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Philosophy and Literature 20.1 (1996) 104-110
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A Reciprocating Engine--Like Proust

Roger Shattuck

Proceedings of the ALSC: I. Intellectual Craftsmanship: How to Read a Book

Would you buy a book called "How to Read a Book"? Only out of annoyance, I imagine. In the company of literary scholars, critics, and writers, we all think we know already how to read. Otherwise, we'd be professional charlatans. Still, in 1940 tens of thousands of people bought a book called How to Read a Book by Mortimer J. Adler. It stayed on the best seller lists for several weeks. Adler wrote in an easy conversational style and promoted good books--even old ones. But he had the essentials wrong. He believed we should read the way a tyro tours an art museum: the tyro looks at the label before looking at the painting. Of course our whole educational system--K plus 12 plus 4 plus even more--inevitably follows this label-first method. I shall come back to the basic question of order of events in reading literature.

On the basis of my own experience and of my investigations in recent years, I distinguish three kinds or levels of reading. We read for basic comprehension of words and sentences. We read for literary response to the parts and the whole of a work. And we read for the relations of the work to other works and to life itself. These tentative categories of reading do not represent sequential stages. Our response to language may resort to one or all of these three activities at any stage of learning.

Formal reading begins with the basic association of written word with sounded word--with a notion in the mind--with some phenomenon in the world. Since most of us have forgotten how we learned those initial associations, we understand them probably from having helped a child to read. And in that gradual process we do not usually encounter the excitement that can occur when an illiterate older child or an illiterate [End Page 104] adult suddenly grasps the miracle of language. The exemplary case of Helen Keller concentrates into one incident at the water pump the revelation that comes to the rest of us over a period of weeks or months at a much earlier age. We should never forget one fundamental: the comprehension stage of reading is not an empty skill that can be acquired apart from meaningful content. In order to make sense of written language, we cannot just learn a mental trick of association but must also acquire much information about the world we live in.

This first category of reading for comprehension is endlessly debated by all parties, including literary scholars and critics. Almost no one speaks of the third category: how to keep track of and make use of what we read over the years, both as professionals in the field of literature and as individuals seeking to shape a life out of our experience. I lifted the title of this panel from a remarkable essay on how to keep notes on one's reading and how to set up and constantly revise a system of files both in order to give direction to one's professional career and in order to constitute one's character as a person. The essay "On Intellectual Craftsmanship" was written by C. Wright Mills as an appendix for The Sociological Imagination (1959). We all pick up procedures for keeping notes and files as we go along. But despite the number of methodology courses in graduate programs in literature, such basics are rarely discussed. Mills deserves much credit for raising a neglected subject essential for all writers. Intellectual craftsmanship will become even more challenging in the era of electronics and computers.

Another great scholar a century earlier saw fit to speak of these basics near the end of his autobiography.

I may mention that I keep from thirty to forty large portfolios, in cabinets with labelled shelves, into which I can at once put a detached reference or memorandum. I have bought many books and at their ends I make an index of all the facts that concern my work; or, if the book is not my own, write out a separate abstract, and of such abstracts I have a huge drawer full. Before beginning on any subject I look to all the short indexes and make a general and classified index, and by taking the one or more proper portfolios I have all the information collected during my life ready for use.

This account of intellectual craftsmanship comes from Charles Darwin. Most of us are less confident than Darwin that we have a lifetime's reading stored within reach and easily retrievable.

In my third category, then, the unit of reading is not words or [End Page 105] sentences or whole works but the cumulative accomplishments of an entire lifetime that result in the intellectual and moral temper of an educated individual.

After these preliminaries I wish to talk primarily about the second category: reading for literary response. As if this were a sermon, I have chosen a quotation from scripture to launch my argument, a quotation that will for now remain unidentified. "It appears to be quite tenable that the function of literature . . . is precisely that it does incite humanity to continue living; that it eases the mind of strain, and feeds it, I mean definitely as nutrition of impulse." I applaud this declaration of literature as having a vital physical presence. The passage states affirmatively what I. A. Richards had discovered to his dismay two years earlier through his "experiment" of having students read unidentified poems and write about them. Practical Criticism (1929) reports that the two most serious flaws in student responses were lack of "sensuous apprehension" (p. 12) of sounds and rhythm, and yielding to "stock responses" (p. 14). Going beyond Richards's still excellent book, the anonymous passage just quoted locates literature in the psychosomatic domain best described by the medical term cœnesthesia: "cœnesthesia
(s¯e nis th¯e´ sia) n. med. psychol. the aggregate of sensations, both external and internal, that gives one the organic awareness of being alive as oneself in the world. The life sense." Every literary author conveys through both style and meaning a particular form of cœnesthesia. Every literary reader registers and responds to that "nutrition of impulse." Literature is, first and foremost, visceral, not merely a matter of ideas arranged in systematic categories. How then shall we read if we hope to respond cœnesthetically? Before I answer, it is time to lift the veil. The quotation on living and nutrition of impulse appeared in a 1931 pamphlet called "How to Read" by Ezra Pound.

An essay on reading that I often recommend to students working closely with me is Leo Spitzer's title piece in Linguistics and Literary History (1948). In those forty pages the great philologist declares his love of literature and describes his "to-and-fro" reading that alternates between noticing details of outward style and discovering "the inward form" of the work. He goes so far as to call it "the method of the 'philological circle'" (p. 25) and then insists that it is a "negation of stages" (p. 26).

Why do I insist that it is impossible to offer the reader a step-by-step rationale to be applied to a work of art? For one reason, that the first step, [End Page 106] on which all may hinge, can never be planned: it must already have taken place. This first step is the awareness of having been struck by a detail, followed by a conviction that this detail is connected basically with the work of art; it means that one has made an "observation" . . . that one has been prompted to raise a question--which must find an answer. To begin by omitting this first step must doom any attempt at interpretation. (p. 27)

Spitzer's to-and-fro movement between details noticed and larger insights arrived at amounts to a reciprocating action taking equal account of parts and wholes. Basically he is telling us that he reads and rereads until something in the words themselves strikes him.

My "circular method" is, in fact, nothing but an expansion of the common practice of "reading books"; reading at its best requires a strange cohabitation in the human mind of two opposite capacities: contemplativity on the one hand and, on the other, a Protean mimeticism. That is to say: an undeflected patience that "stays with" a book until the forces latent in it unleash in us the recreative process. (p. 38)

Spitzer's "method" consists in divesting himself insofar as possible of methods that interfere with direct engagement with the work. We can never read completely innocently, but we can prepare ourselves to listen attentively to a work before we "apply" to it our favorite theories and categories. Even Spitzer persists in an undeviating faith in the unity of a work of literature. But his down-to-earth remarks on how he underlines expressions that strike him "as aberrant from general usage" suggest less the application of a method than the unsystematic exploration and observation of new terrain. He looks and listens first.

Another great description of cœnesthetic reading occupies six intensely written pages near the opening of the "Combray" section in Marcel Proust's In Search of Lost Time. Aged about twelve or thirteen, Marcel is reading in the heat of the garden. The mature narrator comments carefully on that physical and mental act and emphasizes Marcel's "belief in the philosophical richness and the beauty of the book I was reading." 1 Those qualities arise in great part because the characters in a book, composed of immaterial words and not of material bodies, that is of images, can speak directly to our imagination without going through the senses. Proust describes a to-and-fro movement in reading not between parts and wholes but between the transparent inner world of the imagination and the opaque outer world [End Page 107] of nature and reality. Marcel's faith in the words under his eyes makes him responsive to their author's stylistic skill: "these landscapes in the book I was reading . . . seemed to me . . . a veritable part of Nature itself, worthy of being studied and explored" (I, 86). In this inexhaustible novel, the Narrator depicts Marcel suspended between the magic world of the imagination and the disappointing world of reality, and constantly moving back and forth between them in a running verification of his being alive--in both worlds.

Finally, 2500 pages later, Proust produces an explanation for this shuttling and a term to suggest how to live with it. Late in life after a long absence from Paris, Marcel attends a reception at the Prince de Guermantes's elegant townhouse. On arrival Marcel is bowled over by a series of pleasurable involuntary memories of past sensations recurring in the present. But why the pleasure? "Time after time during the course of my life, reality had disappointed me, because at the moment I perceived it, my imagination, the only organ by which I could enjoy beauty, could not reach it, out of submission to the inevitable law that says that one can imagine only what is absent" (III, 872). The last clause is crucial. The passage goes on to propose that an involuntary memory contrives to locate a sensation between past and present, allowing it to "flicker" (miroiter) as if belonging to both. We can now apply that law of absence and the word miroiter to the magic of reading. To read a novel is not to escape from reality. The immaterial and therefore absent characters lend themselves to our imagination, which finds in them truth and beauty. At the same time our belief in their reality, reinforced by the powerful style, confers on them a reality that competes with nature itself while nourishing our impulse to continue living. Therefore reading induces in us a condition of miroitement between real and imaginary--a shimmering, a glistening, an iridescence, an alternation, a reciprocation between states of mind belonging to reality and to the imagination.

In the hot Combray garden Marcel often looks up from his unidentified novel to regard the horizon of the real world around him and to test the one against the other. He imagines a dream woman who loves him introducing him to the fascinating landscapes created in the novel. In these pages Proust narrates the act of reading in a sensuous complex episode that takes on the passionate tone of a love scene. Marcel holding his book through the afternoon both loses himself in it and finds himself in it. And we readers, thanks to the cœnesthetic, psychosomatic style of the scene, can also lose ourselves and find ourselves by [End Page 108] reading Proust. To find the full effect, of course, one must read these pages--let alone the novel that embeds them--in their entirety.

After these remarks, I shall draw my conclusions in the shape of five rules of thumb addressed as much to myself as to students of literature and to the faithful lovers of literature whose presence this morning in this hall to answer a call to action fills me with awe--and a shred of hope.

1.Read blind. Ignore who wrote the book and what genre the jacket says it belongs to. Don't take Adler's advice of classifying the book even before you have read it. All books are best treated as anonymous and unclassified until read. In 1678 Madame de Lafayette published La Princesse de Clèves anonymously and prefaced it with a note from bookseller to reader. It states that the author will reveal "himself" only if the novel succeeds with the public. For a woman author in the 17th century, such a masquerade encouraged an unbiased reading. Today, literary justice at its best still benefits from remaining blind.

2.Read with both eyes open. That is, stereognostically, reciprocally. As we have two eyes in our head, we have in the mind two potential receivers: the innocent reader who tries to begin with the simplest, most literal, most direct form of response; and the experienced reader, whose alertness and sophistication allow one to read between the lines, to find the smallest hints, even to distrust the voice one hears. With time, many readers learn to perform those two readings almost simultaneously. Spitzer's to-and-fro movement points us in the right direction. There are, of course, special occasions and special works, for which it is best to close one eye and to read with the eye of faith alone or the eye of doubt alone. In general, however, it is best to keep both eyes open--even when you are reading blind.

3.Read cœnesthetically, psychosomatically, with your whole divided being. One definition of literature lies in Pound's sentence on how reading literature incites us to life and nourishes our impulses. (The question of which impulses belongs to another discussion.) This principle favors reading aloud whenever possible and acknowledges the physiological effects of reading (the opposite of the affective fallacy). The scene of Marcel reading in the garden opens with an image of evaporation that conveys the yawning abyss of solipsism. However reading, as Proust presents it, does not push us into that abyss. Reading, with its [End Page 109] reciprocating realities of nature and the imaginary, saves us from the abyss of solipsism by its incitement to live both physically and mentally, cœnesthesially.

4.Take notes and keep files as if your life depended on it. For well it may. You will receive little help on this score. This part of our craft may have to remain "do-it-yourself."

5.Don't take advice--particularly, not about so intimate an activity as reading, and above all, not from anyone with the presumption to talk for twenty minutes about intellectual craftsmanship.

Boston University


1. Marcel Proust, A la recherche du temps perdu (Paris: Gallimard, 1954, 3 vols.), I, 84. My translations. Future references will be inserted parenthetically.

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