Copyright © 1996 George Steiner.All rights reserved.
The Uncommon Reader
Chardin's Le Philosophe lisant was completed on 4 December 1734.It is thought to be a portrait of the painter Aved, a friend ofChardin's. The subject and the pose, a man or a woman reading abook open on a table, are frequent. They form almost a sub-genre ofdomestic interiors. Chardin's composition has antecedents inmedieval illuminations where the figure of St Jerome or some otherreader is itself illustrative of the text which it illumines. The themeremains popular until well into the nineteenth century (witnessCourbet's celebrated study of Baudelaire reading or the variousreaders depicted by Daumier). But the motif of le lecteur or lalectrice seemed to have enjoyed particular prevalence during theseventeenth and eighteenth centuries and constitutes a link, of whichChardin's whole output was representative, between the great age ofDutch interiors and the treatment of domestic subjects in the Frenchclassical manner. Of itself, therefore, and in its historical context, LePhilosophe lisant embodies a common topic conventionally handled(though by a master). Considered in respect of our own time andcodes of feeling, however, this `ordinary' statement points, in almostevery detail and principle of meaning, to a revolution of values.
Consider first the reader's garb. It is unmistakably formal, evenceremonious. The furred cloak and hat suggest brocade, a suggestionborne out by the matt but aureate sheen of the coloration.Though clearly at home, the reader is `coiffed' - an archaic wordwhich does convey the requisite note of almost heraldic ceremony(that the shape and treatment of the furred bonnet most likely derivefrom Rembrandt is a point of mainly art-historical interest). Whatmatters is the emphatic elegance, the sartorial deliberation of themoment. The reader does not meet the book casually or in disarray.He is dressed for the occasion, a proceeding which directs ourattention to the construct of values and sensibility which includesboth `vestment' end `investment'. The primary quality of the act, ofthe reader's self-investiture before the act of reading, is one ofcortesia, a term rendered only imperfectly by `courtesy'. Reading,here, is no haphazard, unpremeditated motion. It is a courteous,almost a courtly encounter, between a private person and one ofthose `high guests' whose entrance into mortal houses is evoked byHolderlin in his hymn `As on a festive day' end by Coleridge in oneof the most enigmatic glosses he appended to The Rime of theAncient Mariner. The reader meets the book with a courtliness ofheart (that is what cortesia signifies), with a courtliness, a scruple ofwelcome and entertainment of which the russet sleeve, possibly ofvelvet or velveteen, and the furred cloak and bonnet are the externalsymbols.
The fact that the reader is wearing a hat is of distinct resonance.Ethnographers have yet to tell us what general meanings apply tothe distinctions between those religious and ritual practices whichdemand that the participant be covered, and those in which he isbare-headed. In both the Hebraic and the Graeco-Roman traditions,the worshipper, the consultant of the oracle, the initiate when heapproaches the sacred text or augury, is covered. So is Chardin'sreader, as if to make evident the numinous character of his access to,of his encounter with, the book. Discreetly - and it is at this pointthat the echo of Rembrandt may be pertinent - the furred bonnetsuggests the headdress of the kabbalist or Talmudic scholar when heseeks the flame of the spirit in the momentary fixity of the letter.Taken together with the furred robe, the reader's bonnet impliesprecisely those connotations of ceremony of intellect, of the mind'stensed apprehension of meaning, which induce Prospero to put oncourtly raiment before he opens his magic books.
Observe next the hourglass beside the reader's right elbow. Again,we are looking at a conventional motif, but one so charged withmeaning that an exhaustive commentary would nearly comprise ahistory of the western sense of invention and of death. As Chardinplaces it, the hourglass declares the relationship of time and thebook. The sand sifts rapidly through the narrow of the hourglass (asifting whose tranquil finality Hopkins invokes at a key point in themortal turbulence of `The Wreck of the Deutschland'). But at thesame time, the text endures. The reader's life is measured in hours;that of the book, in millennia. This is the triumphant scandal firstproclaimed by Pindar: `When the city I celebrate shall have perished,when the men to whom I sing shall have vanished into oblivion, mywords shall endure'. It is the conceit to which Horace's exegimonumentum gave canonic expression and which culminates inMallarme's hyperbolic supposition that the object of the universe isle Livre, the final book, the text that transcends time. Marblecrumbles, bronze decays, but written words - seemingly the mostfragile of media - survive. They survive their begetters - Flaubertcried out against the paradox whereby he lay dying like a dogwhereas that `whore' Emma Bovary, his creature, sprung of lifelessletters scratched on a piece of paper, continued alive. So far, onlybooks have circumvented death and have fulfilled what Paul Eluarddefined as the artist's central compulsion: le cure desir de durer(indeed, books can even survive themselves, leapfrogging out of theshadow of their own initial being: there are vital translations oflanguages long extinct). In Chardin's painting, the hourglass, itself atwofold form with its iconic suggestion of the torus or figure eight ofinfinity, modulates exactly and ironically between the vita brevis ofthe reader and the ars longa of his book. As he reads, his ownexistence ebbs. His reading is a link in the chain of performativecontinuity which underwrites - a term worth returning to - thesurvivance of the read text.
