“Do what you love. Know your own bone; gnaw at it, bury it, unearth it, and gnaw it still.”
—Henry David Thoreau, Letters to a Spiritual Seeker
“Who reads, in fact? Is it I, or some part of me?” (de Certeau 173). As I read these words in Michel de Certeau’s discussion of “Reading as Poaching,” I had to take a brief pause to analyze them and let them sink in my mind. Indeed, it is a short sentence, but this string of words sure does pack a punch! Who reads? This is a question that I’ve never really asked myself before because the answer seemed obvious: of course, I am the one that reads. But who is this I that I’m referring to? Am I decoding and interpreting the text, or does another person or institution provide me an ideological lens to “see” it? Am I fully intertwining myself with the reading, or is the self only partially intertwined with it? But an even deeper question that must be asked is whether or not I want to and can incorporate myself fully into what I read. If reading and becoming were approached as an entirely unitary process, then the minds of the Enlightenment were correct: the text imprints itself upon me, it shapes and transforms me…
However, this is indeed far from the case. Reading is indeed a mediation between what was written and what I know/believe, and in this interplay, we find the notions of taste, empathy, understanding, and rapport. The outcome of this interaction is unpredictable… it does not mimic the action of copy and pasting that is possible through a computer or the telepathic transmission of ideas as seen in science fiction movies. We cannot plug our minds into a simulated program and upload information directly. We are limited to language, a method of output that reaches even greater interpretive corruption when expressed in written form, devoid of the non-verbal and phonetic cues that aid understanding in speech. Put 15 different people in a room and make them read the same text, and they will understand it and approach it in entirely different ways, as we can see every single time that our class gathers every Tuesday. A text is the core of a vast network of ideas, symbols, interactions, and emotions, but similar to the golden doubloon that Captain Ahab nails on the ship’s mast in Melville’s Moby Dick, we ultimately project ourselves into the text in diverging degrees, and therefore we achieve different interpretations and assign different values. A text may reach me in ways that they could never reach other people. A text that may seem insignificant to you may be my own personal white whale, and vice-versa. Once something becomes a white whale, it is inevitable for us to begin pursuing it, and trying desperately to poach it. However, we know that the conquering of a text is indeed futile, for although we are able to launch our harpoons, and although we might wound a fin or a patch of skin, the metaphorical whale continues to swim in that vast and unknowable ocean.
What’s even more curious is that approaches to texts increase in complexity because the I, or the self, is also something that is never fixed and that is constantly changing and metamorphosing. For instance, I read fragments from Thoreau’s Walden five years ago for a survey course I took on Early American literature. The text made no impression on me whatsoever, to the point that for a while, I had entirely forgotten that I previously had exposure to the text (interesting how the notion of ‘forgetting’ comes to play here… similar to the example of the door that you discussed in the last class, it is remarkable to see how objects of vast importance lose their significance and fade into our mental background. I guess this occurs because we are not experienced enough to see the value, or because we take the value for granted). However, my experience reading it the second time around was vastly different, and most of the ideas and occurrences are now viewed in entirely different light. The issues and tensions between different functional systems, the search for simplicity, approaching life as an experiment, finding solace in solitude, the fact that we can feel lonely even when surrounded by people. I’m not lying to you: reading Thoreau’s words this time around opened wounds and opened my mind in ways that I never even imagined that it could. And this is precisely because who I am today is radically different from the person that I was five years ago. I now have experiences and sets of knowledge that allowed me to grasp and appreciate notions that I couldn’t possible begin to comprehend back then. Thus, I should’ve said that “part of me” read the text five years ago rather than saying that I read the text five years ago.
