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  • Andrew Field

What is Heart-Reading?


Don Quixote


We have too cognitive an interpretation of reading, and I think it is also too idealized. How so?


When we go to college, we learn to place an emphasis on what we normally call, if we call it at all, "reason," or "rationality." A lot of universities will have variations on these words in their mottos, which we can see in large etched letters in the frieze of a large library, for example. An emphasis on reason, and rationality, of course, is a very good thing, I suppose, but I don't think we really understand what those words mean, and therefore we foul up lots of different concepts and disciplines and fields when we don't understand what those words mean.


What do those words mean? Let me ask that question in a different way. How do we misunderstand them? I think we often interpret reason to have something to do with the intellect. And yet the intellect in and of itself is not moral. For a very clear and plain example, think of the Nazis. The Nazis used their intellects to construct a machinery for murdering Jews. We can use the word "reason" to describe that, or even "rationality," although we'd be better if we said something like "desiccated reason," or "toxic rationality," to put it lightly.


The world we live in is so weird in part because a Nietzsche is forced to lose his mind after attempting to save a whipped horse, and an entire society is persuaded to murder an entire civilization. That is why Nietzsche was right when he argued for a transvaluation of morals. What most people in our world term good is not good - things like pity, for example. This is what Bob Dylan means when he sings, "the devil hides behind a cloak of decency," or what Arendt means when she refers to the "banality of evil."


Morality is not desiccated. Morality is strong, robust, full of life. People who are moral see, and lead, and think, and feel deeply. Cowards are not moral. And rationality or reason without a heart is the opposite of morality.


How we interpret the world says more about us than how we actually talk, and the words we speak, or the behaviors we engage in, are the product of how we interpret the world. Think of it as framework, a kind of puppet theater, inside of which, or through which, is our particular angle on space and time. This suggests that we have far more agency in the world that we imagine, and that imagination is far more powerful than we realize.


Imagination is somewhere between the body and mind, and therefore in a kind of heart region. It is fundamentally something that feels, before anything else, and it is sensitive to moods, ambiances, music. The heart, where the imagination is, takes delight; it broods; it seethes; it hungers. It informs the intellect or, better put, it guides the intellect, like a kind of conscience behind the conscious conscience. We could then say that the imagination itself is a moral thing, as long we intend that comment in a Nietzschean sense.


Interpretation is another word for reading, and we read the world just as we read books. How we interpret, how we read, is how we see, since perception itself is constructed out of interpretation, which in turn is constructed out of how we feel. At the end of the day, it is feeling, before anything else, that motivates how we think, feel, and imagine, but we need intellect to give it shape as well, for feeling without form is madness, as Samuel Johnson well knew, and other people with enormous amounts of imagination and feeling who suffer with depression when there are not adequate outlets for such energy. Energy is an eternal delight, as William Blake knew, but it is also horror if there aren't avenues for that energy. This can then lead not only to depression but violence.


Violence is history without representation, which is what Allen Grossman argues. It is what happens when energy has no form, no structure, since representation is form, is framework, is structure. In a way, when Freud spoke of the importance of love and work, he could have easily been speaking of love and art, and was, in a sense, because love is energy and art is representation. I wonder if we are becoming more interested in the differences and parallels between art and life because of things like the Shoah, and therefore a need to reimagine anew the relationship between representation and history.


Part of reimagining this relationship, I think, is describing practices of reading in more honest ways. And that's why I think the idea of "heart-reading" can be helpful. What do I mean by that term?


A critic named Blakey Vermule has argued that reading is a sophisticated form of gossip. I think that's kind of what I'm trying to say, though I'm interested in the argument probably more phenomenologically, as a description of what happens when we actually read. Critics should think about this, if only because good critics are good readers, not only of books but people and situations outside books. A good critic is a good allegorist; he or she recognizes types, strengths, weaknesses, and not only that, but can also offer correctives, suggestions.


When we are sitting in a coffeeshop and reading - a novel, say, Sons and Lovers - what are we actually experiencing? I would argue that we do not encounter the characters in the book, so much as the characters in our life, and that sometimes that means family members, or friends, and sometimes that just means other people at that coffeeshop on that very day. We speak of the hive mind as a phenomenon of the internet, but it is also a phenomenon in real life, since we are all connected in the Buddhist sense. Even the most individuated person is not an island. We are all part of a human community, and therefore we grow together. Because we grow together, the entire human community is like a hive; and because we are human beings with bodies and souls and intellects, it is a very complicated hive.


In other words, we read ourselves into a book, and ourselves are composites of all the people and places and voices and authors we loved and who have then loved us back. This is why Harold Bloom argued that poems are made out of other poems. There is no such thing as an individual person, since a person is made from everything he loved and that, in turn, as I said, loved him back. Poems, like people, are wovennesses. The hard part is turning the wovenness in to an individual voice, like a Dickinson or Whitman, since that means integrating all those different things into something singular. When Jorie Graham titles a collected poems "The Dream of the Unified Field," we could read that title as a metaphor for any singular voice in the world of literature, from Maggie Nelson to Colson Whitehead to Joshua Cohen to Ben Lerner, though I am only mentioning prose writers here.


Sometimes I wonder - warning: going to get a bit Kabbalistic here - if our practices of reading ourselves into a book actually changes the world around us, because interpretation shapes how we see. In other words, if we are grieving the loss of a good parent, and we read something that helps us process it - say a funny and consoling passage in Don Quixote, or an interaction between Hal and Falstaff in Henry IV - then we can say that reading does change the world around us, because the book helps us with the heavy emotional labor, and when we return to the world we have a refreshed orientation to face all the problems and troubles, whether in ourselves or in communities or families or simply the travails of everyday human existence. The greatest authors heal, because they give us forms for our energy, and therefore help us feel less alone, while also feeling like we are in the presence of friends, intimates, people who understand us and want only the best for us. In a way, it is inconceivable that such an encounter, such an experience, would not change situations, in both art - giving birth to new forms - and life - helping with our relationships in different contexts.


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