But even as the shape of the hourglass is a binary one, its importis dialectical. The sand falling through the glass tells both of thetime-defying nature of the written word and of how little time thereis in which to read. Even the most obsessed of bookmen can readonly a minute fraction of the world's totality of texts. He is no truereader, no philosophe lisant, who has not experienced the reproachfulfascination of the great shelves of unread books, of the librariesat night of which Borges is the fabulist. He is no reader who has notheard, in his inward ear, the call of the hundreds of thousands, of themillions of volumes which stand in the stacks of the British Libraryor of Widener asking to be read. For there is in each book a gambleagainst oblivion, a wager against silence, which can be won onlywhen the book is opened again (but in contrast to man, the bookcan wait centuries for the hazard of resurrection). Every authenticreader, in the sense of Chardin's delineation, carries within him anagging weight of omission, of the shelves he has hurried past, of thebooks whose spine his fingers have brushed across in blind haste. Ihave, a dozen times, slunk by Sarpi's leviathan history of theCouncil of Trent (one of the pivotal works in the development ofwestern religious-political argument); or the opera omnia of NikolaiHartmann in their stately binding; I shall never manage the sixteenthousand pages of Amiel's (profoundly interesting) journal currentlybeing published. There is so little time in `the library that is theuniverse' (Borges's Mallarmeen phrase). But the unopened bookscall to us none the less, in a summoning as noiseless but insistent asis the sift of the sand in the hourglass. That the hourglass is atraditional prop of Death in western art and allegory points up thetwofold signification of Chardin's composition: the afterlife of thebook, the brevity of the life of man without whom the book liesburied. To repeat: the interactions of meaning between hourglassand book are such as to comprehend much of our inner history.
Note next the three metal discs in front of the book. Almostcertainly these are bronze medals or medallions used to weighdown, to keep smooth the page (in folios, pages tend to wrinkle andlift at their corners). It is not, I think, fanciful to think of thesemedallions as bearing portraits or heraldic devices or mottoes, thisbeing the natural function of the numismatic arts from antiquity tothe commemorative coinage or medallions struck today. In theeighteenth century, as in the Renaissance, the sculptor or engraverused these small circumferences to concentrate, to make incisive inthe literal sense, a celebration of civic or military renown, to give toa moral-mythological allegory lapidary, enduring pronouncement.Thus we find, in Chardin's painting, the presentment of a secondmajor semantic code. The medallion also is a text. It may date fromor recompose words and images of high antiquity. Bronze relief orengraving defies the mordant envy of time. It is stamped withmeaning as is the book. It may have returned to the light, as doinscriptions, papyri, Dead Sea Scrolls, from a long sojourn in thedark. This lapidary textuality is perfectly rendered in the eleventh ofGeoffrey Hill's Mercian Hymns:
Coins handsome as Nero's; of good substance and weight. Offa Rexresonant in silver, and the names of his moneyers. They struck withaccountable tact. They could alter the king's face.
Exactness of design was to deter imitation; mutilation if that failed.Exemplary metal, ripe for commerce. Value from a sparse people, scrapersof salt-pans and byres.
But the `exemplary metal', whose weight, whose literal gravity,keeps down the crinkling, fragile page, is itself, as Ovid said,ephemeral, of brief durance, as compared with the words on thepage. Exegi monumentum: `I have reared a monument more lastingthan bronze' says the poet (remember Pushkin's matchless reprise ofHorace's tag), and by placing the medals before the book Chardinexactly invokes the antique wonder and paradox of the longevity ofthe word.
