The novels we know best have an architecture. Not only a door going in and another leading out, but rooms, hallways, stairs, little gardens front and back, trapdoors, hidden passageways, et cetera. It's a fortunate rereader who knows half a dozen novels this way in their lifetime. I know one, Pnin, having read it half a dozen times. When you enter a beloved novel many times, you can come to feel that you possess it, that nobody else has ever lived there. You try not to notice the party of impatient tourists trooping through the kitchen (Pnin a minor scenic attraction en route to the canyon Lolita), or that shuffling academic army, moving in perfect phalanx, as they stalk a squirrel around the backyard (or a series of squirrels, depending on their methodology). Even the architect's claim on his creation seems secondary to your wonderful way of living in it.
such a good opening paragraph, my god
In The Pleasure of the Text and "S/Z", meanwhile, we find Barthes assigning this work of construction to readers themselves. Here a rather wonderful Barthesian distinction is made between the "readerly" and the "writerly" text. Readerly texts ask little or nothing of their readers; they are smooth and fixed in meaning and can be read passively (most magazine copy and bad genre writing is of this kind). By contrast, the writerly text openly displays its written-ness, demanding a great effort from its reader, a creative engagement. In a writerly text the reader, through reading, is actually reconstructing the act of writing, a thrilling idea with which Nabokov would sympathize, for that was the kind of active reader his own work required. But then Barthes imagines a further step: that by reading across the various "codes" he believed were inscribed in the writerly text (the linguistic, symbolic, social, historical, et cetera), a reader, in an active sense, constructs the text entirely anew with each reading. In this way Barthes reverses the hierarchy of the writer-reader dynamic. The reader becomes "no longer the consumer but the producer of text".
contrast this with Nabokov's view that the author is the one who circumscribes, limits (for the reader)
[...] Maybe every author needs to keep faith with Nabokov, and every reader with Barthes. For how can you write, believing in Barthes? Still, I'm glad I'm not the reader I was in college anymore, and I'll tell you why: it made me feel lonely. Back then I wanted to tear down the icon of the author and abolish, too, the idea of a privileged reader--the text was to be a free, wild thing, open to everyone, belonging to no one, refusing an ultimate meaning. Which was a powerful feeling, but also rather isolating, because it jettisons the very idea of communication, of any possible genuine links between the person who writes and the person who reads. Nowadays I know the true reason I read is to feel less alone, to make a connection with a consciousness other than my own. [...]
[...] The writer of trash fiction, often with admirable craft, affords his customer a narrative structure and movement, and content that engages the reader--titillates, repulses, excites, transports him--without demanding of him any of the intellectual or spiritual or artistic responses that render verbal intercourse between writer and reader an important or even real activity. [...]
We speak of the complex network of meanings of a Shakespeare play without always supposing that Shakespeare was holding these meanings in his head at the exact moment of writing the words down. How could any poet of such prodigal imaginative fertility keep in mind all the possible connotations of his meanings? To say ‘This is a possible meaning of the work’ is sometimes to say that this is what the work can be plausibly interpreted to mean. What the author actually ‘had in mind’ may be completely beyond recovery, even for himself. Many writers have had the experience of being shown patterns of meaning in their work which they did not mean to put there. And what of unconscious meanings, which are by definition not deliberately intended? ‘I really do think with my pen’, Wittgenstein observes, ‘because my head often knows nothing about what my hand is writing.
The key moment of any theoretical – and indeed ethical, political, and, as Badiou demonstrated, even aesthetic – struggle is the rise of universality out of the particular lifeworld. The commonplace according to which we are all thoroughly grounded in a particular, contingent lifeworld, so that all universality is irreducibly coloured by and embedded in that life-world, needs to be turned round. The authentic moment of discovery, the breakthrough, occurs when a properly universal dimension explodes from within a particular context and becomes ‘for-itself’, and is directly experienced as universal. This universality-for-itself is not simply external to or above its particular context: it is inscribed within it. It perturbs and affects it from within, so that the identity of the particular is split into its particular and its universal aspects. Surely Marx already pointed out how the true problem with Homer was not to explain the roots of his epics in early Greek society, but to account for the fact that, although clearly rooted in their historical context, they were able to transcend their historical origin and speak to all epochs. Perhaps the most elementary hermeneutic test of the greatness of a work of art is its ability to survive being torn from its original context. In the case of truly great art, each epoch reinvents and rediscovers it. There is a romantic Shakespeare and a realist Shakespeare.
The standard Marxist hermeneutics of unearthing the particular bias of abstract universality should thus be supplemented by its opposite: by the properly Hegelian procedure which uncovers the universality of what presents itself as a particular position. [...]
