Reading is different as one grows older. Young, I used to read “for all time,” my brain alive to the words as though a photographic plate, letting the lines be burnt upon my imagination so that the words and the images they create would never fade. First readings of certain books remained largely intact. I could leaf through the books in my mind, “see them” again, if not read them again. The capacity that allowed me to recall the actual words used, to see them before me in my mind’s eye, dispersed probably around age 30. Thereafter, it became harder to call to mind all the particulars, but that wasn’t simply due to aging memory, it was also due to educational dispatch: in college, which I attended between ages 26 and 30, one read for short-term memory, for the sake of “the course.” Much of what one studied was given definite temporal parameters. After all, old knowledge will always be replaced by new. Nothing is for all time.
But those earlier readings, in my teens and twenties, were for the sake of my own mind and development, not for the sake of the curriculum. Those readings were between me and the world of letters, and I belonged there by virtue of my curiosity, my hungry search for writing that would matter to me, that would shape my mind and imagination and word-usage, my way of thinking as though in a book. My way of reading my own mind.
In college my mind was enlarged by many more avenues of study, of discipline and major, than I had sought out on my own, and yet that enlargement created a darkening of the photographic plate. There were simply too many facts, dates, names, places, works, events, readings. While I still preferred re-reading those in my pantheon of greats, that pantheon was no longer a world unto itself; it was a collection, a constellation, created by my initial inquiries.
Now, mid-fifties, I can look back on my educated reading as well, so that arranging my books on my bookshelves after what may be the last big move of my adult life, I relive, or reanimate imaginatively, the process by which I filled in the gaps so that literature becomes not simply my circle of heroes, but a continuum in which one tendency replaces another “forever”—or, until it simply becomes, for the moment, contemporary. The mental walk through literary history (my books are arranged chronologically by year) furnishes me with many thoughts and memories, many of ideas never realized. Time was, these ruminations would have been considered material for lectures about developments in art and literature, lectures never delivered nor written because, in the manner of the student who prepared but didn’t get “called on,” all my study did not lead to a university position. So part of what I reflect on is what that preparation amounts to, in and of itself. The ability to pass exams, to read for and pass “generals,” to have a body of knowledge that isn’t “useless” so much as “unused.” But knowledge—knowing who wrote what when, or who said what about which work, or the plot of various novels and plays—isn’t the point of such study, it’s a by-product, not an outcome.
The point is argument. And perhaps it’s enough to reflect that the argument against reading as education is inherent in the failure to find the job offer one expected. But that’s not the argument that motivates me, that too is an element of happenstance—of opportunities missed or abilities lacking. The argument furnished by my originary reading relied upon the necessity of reading as a developmental decision; reading as an auto-didact would be improved by subsequent education, certainly, but that doesn’t overshadow the initial impetus: the belief in that early reading was belief in myself within the world of letters, not belief in myself as an academic, as a professor. The fact that I did attain to a knowledge base that enabled me to lecture authoritatively in my field means nothing beyond that. That knowledge makes one a teacher. The Ph.D., arguably, makes one a scholar, or gives one the wherewithal to research and argue at a professional level. But neither of those capacities makes one “a writer,” as I understood the term in my youth. Though even that term is a dodge. I had no interest in “writers,” per se. My heroes were not “writers,” they were artists, with all the romantic—and perhaps subversive—associations that might conjure, because what they created were works of art. And much of my study at the doctoral level was aimed to understand that distinction. What does it mean to consider some product of writing—a novel, play, essay, poem, book, text—a work of art?
I had entered the university at the age of twenty-six because I felt I’d gone as far as I could on my own. I wanted to learn to read French and German; I wanted to study the history of art and of literature so that I could understand how my latter day heroes—Joyce and Thomas Pynchon—fit in. But also art. I’d spent a few years working as security at an art academy/museum and the sheer diversity of forms considered art in the ‘80s burdened me with an irksome incomprehension. If there was a history, if there were principles, then one might devise an argument for some works and against others. I suspected that such was not really necessary—neither for artists nor professors nor critics—but I wanted to insist upon it for myself. I was already possessed—I believed—of a discerning critical sensibility, but what was it discerning? What was the basis of my own affinities? What was the purpose of convictions other than simply having them?
All along I was convinced that I read not to become an informed critic, or a good student or teacher, but to become an artist in my own right, and that meant—to myself in the mid-twenties—getting a handle on what my heroes had achieved in the grand scheme of things. Which meant coming to terms with the fact that there is something like a “scheme” in the world of letters. Even though many of my heroes were iconoclasts and rebels within any such scheme. And that worried me. Trying to create an ad hoc “scheme” into which the writing—the art—that mattered to me might fit was a disservice to some affinity that mattered to me more than keeping company with what Nietzsche—one of my earliest heroes—liked to call “schoolmen.” In fact, apropos of Nietzsche’s idiosyncratic autobiography Ecce Homo, I once remarked to one of my dissertation advisers that I’d like to entitle my thesis “Why I Like the Books I Like.”
Not content with only one aspect of the portrait of my affinities—the literary—I have expanded the list to include films and rock music and poetry, perhaps even fine art. As an undergrad, I was a student of both art history and comparative literature and my list-making from that combined study followed more closely historical and aesthetic tendencies not decreed solely or even mostly by my own preferences. But to create a personally relevant list was always the more compelling aim. There are philosophical grounds for this, having to do with the idea that experience occurs in a time for all time, but that the time when something happened and the time in which it is recalled are never one and the same, much less the time when something first appeared and the time when it was first appreciated in a critical fashion.
Thus my stress on these different experiential points: the time of emergence, when something first comes to light, call it (the following terms derive from Mallarmé) “the scene”; then the time when something is experienced/appreciated by the critic—in this case, me—as “the figure”; then the time when something is recounted, placed into thought and writing—as “the fiction.” The idea that exercised my mind in my time at Princeton was that of the “supreme fiction,” an idea taken from Wallace Stevens, who formulated, as did Mallarmé, a tripartite division: “It Must Be Abstract,” “It Must Change,” “It Must Give Pleasure.” The “abstraction” is “the scene,” that idea of a time and place that remains—as idea or conception—after the time and place has passed away, in the manner that one speaks of “the Sixties” or “the fin-de-siècle,” or “the Renaissance.” Zooming in, one is concerned with the blooms that are flourishing at a particular moment, whose having been alters the air we breathe thereafter. Change is part of “the figure,” the being or bloom who instantiates the idea in its moment, but then continues to alter, for nothing gold can stay.
The “pleasure” corresponds to “the fiction,” in which experience makes a claim to endure. There are many easily forgotten or undifferentiated experiences, but some others have a definite thrust or power or vibrancy that makes them lucid, knowable, preferred. The factor of pleasure—hedonistic as it may seem—has to do with beauty as the high desiderata of aesthetic experience. We may wish to marry the simple contemplation of beauty with something more active, with “the beautiful gesture,” or the acte gratuit, or with the selfless sacrifice of a Christ or a political dissident, but I would argue that, transposed to art, such acts still must be contemplated, and so we remain within a realm of the pleasure of our own experience, inseparable from the pleasure of being alive, or of being itself.
For me, the fiction that seems to matter more than any other—as the basis, I suppose, of all my pleasure in whatever I take pleasure in—is “the growth of the critic’s mind,” where the critic is both author and reader, and the “growth” is the interdependent reading of one by the other, of a changing “figure” read against an abstract “scene,” for the sake of that enduring fiction: consciousness.