This longevity is affirmed by the book itself, which provides thepainting with its compositional centre and light-focus. It is a boundfolio, in a garb which subtly counterpoints that of the reader. Itsformat and physique are those of stateliness (in Chardin's period, itis more than likely that a folio-volume would have been bound forits proprietor, that it would have carried his device). It is no objectfor the pocket or the airport lounge. The posture of the other foliobehind the hourglass suggests that the reader is perusing a multivolumework. Serious work may well run to several tomes (the eightvolumes, unread, of Sorel's great diplomatic history of Europe andthe French Revolution haunt me). Another folio looms behind thelecteur's right shoulder. The constituent values and habits ofsensibility are patent: they entail massiveness of format, a privatelibrary, the commissioning and subsequent conservation of binding,the life of the letter in a canonic guise.
Immediately in front of the medals and hourglass, we observe thereader's quill. Verticality and the play of light on the feathersemphasize the compositional and substantive role of the object. Thequill crystallizes the primary obligation of response. It definesreading as action. To read well is to answer the text, to beanswerable to the text, `answerability' comprising the crucialelements of response and of responsibility. To read well is to enterinto answerable reciprocity with the book being read; it is to embarkon total exchange (`ripe for commerce, says Geoffrey Hill). The dualcompaction of light on the page and on the reader's cheek enactsChardin's perception of the primal fact: to read well is to be read bythat which we read. It is to be answerable to it. The obsolete word`responsion', signifying, as it still does at Oxford, the process ofexamination and reply, may be used to shorthand the several andcomplex stages of active reading inherent in the quill.
The quill is used to set down marginalia. Marginalia are theimmediate indices of the reader's response to the text, of thedialogue between the book and himself. They are the active tracersof the inner speech-current- laudatory, ironic, negative, augmentative- which accompanies the process of reading. Marginalia may, inextent and density of organization, come to rival the text itself,crowding not only the margin proper but the top and bottom of thepage and the interlinear spaces. In our great libraries, there arecounter libraries constituted by the marginalia and marginalia onmarginalia which successive generations of true readers stenographed,coded, scribbled or set down with elaborate flourishesalongside, above, below and between the horizontals of the printedtext. Often, marginalia are the hinges of aesthetic doctrine andintellectual history (look at Racine's copy of Euripides). Indeed, theymay embody a major act of authorship, as do Coleridge's marginalia,soon to be published.
Annotation may well occur in the margin, but it is of a differentcast. Marginalia pursue an impulsive, perhaps querulous discourseor disputation with the text. Annotations, often numbered, will tendto be of a more formal, collaborative character. They will, wherepossible, be made at the bottom of the page. They will elucidate thisor that point in the text; they will cite parallel or subsequentauthorities. The writer of marginalia is, incipiently, the rival of histext: the annotator is its servant.
This service finds its most exacting and necessary expression inthe use of the reader's quill to correct and emend. He who passesover printing errors without correcting them is no mere philistine:he is a perjurer of spirit and sense. It may well be that in a secularculture the best way to define a condition of grace is to say that it isone in which one leaves uncorrected neither literal nor substantiveerrata in the texts one reads and hands on to those who come afterus. If God, as Aby Warburg affirmed, `lies in the detail', faith lies inthe correction of misprints. Emendation, the epigraphical, prosodic,stylistic reconstitution of a valid text in the place of a spurious one,is an infinitely more taxing craft. As A. E. Housman professed in hispaper on `The Application of Thought to Textual Criticism' of1922, `this science and this art require more in the learner than asimply receptive mind; and indeed the truth is that they cannot betaught at all: criticus nascitur, non fit'. The conjunction of learningand sensitivity, of empathy with the original and imaginative scruplewhich produce a just emendation is, as Housman went on to say, ofthe rarest order. The stakes are high and ambiguous: Theobald mayhave won immortality when he suggested that Falstaff died`babbling of green fields, - but is the emendation correct? Thetwentieth-century textual editor who has substituted `brightness fellfrom her hair' for Thomas Nashe's `brightness falls from the air'may be correct, but he is, surely, of the damned.
