Reading under the influence

Friday catbird blogging

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“The printed text is supposed to represent the words of an author in definitive or ‘final’ form. For print is comfortable only with finality. Once a letterpress forme is closed, locked up, or a photolithographic plate is made, and the sheet printed, the text does not accommodate changes (erasures, insertions) so readily as do written texts. By contrast, manuscripts, with their glosses or marginal comments (which often got worked into the text in subsequent copies) were in dialogue with the world outside their own borders. They remained closer to the give-and-take of oral expression. The readers of manuscripts are less closed off from the author, less absent, than are the readers of those writing for print….

“Manuscript culture had taken intertextuality for granted. Still tied to the commonplace tradition of the old oral world, it deliberately created texts out of other texts, borrowing, adapting, sharing the common, originally oral, formulas and themes, even though it worked them up into fresh literary forms impossible without writing. Print culture of itself has a different mindset. It tends to feel a work as ‘closed’, set off from other works, a unit in itself. Print culture gave birth to the romantic notions of ‘originality’ and ‘creativity’, which set apart an individual work from other works even more, seeing its origins and meaning as independent of outside influence, at least ideally. When in the past few decades doctrines of intertextuality arose to counteract the isolationist aesthetics of a romantic pint culture, they came as a kind of shock. They were all the more disquieting because modern writers, agonizingly aware of literary history and of the de facto intertextuality of their own works, are concerned that they may be producing nothing really new or fresh at all, that they may be totally under the ‘influence’ of others’ texts. Harold Bloom’s work The Anxiety of Influence (1973) treats this modern writer’s anguish. Manuscript cultures had few if any anxieties about influence to plague them, and oral cultures had virtually none.”

– Walter J. Ong, Orality and Literacy: Technologizing the Word (Routledge, 1982)

Before the modern era, originality and creativity were no less honored, however. They just weren’t tied to a cult of the autonomous individual “closed off,” in Ong’s terminology, from the rest of society. Originality was available to any poet or author who sought inspiration at its divine source; thus, authors of new Buddhist sutras or new Biblical works could in good conscience pass them off as previously existing texts only now brought to light. Ancient origins were more prestigious because they were closer to the ultimate origin of the world. Periodic re-enactments of sacred drama and the ritual recitation of divinely inspired works – let alone the creation of new such works – enabled the experience of originary, sacred time in the present moment. As with any mind-altering substance, set and setting are absolutely crucial to the experience of a text. Without the Sabbath, for example, the Bible becomes a text like any other, a collection of hymns and stories capable of momentarily distracting the mind from its present concerns.

Can we see the common science fiction trope of time travel as a nostalgic re-invention of an ancient yearning? Sacred dramas, and the holy manuscripts that augment them, are nothing if not time machines. To a religious Jew, a Torah scroll has a metonymic relationship with the history of the Jewish people, imbuing it with potent manas. To study the Mishnah’s descriptions of temple ritual is tantamount to performing a sacrifice anew. Dialogues among scholars of these holy texts span time and space.

Originally, the text is read the way the world is read. Many if not all writing systems seem to have evolved as a way to record the results of divination, and some people still consult texts such as the Bible, the Koran or the I-Ching for divinatory purposes. Oral cultures offer plenty of parallels: the Yoruba Ifa corpus, for example, demonstrates that the use of more-or-less finished “texts” for imaginative travel into the future need not depend upon textuality per se. The important thing, as I’ve said, is the mindset one brings to the encounter with a text. If one approaches it as a knowing actor in a self-transcending drama of performance or recitation, then words can regain their power to charm, to enchant, to transport. Even in a modern, secular context, the retelling of a story in the charged, eternal present of a poem can lure a reader into empathetic participation, awakening her mind to manifold possibilities beyond those suggested by her immediate circumstances.

But stories can also serve the interests of the omnivorous distraction machine that is modern capitalism. In addition to varied embodiments of text, we must contend with the world of images, moving or stationary. Consider the difference between listening to a drama on the radio versus watching it on television: immediacy and visceral impact are purchased at the cost of imaginative re-creation. But beyond this rather commonplace observation, consider also what the Internet, and especially the blogosphere, do to the act of solitary reading. Here, too, we seem to have traded a certain degree of absorptive power for a sensation of greater immediacy, but in addition, we recover an older sense of text-as-shared-manuscript. This textual revolution will probably not survive the imminent crash of petroleum-based civilization, but something of its spirit may live on in a newly talmudic – i.e. engaged and argumentative – approach to received truths, or perhaps in a much more self-consciously intertextual and communal poetry culture in English, similar to the traditional literary cultures of Arabic or Chinese speakers.

I must confess, though: I love printed text, in part because of the very illusion of self-sufficiency and perfection that, as Ong says, it so easily projects. The book presents itself as an object to be treasured and even fetishized. But I have grown also to love the malleability and even the ephemerality of texts on the Internet. Instead of despairing at the appearance of one of my poems in print because it retains features that I may already have eliminated, it is a simple matter for me to go online and replace or augment an older version with a newer one. I can watch other poets, writers and image-makers do likewise, participating vicariously in their creative processes – though the possibility of erasure or revision of the past constitutes also one of the Internet’s greatest threats. Time machine, or machine for distraction? The Internet can be both by turns.

Blogging builds on millennia-long traditions of journal keeping and letter writing. A blog mirrors the river of time in a manner much more reminiscent of a scroll than a bound book. I have this fantasy of Via Negativa someday being copied out on a long, continuous roll of parchment or birch bark, from deer or trees that I would kill and skin with my own hands. But then, how would the links work? Maybe instead I should strive for this blog’s reproduction on some kind of metal bar or strip, which would periodically intersect with other blog/strips, the whole of it forming a vast jungle gym.

We could build a literal Internet, a scaled-down reproduction of the World-Wide Web suitable for installation in some public park or stadium. Readers would be given harnesses and climbing gear and let loose. Pigeons would strew the installation with comment spam. Hawks diving in after the pigeons would became helplessly entangled, dislocating wings, breaking their talons. Finally, someone would fall to their death, and the resulting hue and outcry would compel its removal and destruction. We’d argue for a decent burial at sea, plotting its next incarnation: sunk in shallow waters off the coast of Florida, it would become in time a new metropolis, a coral reef.

Thus, at any rate, the scenario that arises from my reading of the grounds at the bottom of my coffee mug, just now. While I was typing, a catbird landed on the stone wall outside my window and gaped at me. He was, uncharacteristically, at a loss for words.

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