Monday, February 12, 2007

My Newly Developed Theory of: The Divine Reader


I've been working on this for about 4 months. Let me know if you see any obvious holes, tautologies, non-sequiturs, or logical fallacies. Gently, please.

While as the first section of the Review of Literature dealt with the secondary criticism of the Borges text, this second section will cover the literature on the relationship between author/reader producer/receiver of a text. I wish to delve deeper into the reality of mankind as a creation of god, and as a creation of the god-like author, as well as the seldom-explored relationship between the reader’s godlike creation of the setting of a text in his/her mind and the identity and existence of the characters in a text.

I will not deign to indulge in the fallacy of authorial intention that T.S. Eliot criticized when he said, “the poet has not a ‘personality’ to express, but a particular medium, in which impressions and experiences combine in peculiar and unexpected ways” (42).[1]

Neither will this investigation get bogged down in what W.K. Wimsatt termed the Affective Fallacy because I will not concern myself with a view of literature based on its putative emotional effects on the reader, rather my interest lies in the imaginative producer role taken on by the receiver of a text (38-9).

Hans Robert Jauss, in the late 1960s, concerning what he termed the “aesthetics of reception,” said this:

Literature and art only obtain a history that has the character of a process when the succession of works is mediated not only through the producing subject, but also through the consuming subject—through the interaction of author and public. (15)

Meaning that he felt that neither process was independent from one another, that the “historical essence of the work of art lies not only in its representational or expressive function but also in its influence” on the (reading) public (15).

In order to properly dileneate the argument on which I base my reading, I must first reckon with Roland Barthes’s landmark essay, “The Death of the Author.” In his text, Barthes attacks the Classic focus of the “writer as the only person in literature,” claiming that “To give a text an Author is to impose a limit on that text, to furnish it with a final signified, to close the writing” (147). Barthes saw the language of a text as a fabric of quotations drawn from “innumerable cultures of centre” rather than from one individual (the Author’s) experience (146) and that a text’s unity lies in its destination rather than its origin (148). The essential meaning of a text then, according to Barthes, would depend on the impressions of the reader rather than the intentions, biography, or psychology of its author. Michel Foucault seems to agree with Barthes when he writes that the role of the author will eventually disappear and the “one who spoke” will no longer seem as important as the answers to these questions:

What are the modes of existence of this discourse? Where has it been used, how can it circulate, and who can appropriate it for himself?... And behind all these questions, we would hardly hear anything but the stirring of an indifference: What difference does it make who is speaking? (138)

After reading the essays by Barthes and Foucault it follows that an individual could easily be convinced of the separation of the historical author from the historical text. They would argue that this is because our perceptions of the author might unduly influence our reading of it as a “so-and-so” text instead of the meaning inherent in the work itself.

Linda Hutcheon, in A Poetics of Postmodernism, feels that the author may “very well be dead” but that “it is possible to argue that this position of discursive authority [the author] still lives on, because it is encoded into the enunciative act itself” (77). She cites Foe by Coetzee as an example when a narrator finds herself at the mercy of both Daniel Defoe and Coetzee himself. The novel’s dynamics makes Hutcheon worry that just like the narrator, “so too the receiver of any text could be seen to be at the mercy of an agent provocateur/manipulateur, the producer. This is the postmodern ironic and problematizing play of enunciation and context” (78).

In an effort to recuperate the author, Jorge García postulates that if a monkey were to type “FIRE!” on a typewriter there are several incompatible meanings that could be attached to the text (shoot!, careful, bring water quickly). He claims that “Context is essential for meaning and a typescript that lacks context must essentially lack meaning” because:

“…for entities to acquire meaning and become signs, and for signs to compose texts, they must be picked and endowed with meaning in certain arrangements at some point in history. Otherwise they are no more than the entities they are. Texts outside history are not texts. (179)

He adds that texts “need historical authors” because a text without an author is a text without history “and texts without history are texts without meaning” (179-80). He concludes ultimately that the imposition of the Author’s Proper Name on a text and the limitations that that knowledge causes are “not necessarily bad and, consequently, neither are the limitations that the consideration of its author may impose” because they may add to our understanding of the text (184).

Alexander Nehemas sees the author and writer as two distinct entities and says that the writer owns the work as one might own property, meaning that the work can be taken from him—as when someone rewrites or translates a work. The author however “owns a work as one might own one’s actions. Their works are authentically their own” an idea that Gilles Deleuze credits to Nietzsche and his theory of the artist being the only true creator of anything new, rather than the forger (Deleuze 134-38, Nehemas 113). Owning one’s actions and one’s thoughts leads me into my final conclusion concerning the corollary between god/creation and author/character: The Divine Reader.

