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No Passion Spent
Essays 1978-1995
By George Steiner

Chapter One: 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 of Chardin's. The subject and the pose, a man or a woman reading a book open on a table, are frequent. They form almost a sub-genre of domestic interiors. Chardin's composition has antecedents in medieval illuminations where the figure of St Jerome or some other reader is itself illustrative of the text which it illumines. The theme remains popular until well into the nineteenth century (witness Courbet's celebrated study of Baudelaire reading or the various readers depicted by Daumier). But the motif of le lecteur or la lectrice seemed to have enjoyed particular prevalence during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and constitutes a link, of which Chardin's whole output was representative, between the great age of Dutch interiors and the treatment of domestic subjects in the French classical manner. Of itself, therefore, and in its historical context, Le Philosophe lisant embodies a common topic conventionally handled (though by a master). Considered in respect of our own time and codes of feeling, however, this `ordinary' statement points, in almost every detail and principle of meaning, to a revolution of values.

Consider first the reader's garb. It is unmistakably formal, even ceremonious. The furred cloak and hat suggest brocade, a suggestion borne out by the matt but aureate sheen of the coloration. Though clearly at home, the reader is `coiffed' - an archaic word which does convey the requisite note of almost heraldic ceremony (that the shape and treatment of the furred bonnet most likely derive from Rembrandt is a point of mainly art-historical interest). What matters is the emphatic elegance, the sartorial deliberation of the moment. The reader does not meet the book casually or in disarray. He is dressed for the occasion, a proceeding which directs our attention to the construct of values and sensibility which includes both `vestment' end `investment'. The primary quality of the act, of the reader's self-investiture before the act of reading, is one of cortesia, 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 of those `high guests' whose entrance into mortal houses is evoked by Holderlin in his hymn `As on a festive day' end by Coleridge in one of the most enigmatic glosses he appended to The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. The reader meets the book with a courtliness of heart (that is what cortesia signifies), with a courtliness, a scruple of welcome and entertainment of which the russet sleeve, possibly of velvet or velveteen, and the furred cloak and bonnet are the external symbols.

The fact that the reader is wearing a hat is of distinct resonance. Ethnographers have yet to tell us what general meanings apply to the distinctions between those religious and ritual practices which demand that the participant be covered, and those in which he is bare-headed. In both the Hebraic and the Graeco-Roman traditions, the worshipper, the consultant of the oracle, the initiate when he approaches the sacred text or augury, is covered. So is Chardin's reader, as if to make evident the numinous character of his access to, of his encounter with, the book. Discreetly - and it is at this point that the echo of Rembrandt may be pertinent - the furred bonnet suggests the headdress of the kabbalist or Talmudic scholar when he seeks the flame of the spirit in the momentary fixity of the letter. Taken together with the furred robe, the reader's bonnet implies precisely those connotations of ceremony of intellect, of the mind's tensed apprehension of meaning, which induce Prospero to put on courtly 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 with meaning that an exhaustive commentary would nearly comprise a history of the western sense of invention and of death. As Chardin places it, the hourglass declares the relationship of time and the book. The sand sifts rapidly through the narrow of the hourglass (a sifting whose tranquil finality Hopkins invokes at a key point in the mortal turbulence of `The Wreck of the Deutschland'). But at the same time, the text endures. The reader's life is measured in hours; that of the book, in millennia. This is the triumphant scandal first proclaimed by Pindar: `When the city I celebrate shall have perished, when the men to whom I sing shall have vanished into oblivion, my words shall endure'. It is the conceit to which Horace's exegi monumentum gave canonic expression and which culminates in Mallarme's hyperbolic supposition that the object of the universe is le Livre, the final book, the text that transcends time. Marble crumbles, bronze decays, but written words - seemingly the most fragile of media - survive. They survive their begetters - Flaubert cried out against the paradox whereby he lay dying like a dog whereas that `whore' Emma Bovary, his creature, sprung of lifeless letters scratched on a piece of paper, continued alive. So far, only books have circumvented death and have fulfilled what Paul Eluard defined as the artist's central compulsion: le cure desir de durer (indeed, books can even survive themselves, leapfrogging out of the shadow of their own initial being: there are vital translations of languages long extinct). In Chardin's painting, the hourglass, itself a twofold form with its iconic suggestion of the torus or figure eight of infinity, modulates exactly and ironically between the vita brevis of the reader and the ars longa of his book. As he reads, his own existence ebbs. His reading is a link in the chain of performative continuity which underwrites - a term worth returning to - the survivance of the read text.

