Writerly Reading for Remission

 

     Is writing really the sign of a healthy individual operating in the high powered post modern world marked by technology and consumerism? Can I really learn how to write from visiting professors with their codes and manuals that offer 14 steps in teaching students to learn to write? I know that I am very ill at the sound of these “student engagement” champions whose jargon with words like benchmarks make me want to return to a former state in life where I was in love with learning about new worlds. This paper will explore the concept of writing as interpretative reading.

     What separates a Yale student from a Delta State student is "required courses." Students at prestigious schools take less of them. A diploma from Yale really means that students can read and interpret just about any text placed in front of them. Being indifferent to reading places us in danger of being devoured by the rich and the powerful, who like non-readers because they are less intelligent, and therefore easier to govern.

     More important than combating the rich and powerful, though, is combating the disease of "indifference to our mortal state." Elaine Marks, former president of MLA and professor of French in Wisconsin, believes that we read and write, not to change the world, but to sharpen, to deepen, and to expand our awareness of being in the world and having to take leave of it.

     Blaise Pascal, the 17th century French philosopher and mathematician, brutally reminds us of our human condition:

 

     Let us imagine a certain number of people in chains, and all condemned to death, some of whom are slaughtered each day in sight of the others. Those who remain alive see their own condition in that of the others and, looking at one another with sorrow and without hope, await their turn. This is the image of the human condition. (130)

 

Pascal was a great scientist (invented the slide rule, formulated Euclid's theories, had a computer language named after him), but I met him in his philosophical writings where he defines our tragic condition as not being able to stay alone in our own room. Staying alone causes us to think about our miserable existence. We therefore seek divertissement. With regard to the infinite we are a nothing. However, with regard to nothing, we are an everything. Our existence seems to be somewhere in between. We are like a "reed" or a "weed" the weakest in nature. Anything can crush us. All of nature does not have to arm itself to kill us. But, this advantage that nature has over us, nature does not know. We know we are being crushed because we can think. We are thinking reeds. Our greatness comes from our thinking. Our misery comes from our refusal to think.  The moral then, if thinking is our greatest value, is to think well.

 

           The Writerly Text versus the Readerly Text

 

     I would like to transfer thinking over to reading which is really the way you learn to think. Deconstruction is an exercise in close readings of texts. Deconstructionist critics, like Barbara Johnson, place emphasis on the supplement and not the major elements. Barbara Johnson deconstructs the concepts of “writing” and “speaking.” Normally speaking is considered more important than writing. Speaking comes first. Writing only takes place because you anticipate being absent. Plato and his gang placed more importance on presence and speaking. After all languages were spoken first. Or were they? Ms Johnson argues that we really write before we speak. We structure our sentences in our mind before we voice them out. She deconstructs or reverses the order of speaking/writing by making the normally considered major text of speaking into the supplementary text, and placing writing in the primary position. If what she says is true, and writing is the major text, how do we use this information? In order to make our way in the world we have to learn how to read the writing of our masters, whether they be mathematicians, scientists, political leaders, mechanics—just about any discipline we need or want to enter to pursue our life.

     The focus in literature turns to the reader -- death to the author and birth to the reader (Culler 31-3). Meanings are produced from the activities of the readers. To read is to posit experiences of reading. Jonathan Culler sees the women’s movement in three stages of reading. First women become aware of their experiences in the reading of texts. Then, they start to read as women. Finally they start to write from their experiences as women (63).

     Roland Barthes distinguishes the readerly and writerly texts.

He groups philosophers in two categories. The “canny” Socratic thinkers offer structures and systems that produce meaning. These philosophers, like Hegel and Descartes are opposed by the “uncanny” philosophers, like Nietzsche and Derrida who explore areas that resist meanings and interpretations. The “readerly” text is one that can be interpreted by all the cultural and narrative codes. There are meanings in these texts which resist reading and interpretation. These meanings can only be “written.” The “writerly” text is the one where the reader engages in the text and produces new meanings (Culler 32). In “Plaisir du texte,” Barthes says that we read for erotic sensual pleasures which come from knowing meanings. There are surprises though when we read deeper. Sometimes we get inspired to write out meanings. We go from pleasure to “jouissance” or orgasm. The sensual text becomes the erotic text (Kritzman 99-103).