I think I am reaching a point where my perspective towards literature, academia, and knowledge is finally beginning to make sense. In my last response, I mentioned how difficult I find it to classify myself as a scholar of a particular type of literature. But in all honesty, my interests and my intellectual affinities are scattered all over the place. For instance, I started off as a student of Psychology during my undergraduate years, and I quickly transitioned to English with the goal of becoming a writer. It was there that I discovered a raving passion for applied linguistics in order to understand bilingualism and language learning. However, I soon took a class on Psycholinguistics and Semantics, and I sailed off into the realm of theoretical linguistics, focusing on how the mind processes meaning. I then started graduate studies in English education, and I developed a newfound obsession with the analysis and teaching of literature… and now I am here, working towards a PhD in American literature. Many have criticized me for being unable to focus my attention on a single area of study… and I must admit that there are consequences to having scattered knowledge: you end up a Jack-of-all-trades, master of none. I constantly find myself overwhelmed by the ideas that I’m exposed to, and at times I feel down due to my lack of literary knowledge when in comparison to my peers. But perhaps what I lack in specificity, I make up for in breadth.
For once, I’m beginning to view things differently, and I’m slowly but surely becoming reinvigorated and renewed. Rather than keeping my knowledge segregated and compartmentalized, I beginning to see the value of establishing links between the areas, creating a network that is new, scary, but ultimately exciting. The more I read in class, the more astounded I become with the possibilities that can take place in literary study. And that is precisely because I’m realizing that there is more than one way to approach objects and things. I am also beginning to view the world as gatherings rather than a set of individualistic and separable units. I am opening my eyes to the effervescent and explosive reactions that occur when we cross academic, cultural, and epistemological boundaries. As de Certeau points out in this discussion, “The creativity of the reader grows as the institution that controlled it declines” (172). Call it chance or call it fate, I think that I’m currently in a time in which my creativity has the possibility to thrive. The hegemonic values of stifling institutions within literary study are being challenged with the inclusion of the quantitative, the scientific, the social, and the cultural within our toolbox, and with the view of the world itself as a text. I could pay my respects to the canon while at the same time exploring the peripheries of the literary realm. I’m going to graduate school in a time in which I can analyze graphic novel adaptations of Shakespeare’s plays… in which I finally have the tools and the opportunity to tackle Sedaris’ text as a noteworthy and valid source of knowledge… in which I can approach a Young Adult Novel with the same degree of seriousness that is applied to canonical texts. And I must admit that this multidisciplinary transcendence is both liberating and electrifying. I am escaping from my own personal aporia.
But more importantly, I think I’m finally beginning to realize that I don’t necessarily become the text, and it is not the text that becomes me. Rather, the text and I are a hybrid being working together to become. De Certeau’s text reaffirms this realization towards the latter part of his discussion:
Indeed, reading has no place […]. [The reader’s] place is not here or there, one or the other, but neither the one nor the other, simultaneously inside and outside, dissolving both by mixing them together, associating texts like funerary statues that he awakens and hosts, but never owns. In that way, he also escapes from the law of each text in particular, and from that of the social milieu. (de Certeau 174)
As I read this passage, my mind starting screaming Bruno Latour over and over again. We see yet another manifestation of the struggle between purification and translation: do we separate the reader and the text? Do we tie reading to a place or a space? Is the process internal or external? Do these binaries mix in any way? The answer is that reading is everything and anything. Similar to the waters that the Pequod ventured through, they are not fixed or static: water flows, evaporates, freezes, paves, swallows, erupts, and connects. Our readings, our positions as readers, are not fixed. We are ships without anchors in search of our own whales… or sharks, or fish, or freedoms, or choices, or destinies, or new lands. And arguably, the same occurs with our writing and our attempts to produce meaning. Over and over again, professors have told me to avoid being personal in my academic writing, to write in third person, to avoid personal anecdotes and distracting stories… but HOW can I possibly do that? You may accuse me of being subjective, but regardless of third person writing or the lack of personal anecdotes, it does not change the fact that what I choose to put on paper is part of me. I think were in a time where rules have to be broken and where experimentation, whether successful or not, has to thrive. How else could we possibly escape the aporia that is not only trying to sink our ship, but that is ultimately trying to drown us all via an inescapable and inexorable whirlpool?
And if our ship happens to sink, will Queequeg’s coffin be there to save us?