But even as the shape of the hourglass is a binary one, its import is dialectical. The sand falling through the glass tells both of the time-defying nature of the written word and of how little time there is in which to read. Even the most obsessed of bookmen can read only a minute fraction of the world's totality of texts. He is no true reader, no philosophe lisant, who has not experienced the reproachful fascination of the great shelves of unread books, of the libraries at night of which Borges is the fabulist. He is no reader who has not heard, in his inward ear, the call of the hundreds of thousands, of the millions of volumes which stand in the stacks of the British Library or of Widener asking to be read. For there is in each book a gamble against oblivion, a wager against silence, which can be won only when the book is opened again (but in contrast to man, the book can wait centuries for the hazard of resurrection). Every authentic reader, in the sense of Chardin's delineation, carries within him a nagging weight of omission, of the shelves he has hurried past, of the books whose spine his fingers have brushed across in blind haste. I have, a dozen times, slunk by Sarpi's leviathan history of the Council of Trent (one of the pivotal works in the development of western religious-political argument); or the opera omnia of Nikolai Hartmann in their stately binding; I shall never manage the sixteen thousand pages of Amiel's (profoundly interesting) journal currently being published. There is so little time in `the library that is the universe' (Borges's Mallarmeen phrase). But the unopened books call to us none the less, in a summoning as noiseless but insistent as is the sift of the sand in the hourglass. That the hourglass is a traditional prop of Death in western art and allegory points up the twofold signification of Chardin's composition: the afterlife of the book, the brevity of the life of man without whom the book lies buried. To repeat: the interactions of meaning between hourglass and book are such as to comprehend much of our inner history.

Note next the three metal discs in front of the book. Almost certainly these are bronze medals or medallions used to weigh down, to keep smooth the page (in folios, pages tend to wrinkle and lift at their corners). It is not, I think, fanciful to think of these medallions as bearing portraits or heraldic devices or mottoes, this being the natural function of the numismatic arts from antiquity to the commemorative coinage or medallions struck today. In the eighteenth century, as in the Renaissance, the sculptor or engraver used these small circumferences to concentrate, to make incisive in the literal sense, a celebration of civic or military renown, to give to a moral-mythological allegory lapidary, enduring pronouncement. Thus we find, in Chardin's painting, the presentment of a second major semantic code. The medallion also is a text. It may date from or recompose words and images of high antiquity. Bronze relief or engraving defies the mordant envy of time. It is stamped with meaning as is the book. It may have returned to the light, as do inscriptions, papyri, Dead Sea Scrolls, from a long sojourn in the dark. This lapidary textuality is perfectly rendered in the eleventh of Geoffrey Hill's Mercian Hymns:

Coins handsome as Nero's; of good substance and weight. Offa Rex resonant in silver, and the names of his moneyers. They struck with accountable 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, scrapers of 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 the page. Exegi monumentum: `I have reared a monument more lasting than bronze' says the poet (remember Pushkin's matchless reprise of Horace's tag), and by placing the medals before the book Chardin exactly invokes the antique wonder and paradox of the longevity of the word.

