Vital new essays from noted literary critic
(CNN) -- Readings combines the best of Sven Birkerts's criticism with vital new essays. Here is Birkerts the literary critic in top form discussing authors ranging from Elizabeth Bishop to Don DeLillo, and topics such as biography and the enigma of poetic inspiration. A brilliant cultural commentator, Birkerts also offers important insights into contemporary nostalgia, our modern sense of time, and the future of the creative spirit.
States of Reading
In the opening pages of his coy and crafty novel, If on a Winter's Night a Traveler, Italo Calvino performs what for any true reader has to feel like a striptease. Or maybe the beginning overtures of what will turn into a full-out seduction. In any event, there is a sense of excited approach, an almost titillating enumeration of the stages by which a reader gets ready to engage a book. "Adjust the light so you won't strain your eyes," he croons. "Do it now, because once you're absorbed in reading there will be no budging you." And: "Try to foresee now everything that might make you interrupt your reading. Cigarettes within reach, if you smoke, and the ashtray. Anything else? Do you have to pee? All right, you know best."
Calvino continues, building tension now by tracking back to the moments just after the reader's purchase of the book in question. Familiar sensations: "You are at the wheel of your car, waiting at a traffic light, you take the book out of the bag, rip off the transparent wrapping, start reading the first lines. A storm of honking breaks over you...."
Then: "Yes, you are in your room, calm; you open the book to page one, no, to the last page, first you want to see how long it is."
And: "You turn the book over in your hands, you scan the sentences on the back of the jacket.... Of course, this circling of the book, too, this reading around it before reading inside it, is part of the pleasure in a new book, but like all preliminary pleasures, it has its optimal duration if you want it to serve as a thrust toward the more substantial pleasure of the consummation of the act, namely, the reading of the book." So Calvino guides his chapter to conclusion, the conclusion being, in effect, the reader's excited haste to turn the page to begin. The paradox is suddenly evident: We are reading about getting ready to read, taking part in the tensions of deferral, even as we breached our own deferral pages ago. All of this is clever and could be shown to be more deeply intriguing, but what interests me is not metafictional self-reflexiveness, but something else: simply that all of this tantalization, this spirited foreplay, is possible only where there exists a shared assumption -- that the state we achieve when immersed in a novel is powerful, pleasure-inducing, and very nearly hypnotic. ("Adjust the light ...," he coaxes, "... because once you're absorbed in reading there will be no budging you.")
As striptease can work its thrills only on the understanding that the forbidden fruit, the corpus delectable, is right there, under the shimmer of coverings, so Calvino can toy with us in this way only because we know what a transformation of consciousness a successful -- that is, immersed -- reading act accomplishes.
Reading -- and I will speak of it here in its realized mode -- is not a continuation of the daily by other means. It is not simply another thing one does, like gathering up the laundry, pondering a recipe, checking the tire pressure, or even talking to a friend on the telephone. Reading is a change of state of a very particular sort. And while this can be talked about, it seldom is. Who knows why?
Several things happen when we move via the first string of words from our quotidian world into the realm of the written. We experience almost immediately a transposition -- perhaps an expansion, perhaps a condensation -- of our customary perception of reality. We shift our sense of time from our ordinary, sequential, clockface awareness to a quasi-timeless sense of suspension, that sublime forgetting of the grid sometimes called duration. Finally, and no less significantly, we find ourselves instantly and implicitly changing our apprehension of the meaning structure of the world.
I would like to explore this transition by looking at the opening passage of Saul Bellow's novel Humboldt's Gift:
The book of ballads published by Von Humboldt Fleisher in the Thirties was an immediate hit. Humboldt was just what everyone had been waiting for. Out in the Midwest I had certainly been waiting eagerly, I can tell you that. An avant-garde writer, the first of a new generation, he was handsome, fair, large, serious, witty, he was learned. They guy had it all. All the papers reviewed his book. His picture appeared in Time without insult and in Newsweek with praise. I read Harlequin Ballads enthusiastically. I was a student at the University of Wisconsin and thought about nothing but literature day and night. Humboldt revealed to me new ways of doing things. I was ecstatic. I envied his luck, his talent, and his fame, and I went east in May to have a look at him -- perhaps to get next to him. The Greyhound bus, taking the Scranton route, made the trip in about fifty hours. That didn't matter. The bus windows were open. I had never seen real mountains before. Trees were budding. It was like Beethoven's Pastorale. I felt showered by the green, within.
Bellow's Charlie Citrine goes on for nearly five hundred pages, but I will stop here -- not to make any point about the novel, its characters, or conflicts, but to ask: How is my inwardness, my consciousness, different while I'm reading from whatever it was the instant before I began?
