Understanding reading

Rita Felski, Uses of Literature (Blackwell, 2008)

Rita Felski’s Uses of Literature is written primarily for scholars of literature, but will intrigue anyone who loves reading, anyone who wonders why reading can be so absorbing. Indeed it is the fundamental similarity of these two types of readers–the ordinary reader and the academic one–that underlies the premise of her book. The initial reading experience of my teenaged daughters, who spend days immersed in the world of magic created by J.K. Rowling or of vampires created by Stephanie Meyer, is not so different after all from that of the literary critic who, for example, will come to write an article on Book Nine of Paradise Lost as a Foucauldian technology of punishment. While their readings produce very different results, both begin in a captivating reading experience that defies easy explanation. It is the complex nature of this reading experience that Uses of Literature seeks to explore.

Felski’s rather mundane title belies the intellectual relish with which she deals with four key elements of the reading experience: recognition, enchantment, knowledge, and shock. These four recall, as she acknowledges, the four “venerable aesthetic categories” of anagnorisis, beauty, mimesis, and the sublime. Yet by translating these categories into everyday terms and exploring them in bracing and exuberant detail, Felski makes this quartet of responses “useful” in ways that are unexpectedly rich. In four brief yet detailed chapters, these aesthetic terms are rendered fresh, varied, and complex, and work to explain at least some of the reasons why works of literature draw readers back again and again into the worlds created only by words. 

Fresh is indeed the word that best names my own feeling while reading this book, a breath of fresh air for a profession jaded by a dominant “hermeneutics of suspicion.” As Felski notes on her opening page, “when a dialogue with literature gives way to a permanent diagnosis, when the remedial reading of texts loses all sight of why we are drawn to such texts in the first place,” the richness of the reading experience is either devalued or lost entirely. While she pleads guilty “to imposing a tentative taxonomy onto forms of engagement that are more truthfully described as messy, blurred, compounded and contradictory,” she at least begins, or perhaps better, re-engages with the work of attending to the quality of the reading experience.

And yet Felski eschews the natural course that some critics would like to make the next logical step: that the reason for this devaluation of reading is the perverse and perverting grip of “theory” on academic literary study. While admitting that theory often treats with disdain the “shameful ordinariness” of responses that her book values, Felski nonetheless demonstrates a subtle and wide-ranging mastery of and engagement with a range of contemporary literary and aesthetic theories, often showing how a particular theory rests on fundamental responses to reading that remain unacknowledged.

Her hope, indeed, is that “rather than pitting literary theory against common knowledge,” her book can “build better bridges between them.” The ordinary reader who enjoys reading Jane Eyre should not be lectured by the academic on her unwitting collusion with Victorian imperialism, if for no other reason than that the academic herself probably began her engagement with Brontë’s novel through an identical act of simple enjoyment–or as Felski teaches us, a not-so-simple enjoyment. Rather than taking the reading experience for granted, her book enjoins us to ask what exactly we are doing when we read. She does this through her taxonomy of four of our most enduring and complex reactions to reading.

The first is recognition–the experience of “recognis[ing] oneself in a book”–and is for Felski “at once utterly mundane yet singularly mysterious.” When we recognise someone or something, we “know it again,” and because many works of literature involve introspection by characters, what we come to know is often ourselves. Further, we come not only to know, but to make ourselves, to fashion a self out of gestures, ideas, likes, dislikes, and so on, which we see in characters and make into an already existing part of the self through the mysterious process of recognition. As Gadamer argues, “the joy of recognition is [. . .] the joy of knowing more than is already familiar.” For a “hermeneutics of suspicion,” of course, such recognition is condemned as either a “narcissistic self-duplication” (Levinas) or a version of “misrecognition” (Lacan and Althusser), a naive gullibility about a unitary self produced by the mirror phase or by the blinkers of ideology.

Yet as Charles Taylor points out, recognition is also a “vital human need”; Felski takes arguments such as Taylor’s about justice and multiculturalism, and deftly moves them into the realm of the literary. Recognition is as much an ethical category for Felski as an epistemological one: “through this experience of affiliation, I feel myself acknowledged; I am rescued from the fear of invisibility, from the terror of not being seen.” Because one recognises “more than is already familiar,” recognition also prompts reflection on “the limits of knowing and knowability, and about how self-perception is mediated by the self.” Far from being a shallow experience of “identifying” with a beautiful or a heroic or a charming character in a novel, recognition becomes in Felski’s hands a way that we make “sense of texts and of the world.”

Enchantment, the second reading experience she explores, is in the Coleridge’s dry phrase the “willing suspension of disbelief.” More viscerally, it is the power that almost literally doesn’t let us put a book down, that keeps us reading far into the night even when we know we have to wake early the next morning. For Joseph Boone, it is an “intoxication,” a “rapture,” a “surrender” that is “ecstatic and erotically charged.”

For this very reason, of course, enchantment has been a highly suspect state, making “demystification,” in Leotard’s phrase “an endless task.” Earlier, Brecht founded his epic theatre on the alienation effect, which results in an audience kept wide awake, rational, able to exercise judgement, as opposed to audiences of traditional drama who, in his words, “look at the stage as if in a trance.” If fascism can employ so effectively an anaesthetising spectacle to subdue the masses, all the more reason for a critical reader or viewer to keep alert for the malign effects of enchantment. For literary critics, keeping one’s distance is equally crucial. How can we exercise judgement, how can we critique a text’s ideological entanglements, if we are absorbed by its subliminal and mysteriously enchanting aspects? We would descend to the level of the child transfixed by the television cartoon or by the advertisement for the latest toy, our critical faculties disabled, ourselves deluded.

