On ethics and the word behind the world

On Reading

When I first read Thomas Hardy’s “Tess of the D’Urbervilles” I was young, maybe a scant thirteen years old. At that time, product of one very ambitious asian mother dragon, I had been gobbling up as many classics as I could. Reading a classic was seen as good because it belonged to high culture. Luckily for me, and I do think this was a fortunate stroke of luck, I always loved reading and dealt with that demand quite readily. But what could be said of my understanding?

How could I know anything about the pure eternal love of Tess for Angel Clare, or even why Alex was portrayed as so villainous when really he did seem to be the only one I could relate to? How could I imagine the accent of a dialect I could barely understand? Why was that image, of treacle running down some woman’s back like a dark snake, so arresting?

The first reading of Tess was done like a spelunker treading blindly in an unknown cave complex. Not everything was visible, not everything was comprehensible, but that was what kept me moving forward. I have since read and reread this book, as I have many others which continue to intrigue me, and each rereading opens new strands of thought. For you see, experience and reading inform each constantly. We could talk about luck, in my case, as having stumbled across not only the pleasure of reading, but the pleasure of seeking through unknowing. Difficult texts, at first hard-going, gave me new and wonderful floating architectures of thought. It wasn’t easy, and I often wouldn’t make time to consult my dictionary so words were learnt in association, but it was deeply pleasurable. Pleasure in reading is pleasure in imagining. Pleasure in reading is pleasure in curiosity.

I hated to read anything that just recounted real life because who wanted to read about what one already knew? What was the point? (Hence some of my aversion to blogs which only serve to seek viewer sympathy by statement of daily traumas… though I do it myself) As stated in this wonderful article by Michael Silverblatt which I am borrowing freely and heavily from, true reading is a quest for understanding, that “The clearing of the fog of incomprehension is the yardstick of growth, every kind of growth: emotional, intellectual, moral, aesthetic, human growth.”

As I mentioned in my previous post, Michel Houellebecq has written a lovely treatise on Lovecraft which features a chapter called “Utter the Great NO to Life without Weakness.” I’ll try and sum up briefly the thoughts. First of all, Houellebecq believes life to be deeply disappointing, governed by egotism, “cold, radiant and intact.” He says that any truly great writer turns instinctively away from the real. I would add that the inner world, the world of pure and radiant solitude, is a world that is to be cultivated and conversed with. To turn away from the real involves a turning towards the world of pure ideas, of multiple truths, of movement away from choice for politics but choice for choice. For blind passion in the non-world is the only way to the self. I believe, and have always felt, that reading is one of the best ways to access the inner world. That language is a our technology for self-examination and that technology is not to be abused for purely utilitarian gains but for poetic means.

So it was with dismay that I came across this tidbit. How awful. That not only is our word of the year something as distasteful to the mouth as floor caulking, but that its meaning contains the fundamental nature of untruth and abuse of the modern English language. In one fell swoop, books are to be thrown out in favour of “gut” instinct. This reveals not only a fundamental cretinism with regard to the arts, in particular philosophy, it shows a real reversion to willful idiocy.

A human being’s best qualities, the things which I believe are the fundamental principles to all intellectual life, are curiosity and imagination. They both require active cultivation and effort but its rewards are a reprieve from the atrophying effects of apathy and smug ignorance. The easiest way to access this magnificent world is in reading, and not just in reading snippets of information, as Silverblatt is quick to point out. But reading, in its pure and joyous form, just to know more. Worthless when you die, but so is everything else. This is my one true happiness unto itself.

<!– –>

12 Comments to “On Reading” »

  1. this post is touching… curiosity and imagination are crucial. and they each feed and are fed by the experience of reading that you describe. but i hesitate on one point. it is a somewhat of an abstract issue, but one that goes i think to the heart of this whole matter. It concerns the way you make the distinction between the inner life and outer life. i think it is important to conceive of these two realms in a way that focuses on their interrelation rahter than their separateness. the power of reading derives from the way it draws on both spheres of life. reading (along with the understanding and incomprehension that come with it) is not merely a solipsistic undertaking, despite the fact it must be carried out alone. So when you describe the inner world, “the world of pure and radiant solitude,” i worry that you cut it off too much from the outer world. The solitude of the inner world cannot be pure. But i also see that i might be being distracted by this word ‘pure’, because you also say that the inner world “is a world that is to be cultivated and conversed with.” reading is a kind of conversation. this involves a dialogue between the self and itself but also the self and its world. this also seems to come out in your observation that ” experience and reading inform each constantly.” one of the main reasons reading can be so vital is the way it changes and enriches my experience of the real world, so emphasing the turn away from the real for me misses something important, something essential to the importance and value of reading.