Most obviously, the formerly dissipated field of my awareness has been suddenly and dramatically channeled. My attention is significantly, then almost entirely, captured by the voice and what it is telling me. Charlie's confidential tone immediately captures me, replacing whatever cadences I had been thinking in. "An avant-garde writer, the first of a new generation, he was handsome, fair, large, serious, witty, he was learned. The guy had it all." My thought becomes Citrine's, my rhythms and instincts his -- I change.
With the shift in momentum and focus comes an alteration in time frame. All the divisions and chronologies of the daily present are submerged beneath the timeless awareness of events unfolding as they must. Reading even a few of Bellow's sentences, we feel ourselves entering the duration world of the tale, the same world that fireside listeners stepped into when the tribal teller began to summon up the other place of the narrative.
Along with this altered sense of time -- bound up with it -- comes a condensation of reality. Things are linked each to each through association, not physical or chronological proximity. Months, never mind days, are elided in the space of a breath: "I envied his luck, his talent, and his fame, and I went east in May to have a look at him -- perhaps to get next to him. The Greyhound bus, taking the Scranton route ..." Reality -- dull, obstacle-laden reality, which moves all too often at the pace of an intravenous dripper -- is reconfigured by the imagination -- speeded up, harmonized, made efficient -- and served back to us in a far more palatable state, appealing in the extreme.
Finally -- and my categories are necessarily imprecise -- the words, even in so small an excerpt as I have cited, change what I call the meaning structure of the world. To follow Citrine fully, as we long to do, we agree to the core requirement of any work of creative literature that we put ourselves in the hands of a self, a sensibility, that will front life with an original and uncorrected passion, that we will allow this self to dictate its understanding of the world to us. We must adopt Citrine's worldview as our own for the duration of the novel. This acceptance on our part is, I believe, the most important and profound consequence of the literary encounter.
The meaning structure of the world is, for most of us, experienced as an imprecise and mainly unfocused mingling of thoughts and perceptions. Strands of meaning are as if woven through expanses of seemingly unconnected elements -- things observed carefully or obliquely, fitfully attended to or ignored. The upshot, unless we feel a powerful call to something higher and possess the discipline to strive constantly toward it, is that we greet the world outside of our immediate sphere of concern as a chaos essentially beyond our grasp, as an event whose meaning will be disclosed to us later, if ever. The constant deferral of significance is the operative principle of most lives: tomorrow, next week -- I'll think about it, I'll figure it out -- not right now.
The meaning structure of a novel is absolutely different. Using condensation, moving in an altogether different medium of time, the author creates an artifact that is, in certain striking ways, a semblance of life, but with this exception: Everything in the novel points toward meaning. Every sentence, every meaning observation, every turn of events serves an aesthetic and intellectual purpose. The novel smelts contingency and returns it as meaning.
We can see this distinction, between the outer world of reality and the inner world of the text, even in the act of reading, the way we read. In one of the most famous passages in his Confessions, St. Augustine professes his astonishment at seeing St. Ambrose reading a text without moving his lips. Augustine lived from 354 to 430, and his simple observation suggests something essential about the evolution of reading. It has gone inward. Reading aloud is common practice these days, mainly with children, illiterate adults, or those who cannot, owing to some infirmity, read for themselves. To accompany your reading with silent lip motions is to signal that you may have only the most tenuous grasp on vocabulary and syntax.
This transition from exterior vocalizing to silent but perceptible lip movement to an interiority indicated outwardly only by the back-and-forth shuttling of the eyes signifies a considerable augmentation of the power of the reading act. So long as there are still lip motions, there exists a bridge between the world conjured on the page and the exterior realm. But when those motions cease, then the reader simultaneously represents two opposed kinds of presence. One is the physical, the actual -- that which occupies space and can be located; the other is the invisible, the unreal -- that which happens vividly in the imagination and cannot be fathomed or legislated by any other person. Silent reading, then, is the very signature -- the emblem -- of subjectivity. The act of reading creates for us a world within a world -- indeed, a world within a hollow sphere, the two of them moving not only at different rates, but also, perhaps, counter to one another.
The tension between outer and inner is sharpened by the fact that when readers are fully absorbed in a book and the ulterior world it presents, their awareness of solid reality is supplanted by awareness of what the imagination is experiencing. Then, truly, the stubborn surfaces we live among become figments -- a paradoxical transformation, since most of the people who discredit the practice of reading, particularly of novels, do so because the contents of the books are seen to be not-real, mere figments. These reading skeptics mistakenly assume that reading attempts to carry on the business of living by other -- suspiciously intangible -- means. They seldom consider that reading involves a change of state, that it is a sudden, and at times overwhelming, modification of the quotidian.