     Michel de Certeau calls reading a tactic. Strategies are what the powerful use to maintain their control of property. They see the whole terrain. Tactics are what the everyday weak use in order to operate in the powerful’s land (29-42). Certeau distinguishes between spoken and written language. The written language is that of the strong who write us into their system. We use our spoken voices as tactics to reassert our humanness (131-164). Certeau’s voice is close to our concept of writing/thinking/interpreting. We put our marks on texts. Reading is an impertinent absence from the control of authority(172). We poach on texts and appropriate them for our own use. We want to try to poach on texts that will help us the most. I don’t want to cheat of a C student.

 

 

     Poaching on Proust’s Remembrances of Things Past

 

     Marcel Proust's  Remembrance of Things Past  is considered the greatest novel ever written. It is a 3000 page monstrosity which humbly opens with a boy who is afraid to go to sleep. He would like his mama to come up and tuck him in, and read to him. He compares his room to a tomb where he buries himself each night. By a ruse, he tricks his mother to coming up, and when the father hears about it, the child thinks he's dead. But the father, this time allows the mother to spend the night with the child. You never know about parents.

     It is this night when he realizes that he learned to appreciate the art of reading from his mother, who would read to him from books that he had already read. She would edit out the love scenes of course, but he still admired her.

 

     If my mother was not a faithful reader, she was, none the less, admirable when reading a work in which she found the note of true feeling by the respectful simplicity of her interpretation and by the sound of her sweet and gentle voice. It was the same in her daily life, when it was not works of art, but men and women whom she was moved to pity and admire:

 

She would edit her conversation in real life the way she edited her reading. The narrator as child continues:

 

     it was touching to observe with what deference she would banish from her voice, her gestures, from her whole conversation, now the note of joy which might have distressed some mother who had long ago lost a child, now the recollection of an event or anniversary which might have reminded some old gentleman of the burden of his years, now the household topic which might have bored some man of letters. (32)

 

By her reading, she transfers ordinary language into new universes. The narrator continues:

 

     taking pains to bannish from her voice any weakness or affectation which might have blocked its channel for that powerful stream of language, she supplied all the natural tenderness, all the lavish sweetness they demanded to phrases which seemed to have been composed for her voice, and which were all, so to speak, within her compass. She came to them with the tone that they required, with the cordial accent which existed before they were, which dictated them, but which is not to be found in the words themselves, and by these means she smoothed away, as she read on, any harshness there might be or discordance in the tenses of the verbs, endowing (them) with all the sweetness which there is in generosity, all the melancholy which there is in love; guided the sentence which was drawing to an end towards that which was waiting to begin, now hastening, now slackening the pace of the syllables so as to bring them, despite their difference of quantity, into a uniform rhythm, and breathed into this quite ordinary prose a kind of life, continuous and full of feeling. (33)

 

The death sentence of his room is put off to the next night, and his agony is temporarily soothed by the effects of his mother's reading. Still, he is faced with the fact that he will have to sleep alone in the dark, like the prisoners of Pascal who always live in the face of their final reprieve being denied. So, what is the lesson of Proust?

     We are doomed if we think of life in ends.  Looking at the end of the book to see how many pages we have left, wishing it were the end of the school term, wishing it were Friday are all examples of our original sin. Living this way is really wishing for death. We need to learn to read and live in a new way. We have to search for texts where we don't look at the end, but enjoy the process. We scholars now look at the world, at history, at culture as one big text composed of smaller texts: like politics, art, music, biology, history, and literature. We can view these areas as linear texts that have stories. All aspects of life are structured in word signs. In order to understand, we, therefore, have to read the stories of the different life structures, so that we can learn to write or create in these fields. How do I write a story of a successful baseball team, a successful investment portfolio, a diagnosis of an injured leg, etc.? If we can find some areas that we don't read in a linear way, but in a more processed way - where we like the form and are not necessarily in a hurry to finish - then we have left linear time and have entered the eternal. Anything with an end is short. We will always be like Pascal's prisoners confronted with the final moment. Living and reading the writerly text on the paradigmatic eternal time chain - liking the form - allows us to focus on the act of living.

