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Thursday, June 30, 2016

How to Read Anything (C.S. Lewis, Jillian Keenan and Company)


On the one hand you have comments such as this: “For there can be no serious doubt that Milton meant just what Addison said: neither more, nor less, nor other than that. If you can’t be interested in that, you can’t be interested in Paradise Lost” (C. S. Lewis, A Preface to Paradise Lost, 71).


On the other hand, you have comments like this: “We all have our own versions, and those interpretations are as valid as anyone’s…. Characters are like clouds: we all see different animals hidden in them” (Jillian Keenan, Sex with Shakespeare, 21).


Either there's only one correct way to read a text--or anything goes.


Lewis’ version of reading, which allows only two possibilities, the correct interpretation and error, is at odds with the history of interpretation and with language itself. All texts actually get multiple interpretations, remain sites of agony for various meanings among contentious factions and, far from settling into singleness from the concerted efforts of equally perspicacious, equally well educated readers, endlessly accrue and multiply meanings. And language itself, as shown by everyone from Saussure to Derrida, simply cannot ever be so absolutely nailed down.


But is Keenan’s view any better? Lewis would have called her informal reading method wishy washy (or something equally disparaging). It’s nonrigorous, nonserious. It puts the expert and the amateur on the same plain--a way of thinking that is currently having disastrous effects in the sciences where ignorant American politicians feel authorized to pronounce on matters they know less about than school children. It’s a complacent way of thinking, an unapologetic attempt to abuse (in Keenan's case) Shakespeare’s texts into mirrors for herself the working out of her private quirks or neuroses. It may be useful for her to do this and entertaining for us to watch her do this, in a kind of voyeuristic way, but in the end, if it tells us anything about Shakespeare it will be by chance.

Clearly, in my view, neither Lewis nor Keenan is right. He But the middle ground one might reach is hardly less problematic. Lewis is disingenuous or naïve when he claims that his singular view of the text covers all the intended (let alone the unintended) implications of Paradise Lost. He severely oversimplifies the text, cutting it off from innumerable rich and challenging readings that can and have proven productive—from Blake to Fish. The idea that the text to be seen properly has to be seen only via the ways that his own vision of Christianity matches (as he sees it) Milton’s own shows an unsupportable confidence in his own ability to align his 20th century consciousness with that of 17th century Milton, perhaps again a naivete, perhaps a Miltonic hubris—also ironic in an essay that centrally valorizes differences over samenesses and condemns the “enduring human heart,” as a valid critical focus. At the same time Keenan allows too little resistance in the text. True, she’s actually struggling with it. But she’s struggling against what the text seems to be in order to force it to reflect her own needs for the text. She's clever, and worth reading. And her book will teach you something about Shakespeare and about reading. But even her metaphor reveals the problem. While it may be true that not all people see the same shape in a cloud, it’s not true that we all see different shapes in them. When a cloud looks like a dog a lot of people are going to see the dog. And if you don’t see the dog, I can show it to you.

I don’t think either Lewis or Keenan is doing anything wrong. What’s wrong is proclaiming that what they are doing is true or right, that it conforms to the facts of a text. For Lewis, the only way to be interested in Milton’s poem is to be interested in the view of Christianity reflected in that poem—whether or not Lewis is correct in his characterization of what the Christianity is is beside the point. For Keenan, because we are all different all interpretations are equally valid. She’s as monolithic in her insistence on the irretrievable openness of the text as he is in insisting on its closedness.  What in fact is Keenan herself actually doing if not inviting us to see the shape of her cloud?

Here's a better way of thinking about texts.


As I tell my own students endlessly, if you want to read a text yourself and interpret it to yourself, you can do anything you want to it or with it. You can let it work our thoughts in any direction you want them to go. You can make it your mirror or your judge. (At least you can try; there's no assurance the text will cooperate.) You can skip words you don’t know or chapters you don’t like and lose yourself in our own head without permission from the text or the literature police because there are no literature police. If you want to think “The Road Not Taken” is telling you that you should strike out on your own and always travel the less worn path, you can make the poem give you that good advice—you can use the poem to tell you what you already wanted to know. It might work. It’s a kind of masturbatory thrill. But you can masturbate to whatever turns you on. However, if you want to read a text in a community—and literature has always assumed a community of readers—then you will have to negotiate the treacherous terrain of other souls or other subjectivities. You will also have to negotiate at some point with the text itself as though it were one of those subjectivities in your reading group. Once you’ve had your fill of masturbation, you will have to cooperate with the needs and desires of your lovers.


How do you do this? Since the text can only go so far in offering to you the means to decipher it, and although all texts at all times exert the threat of pressure against your reading, more and more texts more current than Milton or Shakespeare withdraw as much as possible from offering those means, you have to set up for (or with) your community what counts.


In other words, you make up the rules, and then you play the game.


What are we in particular after when we read this text now? The mind of Milton may not be attainable. But it can still be the guiding principle for the reading of a text. It can be what you want to achieve and you can tirelessly seek it via whatever means you imagine would be most likely to yield it. And you can justify the quest, if you choose or if you need to or if you are recruiting more archeologists to your dig. But not on the grounds that it is the only valid thing to do with a text. Or you can utterly give up on figuring out either what the author was trying to say or what the text actually says (which again, are only ever attainable up to a point—everything gets blurry again when you focus past the optimal). But you oughtn't make this choice either in monolithic despair over the possibility of the text’s meaningful resistance to your queries or in vague (and equally monolithic) assurance that your ignorance is good as any expert's expertise.


Equally monolithic. As I was writing the previous paragraphs, I was toying with the idea that if the theory advocated by Keenan (as opposed to her actual practice) is masturbation, then Lewis’ is a form of abuse. But in fact, since all metaphors break down when pressed too hard, both methods are equally abusive in so far as they say “no” to any practice outside their own.

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