Tuesday, January 31, 2012
Reading, as we all know, can be exciting - but what about not reading? What does not-reading feel like?
I think that in order to answer this question, we've got to first examine the relationship between reading and time. Begin with that original message scrawled on clay or bark or whatever: suddenly, instead of having to repeat a description of where the good watering holes are, OOg-Na-Gok can simply point to the map he made and have it speak for him. His experience, once locked inside his chest like a rib, becomes a tool, a thing outside him and therefore free to go about its (meaning his, as OOg presumes) business. So we see that writing, in its original aspect, is very much a technology - meaning very much an invention meant to save us time.
Good for us! Except that one of the most interesting problems of human experience is that, once we've saved some time, we find ourselves faced with the equally thorny problem of how to spend it. Here, the purely pragmatic aspect of language provides us with no help at all; the misuse of this aspect, however, does. For what if someone (OOg's little brother, say, who is a terrible hunter and on top of that was born without a left ear) got it into his head to draw a map whose lines corresponded to no actual watering hole at all? And what if, freed from an absolute fidelity to a real landscape (though still bound by the mapmaker's desire to convince his readers that what he was showing them was real), this counterfeit mapmaker found himself possessed by an intoxicating freedom? Green lakes, trees of fire - a camp just like theirs, inhabited by a beautiful race of one-eared women! The listeners sit spellbound, hardly noticing as the sun sinks below the horizon. The next night they crowd around the fire to hear more about this mysterious kingdom, so similar to their own and yet so different at the same time...
Time and language are bound up together from birth, like Romulus and Remus or Cain and Abel. Notice how one of those brothers always dies? Well, pay attention to that dagger in language's teeth. Words kill time, close it, box it up and mark it "spent". One of the reason we read is so that there will be a "well" there too. Book-reading is time well spent, not just because it is, but because we've been told it is. Newspaper reading? Internet reading? Back of cereal box reading? Jury's still out.
Into this world of reading, not reading descends like a sickness: a fever or plague or, yes, nauseé sickness of the familiar. Surrounded by books, all the books are wrong, meaning potential wastes of time. Impenetrable disciplines requiring time and devotion, from which we will wake up at the end no more enriched by our effort than we would be if we'd spent it stuffing pillows. Or: these books are good, these books are fine - but the One Book is out there. The book that will change my life, transforming me from a finger-sniffing clerk into a writer who surfs with whales, taking notes, penning masterpieces. It hovers in the darkness, radiating a soft light. Waiting as I waste my life.
Idealism imprisons; should we really be that surprised, then, that so many of the greatest books have been hammers thrown at Stendhal's highway-wandering mirror? Faced with the paralysis of Not Reading, the reader has two choices. He can give up, immolate his library in a sublime auto-da-fé. This is the way of Witkacy, Gombrowicz, Shields. A Reformation, in which our suspicion that God does not really exist in little crackers makes us want to torch the entire edifice, from altar to stained glass to tapestries, and start worshipping in the woods or better, our own basements.
I confess, I am VERY sympathetic to protest; but I've read (and written) too many shitty experiments not to be suspicious of works that lazily discard the trappings of tradition. Destruction is, if you think about it, one of the most difficult projects, and requires a deep formal sense that I frequently suspect may be beyond me. On the other hand, what's left? The Church of Realism? A fundamentally Anglican reduction in ambition and scope, a defeatism that relinquishes Lawrence's "Bright book of life" for provincialism that seems to want, at the end of the day, to simply be left alone? (and yes, James Wood, though you are a beautiful writer, I am asking this question of you, with you (hopefully), not because I reject your definition of realism, but because I want it so badly to be true. And yet, and yet...)
I believe in doubt - I have to, really, or else disqualify myself from the whole thing. Writers are Paracletian, I'm sure, whether their descending angel comes bearing a sword or olive branch. But the question that the Book of Jonah asks is, what do we do while we're waiting for revelation? What do we do when it comes? We all want to be prophets, but few of us want the prophecies we're given. Being in the whale, then, may be one of the ways that we learn how to read our books.
Image: Brian Jungen, Shapeshifter/Partial Cetology, 41 foot long partial whale skeleton made out of plastic deckchairs