The Divine Reader

I do not wish to interpret Borges’s stories considering him as the author, rather, I need to free the reader from the vice grip of both the text and the author. The reader of any text responds to the chains of signifiers in a subjective way based on their understanding of the words, their impression from the reading, their mood, intelligence, life experiences, previous books read, knowledge of the historicity and historiographic metafiction contained in the text, and any other myriad combination of semiotics and signifiers “through which [one] forms the ‘gestalt’ of the text” (The Implied Reader 283).

Classic thought maintained that the author exercised a patriarchal hand over his or her readers and essentially controlled their response by his or her construction of the text. Well-written comedy could elicit laughter from an audience; tragedy can bring them to tears. Melodrama can cause any number of very real emotional responses in a reader, and erotic literature can cause a very real and palpable physical response in the reader.[2] It comes as no surprise that the Classic view of the author was essentially one of awe and reverence. Additionally, the author was seen to exercise a god-like control over the characters in a work. The personages were considered pawns at the whim and caprice of their invisible creator, similar to Borges’s chess player and pieces in “Ajedrez.”

As previously mentioned, Barthes revealed the flaws in these ways of thinking. No author, no matter how clever or adroit with words can completely control the reader’s mental text, the mental response to a text. In the case of erotic literature, the authorial intent might be to cause a stimulus response to the text. This very well may be (and usually is) accomplished, but the author cannot control the mental images, the express content of each reader’s mind, something we can term “the mental text” which Wolfgang Iser might call “passive synthesis” (The Act of Reading 135).[3]

One reader’s mental text upon reading Erica Jong’s Fear of Flying, with its famous scene of the soldier and the widow having sweaty sex on a train in Italy, will differ greatly from that of another reader (11). Each individual can rightly claim to have read, visualized, and understood the text, to have felt the same erotic stimuli, and even to have later indulged in the memory of those stimuli while engaged in erotic behavior, but the mental text that they construct while reading the text and while revisiting their reading of the text, is their own. Each reader’s vision of Jaromir Hladík, of Pierre Menard, of the magician in “Las ruinas” is their own construct, regardless of the original source input. One reader might picture the magician as a mustachioed brown-skinned man with a golden earring dressed in sackcloth, and another reader will certainly envision him in a different way. Is this the same magician? Is it the same Hladík in Reader A’s mind as it is in Reader B’s? Both have received the same text and produced their own version of it in their imagination, but their creations will differ, even if only slightly.[4] There are now two Hladíks, each dependent on the mental text of their receiver. This mental text adds the reader into the creator/created mixture by their ability to claim pseudo-authorship of the work they see in their mind.

For example, Gabriel García Márquez wrote the screenplay to “Un señor muy viejo con unas alas enormes” which was made into a movie with Fernando Birri as director in 1988. Having read García Márquez’s short story of the same name previous to my viewing of the film, I have to say that the version that I had constructed in my mind had nothing to do with the version I saw displayed on the screen. My mental text was entirely divergent from the onscreen version. Though the plot and characters were the same, I found this filmic version an intrusion into the world I had comfortably constructed around the story. The result was unsatisfying and left me feeling that I “preferred the book” to the visual work.

I, as a reader, and every other reader, have formed their own version of the angel fallen to earth. The mental text in my head as I think back on the story is far different from the one I had constructed while reading it. Time has erased certain portions of my mental text, but it is still there. What gives the reader god-like control over Hladík, the angel, or Pierre Menard (and his Quijote) is that each time I think about my mental text, without having to open the actual text, I resurrect those characters, those creations. My thoughts bring them back to life; my will to see them has control over them. They cannot progress any more than I allow them to do. Not only does this happen in my mind, but somewhere in the world today, and every day, a reader has read or remembered the original text, and has conjured a mental text of Hladík’s tale in their mind. This creates an alternate dimension, a multiplicity of Hladíks in existence. The reader, like the author, like a god, like “el dios detrás de dios” that started the whole process, exercises omnipotence over that realm of the universe that they control in their minds. Like the Gnostic cosmogonies with their ever-diminishing levels of divinity until the lower gods are only remotely invested with omnipotence, the reader forms part of this circle of power.As most mental texts are never put down on paper or spoken to others, as most of them are relegated to the nothingness of mental forgetting, these reader gods destroy far more than the actual text. Hladík is resurrected and dies again each time he is read, thought of, or even half-considered.

