Thursday, July 12, 2007

concerning the reader

Morteza Katouzian, "Dead End" (1981)

in order to read well, one must be a generous reader. to read with charity is not to forgive all wrongs, or to overlook failings, but instead to actually experience where the failings are: i.e., where the author has genuinely failed to accomplish the task which they undertook and why that task was important. the miserly reader sees only the extent to which the writer did not carry out the task which the reader wished to see accomplished. in this manner the reader locks the book shut in the very act of opening its cover. this is a moral failing.

...of which i have been more-than-once guilty.



a. said...

wise words - o wise one. :) I couldn't agree more. And this is why, I suppose, reading has been labelled a 'dangerous' activity by all sorts of tyrannical regimes...because you end up opening your mind and heart to other ideas... other ways of seeing things, wholehearted sales pitches on Otherness. But this is also why I sometimes get confused reading memoirs. They are necessarily almost obfuscating of other viewpoints and facts...
Love the painting to go with the post (you do have a knack dont you?)

Lawrence of Arabia said...

katouzian is a very insightful painter.

i have to say there have been points in my career where i have found it very hard to be a good reader, and there remain certain topics and writers about which i simply refuse to write because i feel unable to do them justice because of my complete inability to approach them in a sympathetic manner.

best wishes,

Maliha said...

Do you think all writers/authors merit the same respect or generosity?

Lawrence of Arabia said...

i admit i was aware of this question, and mentally dwelt on it briefly, before deciding i was lazy and moving on.

certainly there are writers whose material may be quite objectionable who must nonetheless be read with a great deal of charity: i think of martin heidegger especially, who is one of the most important philosophers of the 20th c. despite his fascism, or lukacs and his wrestlings with stalinism.

obviously there are also texts which do not give themselves in the same way, do not ask for the same seriousness: the romance or the comedy. but perhaps it is necessary at times to take these texts more seriously than they seem to wish precisely because they are such stereotypical examples of cultural phenomena (commercials can fall in this category as well). why are the escapism of the romance and comedy culturally necessary? and certainly the commodity centered nature of our existence deserves very serious attention and again one that probably deserves a great deal of charity since it is experienced by so many of us as a compelling way of life even in our sometimes-skepticism of it.

there are texts that seem to actively repel charitable readings and open engagement. here one might include so much of what shows up as political discourse these days. here one must say several things. first insofar as such rhetorical productions misrepresent their opponents in an active and purposeful way they clearly are not 'serious'. in many ways they are less serious than the romance or comedy which are quite actively inviting in their escapism. and yet it is only by taking the rhetoric seriously that one can show its emptiness (to take a popular example that i have certainly used before: when "freedom" means that a woman can go topless on the beach but can't wear a head scarf when she attends university, something has gone bizarrely wrong in meaning of the word freedom).

at that point one may need to take up the question which was completely unraised by this post: questions of satire and farce, etc. this post assumed a very academic task for the reader. i think the closest we come to that is dialectic and irony. and we seriously fail in our task when we fall into polemic.

[some academics are in fact quite adept at the use of satire, btw. my fave example is an (in)famous article by stanley hauerwas entitled "why gays are morally superior christians" in which he asks why the u.s. military was so afraid of the subversive power of homosexuality on military culture by xty seemed to pose no threat. shouldnt xns be seen as a threat too. might they not baptize their comrades in the showers. or can xns really be trusted in the foxhole since they are commanded to love their enemies and bless all those who curse them. but notice here that satire is actually directed against hauerwas's own community (xty), who have failed to live up to the demands of the gospel of jesus christ in his estimation, and not against some Other.]

i think one could really raise some problematic examples of texts: mein kampf, maybe. but can one really understand the horrors of the nazi without being able to grasp why nazi ideology was so fascinating to so many. why did so many find in hitler's fascism, what seemed to them in any case, a path of salvation? or how does one read something that seems as ridiculous as L.Ron Hubbard's work. and i will list here my own ability to deal charitably in many cases with my own childhood experience of xty as it expresses itself in the pentecostal movement.

a few thoughts to begin an answer to a very complicated question,

irving said...

Some books have their own time to be read, and a person of twenty cannot understand and fails to be generous to an author who writes from the perspective of a 50 year old. Time eventually catches up with the reader. Those books, at least for me, are the most difficult and rewarding. And one can also read a book at twenty and then again at fifty, and see new worlds in it that were there all along, but not to young and inexperienced eyes.

Ya Haqq!

Lawrence of Arabia said...

i think that is a very good point and there are certainly quite a few literary authors especially that have become increasingly important to me as a reader since i got older (jane austen, esp.).

best wishes,