Where does reading happen?
Not on the page, the screen: text needs enlivening, needs to get out of its margins, needs a space in which to act. The reader hears a voice, yes? And then there’s a light, motion....
Reading happens, maybe, as Italo Calvino suggests in his essay “Visibility,” in a “mental cinema,” in a conceptual space something like the Lumières’ Cinèmatograph, both recorder and projector, stuttering forward, turning flickers to continuous dream, powered by the reader’s own hand, the reader a co-creator working from the script of the text.
“[W]e read a scene in a novel or the report of some event in the newspaper and, according to the greater or lesser effectiveness of the text, we are brought to witness the scene as if it were taking place before our eyes.”
Calvino clarifies that this conception of reading, like film, consists of a process of making: “A film is therefore the outcome of a succession of phases, both material and otherwise, in the course of which the images acquire form.” Like a film crew, then, and a team of editors, all driven by a barking director, our intellect goes to work from the suggestions of the text to produce our feature attraction. And all in real time!
But to suggest that reading’s primary site is such a theater, that its realization in us is as a mental film seems to privilege, to designate as “readable,” only a certain kind of text, one that intends to serve as a script, or avails itself to visual rendering. Let us, after Duchamp, call these texts “retinal” whose primary acts are visual.
What about other texts that, unlike those playing in the mental Cineplex, make their making their subject, make their coming into being, make reading itself their drama, make words characters—words’ (dis)arrangements, rhythms, connotative potentialities—make the meandering peripeteia of their sequences—a dérive into intellectual spaces, sensual spaces, dark spaces where one cannot be told from the other—something like a plot without an apparent goal or end? What about texts that make us ask: “What is a text?” “What is reading?” “What does it mean to be reading this so-called text?”
Or what about texts, as in collage—my current mode—whose basic material may be word, image, any thing? Texts that happen on materials other than page or screen? Texts inscribed on objects, embedded in our environment?
What mental cinema has the equipment to project such a text?
I enter the text and it enters me. We occur to each other, in each other. We attempt to communicate. We negotiate the workings of our peculiar language. Alien to each other, we may reach a kind of agreement, a pleasurable incoherence, some feeling that feels like understanding, like sympathy, not sense.
Let’s call this reading an access, as in an attack of fever, a paroxysm of communicated through the medium of language, and all I need is literacy for that access to access me.
Reading is opening, is availability. Writing is entering, is reaching.
“I’m a man who has more money than people who go hungry, which somehow makes me dishonest.”
We’re with Rodrigo S.M., the fictional author of a fiction about an impoverished young woman, Macabéa, a fictional character based on Rodrigo’s fictional encounter with a fictional northeastern girl in Clarice Lispector’s fiction The Hour of the Star.
But we are with me, too, reader, writer, and probably you as well.
“If the reader possesses any wealth and a comfortable life,” Rodrigo writes, “he’ll step out of himself to see how the other sometimes lives. If he’s poor, he won’t be reading me because reading me is superfluous for anyone who has a slight permanent hunger.”
Reading is seeing again: “how the other sometimes lives,” this “poor” “other”—readable but unread, a non-reader—an object, a zoo animal, a spectacle, an experience...for me. That other is an other for whom seeing the writer/reader writing about her—seeing me—is intensely unnecessary. It’s not that this other doesn’t read. She just doesn’t read me.
I’m not satisfied with this. Not because I feel a need to be seen, but because, in this configuration, this other, if she is made visible, made readable, at all, may only be made so for the purpose of being read by me—not by herself—of being seen, watched, spied upon...by me. Rodrigo knows this. In part, making visible those we know are there but refuse to acknowledge is his intent.
“Everyone alive knows, even if they don’t know they know. So you gentlemen know more than you think and are just pretending not to.”
Rodrigo’s purpose, like Lispector’s, is to strike me with an access of Macabéa, of the millions she represents, until I’m burning. Yet Rodrigo, too, seems uncomfortable with the asymmetry of my reading Macabéa reading nothing but a magazine.
“Naturally, like every writer I’m tempted to use succulent terms,” Rodrigo writes. But here he will eschew self-consciously literary language “because if I touch the girl’s bread the bread will turn to gold—and the girl (she’s nineteen) the girl wouldn’t be able to bite it, dying of hunger. So I have to speak simply to capture her delicate and vague existence.”
Language is life. Literacy can kill. “Speaking simply” saves.
I would say, however, that speaking simply doesn’t demand restraint in narrative form, materials, syntax, or, particularly, the physical object that is read, so long as these are all available in Macabéa’s neighborhood, are part of her neighborhood, part of her experience, her literacy. Speak her language.
Speaking simply is not equivalent to the “retinal.” Speaking simply does not obviate difficulty. Speaking simply is speaking shared languages: visual, textual, material, experiential.
I don’t want to speak of Macabéa, but to her, with her, as she might with me, in a language unbounded by margins or media, in a medium of literacy that we share, like air, the medium of accesses, our transporting fevers and paroxysms of .
Calvino, Italo. Six Memos for the Next Millenium. New York: Vintage Books, 1993. 83. Print.
Lispector, Clarice. The Hour of the Star. Trans. Benjamin Moser. New York: New Directions, 2011. 4-22. Print.