Monday, April 25, 2005

Reading, part three

Part one of this series is here, and part two here. Feeling that last night's post was probably as clear as mud for most readers, I decided to make a diagram of the kind of reader / text relationship that I was trying (futilely) to describe. You're invited to click on the image above for a larger copy that will probably be much easier to read. To start with, I see a text as an artifact created by an author, using any tools at his disposal - not just text, but also familiar words, phrases, ideas, values and taboos of his time and place. He may try to uphold them or invert them. He is not fully autonomous, but is shaped by his encounters with the natural world, which he will perceive through normal senses like sight, hearing and touch, and also through the mental imagery of his culture. Unlike the physical senses, culture can be engaged with. An author can simply use it or he can try to nudge it or shape in some way. Success in such an attempt is likely to be very difficult and done in small increments by many authors. The results may not take shape until long after the author has passed away. Attempts at shaping a culture cannot be too radical because doing so risks making the message unintelligible. Readers can and do aid one another in coming to grips with a text that proves difficult but an author would be unwise to assume too much of this. Technology, beginning with the book and leading up to the printing press and the internet, aids this process tremendously. As a text (or any work of art) ages, new readers will face difficulty in understanding it. The culture that the author likely took for granted in making his creation, if it still survives, may be changed so that the meaning of minor or major parts of it may become challenging. Commentary contemporary with the author will also be affected by this effect of time and human generations (ie. the movement from time one to time two and so on). It has to be noted that time has beneficial effects as well. With every generation of readers, the processing power focused on the text grows. Cultural erosion takes its toll, but probably the addition of new minds is a net gain as long as subsequent readers pay attention to the context in which the text was created. They cannot assume that the "plain meaning" of the text is what they think it is. They must consult the first readers - the ones most intimately familiar with the cultural assumptions the author was making and / or fighting. Unfortunately, the work of the author's contemporary readers is itself subject to erosion. All is not lost, however. By combining many texts, together with other sources of knowledge about the culture that created them, we can attempt to see which of readings are more likely than others. We also do this by comparing notes with readers contemporary with ourselves. The nail that sticks up is less likely to be true. I have assumed that there is such a thing as authorial intent and that it can be known (in part, at least). In fact I think the entire impetus for writing and art is to engage with others about the nature of the numinous. It is, in other words, an attempt to face the ultimate other, God himself. God is also an author, and not just of the Bible. God is also the ongoing author of the universe we inhabit and we can learn about him by reflecting on the material world we live in, including the very shape and functioning of our bodies themselves. I have not had much of a chance to read about JPII's 'theology of the body' but I have always assumed it was about something like this. To have any hope of learning about an author (or Author) we must admit his existence and then direct ourselves outward, towards him, relentlessly. The immensity of the task means that we cannot hope to succeed alone. We have to cooperate with those around us and beware of clues left by those who have gone before. We also need to be aware of the pervasiveness of sin, which reveals itself in the form of clouded thinking and the corruption of data through time and death. The most devastating effect of sin, however, is the temptation to avoid turning outward at all; to deny that there is an author and an authorial intend is fail before we begin. I agree with G.K. Chesterton when he says that pagan writers were (and are) not necessarily Godless. They may simply be said to have a childish and undeveloped theology. Enlightenment writers can pose a more serious problem, as they often assume we are more autonomous and clear of mind than the wisdom of past suggests. I think they forget that they stand on the shoulders of giants, and are not really "taller" than those who went before, even if we do have airplanes and x-ray machines. Science, after all, is based on the idea that the universe is orderly and knowable, and science does nothing to negate the beauty and the artistry of, say, The Book of Genesis. Knowing about biology and physics does not make the old text moot. Instead, it offers us new conceptual tools to use on the old artifact.

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