With his quill le philosophe lisant will transcribe from the bookhe is reading. The excerpts he makes can vary from the briefest ofquotations to voluminous transcriptions. The multiplication anddissemination of written material after Gutenberg in fact increasesthe extent and variousness of personal transcription. The sixteenth-andseventeenth-century clerk or gentleman takes down in hishornbook, commonplace book, personal florilegium or breviary themaxims, `taffeta phrases', sententiae, exemplary turns of elocutionand tropes from classical and contemporary masters. Montaigne'sessays are a living weave of echoes and citations. Until late into thenineteenth century - a fact borne witness to by the recollections ofmen and women as diverse as John Henry Newman, AbrahamLincoln, George Eliot or Carlyle - it is customary for the young andfor committed readers throughout their lives to transcribe lengthypolitical orations, sermons, pages of verse and prose, encyclopaediaarticles and chapters of historical narration. Such recopying hadmanifold purposes: the improvement of one's own style, thedeliberate storage in the mind of ready examples of argument orpersuasion, the buttressing of exact memory (a cardinal issue). But,above all, transcription comports a full engagement with the text, adynamic reciprocity between reader and book.
It is this full engagement which is the sum of the varying modes ofresponse: marginalia, annotation, textual correction and emendation,transcription. Together these generate a continuation of thebook being read. The reader's active quill sets down `a book inanswer to' (the root-links between `reply' and `replication' arepertinent). This response will range from facsimile - which is totalacquiescence - and affirmative development all the way to negationand counter-statement (many books are antibodies to other books).But the principal truth is this: latent in every act of complete readingis the compulsion to write a book in reply. The intellectual is, quitesimply, a human being who has a pencil in his or her hand whenreading a book.
Enveloping Chardin's reader, his folio, his hourglass, his incisedmedallions, his ready quill, is silence. Like his predecessors andcontemporaries in the schools of interior, nocturnal and still-lifepainting, particularly in northern and eastern France, Chardin is avirtuoso of silence. He makes it present to us, he gives it tactileweight, in the quality of light and fabric. In his particular painting,silence is palpable: in the thick stuff of the table-cloth and curtain, inthe lapidary poise of the background wall, in the muffling fur of thereader's gown and bonnet. Genuine reading demands silence(Augustine, in a famous passage, records that his master, Ambrose,was the first man able to read without moving his lips). Reading, asChardin portrays it, is silent and solitary. It is a vibrant silence and asolitude crowded by the life of the word. But the curtain is drawnbetween the reader and the world (the key but eroded term is`mundanity').
There would be many other elements in the painting to commenton: the alembic or retort, with its implications of scientific inquiryand its obvious compositional thrust; the skull on the shelf, at once aconventional prop in scholars, or philosophers, studies and,perhaps, an additional icon in the articulation of human mortalityand textual survival; the possible interplay (I am not at all certainhere) between the quill and the sand in the hourglass, sand beingused to dry ink on the written page. But even a cursory look at themajor components of Chardin's Le Philosophe lisant tells us of theclassical vision of the act of reading - a vision we can document anddetail in western art from medieval representations of St Jerome tothe late nineteenth century, from Erasmus at his lectern toMallarme's apotheosis of le Livre.
What of the act of reading now? How does it relate to theproceedings and values inherent in Chardin's painting of 1734?
The motif of cortesia, of ceremonious encounter between reader andbook, implicit in the costume worn by Chardin's philosophe, is nowso remote as to be almost unrecapturable. If we come across it at all,it is in such ritualized, unavoidably archaic functions as the readingof the lesson in church or the solemn access to the Torah, headcovered, in the synagogue. Informality is our password - thoughthere is a poignant bite to Mencken's quip that many who thinkthemselves emancipated are merely unbuttoned.
Far more radical and so far-reaching as to inhibit adequatesummary are the changes in the values of temporality as these figurein Chardin's placement of hourglass, folio and death's head. Thewhole relationship between time and word, between mortality andthe paradox of literary survivance, crucial to western high culturefrom Pindar to Mallarme and self-evidently central to Chardin'spainting, has altered. This alteration affects the two essential strandsof the classic relation between the author and time on the one hand,and between the reader and the text on the other.
