Why Reading Is So Damn Hard — with Gilles Deleuze

Reading is difficult, if for no other reason than that the text is always already dead in some substantial way, opaque to the reader to some degree. Even if one had the author to explain the text, there is no guarantee the author understands their own text, let alone what it means.

The most familiar example I can provide is that of scripture: whether one is overtly critical of or uncritically devoted to scripture, there is a common tendency to suffocate the text by cramming it into the concepts and language with which the reader is most familiar, with no regard for the author or their own milieu, let alone whether that milieu is different from that of the reader. And even when a reader pursues the author, if they can determine a milieu in which the author developed (especially difficult for ancient texts), there is no guarantee they will understand, or that the author understood what they were bringing forward in their text.

In a sense, writing is a compulsion much more than a conscious act. The majority of thought and action is carried out by an unconscious brain and nervous system, automatically processing sensory data and producing predetermined response patterns; compulsory thought and behavior thrive in this obscurity, outside the light of consciousness. This may be the abyss from which much literature emerges, which is to say that, far from a deliberately crafted piece which the author can articulate to the reader in the finest detail (like a system manual, for instance), it is an artifact delivered through the author as a kind of amanuensis to the unconscious’ own dictations.

Something like that.

As a result, the text is dead. We end up with something like what Gilles Deleuze described in The Logic of Sense as “the schizophrenic and the little girl,” both of whom experience reality in substantially different ways. The little girl, like Alice in Wonderland, sees the world as “thus and so”; observing the “surface layer” of what she encounters, accepting that what she sees is what she gets, she simply assents to things as they appear. To use Deleuze’s term (which I likely don’t understand at all), this Alice experiences her world as a “body without organs”; she sees the surface-layer “body” without access to the “organs” it veils from her senses.

By contrast, the schizophrenic fills that sensory vacuum, so to speak; the psychopathology of schizophrenia is not simply “hearing voices,” but hearing what is not there. Deleuze’s schizophrenic fills the void where his sense cannot reach with an unconscious fabrication, one he cannot even recognize as such. Even when healthy, the human mind automatically fills the unknown with narratives and notes, so as to give itself a “jumping-off point,” something secure upon which to base its responses. The problem, of course, is that the “organs” the schizophrenic ascribes to the body are largely phantasms. Speaking no farther than phenomenology: because the subject has no access to the “organs” themselves, so to speak, all that exists for the subject is the “body” surface — anything beneath that is the void which one must actively resist the automatic tendency to fill.

In reading, Alice sees the text as a “body without organs,” presuming nothing; she may signify the reader’s objective state. By contrast, the careless reader can take on the role of the Deleuzean schizophrenic, automatically reading an entire world into the text, filling that void with the contents of what they do not realize is simply their own native mind. Alice knows the text is dead, while the schizophrenic relates to the dead text like Weekend at Bernie’s. However, with this post-modern death of the author, or the natural void underneath the surface of the text, one wonders nonetheless if the act of reading a text can convey anything other than purely subjective (schizophrenic) meaning. This issue is only compounded by the fact that, were one ever living in a literary culture, that has since changed; literacy rates continue to rise, and yet the literary spirit continues to diminish.

None of this is to say that reading is impossible; I would hope it’s obvious that I enjoy reading very much, and I myself write frequently. Rather, it’s to underline in bold, highlight a couple times, and mark with asterisks how much harder reading is than we often assume. At the risk of being cute, if the text is dead, then the reader must become a proficient necromancer. Reading is an act of attempted resurrection that can warp into schizophrenia without our knowing. Reading is a hopeful act, a wager that one can revive the text, breathe life and meaning back into it — in a word, that the reader can successfully call Lazarus forth from his tomb. That’s damn difficult, especially for those who don’t see the problem, but I don’t think that means it’s impossible.

Reading, like resurrecting the dead, is just hard.

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