Reading at the horizon

June 26, 2007

The perversity inherent in my being currently unable to stomach the vastest majority of novels is not lost on me: the thesis that marks the final barrier to my Master’s degree in English literature is only a few revisions and a formality away from being finished; my bookshelves are filled with novels that I haven’t read. Yet this state of being unable to bear novels has gone on for over six months now and accounts for both the unmistakably hobbled gait with which my thesis has marched toward completion and the bottleneck playing out amongst the rest of my books.

Even so, this situation has not been entirely without its consolations. In an altogether difficult meeting with the professor who might best be called my mentor, I forced myself first to admit that all of the PhD programs I’d applied to had rejected me, then that I had found myself unable to read novels for, at that point, a couple months. “Good,” she said, shocking the hell out of me, “You’ve moved on already. It was a good thing that you got rejected from these English programs: they would have constrained you too much.” It was exactly what I needed to hear.

But in as much as this amounts to a totally involuntary turning away, it’s been a disturbing situation to me and one which I’ve tried to remedy no few times. You might remember when I read Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther and commented on that book here. Even though I wanted desperately to like it – even if only for the sake of communing with Roland Barthes (who used The Sorrows as a basis for his Lover’s Discourse) – I would put off reading the thin volume, doing who-knows-what to put the better part of a week between my beginning the book and finishing it.

I was not enjoying myself: not getting a buzz of satisfaction, nor a frisson of meaning, nor any other phrase one might use to describe, in terms that do justice to both the dignity of literature and the profoundity of its possible effects, the urge to carry on reading.

This same falling flat has been duplicated in my attempt at reading Hesse’s The Glass Bead Game. At first, it seemed the perfect novelistic chaser to the two more theoretical books which I’d read before it: Johan Huizinga’s Homo Ludens and Mark C. Taylor’s The Moment of Complexity. Both were excellent books (though I’ve since learned that the translation of Huizinga which I read may leave a lot to be desired), dealing in two somewhat different ways with an identical space – a space characterized by the presence of rules and the absence of total rigidity. Huizinga’s emphasis on play and the existence of society “through and as play” foreshadows Taylor’s more interdisciplinary tack, occupied as it is with self-organization and emergent properties.

And Hesse’s novel would seem to follow these two books perfectly, striking a middle ground thematically as well as chronologically. For even though Hesse obviously makes use of an element of play in this book, he also seems to be closer to Taylor in focusing more on the parts whose interactions create society than he is to Huizinga’s unexamined faith in the applicability of a theory for society as a whole. (If this is not entirely borne out in Hesse’s rather essentialistic views of East and West, let me suggest that, in The Glass Bead Game as a semi-utopian novel, he has created a world in which those distinctions are easily surpassed, if not totally disregarded.) Add to the felicitous connection of themes with the preceding books Wikipedia’s gathering a fascinating group of attempts at creating a glass bead game and you will perhaps understand why I thought my aversion to novels could be at its end.

Predictable – by the very fact of my having to write this entry – as the outcome of my attempt at reading The Glass Bead Game is, it did join with one as yet undisclosed fact to hint at why I felt such repulsion toward novels. The fact is that, even though my distaste for the genre is not waning but steadily increasing in the face of my attempts at curbing it, one novelist alone requires no rapprochement – that my fondness for him continues almost as if it were never interrupted, and that I was able to pick up a novel of his and scarcely remember that I had ever, in some forgotten but evidently binding moment, abjured his genre so completely. That author is Henry James.

You see, reader, while Hesse labors sweatily over the character of Joseph Knecht, cataloging his great sincerities, his exemplary deeds, and his exemplary failures, James’s narration is a curious if somewhat casual walk through the narrative space. Hesse builds an edifice, piling diagetic stone upon diagetic stone until he is done and asks you, pointing with his now-calloused hands, to behold the perfection of the work; James, though, might tour that same building and, even emphasizing the contrast of interior and exterior by couching his tour in a series of permissions and intimacies, make art out of his observations instead of the thing itself.

In the same meeting with my professor-mentor that I mentioned earlier, she charged me with “seeing what is just over the horizon.” Though I’m sure I’ll find James there too, I can’t help but wonder if the most fruitful part of this incident – my malady, as it were – doesn’t lie somewhere in the basis on which I’ve contrasted these two authors.

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