It may well be that contemporary writers continue to harbour thescandalous hope of immortality, that they continue to set downwords in the hope that these will last not only beyond their ownpersonal decease but for centuries to come The conceit- in both itscommon and its technical sense - echoes still, though withcharacteristic wryness, in Auden's elegy on Yeats. But if such hopespersist, they are not professed publicly, let alone clarioned to thewinds. The Pindaric-Horatian-Ovidian manifesto of literary immortality,with its innumerable repeats in the western syllabus, nowgrates. The very notion of fama, of literary glory achieved indefiance of and as rebuttal to death, embarrasses. There is nogreater distance than that between the exegi monumentum tropeand Kafka's reiterated finding that writing is a leprosy, an opaqueand cancerous infirmity which is to be hidden from men of ordinarydaylight and good sense. Yet it is Kafka's proposal, ambivalent andstrategic as it may have been, which qualifies our apprehension ofthe unstable, perhaps pathological provenance and status of themodern work of art. When Sartre insists that even the most vital ofliterary personages is no more than an assemblage of semanticmarkers, of arbitrary letters of the page, he is seeking todemythologize, once for all, Flaubert's hurt fantasy about theautonomous life, about the life after his death, of Emma Bovary.Monumentum: the concept and its connotations (`the monumental')have passed into irony. This passage is marked, with masterlysadness, in Ben Belitt's `This Scribe, My Hand' - with its reflectionon the graves of Keats and Shelley in Rome, by Cestius' Pyramid:
I write, in the posthumous way, on the flat of a headstone with a quarrier's ink, like yourself;
an anthologist's date and an asterisk, a parenthetical mark in the gas of the pyramid-builders,
an obelisk whirling with Vespas in a poisonous motorcade.
Note the exactness of `the posthumous way'; not the vole sacree toParnassus which the classic poet maps for his works and, by exaltedinference, for himself. `The gas of the pyramid-builders' allows,indeed invites, vulgar interpretation: `the hot air of the pyramid-builders',their vacant grandiloquence. It is not Plato's bees, carriersof divine rhetoric, that attend the poet, but loud, polluting Vespas(`wasps'), their acid sting decomposing the poet's monument even asthe mass-technological values they incarnate decompose the aura ofhis work. We no longer look to texts, except in mandarin artifice, asnegating personal death. `All is precarious,' says Belitt,
waits on the streets. Nobody listens. What must I do? I am writing on water. . .
The desolate phrase is, of course, Keats's. But it was denied, at once,in Shelley's assurance of immortality in `Adonais', a denial Keatshoped for and, somehow, anticipated. Today such denials ringhollow (`the gas of the pyramid-builders').
The reader reciprocates this ironic declension. For him, as well,the notion that the book in front of him shall outlast his own life,that it prevails against the hourglass and the caput mortuum on theshelf, has lost immediacy. This loss involves the entire theme ofauctoritas, of the normative, prescriptive status of the written word.It is no oversimplification to identify the classic ideal of culture, ofcivility, with that of the transmission of a syllabus, with that of thestudy of sybilline or canonic texts by whose authority successivegenerations test and validate their conduct of life (Matthew Arnold's`touchstones'). The Greek polls saw itself as the organic medium ofthe principles, of the felt pressures of heroic-political precedentderived from Homer. At no juncture is the sinew of English cultureand history separable from the ubiquity in that culture and historyof the King James Bible, of the Book of Common Prayer and ofShakespeare. Collective and individual experience found an orderingmirror in a garland of texts; their self-realization was, in the fullsense of the word, `bookish' (in Chardin's painting the light is drawnto and projected from the open book).
Current literacies are diffuse and irreverent. It is no longer anatural motion to turn to a book for oracular guidance. We distrustauctoritas - the commanding script or scripture, the core of theauthoritarian in classical authorship - precisely because it aspires toimmutability. We did not write the book. Even our most intense,penetrative encounter with it is experience at second hand. This isthe crux. The legacy of romanticism is one of strenuous solipsism, ofthe development of self out of immediacy. A single credo of vitalistspontaneity leads from Wordsworth's assertion that `one impulsefrom a vernal wood' outweighs the dusty sum of libraries to theslogan of radical students at the University of Frankfurt in 1968:`Let there be no more quotations., In both cases the polemic is thatof the `life of life' against the `life of the letter', of the primacy ofpersonal experience against the derivativeness of even the mostdeeply felt of literary emotions. To us, the phrase `the book of life' isa sophistic antinomy or cliche. To Luther, who used it at a decisivepoint in his version of Revelation and, one suspects, to Chardin'sreader, it was a concrete verity.