     The effect of reading taught by the boy's mother - teacher allows him to breathe into quite an ordinary life a new beautiful continuous life created by language through memory. Ironically, the idea of death is what makes us use our memory and learning skills to create our existences. Otherwise we would be like animals who do not know that they are going to die. Certeau’s memory is a tactic where we transgress the laws of time and space – we produce a break in the flow.

 

           Looking for Grace in the Setting of the Abyss

 

     Pascal teaches us that our misery and greatness are signs that we have fallen like Adam. We seem to be like royalty stripped of our grandeur. We need the grace of God to use our holy side, our thinking side. The idea of death and our weaknesses can humble us to seek the grace of God to approach the world in a more thinking process way. If we do not believe in God, we can still look for grace in life’s mysteries. Grace is a virtue that helps us move or put our human marks on the world’s “texts.” In the Proust text that we have read, the boy was afraid of going to sleep and tricked his mother in coming to his room. When his father uncharacteristically lets the mother stay, the boy has sobs. The narrator is a mature man as he recounts this event. He says the sobs are still with him.

 

En réalité ils n’ont jamais cessé; et c’est seulement parce que la vie se tait maintenant davantage autour du moi que je les entends de nouveau, comme ces cloches de couvents que couvrent si bien les bruits de la ville pendant le jour qu’on les croirait arrêtées mais qui se remettent à sonner dans le silence du soir.

 

In reality they [the sobs]have never stopped; it is only because life is quieter now more around me that I hear them again, like these bells of convents that the sounds of the city cover so well during the day that one would think them stopped, but which begin again to sound in the silence of the evening.

 

 

When we read a text there is a mysterious bond between the author, the author’s immediate audience, and the various audiences that will read the text. In the above passage we have a narrator who is an older man talking through his childhood being. We also have the real author and us readers who connect the sobs of our own youth. We hear the same sobs. But only if we can read them without all the outside noise. The author has helped clear the noise away and set up an atmosphere of intimacy. This setting of intimacy is in the abyss, not located neither in the author, narrator or reader.

 

     When a cancer goes into remission, it is not just the cancer, but the person who is remitted, "sent back" to a former stronger condition. The little boy in his room-tomb finds no immediate joy in the remission of time. Time does not go by, we do. He will have to be alone the next night. But he finds infinite satisfaction in the way he has learned to create worlds through his reading-writing process. If we approach writing with a reading mentality, we will have what Catholics call a “sacra” mentality. We will search for texts that put us in an intimate bond with authors and other readers—an intertextual bond. We will be less concerned with ends and more in the process of reading.

 

     Proust’s city bells that recalled the sobs sound at noon to remind workers and farmers to come in from the fields and workplaces and pray. Proust’s bells send me back to a sacramental state where I write my own sobs about loves that have died. Death sentences become life sentences.

 

 

 

 

                     Works Cited

                 

 

Barthes, Roland. “The Grain of the Voice,” in Image, Music, and

Text.

Certeau, Michel de. The Practice of Everyday Life. Berkeley: U of

     California Press, 1988.

Culler, Jonathan. On Deconstruction: Theory and Criticism after

Structuralism. Ithaca, NY: Cornell UP, 1982.

Johnson, Barbara. “Writing” in Literary Terms. Eds. Lentricchia,

Frank and

Kritzman, Lawrence D. “The Discourse of Desire and the Question

     of Gender,” in Signs in Culture: Roland Barthes Today. Ungar,

     Steven and Mcgraw, Betty R. Iowa City: U of Iowa P, 1989.

Proust, Marcel. Du côté de chez Swann. Paris: Gallimard, 1988.

________. Swann’s Way.