Writing Your Reading

Yesterday I spoke to a good friend of mine about the post I wrote this week about Robert Walser’s short story “The Battle of Sempach.” Well, actually, I’d just happened to ask him whether he’d read the story, which he took, not unfairly, as an invitation to comment on the post. He told me something that, I will admit, made me a little defensive, but as time passed, spurred some thought & maybe some further exercises in the same vein as that post. Basically, the upshot of his response to the post — I’m still unsure if he liked the story, which remains the issue for me — was that I’d kind of copped out in the end by not explaining adequately what I found interesting about the story. (This is a common critique of my posts, btw, and one to which I submit without ever actually changing my blogging behavior.)

Don’t misunderstand: I’m not writing this post now to use the power of the bully pulpit to rag on my unnamed friend. He remains a friend and one whose comments on writing in general that I value. But I do wonder: why this need for commentary? Do engagements with a story or text, philosophical or fictive, have to explain it, let alone be dolled up in such a way that our explanations are described as  “interpretations”? Is it not possible, I think it is, to burrow into our reading by way of our writing, and come out with something that is unavoidably interpretive, but perhaps less explanatory than exploratory? A kind of wandering that doesn’t take pictures or souvenirs, and that collects only dirt in the shoes and burs in the socks.

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4 Responses to “Writing Your Reading”

  1. voorface Says:

    So in place of a hermeneutics we need an erotics of art?

  2. Brad Johnson Says:

    I don’t really see what I’m talking about as a replacement of anything, but neither would I necessarily object to anything called “an erotics of art.” I’m very much of the mind that hermeneutics involves not merely an explanation, or the necessity og multiple explanations, of a text but the actual expansion of the text in question.

  3. Robert Minto Says:

    These sound like the desires of someone who is moved to make art when he encounters it, but who is problematically wedded to a practice of commentary instead. Or in other words, one can write about books by commentating on them, but the only way I can think of to write about them without commentating on them is to write equivalent (rather than directly derivative) texts. I guess I’m sort of asking whether you aren’t advocating that one response to art is to make more art — and I think that is what you’re saying, because the posts you make here, in which you engage your reading, seem like an attempt at a sort of collage art, a pushing at the inside of a balloon in the attempt to stretch it into a new shape. But I think perhaps your posts hover at the border of that without crossing properly into art, because you strongly maintain the appearance of commentary through things like quotation, comments on the authorship of the text, etc. Consequently, readers are lead to expect commentary — and, yes, interpretation.

    I feel the above to be unclear: let me try again:

    When people criticize you for not explaining what you find interesting about a story, are they missing the point because you aren’t explaining that interest but expressing it? In other words, your writing about books, in the kind of post that the Walser post was, is not seeking to be an expression of your acting on the book — criticism, commentary, what-have-you — but of the book’s acting upon you — influence, as it were?

    Sorry for my twisty unwieldy way of asking that question. I’m just trying to wrap my mind around what you said without resorting to catchphrases and technical expressions that can fool two parties into thinking they’ve communicated when in fact they’ve merely brandished mutually unintelligible slogans…

  4. Brad Johnson Says:

    Robert, yes, I think you’re right all around there.

    (a) The problem, as developed later by my friend in react in reaction to this post (he is a shy one, and prefers to discuss such things with me via email and/or instant message), is one of expectation. Namely, as you mention here, that texts resembling commentary, with quotes and what not, should in fact normally be judged to and assessed as commentary. I see this as being a very fair criticism. And yet, perhaps problematically still, it is one I remain prone to resist. I suppose for me it comes down to a perhaps naive aspiration that the distinction between “making-art” & “commenting-on-art” need not be a rigid one. The problem, of course, is knowing for sure when a writer is in fact intending to adhere to such a firm distinction but in the end winds up making a muck of his/her intention (i.e. shitty art / inept commentary / etc.). Whether this problem is a deficiency of the aspiration itself, though, I don’t know, and is something I’m still thinking about.

    (b) And, yes, I like how you say that: “an expression of . . . the book acting upon you ” That is definitely one level of my motivation in most of my book-related posts, some times more successfully than others. There is also a practical aspect, though. It is an invitation as well that the book/story do the same to any who are so inclined actually to read it. In general, when I write about a book/story, I am very reluctant to offer up my two cents about what it means, etc., at least in the main post. Too often, in my opinion, blog readers (myself included, I confess) are a rather lazy (or, more generously, preoccupied) reader, and would prefer to read the commentary but not that which is being commented on. That is well & fine to a point, but they will then make matters far worse by then commenting only on the commentary. Even when this is done with the best of intentions, I find it very irritating if it happens too quickly in a conversation (mid- or late-conversation, if one occurs, it seems inevitable, and quite often helpful, and when so indicative of a fruitful hermeneutics), and something I try to avoid. I will sacrifice the conversation others might want to the one I’m prepared to have, fully aware that this means such posts will not be particularly popular.


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