As object, the book itself has changed. Except in academic orantiquarian circumstances, few of us will have come across, letalone made use of, the sort of tome being pondered by Chardin'slecteur. Who, today, has books privately bound? Implicit in theformat and atmosphere of the folio, as we see it in the picture, is theprivate library, the wall of book-lined shelves, library-steps, lecterns,which is the functional space of the inner lives of Montaigne, ofEvelyn, of Montesquieu, of Thomas Jefferson. This space, in turn,entails distinct economic and social relations: as between domesticswho dust and oil the books and the master who reads them, asbetween the sanctified privacy of the scholar and the more vulgarterrain on which the family and outside world conduct their noisy,philistine lives. Few of us know such libraries, fewer still possessthem. The entire economy, the architecture of privilege, in which theclassic act of reading took place, has become remote (we visit theMorgan Library in New York or one of the great English countryhouses to view, albeit on a magnified scale, what was once theeffective cadre of high bookishness). The modern apartment,notably for the young, simply has no space, no wall-surfaces forrows of books, for the folios, the quartos, the multi-volume operaomnia from which Chardin's reader has selected his text. Indeed, itis striking to what extent the cabinet for long-playing records andthe record-shelf now occupy spaces formerly reserved for books (thesubstitution of music for reading is one of the major, most complexfactors in the current changes of western feeling). Where there arebooks, moreover, they will, to a greater or lesser degree, bepaperbacks. Now there can be no doubt that the `paperbackrevolution' has been a liberating, a creative piece of technology,that it has widened the reach of literature and restored toavailability whole areas of material, some of it even esoteric. Butthere is another side to the coin. The paperback is, physically,ephemeral. To accumulate paperbacks is not to assemble a library.By its very nature, the paperback preselects and anthologizes fromthe totality of literature and thought. We do not get, or get only veryrarely, the complete works of an author. We do not get what currentfashion regards as his inferior products. Yet it is only when we knowa writer integrally, when we turn with special if querulous solicitudeto his `failures' and thus construe our own vision of his presentness,that the act of reading is authentic. Dog-eared in our pocket,discarded in the airport lounge, lurching between ad hoc brickbookends, the paperback is both a marvel of packaging and a denialof the largesse of form and spirit expressly stated in Chardin's scene.`And I saw in the right hand of him that sat on the throne a bookwritten within and on the back side, sealed with seven seals., Can apaperback have seven seals?
We underline (particularly if we are students or harried book-reviewers).Sometimes we scribble a note in the margin. But howfew of us write marginalia in Erasmus's or Coleridge's sense, howfew of us annotate with copious rigour. Today it is only the trainedepigrapher or bibliographer or textual scholar who emends, this isto say: who encounters the text as a living presence whose continuedvitality, whose quick and radiance of being, depend on collaborativeengagement with the reader. How many of us are equipped tocorrect even the crassest blunder in a classical quotation, to spot andemend even the most puerile error in accent or measure, thoughsuch blunders and errata abound in even the most reputed ofmodern editions? And who among us bothers to transcribe, to setdown for personal content and commission to memory, the pagesthat have spoken to him most directly, that have `read him' mostsearchingly?
Memory is, of course, the pivot. `Answerability to' the text, theunderstanding and critical response to auctoritas, as they inform theclassic act of reading and the depiction of this act by Chardin,depend strictly on the `arts of memory'. Le Philosophe lisant, likethe cultured men around him in a tradition which runs fromclassical antiquity to, roughly, the First World War, will know textsby heart (an idiom worth thinking about closely). They will knowby heart considerable segments of Scripture, of the liturgy, of epicand lyric verse. Macaulay's formidable accomplishments in thisrespect - even as a schoolboy he had committed to memory a fairmeasure of Latin and English poetry - were only a heightenedinstance of a general practice. The ability to cite Scripture, to recitefrom memory large stretches of Homer, Virgil, Horace or Ovid, tocap on the instant a quotation from Shakespeare, Milton or Pope,generated the shared texture of echoes, of intellectual and emotiverecognition and reciprocity, on which the language of Britishpolitics, law and letters was founded. Knowledge by heart of theLatin sources, of La Fontaine, of Racine, of the trumpet-calls inVictor Hugo, has given to the entire fabric of French public life itsrhetorical stress. The classic reader, Chardin's lisant, locates the texthe is reading inside a resonant manifold. Echo answers echo,analogy is precise and contiguous, correction and emendation carrythe justification of accurately remembered precedent. The readerreplies to the text out of the articulate density of his own store ofreference and remembrance. It is an ancient, formidable suggestionthat the Muses of memory and of invention are one.