    B said

  2. There are things and ideas that are utterable but have no place in reality, and definitely, if they speak to it, do so with great abstraction. This is one of the key concepts behind not only mystical and poetic texts, but horror and fantasy. I think that often times, if it converses, the inner world is in itself much more powerful in that we will things to existence with our labelling, our linguistic definitions which are based on ideas.

    In some sense, I do agree with you, that experience and reading inform each other. My emphasis is that the inner world stands forever radiantly outside of it, perhaps informing our conceptions of things that exist in real life, but purely an individual construct. And, when I spoke about the inner world, I was also speaking about a place that inherently rejects reality… a sort of individual cry against reality, even if in some part informed by it.

    Administrator said

  3. I spent a long time with this post Nardac. I’m still not sure I know what you’re talking about. Thanks for introducing Good Magazine. The article you followed is great. I like how he asks, “Who doesn’t know that guy?” We, us North Americans, have all undergone the same educational experiences. I can relate with his memories of the Go Dog Go reader.

    Did you know that I picked up a B.Ed. while living in Windsor? Anyway, in one of the language arts classes the instructor says that children bring meaning to the text. Ok. You know I’m a bit of an agitator. So I interrupt the monologue to say that we are making a mistake if we don’t teach that texts have meaning and that it’s a reader’s job to read what an author is saying. The instructor waves her hands about eye level and says, “This is a higher level discussion.” and continues where she left off.

    My son’s in kindergarten this year. There’s no way I’d leave his education to that system. Silverblatt is right about our schools. They didn’t teach us to read, not on purpose anyway.

    I want to make a joke about The Politics of Reading as your other possible title choice, but I’ve totally accepted that I’m just not funny in writing. And I’ve thought about this a bit. In person, people laugh at my jokes. On line I tend to draw fury. Something doesn’t translate.

    And now I know it’s not just me. I watch the Colbert Report regularly. He’s got this segment called The Word. It’s funny stuff. Truthiness is a funny word. Colbert is making fun of people who refuse to accept truth. People who refuse to accept reality. And they are one in the same. To refuse reality is to refuse truth.

    After reading the Silverblatt article and the bit on Colbert. Of course I’ve reread your post. I think I see what your saying, but I’ve got a few questions. Ok, Silverblatt uses the American president as well his block of the voting American public as examples of users of simple statements and avoiders of complexity. I’m guessing he’d see the development of comprehension as in some way having an impact on reality. So I’m questioning your line about turning away from reality. With what do you fill your inner space?

    In your response to B you say “there are things and ideas that are utterable but have no place in reality, and definitely, if they speak to it, do so with great abstraction.” Do you have any examples of these things?

    rodger said

  4. Colbert seems to be making fun of people who refuse to accept flagrant facts. That is not to be confused with the idea of truth. The notion of truthiness, truth knowned from the gut, is deeply scary for the same reason people killing people to prove the earth was flat was scary. That’s the most vulgar example I could think of. I’m not interested in political pundits, or their humourous critics. It all reeks of the same desperation.

    words that refer but with great abstraction: Purgatory would be an example. Vampires would be another.

    Don’t you think it’s a little too intimate to ask me how I fill my inner space?

    Administrator said

  5. I didn’t think it was too intimate a question. Obviously, I asked it. I know enough, even from what I’ve read on your blog, to see that you haven’t really given up on reality completely, and that here you’re writing poetically. I think I understand that.

    After some of the comments you’ve made toward me, I assume we’re conversing at this level. Invoking intimacy, pulling the veil over your inner word, is like muddying the water you’re ashamedly wallowing in to conceal the depth of that mystic puddle. (nardac – this is hateration, which I disapprove of but find it good justification to consider you muddled by your pissing emotion. B, however, has done us the honour of actually taking your comment seriously. I hand it over to him to comment on the rest of this…)

    You’ve misread or mistook both Silverblatt and Colbert. The incomprehension Silverblatt speaks of is in regard to our world. Our world as in our entire reality. When you write of the pure and radiant solitude you converse within yourself, it sounds a lot like an isolating mysticism, god lives in you. Maybe that’s how you can write “I hated to read anything that just recounted real life because who wanted to read about what one already knew?” It’s amazing you know everything about real life. everything. wow.

