary analysis. All of his examples are delightful.

    The Pleasure of Reading in an Ideological Age by Robert Alter ; Simon and Schuster, N.Y., 1989