Monday, January 23, 2012

Can Marcel read?

In his wonderful essay “The Image of Proust,” Walter Benjamin observes that A la Recherche du temps perdu is really about forgetting, involuntary memory, not memory:
We know that in his work Proust described a life not as it actually was [wies gewesen ist] but a life as it was remembered by the one who had lived it.  Yet even this statement is imprecise and far too crude. For the important thing to the remembering author is not what he experienced, but the weaving of his memory, the Penelope work of recollection [Eingedenken].  Or should one call it, rather, a Penelope work of forgetting?  Is not the involuntary recollection, Proust’s mémoire involuntaire, much closer to forgetting than what is usually called memory?  And is not this work of spontaneous recollection, in which remembrance is the woof and forgetting the warp, a counterpart to Penelope’s work rather than its likeness?  For here the day unravels what the night has woven. (“On the Image of Proust,” in Walter Benjamin, Selected Writings, Volume 2, 1917-1934 [Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1999], p. 238).
The famous madeleine episode in Swann’s Way remains central to Benjamin’s essay, (246), as it does to De Man's chapter on Proust in Allegories of Reading, who returns to it after first discussing what he takes to be the novel's scene of reading (while keeping in question whether reading any passage allows you to reduce it to a themebut instead is what the novel is about, that is, an allegory of the impossibility of reading).  What happens to the madeleine episode's presumed centrality, however, if we attend to other scenes of reading in the novel, scenes that Benjamin and De Man to have forgotten?  Consider the scene of reading on the first page of Swann's Way. The unnamed narrator falls asleep while reading a book:
For a long time, I went to bed early.  Sometimes, my candle out, my eyes would close so quickly that I did not have time to say to myself: “I’m falling asleep.”  And, half an hour later, the thought that it was time to try to sleep would wake me; I wanted to put the book I thought I had in my hands and blow out the light; I had not ceased while sleeping to form reflections on what I had just read, but these reflections had taken a rather peculiar turn; it seemed to me that I myself was what the book was talking about: a church, a quartet, the rivalry between François and Charles V. (3)
A la Recherche begins with in a recurrent and occasional scene of reading in bed in which the  “sometimes ” falls asleep.  But it is a scene of not reading that precedes a scene of involuntary memory in which the book Proust can’t remember:  he wants to book down has already fallen off his bed. Moreover, reading does not end when sleep begins; reading rather takes a different form. If reading is the resistance to reading, to paraphrase De Man, then we might say that for Proust  “not reading” means falling asleep and writing about it in such a way that readers, it would appear, don't even know they are reading about "not reading."  

   Well before the madeleine episode, there is more about dozing off while not reading (please forgive the ellipses):
A sleeping man holds in a circle around him the sequence of the hours, the order of the years and worlds. He consults them instinctively as he wakes and reads . . . If toward morning, after a bout of insomnia, sleep overcomes him as he is reading, in a position quite different from the one in which he usually sleeps . . . If he dozes off in a position still more displaced and divergent, after dinner sitting in an armchair for instance, then among the disordered worlds will be complete, the magic armchair will send him traveling at top speed through time and space, and, at the moment of opening his eyelids, he will believe he went several month earlier in another  country. (5)
In my next post, “Can Proust Write?” I will discuss some scenes in which reading is a productive disability for Marcel and writing a disability for Proust.  (I don’t mean that books are soporifics for Proust.)  
In the meantime, let me put my copy of Proust down and ruminate on how reading Proust reading might helps us understand academic reading practices better.  We should not be surprised to hear from the now former MLA President a few years ago that we are not reading enough of each other's books. One of the first things one learns to do in graduate school is distinguish between MUST read for professional reasons and HAVE PERMISSION TO IGNORE.   The percentage of must read is of course relatively small.  We may not be surprised that academic conventions mainly function to let people know that what they fear they MUST READ they can actually IGNORE.  It's kind of like reading a book review. Your reviewer has read the book under review to spare you the trouble of reading it yourself.  In the slumber of academic reading, someone else does the reading you are disabled from doing, much like a TV laugh track does your laughing so you don't have to do.  You get to put your brain  on sleep mode.  


Jtriley said...

I can't comment on the interpretation of Proust because I am less familiar with his work (although I have read those first few pages of Swann's Way), but in regard to academic reading, I think it reveals the purpose reading has for academics. To be more specific, reading a book review rather than reading a book allows you to get a sense of "what people are talking about" the "conversation" that is going on in one's field rather than interpreting/encountering it as a primary text.

Perhaps this difference between primary and secondary texts is arbitrary, but allow an example. The other day I read a few chapters from David Wills' book Dorsality, which frequently invokes Derrida to make the point (which makes sense since Wills is one of his translators). I read a few chapters and then read a book review. The book review focused mostly on the first chapter where Wills was laying out his project.

Of course my readings of the actual chapters got me further than the book review, but as I neared the end of the last chapter, I began to question whether I really "needed" to read the rest of the book. The answer lies in the answer to the question what I was trying to "get out of the book." My first purpose was to continue reading books from the past 5 years or so from significant thinkers that draw on other significant thinkers in order to find out more about the "conversation." My second reason was so that I could kind of mine the text for useful quotations or claims that I could use in my own academic work. I was not looking for more insight into Ulysses or Homer (one of the chapters) or Sade; In short, I was not looking at Wills' 'readings' but the claims he draws from those readings.

Was I really “reading” Wills' text like I “read” (and continue to re-read) Derrida? If academic conventions exist so that we can decide who to “ignore” and what we MUST reading, does that affect not only what but how we read these texts? I read Derrida in much closer detail than I probably read Wills—at least I think I do. I realize that distinctions like “primary” and “secondary” texts is a distinction that Derrida has effectively solicited (in the full sense of this term that Alan Bass glosses in I think Margins of Philosophy or Writing and Difference), but has academic convention/opinion still maintained this distinction? And furthermore are these categories maintained because it is this that allows us to produce academic work?

Sorry for the long response, but this is an issue I'm constantly thinking about as a nascent scholar.

Richard Burt said...

I think you reading as a professional means that you realize some books are canonical because they are really good. So anything by Derrida will be better than anything about Derrida. As someone coming into the profession now as a post humanist, you have to know Wills' book. It came recommended to me. I bought a copy but haven't read it. I think your checking out a review and then not reading the rest is exercising good judgment. At a certain point, reading on becomes subject to a law of diminishing returns--one gets less and less out of what one reads. But stopping is always a moment of danger, especially if the text is a difficult one. One could say that one gets little out of reading Derrida (or Heidegger). If you are looking for a credo that makes you fell morally superior, you won't find it in philosophy (or literature). So you will not even bother to read Derrida. You can see the danger of deciding not to read The Animal That therefore I Am in Haraway's critique of it in her When Species Meet book. You can tell she got to about p. 17 and put the book done. Had she read farther (and read the Descartes, Lacan, Levinas, and Heidegger works Derrida discusses, she might have written a good book. I stopped reading Haraway's book once I concluded the author is demented in an uninteresting way (at least to me). She explicitly says she does not want to think. I did read the Manifesto, which I thought was a huge embarassment. I am talking about professional habits of reading here.