This longevity is affirmed by the book itself, which provides the painting with its compositional centre and light-focus. It is a bound folio, in a garb which subtly counterpoints that of the reader. Its format and physique are those of stateliness (in Chardin's period, it is more than likely that a folio-volume would have been bound for its proprietor, that it would have carried his device). It is no object for the pocket or the airport lounge. The posture of the other folio behind the hourglass suggests that the reader is perusing a multivolume work. Serious work may well run to several tomes (the eight volumes, unread, of Sorel's great diplomatic history of Europe and the French Revolution haunt me). Another folio looms behind the lecteur's right shoulder. The constituent values and habits of sensibility are patent: they entail massiveness of format, a private library, 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 the reader's quill. Verticality and the play of light on the feathers emphasize the compositional and substantive role of the object. The quill crystallizes the primary obligation of response. It defines reading as action. To read well is to answer the text, to be answerable to the text, `answerability' comprising the crucial elements of response and of responsibility. To read well is to enter into answerable reciprocity with the book being read; it is to embark on total exchange (`ripe for commerce, says Geoffrey Hill). The dual compaction of light on the page and on the reader's cheek enacts Chardin's perception of the primal fact: to read well is to be read by that which we read. It is to be answerable to it. The obsolete word `responsion', signifying, as it still does at Oxford, the process of examination and reply, may be used to shorthand the several and complex stages of active reading inherent in the quill.

The quill is used to set down marginalia. Marginalia are the immediate indices of the reader's response to the text, of the dialogue between the book and himself. They are the active tracers of the inner speech-current- laudatory, ironic, negative, augmentative - which accompanies the process of reading. Marginalia may, in extent and density of organization, come to rival the text itself, crowding not only the margin proper but the top and bottom of the page and the interlinear spaces. In our great libraries, there are counter libraries constituted by the marginalia and marginalia on marginalia which successive generations of true readers stenographed, coded, scribbled or set down with elaborate flourishes alongside, above, below and between the horizontals of the printed text. Often, marginalia are the hinges of aesthetic doctrine and intellectual history (look at Racine's copy of Euripides). Indeed, they may 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 different cast. Marginalia pursue an impulsive, perhaps querulous discourse or disputation with the text. Annotations, often numbered, will tend to be of a more formal, collaborative character. They will, where possible, be made at the bottom of the page. They will elucidate this or that point in the text; they will cite parallel or subsequent authorities. The writer of marginalia is, incipiently, the rival of his text: the annotator is its servant.

This service finds its most exacting and necessary expression in the use of the reader's quill to correct and emend. He who passes over printing errors without correcting them is no mere philistine: he is a perjurer of spirit and sense. It may well be that in a secular culture the best way to define a condition of grace is to say that it is one in which one leaves uncorrected neither literal nor substantive errata in the texts one reads and hands on to those who come after us. If God, as Aby Warburg affirmed, `lies in the detail', faith lies in the 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 his paper on `The Application of Thought to Textual Criticism' of 1922, `this science and this art require more in the learner than a simply receptive mind; and indeed the truth is that they cannot be taught at all: criticus nascitur, non fit'. The conjunction of learning and sensitivity, of empathy with the original and imaginative scruple which produce a just emendation is, as Housman went on to say, of the rarest order. The stakes are high and ambiguous: Theobald may have won immortality when he suggested that Falstaff died `babbling of green fields, - but is the emendation correct? The twentieth-century textual editor who has substituted `brightness fell from 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 book he is reading. The excerpts he makes can vary from the briefest of quotations to voluminous transcriptions. The multiplication and dissemination of written material after Gutenberg in fact increases the extent and variousness of personal transcription. The sixteenth-and seventeenth-century clerk or gentleman takes down in his hornbook, commonplace book, personal florilegium or breviary the maxims, `taffeta phrases', sententiae, exemplary turns of elocution and tropes from classical and contemporary masters. Montaigne's essays are a living weave of echoes and citations. Until late into the nineteenth century - a fact borne witness to by the recollections of men and women as diverse as John Henry Newman, Abraham Lincoln, George Eliot or Carlyle - it is customary for the young and for committed readers throughout their lives to transcribe lengthy political orations, sermons, pages of verse and prose, encyclopaedia articles and chapters of historical narration. Such recopying had manifold purposes: the improvement of one's own style, the deliberate storage in the mind of ready examples of argument or persuasion, the buttressing of exact memory (a cardinal issue). But, above all, transcription comports a full engagement with the text, a dynamic reciprocity between reader and book.

