Saturday, November 26, 2005
The Good Reader
Nikolai Duffy, in his essay “In Other Words: Writing Maurice Blanchot Writing”:
For Blanchot, the good reader would not be what he terms the critical reader but the literary reader. Rather than interrogating “the work in order to know how it was fashioned” (SL 203), which is to say, rather than subordinating the openness of reading to an active means of elucidating the value and meaning of the work (and, by proxy, the value of reading itself), all of which Blanchot identifies with critical reading, the literary reader or what Blanchot refers to as “the true reader” (SL 203) passively collapses before the work, giving “the work back to itself: back to its anonymous presence, to the impersonal affirmation that it is” (SL 193). The work says nothing and of the work, therefore, there is nothing to say. If the work is to remain communicable at all, this is what it is necessary to say, always again, always badly, and always for the first time. As such, the task of the good reader is not to say the work but rather to procure a space in which the work can continue not to say itself. . . .
So in other words, most of us are very bad readers.
Bakhtin, by contrast, says that discourse structures itself in the direction of a response, anticipates and counts on that response—so that the imagined response to a given utterance has a kind of priority over the utterance itself. On the Bakhtinian account, the kind of reading that Blanchot celebrates would be a manifest ethical and dialogical failure. Reading as Blanchot counsels would not be reading at all, but a kind of self-evacuation, which for Bakhtin is a failure to be “answerable” to another person. (See “Discourse in the Novel.")
I’m with Bakhtin on this one.
so that the imagined response to a given utterance has a kind of priority over the utterance itself.
This is interesting, as Blanchot’s texts do often seem to function quite well without such response. Or independent of a merely critical response, at least. One is somewhat forced to either accept his theory of writing or...not to read him. Or to read him only as a sort of “poetry,” no doubt many would sneer. But is Bakhtin’s account entirely incommensurable with the reader who may ‘co-sign’ the text (Derrida), that is, in a ‘readerly’ manner? Might you say more about why this would amount to an “ethical failure” for Bakhtin (and perhaps it all hinges on the ongoing debate over whether one reads Bakhtin prescriptively or descriptively)?
Thanks for sharing this essay, Dan.
"the task of the good reader is not to say the work but rather to procure a space in which the work can continue not to say itself. . . .”
I realize that by even asking I reveal myself as sympathetic to (Blanchot’s version of) bad reading—but really. What would that involve pedagogically? How would we connect with other readers in order to cultivate and pass on the art of giving a work room in which it can continue not to say itself? Or does “literary” reading cancel out silly assumptions about a pedagogy of reading, always isolating us into states of respectfully incommunicable collapse?
It’s a good question. To be very glib about it, perhaps, it may be a sort of collapse--one concerned for discretion and respectful of silence(s)--that returns always to the question of literature itself, but that only arrives at this question through a careful and patient reading (a reading alongside this question); that is, there are positive ways to describe this “collapse,” and as other than just a failure to comminicate. Blanchot’s most concise thoughts on the matter can be found in The Space of Literature.
I don’t really know enough about Blanchot’s view of formal literary study to say anything definitive, but I’d suspect that “good reading” has nothing to do with “pedagogy.” I’d suspect further that the whole practice of thinking about what a way of reading “would. . .involve pedagogically” has created the situation wherein we are forced to think about “a space” in which literature might be allowed to be itself.
But is Bakhtin’s account entirely incommensurable with the reader who may ‘co-sign’ the text (Derrida), that is, in a ‘readerly’ manner?
Bakhtin’s position here is virtually identical with Derrida’s—in his early work Bakhtin speaks of “undersigning” one’s reading. There is a kind of affirmation of a text, an echoing, a complete endorsing, which is very different from the evacuation of the reading self which Blanchot seems to want. (And on these matters at least Bakhtin is indeed prescribing, since he speaks of the undesirable alternatives to the model of reading he advocates.)
"I don’t really know enough about Blanchot’s view of formal literary study to say anything definitive, but I’d suspect that “good reading” has nothing to do with “pedagogy.” I’d suspect further that the whole practice of thinking about what a way of reading “would. . .involve pedagogically” has created the situation wherein we are forced to think about “a space” in which literature might be allowed to be itself. “
From what little I know of Blanchot, that was kind of what I suspected too. But how else to prod at a statement that clearly wants to luxuriate in itself? The prose, negative logic is so seductive—I would love to drop the sentence into an essay of my own:
“the task of the good reader is not to say the work but rather to procure a space in which the work can continue not to say itself. . . .”
But I honestly have no idea what it means. Which might be why I love it, left as I am to enjoy its slyness without worrying about the need to explain it to anyone else, encouraged by a model of reading that promotes absenting oneself from the scene of literary explanation.
But after that’s taken up a few minutes of my life, then what?
Like “prefer not to say,” I am not sure what this means, nor do I understand why acting in such a supposedly passive manner somehow makes one a “good reader.” Unlike “prefer not to say,” I am not very sympathetic to this sort of talk. My gut reaction is that it is a bunch of mystical obscurantism.
Since neither Blanchot nor Duffy seem particularly interested in persuading me of the value of this approach (and seem to even deny that one should speak of value in this context), there is not much I can do with it.
Since the active approach to reading suits me just fine, I guess I have to just leave it at that.
Alan, you may be right. I only ask because the late Derrida was so close to Blanchot, even when speaking of unconditional affirmation. Then again, there’s was a relationship to occupy the scholars of the next century at least.
If that paraphrase really gave us Blanchot’s idea of the good reader, I can only think that good is used here ironically. The good reader seems like the abject reader, to me—the one who regards reading as a thing that is always done once only. In a sense, that is the quantitative reader—who, if reading the text again, can be assured of reading the same text, the same master text he or she always surrendered to. The bad reader is the one whose reading actually continues the text as a state of affairs that repeats itself and has to be fought again. Each bout gives one the chance of another outcome—they are not, properly, repetitions. In this rather bogus distinction between good and bad readers, I’m all for the bad reader.
"in a sense, that is the quantitative reader—who,
if reading the text again, can be assured of reading the same text”
Actually, it’s just the opposite. The “bad reader” (unironic) insures, through the insistence on interpretation, that the text will always be the same on subsequent readings. In fact, why read it again at all, since it’t now been interpreted and its “meaning” made clear?
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