Friday, September 13, 2019

writing / reading

Yesterday I had a discussion with a friend who remarked that radio allowed him to “use his imagination”—a familiar assertion which I continue to question: I’ve published an article arguing that radio depends upon the power of voices—disembodied voices—not upon our ability to “imagine” an image. My friend went on to suggest that the same thing happens when we read a book. His argument relied heavily on the notion of the “individual.” “In a sense,” he said, “we all read different books when we individually read a book: we all have individual histories, and we bring that history to our experience of reading.” I think this is true to a degree but not to a very significant degree. If it were true that our individual histories entered powerfully into our experience of reading, Madison Avenue would have great difficulty persuading vast numbers of people that it is telling the truth, and it is one of the calamities of our culture that people often believe media-generated things which, if they consulted their individual histories, they would know to be untrue. What happens is not that there is the book and there is ourselves as individuals and they are in a relationship: what happens is that we enter the field of language. Language generates a world in which it is the primary event—in which it postulates reality. The power of rhetoric is that it creates an area which depends upon its own contexts, its own connections. Though we may respond to a book about fathers with thoughts about our own father or a book about mothers with thoughts about our mother, that is not the primary thing that is happening to us. What is happening is that we are being pulled into a world that is deeply and essentially NOT this world—and we enter into it happily in order to escape what is precisely our “individuality.” All rhetoric is fiction: all reading is empathy and escape. That the world of reading may bring us to the perception of the possibility of a deeper, more generous world than the one we live in is certainly true, though it is also true that it may bring us into a world of lies and distortions. But both these worlds are fictions. What I am suggesting is the notion of writing as a “spell,” as “spelling,” rather than a neutral presenter of its contents. Christianity, with its belief in “another world,” a world in which we will continue to live even after our deaths, has a tangled relationship to writing, as Saint Augustine perceived in the sixth book of his Confessions when he confronted Saint Ambrose reading with his eyes alone: “Who durst intrude on one so intent?” Saint Ambrose was not affirming his individuality through reading; he was losing it through reading. He was, at that moment, “not of this world.” 

~~ Jack Foley

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