Changes of state. I believe increasingly that this, and mainly this, is the core mission of artistic writing. We go to such writing, engage it, not because it is an adjunct or a supplement to our daily living, but because it allows us the illusion of departure from it. I am not talking merely about bored commuters losing themselves in books by Tom Clancy or John Grisham, but of the somewhat more exalted pattern of departure and return effected by more serious novels. A work of art has done its deeper work when it starts to feel like arrival.
Everyone knows that Plato, in Book 10 of his Republic, proposed to banish the poets from the ideal state he was envisaging. At the conclusion of his argument he has Socrates say to Glaucon:
we must remain firm in our conviction that hymns to the gods and praises of famous men are the only poetry which ought to be admitted into our State. For if you go beyond this and allow the honeyed muse to enter, either in epic or lyric verse, not law and the reason of mankind, which by common consent have ever been deemed best, but pleasure and pain will be the rulers in our State.
I would agree, I think, that the poet -- the artist-writer -- poses a threat to the state, at least to the state as Plato thinks of it -- which is as a republic, or "res publica," or "thing of the people" -- but not on account of emotional persuasiveness. Rather, the artist is a threat because the effect of art, no matter what its ostensible subject might be, is to alter the relation to experience, to affect a change of state -- and the main point of the new relation is not to clarify concrete matters in the here and now, but to propose an understanding that transcends the here and now. The experience is fundamentally asocial, for it directs preoccupation away from the what and how of daily business toward the why, the mere asking of which marks separation from the quotidian, if not yet transcendence. A social order founded on the question why, and the relation to things it implies, would not sustain the headlong consumerism we think of as the only possible option these days.
No matter how I try to come at it, my conception of the aesthetic experience -- the reading experience -- involves, at its core, a transfer between subjectivities; not a simple passing of contents from one subjective "I" to another. Writers are artists precisely to the extent that they use the transformative agency of imagination to surpass personality -- the contingent attributes of identity -- in order to get at what can be said to exist behind the jumble of appearances: some version of truth that results when the artist has disinterestedly reckoned the forces that underlie psychological, social, or other kinds of relationships.
I realize that the critical orthodoxy of our era repudiates this possibility of underlying universals, upholding instead the relativism, the constructedness, of all experience. Yet the reader's self -- dare I say, soul -- and the fact of his engagement with the literary work refuses this version of things. Whether that reader is immersed in Jane Austen, Joseph Conrad, Jane Smiley, or Saul Bellow, the immersion is attained only in part by stylistic power and the presentation of specific situational elements. The true bond is the reader's conviction that beyond all particulars, standing as the very ground and air of the work, is the writer's willing of a supporting world in its entirety. And this willing, which is at the same time an understanding, is achieved only through a complete and possessive act of imagination. It is finally this ability -- and determination -- to internalize a world that marks the literary artist. Never mind whether it is the world stretching away behind Samuel Beckett's Molloy, Vladimir Nabokov's Pnin, Austen's Emma, or Bellow's Charlie Citrine.
When we begin reading Humboldt's Gift, or almost any other novel, we expend an enormous energy. Only part of this goes toward understanding character, setting, and the details of situation. The rest represents an energy of erasure, of self-silencing. We suspend our sense of the world at large, bracket it off, in order that the author's implicit world may declare itself: "The book of ballads published by Von Humboldt Fleisher in the Thirties was an immediate hit. Humboldt was just what everyone had been waiting for. Out in the Midwest I had certainly been waiting eagerly, I can tell you that." Already it begins. The words make a voice, and the voice begins to sound in our auditory imagination, and as we enter the book we move from hearing the voice to listening to it. And to listen is to surrender self-thoughts, impinging awarenesses, and judgments; to listen is to admit a stance, a vantage, a world other than our own. Of course we do not succeed entirely. Of course the author's world bears a number of features that we project from our own irrepressible sense of things. But the interior transfer is profound nonetheless.
Reading, in this very idealized portrayal, is not simply an inscribing of the author's personal subjectivity upon a reader's receptivity. Rather, it is the collaborative bringing forth of an entire world, a world complete with a meaning structure. For hearing completes itself in listening, and listening happens only where there is some subjective basis for recognition. The work is not merely the bridge between author and reader; it is an enabling entity. The text is a pretext. The writer needs the idea of audition -- of readers -- in order to begin the creative process that gets him beyond the immediate, daily perception of things. In this one sense, the writer does not bring forth the work so much as the work, the idea of it, brings the writer to imaginative readiness. The finished work, the whole of it, then enables the reader to project a sensible and meaningful order of reality, one that might be initially at odds with the habitual relation to things. Writer and reader make a circuit -- complete -- outside the entanglements of the social contract.