Isn’t this the very lesson of Hegel’s ‘Cunning of Reason’? Particularity can indeed mask universality. [...] ore generally, an individual capitalist thinks he is active for his own profit, ignoring how he is serving the expanded reproduction of universal capital. It is not only that every universality is haunted by a particular content that taints it; it is that every particular position is haunted by its implicit universality, which undermines it. Capitalism is not just universal in itself, it is universal for itself, as the tremendous actual corrosive power which undermines all particular lifeworlds, cultures and traditions, cutting across them, catching them in its vortex. It is meaningless to ask ‘Is this universality true or a mask of particular interests?’ This universality is directly actual as universality, as the negative force of mediating and destroying all particular content.
This is the moment of truth in liberalism’s claim to kulturlos universality: capitalism, whose ideology liberalism is, effectively is universal, no longer rooted in a particular culture or ‘world’. This is why Badiou recently claimed that our time is devoid of world: the universality of capitalism resides in the fact that capitalism is not a name for a ‘civilisation’, for a specific cultural-symbolic world, but the name for a truly neutral economic-symbolic machine which operates with Asian values as well as with others. In that sense, Europe’s worldwide triumph is its defeat, its self-obliteration. Capitalism’s umbilical link to Europe has been cut. The critics of Eurocentrism who endeavour to unearth the secret European bias of capitalism fall short here: the problem with capitalism is not its secret Eurocentric bias, but the fact that it really is universal, a neutral matrix of social relations.
The same logic holds for the emancipatory struggle: the particular culture which tries desperately to defend its identity has to repress the universal dimension which is active at its very heart, that is the gap between the particular (its identity) and the universal which destabilises it from within. [...] The formula of revolutionary solidarity is not ‘let us tolerate our differences’, it is not a pact of civilisations, but a pact of struggles which cut across civilisations, a pact between what, in each civilisation, undermines its identity from within, fights against its oppressive kernel. What unites us is the same struggle. A better formula would thus be: in spite of our differences, we can identify the basic antagonism or antagonistic struggle in which we are both caught; so let us share our intolerance, and join forces in the same struggle. In other words, in the emancipatory struggle, it is not the cultures in their identity which join hands, it is the repressed, the exploited and suffering, the ‘parts of no-part’ of every culture which come together in a shared struggle.
this ties in to some of my thoughts on literary theory actually, and how great literature isn't just inward-looking (as in: you're not just thinking about the characters and the plot) but rather outward-looking, universal, greater than its pages. you read it and end up understanding more about the world around you
In other words, I distrust both the structuralist idea that knowing more about 'textual mechanisms' is essential for literary criticism and the post-structuralist idea that detecting the presence, or the subversion, of metaphysical hierarchies is essential. Knowing about mechanisms of textual production or about metaphysics can, to be sure, sometimes be useful. Having read Eco, or having read Derrida, will often give you something interesting to say about a text which you could not otherwise have said. But it brings you no closer to what is really going on in the text than having read Marx, Freud, Matthew Arnold or F. R. Leavis. Each of these supplementary readings simply gives you one more context in which you can place the text - one more grid you can place on top of it or one more paradigm to which to juxtapose it. Neither piece of knowledge tells you anything about the nature of texts or the nature of reading. For neither has a nature.
Unmethodical criticism of the sort which one occasionally wants to call 'inspired' is the result of an encounter with an author, character, plot, stanza, line or archaic torso which has made a difference to the critic's conception of who she is, what she is good for, what she wants to do with herself: an encounter which has rearranged her priorities and purposes. Such criticism uses the author or text not as a specimen reiterating a type but as an occasion for changing a previously accepted taxonomy, or for putting a new twist on a previously told story. Its respect for the author or the text is not a matter of respect for an intentio or for an internal structure. Indeed, 'respect' is the wrong word. 'Love' or 'hate' would be better. For a great love or a great loathing is the sort of thing that changes us by changing our purposes, changing the uses to which we shall put people and things and texts we encounter later.
I would argue, then, that the contemporary novelist who is not in any way addressing the changed reality of the present may yet be serving an important function. For the reader, that is--not necessarily for the genre itself. A crucial distinction. Through his deployment of the language, through giving expression to his vision, the writer may be creating a self-contained alternate order--a place where the ambitious reader can go to counter the centrifuge of late modernity, where he can, at least for a time, possess the aesthetic illusion of focus and sustain a single-minded immersion in circumstance no longer so generally available. that this is vicarious does not undermine its validity: it is a mode of surrogate living which most closely approximates what living felt like before technologies began to divide us from ourselves.
I like the centrifuge metaphor
The future will be gorgeous and reckless, and words, those luminous charms, will set us free again. If only for a moment.