I have little idea where last week went. Apologies. I'm still trying to get used to the slightly mad rhythm of my new London life...

Back in May, I wrote a blog post called Like What You Like. In one of the comments, I said:

Liking whatever you like is a relativistic point about liking -- plenty of stuff out there, enjoy what you will. But my second point is a separate point, not an extension of my first, and it is an almost essentialist point noting that literature itself asks what literature is, and only literature can answer.

I wanted to come back to this again because it seems to me that (at least) two types of reading are being carried out by most readers most of the time. And only one of them is likely to allow readers to find what new literature might be out there now. I'm tempted to suggest that the two categories of reading could be called "reading for pleasure" and "reading seriously", but even to suggest as much strikes me as utterly absurd. I don't read for anything other than pleasure (although a deeper pleasure as opposed to a sugar-high might have to be conceded!) I wondered if "reading philosophically" versus "reading non-philosophically" might perhaps be the distinction, but that crumbles as soon as it is invoked. The suggestion that any reading is non-philosophical is risible. We've surely all got whiff of enough cultural studies to know that it is now widely recognised -- and bleedin' obvious -- that when folk are slumped in front of the telly watching some soap opera or other they are engaging with it on many different levels, and use it later to negotiate conversations about ethics, morals, narrative; same when they are reading an airport thriller. Both these attempts at describing these two types of reading also come perilously close to the idea that one type of reading is better than the other. Again, that strikes me as plainly daft.

In their excellent introduction to Maurice Blanchot, Ullrich Haase and William Large suggest that, particularly on the back of the thinking of Hegel (via Alexandre Kojève), Heidegger, and Nietzsche, and in (often silent) dialogue throughout his life with Bataille, Nancy, Derrida and Levinas, Blanchot has inherited a question...

... namely that of the finitude of our existence, expressing itself in a new, disturbing and seemingly meaningless experience of death. Here it is no longer the powerful subject that gives meaning to its world, but a passive human voice that listens to the anonymous voice of the other.

This means that the question of literature, in which at least for Blanchot this anonymity has its greatest force, is no longer a parochial question about values and tastes, but a directly philosophical question about the status of the human being, and that this question has a broader ethical and political significance.

This is the greatest impact of Blanchot's writings: to think about literature, to struggle with the question of literature, is to face the fundamental questions of our age.

The demand of literature, then. There is, thus, only one type of reading: reading! Something else is happening when we consume books, even if we think about them very seriously (our newspaper 'critics', our synopsis-writing friends in the blogosphere, myself often) or think about them hardly at all (our stereotype of a commuter reading his 'Dan Brown'). The continuum between active-passive, engaged-unengaged, is not where the demand is responded to. But it is that response, a response that should not need to be called anything other than reading, but is so much more than what we have begun to think reading merely need be, that is demanded of us if we want to begin to want "to think about literature, to struggle with the question of literature [and] to face the fundamental questions of our age."

Doubtless, there is sometimes a fearsome intelligence to the dinner-party guest who can hold forth about the latest Booker shortlist and their associated merits and demerits. And then there is someone, somewhere else, quietly reading in a corner, really reading, wowed and unnerved and silenced by the poetry of Celan. I've been impressed by that dinner-guest on many occasions (I think I may well have sometimes been a boorish version of that dinner-guest myself) and I have no doubt that s/he reads carefully, deeply, in an engaged and serious way. Equally, I have no doubt that, very often, they entirely miss the point not only of what they are reading at any particular time, but of what reading means and what a reader could or should be in response to Blanchot's demand -- or, rather, Blanchot's recognition of the demand of literature -- and away from the need either to see consuming texts as a legitimate leisure activity or a way to impress life's Greek chorus about your putative intelligence.

Readers Comments

  1. Great Post. Great in that it is about raising a question that probably isn't answerable (as, I think, Blanchot knew), but that - and this is clearly the Heideggerian part - must be continually asked as read. That demand of reading is not assent, but questioning, and it is made by every book, by every written word, and what we choose to call literature are those collections of words that cannot be read at all without first responding to this demand. At least that's the idea.

  2. Yes I agree with you on this one Mark. In fact I think Blanchot writes about the two slopes of literature in 'Literature and the Right to Death'. Your dinner guest like us all would belong to the slope he calls culture, and the other slope, which barely has a name, we call literature (and some times culture calls it so, whether happily or not). You can't escape either slope, though I suppose it very difficult to see any literature in Dan Brown.

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