Swimming Against the Stream

Umberto Eco

More Thoughts About the New Samizdat #2

(Submitting Oneself to the Text.)

(This is the second half of Carsten Hyatt’s essay.)

At the conclusion of the first installment, I said I wanted to look at different “powers” or rather, different ways a reader may exercise power over the text. First, I think I need to clarify that I’m not primarily interested in doing justice to Umberto Eco’s understanding of Thomas Aquinas, not that it isn’t worth understanding, but that it falls well out of the bounds of this essay. I took Eco’s line about the Summa as a starting point because it was a pithy statement from an incisive reader of the particular attitude in which I was interested.

Saint Thomas Aquinas Summa Theologica – Unabridged

What might be the advantage of dismantling the structure of a work, such as the Summa? A common reply would be that perhaps there is much to the potential meanings, discoveries that St. Thomas, had he been less of his age, might have encouraged us to seek out by denying his constructive intelligence. The popular (not Eco’s, perhaps,) argument against imposed structure is that it frees the reader to build or uncover (not, necessarily, in the sense of Leviticus 18) a legion of meanings for themselves, which they could not have done if they had restricted themselves to the confines of authorial structure. I do not want to provide a caricature of “reader response” or other hermeneutical theories. The way of reading I am describing need not be explicitly theoretical in motivation nor interested in a simple dismantling of all available frameworks. To oversimplify, I mean any way of reading that desires to retrieve from a work more than they desire to submit to it (‘submit’ not to be taken in the sense of Thom Gunn’s “Continual temptation waits on each/ To renounce his empire of thought and speech/Till he submit his passive faculties to evening…” but in the sense that the Authorized uses the word “subject” in the translation of Romans 13:1 “Subject yourselves to the higher powers.”). My first response to this is that there may be meanings to be had by way of retrieval, but that these would be had at the cost of the meaning available to the reader who is ordered even as the work is ordered and at the cost of meeting the mind of St. Thomas, or any other author, himself.

Perhaps it is best to say that if St. Thomas had wanted “a concluding system” we should let him have it, and those who do not want to prevail upon their readers in such away need not do so. That all works need to be of in the form of the Summa is obviously false. But it is the impetus, more than any specific form, to retreat from ordering the reader in a specific way that is what I am essentially concerned with. First, I think the type of reading I have described as one of retrieval rather than submission is at least implicitly opposed to an authorial ordering of any kind, as it is the very thing that inhibits their retrieval from, or construction of, the text. Secondly, and more importantly for my argument, a way of reading that prefers to take what it likes and is chary of submission is, in the end, in conflict with the nature of writing and reading.

Take another look at Eco’s line about the Summa. His metaphor of “a piece of architecture” for the text is apt, but misleading. By contrasting a building with the loose-leaf version, there is the suggestion that the one is an imposing object, the other is a lighter, approachable, would literally and figuratively be easy to carry. But I find the loose-leaf notion, and what it represents, to objectify the text far more than the alternative. To take from a text what one can or what one will is precisely to treat the text as an object unto itself, as a “piece of architecture” to be dismantled and restructured at will. I do not want to take up the cause of the author against the reader, but I do think how one reads, how one responds to a text reveals what one thinks of the author, the person on the other side of the text. Given this, I would defend a kind of reading that takes the person into full consideration.

One of the Library Rooms in the Strahov Monestary in Prague

Therefore, I take writing to be a form of address and reading its receptive corollary. In that, I would argue that to submit oneself to a work is necessary if there is a person, or persons, to be met within the text. To read a text would therefore require of the reader the same that is required of a hearer: a refusal to interrupt. Instead of objectifying the text, the text is an avenue to the author and to do otherwise is to set oneself in a world of textual objects and few persons. An approach to texts in this way is to submit, actively, to the terms set by speaker. Submission may not be for many a happy term, but I do not want to pretend it is otherwise than to deny oneself, among other things, the right to manipulate the text on ones own terms. One cannot submit naively; no doubt writers, like speakers, perjure themselves. Perjury, however, exists only together with an oath, a binding claim on the speaker’s verity. It has not been shown that the realm of reading and writing, speaking and hearing, is a realm wherein such binding claims to truth exist. I acknowledge that for my view of the submissive reader to be defensible, there must be such a realm.

I cannot defend such a claim here, and so cannot definitively answer that yes, such a realm of truth telling, and so true submission, exists. But let me suggest that the answer to this question of reading and writing, or hearing and speaking, depends in the end on the existence of divine speech and human hearing. A conclusive answer to that question would establish the necessary grounds for assuming that there was at least some speech that, in the words of R.P. Blackmur, “adds to the stock of available reality.” Such a speech would be worthy to be heard, and so to be submitted to in hearing. Such a speech would take place in a realm of binding and loosing. Without such a speech, it is unclear what, if anything, undergirds any faith in speaking and hearing. Perhaps, to do something for the rehabilitation of writing and reading, the question would have to be asked: What is meant by the prophet Jeremiah when he says “every man’s word shall be his burden”?

Carsten Hyatt

Los Angeles