As Felski points out, critics have historically tended to treat enchantment as something to which only “weaker” beings–women, children, gay people–fall victim, not the alert, stout-hearted male critic. Felski again points out the obvious: for all the literary critic’s jaded alertness, he too falls prey to enchantment. In the words of Barry Fuller, we are caught by “something swoonier, [. . . ] some possible apprehension of sublimity of self-erasure in the presence of what is not ourselves.” A vigilant reason is only too eager to reassert itself after such an embarrassing swoon into enchantment.

Felski turns to recent aesthetic and affective criticism to counter the critique of enchantment. For example, Stephen Greenblatt notes that the enchantment of the literary text may be irrational, but that it is also linked to the text’s ability “to create resonance–to generate a sense of the thickness of historical and cultural context,” not a mind-numbing leanness. Hillis Miller suggests that what we lack is the vocabulary to explore the richness of aesthetic responses; how is it that a world that “does not exist comes to seem vividly, achingly real”? Does our gender, or our education, or our class position fully explain, and thus explain away, the nature of these reactions? Does not exploration of how enchantment works deserve a response that is not merely dismissive?

Felski’s third category is knowledge. When we read, our commonsense belief is that the text reveals to us “something about the way things are”; Hamlet’s advice to the players, “to hold as ‘twere the mirror up to nature,” is one of the most familiar renderings of this function of art. The critique of this view is even older: Socrates’s rejection of mimetic art in the Republic as dangerously misleading. More recently, realism, the genre that most directly subscribes to a belief in the transmission of knowledge, came under attack from Marxist critics intent on conflating realism with “individualism, bourgeois culture, and capitalism,” thus making, for example, a critique of Dickens “a heroic assault on the capitalist system.” Put this way, of course, Felski renders the whole enterprise laughable, yet a belief in the malign effect of realism specifically and the idea of knowledge transmission generally has been a mainstay of literary and aesthetic criticism.

Using Paul Ricoeur’s description of “mimesis as a redescription rather than an echo or imitation,” Felski points out that our access to the world “in itself” or “as it really is” is already mediated by a whole host of other signifying practices: “images, myths, jokes, commonsense beliefs, scraps of scientific knowledge, religious beliefs, popular aphorisms, and the like.” When a literary text represents these modes of signification, it does not copy them without critical reflection. Rather it recreates or redescribes “a world already mediated by language,” indispensably organising experience so as to connect “persons, things, and coordinates of space and time.”

To return to Dickens, then, the knowledge offered by the realist novel is, in Peter Brooks’ words, “a phenomenological inventory of the world” in “all its historical distinctiveness and material density.” The effect of this density may be fascinating, rich, complex, even sinister and disturbing; for example, Elaine Freedgood sees in the brief mention of “Negro Head tobacco” in Great Expectations a glancing aside to the Aboriginal genocide in Australia. Knowledge emerges in unexpected places.

Felski’s final category is shock. If shock suggests the world of horror movies or thrillers, such associations are in fact helpful; as with the rest of her book, “a word drawn from our everyday usage can clear away some of our calcified, often under-justified conviction about the import and impact of literary works.” Words with similar import drawn from the realm of theory–“transgression, trauma, defamiliarisation, dislocation, self-shattering, the sublime”–all bring with them specific agendas. Felski, here as elsewhere, prefers to clear the slate.

Felski calls shock the “slap on the face” that is as “exhilarating” as it is violent. Presumably it is this exhilaration that keeps audiences coming back, whether to action movies or to productions of Euripides’ The Bacchae. Analyses of tragedy, she points out, are “hard-pressed to account for the visceral, affective, gut-wrenching impact of works such as The Bacchae,” in part because the gentler Aristotelian emotions of pity and fear do not take into account the unexpected “shudder of shock” we experience when, for example, Pentheus’s mother tears her son limb from limb. Modernism deliberately revelled in the shocking, but the example of Euripides’ play demonstrates that what Foucault calls “the limit experience” has a long history.

Art retains its ability to shock in the face of foreknowledge: though we may know that Gloucester’s eyes are about to ripped out in King Lear, that knowledge does not prevent our shudder when it is enacted for us. Our body registers our reactions willy nilly: tears, accelerated heart beat, shivers. Again, being a professional literary critic is no guard against these unregulated bodily responses. Felski suggests that the psychoanalytic idea of Nachträglichkeit or “afterwardness” can be given new life when brought to bear on an analysis of the experience of shock, its ability at once to speak of its time and place, and to resonate through history.

Together, Felski’s four short essays on recognition, enchantment, knowledge and shock leave me refreshed, invigorated, and willing to engage with my own reading responses both more critically and more charitably. She does achieve her aim, which is to get “a better handle on how and why we read.”

Perhaps the most important aspect of Felski’s book is its call for the allegiance between the academic reader and the ordinary reading community. Because students come to our classrooms as ordinary readers, indeed often unwilling readers, it is important to have a place to begin with which they will be familiar. Felski’s four reading effects are ones that students will be able to recognise; her book then provides a program for moving from those “ordinary” reactions to a more subtle awareness of how literature and literary theory work. By showing how our “ordinary” reactions to reading are actually quite extraordinary, Felski does a great service to academic and non-academic readers alike. 

Kate Lawson is Associate Professor in the Department of English Language and Literature at the University of Waterloo. Her field is the Victorian novel.