The reader has far more creative control over his or her creations than any author might ever hope to obtain. In essence, they have spawned new dimensions, a new wing of the universe in which they can play god. Readers may even create new texts, or add to and subtract from texts that they wish to change.[5] The reader is beyond god-like: el público lector son pequeños dioses. This is why the version of the Quijote that Menard writes is infinitely richer than Cervantes’. History and its new symbols have added to the text, and Menard’s version, is his mental text written down. To be sure it differs not an iota from the original in the words themselves, but the reading, the receiver’s interpretation of it, the re-imagining of the text, the new mental texts brought into existence by the receivers’ thought processes, adds to the text and each receiver thereby controls Menard so much that the version of the Quijote that they now imagine is their own which they have forced Menard to pen for them. Borges may include the story in his collection, but the reader can rightly do so as well. The reader is the ultimate historical author, because his or her actions and thoughts are unique and binding and independent of everything and everyone.[6]

[1] Eliot thought of the poet as the channel and catalyst by which the different elements of poetry were combined.
2 Robert Holub would argue that “the literary work is neither completely text nor completely the subjectivity of the reader, but a combination or merger of the two”. In this case, the various physical or emotional responses in the reader to the text can be theorized into feeling that the reader would most likely not have experienced those same things had they not first received the text. (Holub 84)
3 Holub says that the Iser’s passive synthesis is a form of “Ideation” which:
Is an essential part of the creative imagination that ultimately produces an aesthetic object. It does not always accomplish this in a straightforward manner, of course. On the contrary, in most non-trivial works, images are produced and recede again, being modified and reconstituted on a complex temporal process. Meaning, as an end result of this process, thus consists of a synthesis of various phases, and since the images can never be precisely duplicated, it is never exactly the same (91).
My Divine Reader theory does not contradict what Holub proposes; rather, I am expanding on his general idea and extending this process onto the original pseudo-authorial mental textual production of the reader/receiver.
4 It is also entirely possible that two readers or even two historical authors might conceive of the same or very similar story at the same time or at different times. There are always lawsuits after a hit movie because someone will claim that so-and-so lifted or plagiarized material from their screenplay, when oftentimes, the one had never been aware of the other. John Lennon insisted this was the case with his use of the line “Here come old flattop” in the song “Come Together” in spite of Chuck Berry’s insistence and lawsuit that the line was from his song “You Can’t Catch Me” (Turner 173).
5 The preschool cable channel Noggin has an interstitial segment called “Story Time” where they read a child a classic fairy tale. When they finish the fairy tale, they ask the child, “And then what happened?” They then illustrate and animate a basic cartoon version of the fantastic tale that the child contrives. Goldilocks comes back and apologizes and cooks pancakes for the Three Bears in one version. This new mental text made manifest was one child’s response to the prompting of what happened after the historical text ended. This mental text might have existed before the question was asked. Asking the same question to another child would surely prompt an entirely different answer. This is another example of the god-like control of the reader over the free will of any character (nay any aspect) of a text. The reader/receiver can reproduce and create with the characters in any way they like.
6 An excellent example of this phenomenon is Miguel de Unamuno’s novel Niebla. That novel starts out with the prologue written by one Victor Goti, the best friend of the main character, Augusto Pérez. “Goti” writes:
Se empeña don Miguel de Unamuno en que ponga yo un prólogo a este su libro en que se relata la tan lamentable historia de mi buen amigo Augusto Pérez y su misteriosa muerte, y yo no puedo menos sino escribirlo, porque los deseos de señor Unamuno son para mí mandatos, en la más genuina acepción de este vocablo. Sin haber yo llegado al extremo de escepticismo hamletiano de mi pobre amigo Pérez, que llegó hasta a dudar de su propia existencia, estoy por lo menos firmemente persuadido de que carezco de eso que los psicólogos llaman libre albedrío, aunque para mi consuelo creo también que tampoco goza don Miguel de él. (43)
Goti claims to exist in the same universe as both Pérez and Unamuno. Mario Valdés describes this exact situation when he writes, “This common level of existence for all three lies only in the domain of the reading experience of the varied and sundry readers of the novel” (108). Goti ends by saying that Unamuno’s “versión” of Pérez’s death is one “que estimo errónea” and he therefore impinges on Unamuno’s ability to convince his reader of how Pérez truly died, prompting the reader to doubt Unamuno’s (who will later claim otherwise) telling of the events (51). Goti’s opening statement conveys the message that neither he (Goti) nor Unamuno has free will, that they cannot act independently of the reader, indeed “They are at the mercy of the whim and fancy of their readers, whom they can only hope to marginally influence” (Valdés 108).

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