    That you can’t be mystified by reality betrays the depth of your inner self. Silverblatt, and even you when you talk of curiosity, was speaking of reading as a tool to deal with the overwhelming abundance of human knowledge. People who hate reading hate the humbling experience of not knowing something. How small do you have to shrink your world, awareness, consciousness, inner self to maintain control?

    I’m not saying there is no inner world, maybe I am, there is only the world as we experience it. We can share that through writing, and broaden our experience of it through reading. But truth will always be linked to facts. If you want a truth greater than fact, or reality, you need to seek more facts. There’s enough out there to overwhelm your inner self, to keep you mystified.

    rodger said

  6. rodger, i think you’ve got it wrong about the pertinent mode of incomprehension at stake here. You say: “The incomprehension Silverblatt speaks of is in regard to our world. Our world as in our entire reality” Becuase of the way you go on to emphasize the importance of facts, it seems your phrase ‘entire reality’ is aimed emphasizing the facts of the world. ‘the real world’, as they say. i don’t want to deny outright that there are no incomprehensible facts. the horrors of worldwar in the 20th century, for example. but in general, i think that facts can at most provoke in us an attitude of wonder or awe and that this is different from the transformative and unsettling nature of the incomprension we can face with respect to our selves. i can be awestruck at the double helix or at the carbon structure of benzine. at the tides of the ocean. at the civil rights movement. But the incomprehension at stake in my experience of reading is different. it is more like the confusion and incomprehension Socrates was notorious for stirring up in his interlocutors. the characteristic that led him to be likened to a gadfly. but it was only as a gadfly that socrates could carry out his function as the midwife of knowledge. being cast into the throws of confusion, a confusion arising from a critical examination of own opinions (and not an examination of the facts), was recognized by Socrates to be a necessary movement in the development of knowledge and understanding. this development of knowledge and understanding was not at all an increase in the number of facts or bits of knowledge known. it was a way of helping his friends care for the quality of their very souls. which is is to say, it was a way of helping them loosen up the stultifying settledness of their beliefs in such way as to enable them to see how to live the best kind of human life- something you will in never be able to read off the facts. reading is a kind of dialogue too.

    B said

  7. B.

    I don’t think we’re too far apart with our arguments here. I emphasized facts because Nardac said they shouldn’t be confused with truth. I don’t think I confused the two, but any truth that isn’t built on a foundation of fact, I won’t accept.

    And Nardac, you know I don’t hate you. I do have a real problem with any doctrine of otherworldliness, whether that’s inner or far-outer. It’s maddening. I guess if you say no to the world, who does it hurt? I have no problem with suicide. If you’ve had enough, you’ve had enough. Crystal Meth, go ahead, good bye. I have no problem with the drop out. But cultivating your relationship with an inner or outer god, saying no to the real world, as you can see, makes me go mental.

    It’s funny because insanity is an inability to recognize reality. Why should watching people willfully go insane, have me foaming at the mouth? It’s something for me to think about.

    I just wanted to say one more thing about the real world and facts and why I overemphasized the importance of facts. I wanted to show that facts aren’t mundane. In the moments I steal to type this stuff out I don’t have the time to flesh out any ideas, but I was trying to get at the changing essence of truth as it relates to the changing real world. Facts aren’t simply histories (including science) to be memories, but continuously realized potentials. The facts like our real world and what we think about it are always changing.

    rodger said

  8. I think B is quite good in leading us towards a hermeneutics of incomprehension. This is one of the fundamental principles of my original text. Rodger, you would have to note that neither of us agree, nor think it part of the argument, the notion of “fact” as having much to do with “truth.” It’s good that you defined your notion of fact in the penultimate sentence, and I agree that change is a constant. But this has nothing to do with my argument whatsoever.

