Monday, 29 June 2015

Flaubert and a metaphor for reading

There is a sense of exploration in every gesture of reading. That’s because the author is there too, refusing to leave it all to the reader’s caprice, purposefully confusing things so as to provoke the instinct of discovery. But the readers aren’t all that brave, all that willing to expose themselves to the unknown. Note the customary reaction to new forms of writing, new genres, new authorial quips. They’re to be taken as the true measure of a reader’s resistance to novelty. Newness is accepted only if it has enough doses of familiarity in it. If it doesn’t, then most readers will wait for the dregs to settle and for taste to do its work of persuasion; only then will they embrace the once-novel, now anything but new but at least palatable, tasty.

Source: Look and Learn
If I were to stick with the metaphor of exploration, I’d say the reader goes about reading with a machete in one hand, cutting through a jungle forever unknown to them, but in the other hand carrying a map, which helps them to go about in search of something that's already been there – not in the text but in the reader’s mind.

The great anticipation

Gadamer said once that we read seeking a meaning we've already sent forth, and which we're playing with like a cat with its mouse, postponing the fatal thrust. In our case: taking delight in prolongation, in procrastinating the obvious (the meaning we know it's there). We tease the text because we want to maximize the pleasure it is capable of producing. We want to make sure that the trip has been worth taking, that we haven’t travelled all the way to the end of a text for nothing.
But there's a trick to this inductive/deductive method that concerns reading. In the process, our assumptions nibble at our reserves of patience, weakening them as pages upon pages get turned. There are moments when the pressure of getting there, the anticipation of the moment of bliss, has consequences over our physiological selves. Our heartbeats accelerate, our pupils widen, our hands shake. No, I am not fantasizing. Most readers would be hard at ease to deny these bodily transformations; the somatics of reading demand that we progress through pages with our bodies wired to high-voltage apparatuses that translate words into anticipation and anticipation into pleasure. I’ll say only one word and I’ll refrain from going into details about it: orgasm.
Reading is, generally speaking, a way of satisfying an anticipation. The moment when we meet face to face with the meaning is all that matters. Suspense is caused precisely by this expectation, by this curiosity to see what’s on the verso. The curiosity to see if the next page is bringing us any closer to what we know is there, in the book, in the text.

The great satisfaction

A lot of writers aim towards satisfying this anticipation. Most of them do it unknowingly. Many see where they need to go in order to achieve the right effect. Few actually get there. Flaubert achieved it in Madame Bovary. The famous cab scene. There, the reader is trapped in their own anticipation. They take the bite (the promise of witnessing an erotic scene) and follow the cab, in fact following Flaubert. The characters (Léon and Emma) don't really matter. They are invisible and will stay invisible throughout. Only every now and then a hand appears (arousal!), pieces of paper fall out it (loss of self-control!), the cab goes on and on (yes, the act is what we're imagining: detailed, conspicuous, delicious, illicit). The urban landscape pops in too (not as a prop but as a container). What really is to be enjoyed there is the author's art. Flaubert teasing us. Flaubert wagging the carrot under our flared nostrils. All we do is partake in the game, anticipating his understanding of our anticipation, buying it from Monsieur Gustav Flaubert, the merchant specialized in products for readers' compulsions.
I like the sound of all those streets that mark the progression of the love-bearing cab. They create rhythm but more importantly, they create connections between sites, i.e. between texts:
“The cab was seen as Saint-Pol, at Lescure, at Mont Gargan, at La Rouge-Mare and Place du Gaillardbois; in the Rue Maladrerie, Rue Dinanderie, before Saint-Romain, Saint-Vivien, Saint-Maclou, Saint-Nicaise – in front of the Customs, at the ‘Vieille Tour,’ the ‘Trois Pipes,’ and the Monumental Cemetery.”
The vehicle (a moving object) links these places otherwise lost in the sole logic of urban development. It puts these sites in a new context: an amorous context, a context of textures and striations.
And the reader goes on, their eyes following the lines of the perambulatory text in the same way in which the inhabitants of Rouen follow the passing of the cab up and down the streets. Their eyes are amazed. They are engaged, curious, suspicious, scandalized, nosy, offended, apprehensive, desiring, flabbergasted, tolerant, contemplative, expectant, eager, impatient, excited, puzzled, concerned, intrusive, interested, analytical, investigative, rational, lucid, realistic, shrewd, prudent, wise. In other words, they are everything that a reader can be. They know what’s going on – of course they know, those citizens of Rouen, even though Flaubert tries to suggest otherwise. He does it for the sake of irony, of course, one of the many things he’s so good at:
“And on the harbor, in the midst of the drays and casks, and in the streets, at the corners, the good folk opened large wonderstricken eyes at this sight, so extraordinary in the provinces, a cab with drawn blinds, and which kept on coming into view, shut more closely than a tomb, and tossing about like a vessel.”

“The good folk,” the swift-eyed good folk of all provinces, stop their daily routines like a bunch of readers lined up to encounter the text that’s just arrived in town, freshly out of the writer’s hand, strolling the avenues of a book. I take this scene as a glorious metaphor for readership.

Source: Lecturas Sumergidas