This account of reading is not the majority view. Nor is it in any way self-evident. I don't know if it ever was, but certainly we have trouble thinking this way now. In our time the artistic experience has been compromised on all fronts. For one thing, there is not the belief in art -- in literature especially -- that existed in previous epochs. We do not, most of us, trust in the transformative power of artistic vision. And lacking the trust, we not only seek it out less, we are less apt to open ourselves to it when there is a chance.
Then, too, there are fewer strong creations -- true works of art that arrive on the page for the right reasons, that have not been deformed by the pressures of the marketplace. One can advance all sorts of reasons for this, including prominently the sheer difficulty of creating a world implicitly coherent when our own is so evidently incoherent. True artists -- regardless of their subject or its epoch -- are still required to grasp the forms and forces that make the reality of the present.
Third -- and there are many other factors -- is the climate of distractedness that envelops us. The world is too much here, too complex, is transected by too many competing signals. We don't believe in sense, in explanatory meaning, in the same way we once did. We are losing our purchase on time -- not just the serene leisure required for reading, but also our vestigial awareness of that other time -- unstructured duration time -- that is the sustaining element of all art. For it is only in the durational mode that we can grasp that noncontingent relation to experience, the perception that used to be called "under the aspect of eternity" -- the seeing of life in a way that acknowledges as its foundation the mystery of the fact of existence.
Then there is the effect that electronic technologies are having on writing and reading. This, while indirect, may be the chief one: that these technologies are, in their capacity as mediating tools, dissolving a sense of time that was until quite recently the human norm. Screen transactions not only make possible a fractured and layered and accelerated relation to time, they require it. They train us to a new set of expectations, even as the various complex demands of our living remove us further from the naturally contoured day. Reading of the kind that I have been describing cannot survive in such a climate as we are manufacturing for ourselves. The one hope is that reading will, instead of withering away in the glare of a hundred million screens, establish itself as a kind of preserve, a figurative place where we can go when the self needs to make contact with its sources.
It could be, then, that we are just starting to appreciate the potency that reading possesses. It is an interesting speculation: that the cultural threats to reading may be, paradoxically, revealing to us its deeper saving powers. I use the word saving intentionally here, not because I want to ascribe to reading some great function of salvation, but because I want to emphasize one last time the ideas of transformation and change of state. The movement from quotidian consciousness into the consciousness irradiated by artistic vision is analogous to the awakening to spirituality. The reader's aesthetic experience is, necessarily, lowercase, at least when set beside the truly spiritual. But it is marked by similar recognitions, including a changed relation to time, a condensation of the sense of significance, an awareness of a system or structure of meaning, and -- most difficult to account for -- a feeling of being enfolded by something larger, more profound.
Working through these thoughts, I happened upon an essay called "First Person Singular" by Joseph Epstein, wherein he cites Goethe as saying that "a fact of our existence is of value not insofar as it is true, but insofar as it has something to signify." To this Epstein adds concisely: "Only in art do all facts signify." He communicates in seven short words much of what I have been belaboring here: Facts signify whenever one believes that existence is intended, that there are reasons that, as Pascal wrote, reason knows nothing of.
My depiction of the exalted potential of the text and the no less exalted transformation of the reader by the text draws its main energy from spiritual analogy. But I will end by remarking one way in which the analogy breaks down. In religion there is generally a provision made for the afterlife -- that is part of its implicit assurance of purpose, the bait on the hook that would capture the frightened soul. Literature extends no such promise. Quite the reverse. With literature we are always at least subliminally aware of the mocking fact that only the work has a claim to living on, and then most likely through others. Within its borders it achieves the poignant eternity that John Keats accords to one of the figures in his "Ode on a Grecian Urn":
Fair youth, beneath the trees, thou canst not leave Thy song, nor ever can those trees be bare; Bold Lover, never, never canst thou kiss, Though winning near the goal -- yet, do not grieve; She cannot fade, though thou hast not thy bliss, For ever wilt thou love, and she be fair!
This is how it is with literary art: Although it can give us no afterlife, within its realm of departure we are made plain to ourselves in a way that feels strangely lasting.
Copyright © 1999 Sven Birkerts. All rights reserved.
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