    You completely misunderstand the idea of the inner world in all of my texts. It has nothing to do with godliness. The separation between inner and outer is one of the fundamental precepts of ancient Greek philosophy. I expand the Greek’s notion of ideas of pure form to ideas (of form in a shape particular to my understanding), imagination, thoughts.

    Regarding mysticism… which I confess I do love, though not for any notion of a god(s)… Paradox: when looking through my eyes, I am aware of the centre of individual and my mind sees me spatially and thematically as central. When thinking through my mind, I can reach a state of fascination where my ego ceases to matter, even though this is the one activity the self engages solely with the self.

    I’m not anxious to save the world. I think it’s useless to valorize something that just is. I seek my happiness and defend it so.

    Administrator said

  9. I’m waiting for B to comment. Then I’ll respond to the both of you. Or is it my turn?

    Nardac, Tense and I are going to read Peter Sloterdijk’s Critique of Cynical Reason. Thanks for the suggestion.

    rodger said

  10. Feel free to jump in anytime Rodger. B doesn’t feel like adding anything to my comment at this moment.

    Administrator said

  11. I was sort of hoping that B. would come in on a couple things you said. At first he said he was worried about the way you separate the inner and outer world, and then you bring ancient greek philosophy into the mix. I read the Republic, must be, 17 years ago now. He seemed to know a thing or two about the greeks. Anyway, I’m a fan of meandering discussions. Sure original arguments get lost, and no one really knows what the other is talking about. Face to face you can ask questions, clarify things, like if you said, “I’m not anxious to save the world. I think it’s useless to valorize something that just is. I seek my happiness and defend it so.” You’d have noticed a puzzled expression on my face before the end of the first sentence, and wouldn’t have gone on to leave me completely baffled. What?… What?… What?

    Those are three tangents I could go off on. Nardac, you are inspiring.

    You’ve got to imagine for a moment, that I can read. When you write (and in this beats the heart of your original argument)”I would add that the inner world, the world of pure and radiant solitude, is a world that is to be cultivated and conversed with. To turn away from the real involves a turning towards the world of pure ideas, of multiple truths, of movement away from choice for politics but choice for choice. For blind passion in the non-world is the only way to the self.” You clearly stated what you mean by inner world, and that you should turn away from the real world toward this inner world. But then, in the last sentence, in very religious language, you, whether you intended or not, make a god of the self. Nardac, words have meaning, and in certain combinations contain cultural meaning. Are you telling me that you’ve never heard that blind faith in Jesus is the only way to God? You even threw in a “For…” (I see a guy in a rainbow wig holding a sign JOHN 3:16) Don’t the words “the only way” scare you?

    rodger said

  12. “For blind passion in the non-world is the only way to the self.”

    The turning away from the world can make no sense to the group as a whole. In fact, turning away makes no sense to someone else because it is like rejection. However, as I intend to show, turning away from the world is necessary if we are to ensure the good and meaningful relations between individuals.

    Philosophy that deals with obligations of the self to the group often talk about civic duty. As far as I have seen, my civic duty is to be a good person. How can I be a good person?

    I’m deeply Aristotelian in this part: A good person is someone who lives the good life. The good life is a life where happiness is the ultimate end. Happiness consists of engaging in a dialogue where passion has led. Passion, not to be confused with pleasure, leads the individual to an activity which entails contemplation. Contemplation of what?

    What is there to contemplate in this world? Facts? Facts are only the precipitate of something else. In reading, one encounters what can encounter what cannot be, what never was, forms and ideas that go to the heart of how we structure our thinking, how we make our words. This is the non-world. It is a world that inherently rejects all the realistic principles of the real world, summarizes them then throws them away. The true goal of a thinking human being would be to invest blindly, passionately, in that world to find the self. Because, only from good self can good actions issue.

    This is not to say that a human being does nothing in their life, or that they don’t talk with others. Obviously, as you can see, I talk with others. I’ve been talking with B quite a lot in real life. A lot of things that are perhaps problematic for you, he can ask in person at the moment we’re talking. In fact, you might say that philosophy is only a dialogue, whether with oneself or someone else, because it is fundamentally about asking questions.

    Regardless of my language, and maybe you’re far too into Nietzsche right now to take out the reading of religion in my definition of inner world, which, incidentally, I believe he would agree with and was working towards in his philosophy, what I am saying is lucid, even if I use poetic language.

    Administrator said

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: