Who Reads Me?

Who Reads Me?

If Hans Magnus Entzensberger is correct in his claim that regardless the size of a linguistic community, there is always a finite and -emphatically- small number of readers of poetry, a good thousand, then poets are condemned to write and be read in a kind of a public ghetto. This sober claim about a minority of readers does not, alas, apply to poetry alone. Instead, in the world of corporate capitalism and its imperative of profit-maximisation, all literary works that attempt to reach beyond immediate gratification and instant consumption will sooner or later face a dilemma: who reads me?

An obvious and –dare I say, therefore- wrong answer is: other writers. If this were the case, then the ghetto mentality would be only reinforced. As it happens, I pretentiously hope that there are other readers out there, too, those readers that aspire to enrich their own imaginative powers and rise to the challenge that grows from a participatory moment which marks the uneasy communion between the text and the reader. Here, poetry in particular and imaginative literature in general has a few advantages.

Unlike the forms of writing designed to convey information or give a description of a given phenomena, imaginative literature goes counter to the reduced semantic and narrative ambiguities which appeal to our cognitive faculties alone. Instead, it thrives on ambiguities, and double-entendres. It relishes varieties of personal experience, shaped in multiple facets that confuse as much as they enchant the reader who must simultaneously navigate between and through the cognitive, aesthetic, and ethical layers of the text.  Imaginative literature does not offer answers and digestible sound-bites for everyday use. Instead, it asks questions that may be all the more painful because they remain unanswered. Or, to be more precise, these questions are but guidelines for an individual reader’s pursuit of answers.

Unlike the kind of writing that must consider the public consequences of its proposals or credibility of its truth-claims, imaginative literature shamelessly flirts with an ongoing temptation to become a laboratory of language, experience and style. In striving to experiment with and explore the stock of human experience, seek formal innovation and play with multiple meanings, imaginative literature refuses to view the reader’s pleasure as the ultimate purpose of its existence. What it offers instead are glimpses and flashes of individual freedom and the price one pays for maintaining personal dignity, caught between a siren’s song of solitude and a necessity of collective life. It is precisely freedom that underpins the efforts of imaginative literature, freedom to explore and wander, freedom to bear witness to what has or what can happen, freedom from cost-effective analysis and freedom to pursue one’s intimate longings and face the relevance of conflicts.

Freedom, encapsulated in the works of imaginative literature, comes in variety of more or less mutilated forms, yet it continues to appear elusive and, indeed, mysterious. A word of caution is called for here: mystery doesn’t serve to obfuscate reality but to illuminate it.  Mystery is namely not something that can be simply removed by having gone to the bottom of it all and having arrived at some kind of truth in a commonly accepted modern Western sense, adequatio intelectus et rei.  Mystery in works of imaginative literature is of a different kind. It is more akin to the ancient Greek term, aletheia, i.e. something that is not hidden and thus corresponds with reality.

Freedom and mystery, mysterious freedom in the writer’s imaginative efforts to capture reality, is the driving force in my understanding of the negotiated space between the text and the reader. It is characterised by an osmotic cross-fertilisation that occurs between idiosyncratic metaphors, ideas, perspectives, and visions, exchanged and reconfigured in a reading process. I am not prepared to give up the absurd hope that the global cultural equilibrium shifts ever so slightly whenever some reader sitting alone in her living room decides to keep her eyes fixed on the pages of a small literary magazine rather than gaze at a television screen. For in making this choice, she follows a writer on a journey at the end of which there might await a new perspective, one that would enlarge her field of reality, heighten her sensibility, and fill her nostrils with the strong scent of a place she has never physically entered but that, once having read it, she recognizes as her own.

If, in an age of goal-oriented performance, the necessity of contemplation that focuses on freedom and mystery appears to be a luxury, then it can be only backed up by the hope that it retains fragments of wisdom illuminated, lux. Freedom in imagining other worlds, experiences, fears and longings helps us go where we might not dare going without a writer, while a sense of mysterious that lingers after the truth has been temporarily unveiled helps us stay put. Imaginative literature is thus a place where all cities are revealed in a description of an anonymous provincial town and all people breath in sync with the last gasps of a dying solder, a place where a translation between writers’ vision and reader’s experience unfolds on an ongoing basis. Indeed, imaginative literature is more a process than a place. It is a process of translation upon which we all depend.

We depend on translation through the idioms we use in everyday life as we use different vocabulary and inflection to speak to children and a different one to speak to a shop assistant, to address the formal audience or to whisper sweet nonsense in a lover’s ear.  We constantly translate between various layers of language even within one’s mother tongue. Because I believe this, I must thus argue contra Robert Frost and his legendary dictum that poetry (a.k.a. imaginative literature) is what gets lost in translation. I prefer instead to adopt Nazim Hikmet’s claim that reading poetry through translation is like kissing the bride through the veil.  There is a veil in between, sure, but you still get to kiss the bride.

Images, metaphors and situations can be and are recognized across the cultural divides, uniting the readers of different languages in following the same set of literary guidelines. And a community of readers is born, whose internal differences play themselves out within the borders of the same text, deepening our sense of belonging and isolation at the same time. In doing so, the works of imaginative literature make us aware of our common humanity.

It is the redeeming potential of imaginative literature to remind us of our commonalities while refusing to overlook the differences, that makes readers come to the useless works of imaginative literature for their dose of freedom, mystery, and fragments of wisdom. This is of course an old-fashioned belief. It is based on another old-fashioned assumption: one reader is better than none. If you, sceptical reader, arrived at the end of this meditation on the futility of answers, you gave me a vindication. Thank you.

AuthorAleš Debeljak
2022-11-06T12:11:23+00:00 October 30th, 2022|Categories: Literature, Essays, Blesok no. 147|Comments Off on Who Reads Me?