The atrophy of memory is the commanding trait in mid and latertwentieth-century education and culture. The great majority of uscan no longer identify, let alone quote, even the central biblical orclassical passages which not only are the underlying script ofwestern literature (from Caxton to Robert Lowell, poetry in Englishhas carried inside it the implicit echo of previous poetry), but havebeen the alphabet of our laws and public institutions. The mostelementary allusions to Greek mythology, to the Old and the NewTestament, to the classics, to ancient and to European history, havebecome hermetic. Short bits of text now lead precarious lives ongreat stilts of footnotes. The identification of fauna and flora, of theprincipal constellations, of the liturgical hours and seasons onwhich, as C. S. Lewis showed, the barest understanding of westernpoetry, drama and romance from Boccaccio to Tennyson intimatelydepends, is now specialized knowledge. We no longer learn byheart. The inner spaces are mute or jammed with raucous trivia. (Donot ask even a relatively well-prepared student to respond to the titleof `Lycidas', to tell you what an eclogue is, to recognize even one ofthe Horatian allusions and echoes from Virgil and Spenser whichgive to the four opening lines of the poem their meaning, theirmeaning of meaning. Schooling today, notably in the United States,is planned amnesia.)
The sinews of memory can only be made taut where there issilence, the silence so explicit in Chardin's portrait. To learn byheart, to transcribe faithfully, to read fully is to be silent and withinsilence. This order of silence is, at this point in western society,tending to become a luxury. It will require future historians ofconsciousness (historians des mentalites) to gauge the abridgementsin our attention span, the dilutions of concentration, brought on bythe simple fact that we may be interrupted by the ring of thetelephone, by the ancillary fact that most of us will, except underconstraints of stoic resolve, answer the telephone, whatever else wemay be doing. We need a history of noise-levels, of the diminution inthose natural masses of silence, not only nocturnal, which stillenfolded the daily lives of Chardin and his reader. Recent studiessuggest that some seventy-five per cent of adolescents in the UnitedStates read against a background of sound (a radio, a record-player,a television set at one's back or in the next room). More and moreyoung people and adults confess to being unable to read a serioustext without a background of organized sound. We know too littleabout the ways in which the brain processes and integratescompeting simultaneous stimuli to be able to say just what thiselectronic input does to the centres of attention and conceptualizationinvolved in reading. But it is, at the least, plausible to supposethat the capacities for exact comprehension, for retention and forenergetic response which knit our being to that of the book aredrastically eroded. We tend to be, as Chardin's philosophe lisantwas not, part-time readers, readers by half.
It would be fatuous to hope for the restoration of the complex ofattitudes and disciplines instrumental in what I have called `theclassic act of reading'. The power relations (auctoritas), theeconomics of leisure and domestic service, the architectonics ofprivate space and guarded silence which sustain and surround thisact are largely unacceptable to the egalitarian-populist aims ofwestern consumer societies. This, in point of fact, leads to atroubling anomaly. There is a society or social order in whichmany of the values and habits of sensibility implicit in Chardin'scanvas are still operative; in which the classics are read withpassionate attention; in which there are few mass media to competewith the primacy of literature; in which secondary education and theblackmail of censorship induce constant memorization and thetransmission of texts from remembrance to remembrance. There is asociety which is bookish in the root sense, which argues its destinyby perpetual reference to canonic texts, and whose sense ofhistorical record is at once so compulsive and so vulnerable that itemploys a veritable industry of exegetic falsification. I am, of course,alluding to the Soviet Union. And this example alone would sufficeto keep before our minds perplexities as old as Plato's dialoguesabout the affinities between great art and centralized power,between high literacy and political absolutism.
But in the democratic-technological west, so far as one can tell,the die is cast. The folio, the private library, at-homeness in classicaltongues, the arts of memory, will belong, increasingly, to thespecialized few. The price of silence and of solitude will rise. (Partof the ubiquity and prestige of music derives precisely from the factthat one can listen to it while being with others. Serious readingexcludes even one's intimates.) Already, the dispositions andtechniques symbolized by Le Philosophe lisant are, in the propersense of the term, academic. They occur in university libraries, inarchives, in professors, studies.
