Saturday, January 28, 2006

Why we read?


What is it about the written word that pleasures us so? Guardian has put up an extract from Adam Phillips's introduction to the Freud Reader, which offers a damn interesting insight.

One's relationship to a "good" book, like one's relationship to a good friend, is not fearful; the other kinds of books are intimidating. They can even inspire us by diminishing us, by making us feel small. Indeed, the "element of timid reverence, the feeling of one's own smallness in the face of greatness" are rather more akin to feelings of religious awe. The secular religion of great writing - for Freud, as for so many of his bourgeois contemporaries - had replaced the sacred religions of their forefathers. Freud was someone who had clearly been daunted by literature, someone who had felt traumatised - humiliated, belittled and inspired - by reading.

In all his writing Freud is very didactic; if you dip into any page of Freud you will find him informing you about something, explaining to you how dreams work, how and why memory is memory of desire, how symptoms are forms of sexual satisfaction, why pain is so alluring as a pleasure, and so on. He assumes that the reader wants to know about things. But he also assumes, more paradoxically, that the one thing the reader wants to do more than know, is not to know; that, indeed, the very ways we go about knowing things is the form our greed for ignorance takes. Psychoanalysis is a very elaborate redescription of curiosity.

Freud tells us, as his phrase "the greed for knowledge" suggests, that what we have been taught to call knowing we should call desiring; knowledge is a way of making desire sound less disreputable. Because our desire, when it is not solely the struggle for survival, is essentially, in Freud's view, a desire for something forbidden, it is the very thing we try not to know about, and the only thing that really interests us. Like Freud's magnificent, significant and favourite books (read the whole piece for what this means), there is always a feeling of one's own smallness in the face of the greatness of one's desires.

Living a life is reading a life (the constant look-in from an outside perspective), in Freud's view; and since life is composed of its desire for more life, and its desire for less life, and, above all, its desire for the forbidden life, nothing is going to make us more resistant than this reading. The (Freudian) reader and writer are not only partners in crime; they are partners in concealing the crime from themselves.

"The writer enables us," Freud writes in "The Creative Writer and Daydreaming", " ... to enjoy our own fantasies without shame or self-reproach." Our fantasies, which are the conscious formulation of our unconscious desires, are shameful and guilt-provoking; the writer renders the unacceptable acceptable, and the reader consents. Then Freud provokes us, in his ironically understated way, to wonder whether it is better or worse for us to be aware of just what it is we have consented to. What is it, Freud wants to know, that can make reading (and writing) so pleasurable; and what do we need to do, and not do, to sustain this pleasure? For Freud, like many of his contemporary modernist writers, reading and writing seems like the best analogy, the most illuminating way of talking about the dramas and melodramas of everyday modern life. Writing about writing was writing about holding on to an appetite for modern life, about what language can sustain in us.

If anything, Freud encourages us to read as we dream, according to our desire, surprised by what may strike us, and unable to predict what will haunt us; and able, if possible, to notice those resistances that Freud found so telling, in our difficulties with his own texts in which he is telling us something, so he tells us, that is the only thing we want to know, and that therefore we don't want to know at all.

Wow! you read a piece like that and all's well with the world.

This statement is curiously tautological, if you didn't notice.

The sadness of books
Bibliophile's dilemma
Endings
The new snobbery

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