It is this full engagement which is the sum of the varying modes of response: marginalia, annotation, textual correction and emendation, transcription. Together these generate a continuation of the book being read. The reader's active quill sets down `a book in answer to' (the root-links between `reply' and `replication' are pertinent). This response will range from facsimile - which is total acquiescence - and affirmative development all the way to negation and counter-statement (many books are antibodies to other books). But the principal truth is this: latent in every act of complete reading is the compulsion to write a book in reply. The intellectual is, quite simply, a human being who has a pencil in his or her hand when reading a book.

Enveloping Chardin's reader, his folio, his hourglass, his incised medallions, his ready quill, is silence. Like his predecessors and contemporaries in the schools of interior, nocturnal and still-life painting, particularly in northern and eastern France, Chardin is a virtuoso of silence. He makes it present to us, he gives it tactile weight, in the quality of light and fabric. In his particular painting, silence is palpable: in the thick stuff of the table-cloth and curtain, in the lapidary poise of the background wall, in the muffling fur of the reader'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, as Chardin portrays it, is silent and solitary. It is a vibrant silence and a solitude crowded by the life of the word. But the curtain is drawn between the reader and the world (the key but eroded term is `mundanity').

There would be many other elements in the painting to comment on: the alembic or retort, with its implications of scientific inquiry and its obvious compositional thrust; the skull on the shelf, at once a conventional prop in scholars, or philosophers, studies and, perhaps, an additional icon in the articulation of human mortality and textual survival; the possible interplay (I am not at all certain here) between the quill and the sand in the hourglass, sand being used to dry ink on the written page. But even a cursory look at the major components of Chardin's Le Philosophe lisant tells us of the classical vision of the act of reading - a vision we can document and detail in western art from medieval representations of St Jerome to the late nineteenth century, from Erasmus at his lectern to Mallarme's apotheosis of le Livre.

What of the act of reading now? How does it relate to the proceedings and values inherent in Chardin's painting of 1734?

The motif of cortesia, of ceremonious encounter between reader and book, implicit in the costume worn by Chardin's philosophe, is now so remote as to be almost unrecapturable. If we come across it at all, it is in such ritualized, unavoidably archaic functions as the reading of the lesson in church or the solemn access to the Torah, head covered, in the synagogue. Informality is our password - though there is a poignant bite to Mencken's quip that many who think themselves emancipated are merely unbuttoned.

Far more radical and so far-reaching as to inhibit adequate summary are the changes in the values of temporality as these figure in Chardin's placement of hourglass, folio and death's head. The whole relationship between time and word, between mortality and the paradox of literary survivance, crucial to western high culture from Pindar to Mallarme and self-evidently central to Chardin's painting, has altered. This alteration affects the two essential strands of 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 the scandalous hope of immortality, that they continue to set down words in the hope that these will last not only beyond their own personal decease but for centuries to come The conceit- in both its common and its technical sense - echoes still, though with characteristic wryness, in Auden's elegy on Yeats. But if such hopes persist, they are not professed publicly, let alone clarioned to the winds. The Pindaric-Horatian-Ovidian manifesto of literary immortality, with its innumerable repeats in the western syllabus, now grates. The very notion of fama, of literary glory achieved in defiance of and as rebuttal to death, embarrasses. There is no greater distance than that between the exegi monumentum trope and Kafka's reiterated finding that writing is a leprosy, an opaque and cancerous infirmity which is to be hidden from men of ordinary daylight and good sense. Yet it is Kafka's proposal, ambivalent and strategic as it may have been, which qualifies our apprehension of the unstable, perhaps pathological provenance and status of the modern work of art. When Sartre insists that even the most vital of literary personages is no more than an assemblage of semantic markers, of arbitrary letters of the page, he is seeking to demythologize, once for all, Flaubert's hurt fantasy about the autonomous 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 masterly sadness, in Ben Belitt's `This Scribe, My Hand' - with its reflection on 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 to Parnassus which the classic poet maps for his works and, by exalted inference, 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, carriers of divine rhetoric, that attend the poet, but loud, polluting Vespas (`wasps'), their acid sting decomposing the poet's monument even as the mass-technological values they incarnate decompose the aura of his work. We no longer look to texts, except in mandarin artifice, as negating personal death. `All is precarious,' says Belitt,