The dangers are obvious. Not only much of Greek and Latinliterature, but substantial portions of European letters, from theCommedia to Sweeney Agonistes (a poem which, like so many ofT. S. Eliot's, is a palimpsest of echoes), have passed out of naturalreach. Subject to the scholar's conservation and to occasional,fragmentary visitation by university students, works which wereonce immediate to literate recall now lead the dreary half-life ofthose Stradivari fiddles mute behind glass in the Coolidge collectionin Washington. Large tracts of once fertile ground are alreadybeyond reclaim. Who but the specialist reads Boiardo, Tasso andAriosto, that meshed lineage of the Italian epic without whichneither the notion of Renaissance nor that of romanticism makesmuch sense? Is Spenser still a cardinal presence in our repertoire offeeling, as he was to Milton, to Keats, to Tennyson? Voltaire'stragedies are, literally, a closed book; only the scholar mayremember that these plays dominated European taste and styles ofpublic utterance for nearly a century, that it is Voltaire, notShakespeare or Racine, who holds the serious stage from Madridto St Petersburg, from Naples to Weimar.
But the loss is not only ours. The essence of the full act of reading is,we have seen, one of dynamic reciprocity, of responsion to the life ofthe text. The text, however inspired, cannot have significant being if itis unread (what quick of life is there in an unplayed Stradivarius?).The relation of the true reader to the book is creative. The book hasneed of him as he has need of it - a parity of trust exactly rendered inthe composition of Chardin's painting. It is in this perfectly concretesense that every genuine act of reading, that every lecture bien faite, iscollaborative with the text. Lecture bien faite is a term defined byCharles Peguy in his incomparable analysis of true literacy (in theDialogue de l'histoire et de l'ame paienne of 1912-13):
Une lecture bien faite . . . n'est pas moins que le vrai, que le veritable etmeme et surtout que le reel achevement du texte, que le reel achevement deI'oeuvre; comme un couronnement, comme une grace particuliere etcoronale . . . Wile est ainsi litteralement une cooperation, une collaborationintime, interieure . . . aussi, une haute, une supreme et singuliere, unedeconcertante responsabilite. C'est une destinee merveilleuse, et presqu'effrayante,que tent de grandes oeuvres, tent d'oeuvres de grands hommes etde si grands hommes puissent recevoir encore un accomplissement, unachevement, un couronnement de nous . . . de notre lecture. Quelleeffrayante responsabilite, pour nous.
As Peguy says: `what a terrifying responsibility', but also what ameasureless privilege; to know that the survival of even the greatestliterature depends on une lecture bien faite, une lecture honnete.And to know that this act of reading cannot be left in the solecustody of mandarin specialists.
But where are we to find true readers, des lecteurs qui sachentfire? We shall, I expect, have to train them.
I carry with me a vision of 'schools of creative reading, ('schools, isfar too pretentious a word; a quiet room and table will do). We shallhave to begin at the simplest, and therefore most exacting level ofmaterial integrity. We must learn to parse sentences and to analysethe grammar of our text, for, as Roman Jakobson has taught us,there is no access to the grammar of poetry, to the nerve and sinewof the poem, if one is blind to the poetry of grammar. We shall haveto relearn metrics and those rules of scansion familiar to everyliterate schoolboy in the Victorian age. We shall have to do so notout of pedantry, but because of the overwhelming fact that in allpoetry, and m a fair proportion of prose, metre is the controllingmusic of thought and of feeling. We shall have to wake the numbedmuscles of memory, to rediscover in our quite ordinary selves theenormous resources of precise recollection, and the delight thatcomes of the texts which have secure lodging within us. We wouldseek to acquire those rudiments of mythological and scripturalrecognition, of shared historical remembrance, without which it ishardly possible, except by constant resort to more and morelaboured footnotes, to read adequately a line of Chaucer, of Milton,of Goethe, or, to give a deliberately modernist instance, ofMandelstam (who turns out to be one of the masters of echo).
A class in `creative reading' would proceed step by step. It wouldbegin with the near-dyslexia of current reading habits. It wouldhope to attain the level of informed competence prevalent amongthe well-educated in Europe and the United States at, say, the end ofthe nineteenth century. It would aspire, ideally, to that achevement,to that fulfilling and crowning involvement in the text of whichPeguy speaks and of which such complete acts of reading asMandelstam on Dante or Heidegger on Sophocles are exemplary.
The alternatives are not reassuring: vulgarization and loudvacancies of intellect on the one hand, and the retreat of literatureinto museum cabinets on the other. The tawdry `plot outline' orpredigested and trivialized version of the classic on the one hand,and the illegible variorum on the other. Literacy must strive toregain the middle ground. If it fails to do so, if une lecture bien faitebecomes a dated artifice, a great emptiness will enter our lives, andwe shall experience no more the quiet and the light in Chardin'spainting.