A maniac

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 Keats hoped for and, somehow, anticipated. Today such denials ring hollow (`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 the shelf, has lost immediacy. This loss involves the entire theme of auctoritas, of the normative, prescriptive status of the written word. It is no oversimplification to identify the classic ideal of culture, of civility, with that of the transmission of a syllabus, with that of the study of sybilline or canonic texts by whose authority successive generations test and validate their conduct of life (Matthew Arnold's `touchstones'). The Greek polls saw itself as the organic medium of the principles, of the felt pressures of heroic-political precedent derived from Homer. At no juncture is the sinew of English culture and history separable from the ubiquity in that culture and history of the King James Bible, of the Book of Common Prayer and of Shakespeare. Collective and individual experience found an ordering mirror in a garland of texts; their self-realization was, in the full sense of the word, `bookish' (in Chardin's painting the light is drawn to and projected from the open book).

Current literacies are diffuse and irreverent. It is no longer a natural motion to turn to a book for oracular guidance. We distrust auctoritas - the commanding script or scripture, the core of the authoritarian in classical authorship - precisely because it aspires to immutability. We did not write the book. Even our most intense, penetrative encounter with it is experience at second hand. This is the crux. The legacy of romanticism is one of strenuous solipsism, of the development of self out of immediacy. A single credo of vitalist spontaneity leads from Wordsworth's assertion that `one impulse from a vernal wood' outweighs the dusty sum of libraries to the slogan of radical students at the University of Frankfurt in 1968: `Let there be no more quotations., In both cases the polemic is that of the `life of life' against the `life of the letter', of the primacy of personal experience against the derivativeness of even the most deeply felt of literary emotions. To us, the phrase `the book of life' is a sophistic antinomy or cliche. To Luther, who used it at a decisive point in his version of Revelation and, one suspects, to Chardin's reader, it was a concrete verity.

As object, the book itself has changed. Except in academic or antiquarian circumstances, few of us will have come across, let alone made use of, the sort of tome being pondered by Chardin's lecteur. Who, today, has books privately bound? Implicit in the format and atmosphere of the folio, as we see it in the picture, is the private library, the wall of book-lined shelves, library-steps, lecterns, which is the functional space of the inner lives of Montaigne, of Evelyn, of Montesquieu, of Thomas Jefferson. This space, in turn, entails distinct economic and social relations: as between domestics who dust and oil the books and the master who reads them, as between the sanctified privacy of the scholar and the more vulgar terrain on which the family and outside world conduct their noisy, philistine lives. Few of us know such libraries, fewer still possess them. The entire economy, the architecture of privilege, in which the classic act of reading took place, has become remote (we visit the Morgan Library in New York or one of the great English country houses to view, albeit on a magnified scale, what was once the effective cadre of high bookishness). The modern apartment, notably for the young, simply has no space, no wall-surfaces for rows of books, for the folios, the quartos, the multi-volume opera omnia from which Chardin's reader has selected his text. Indeed, it is striking to what extent the cabinet for long-playing records and the record-shelf now occupy spaces formerly reserved for books (the substitution of music for reading is one of the major, most complex factors in the current changes of western feeling). Where there are books, moreover, they will, to a greater or lesser degree, be paperbacks. Now there can be no doubt that the `paperback revolution' has been a liberating, a creative piece of technology, that it has widened the reach of literature and restored to availability whole areas of material, some of it even esoteric. But there 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 from the totality of literature and thought. We do not get, or get only very rarely, the complete works of an author. We do not get what current fashion regards as his inferior products. Yet it is only when we know a writer integrally, when we turn with special if querulous solicitude to 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 brick bookends, the paperback is both a marvel of packaging and a denial of 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 book written within and on the back side, sealed with seven seals., Can a paperback have seven seals?

We underline (particularly if we are students or harried book-reviewers). Sometimes we scribble a note in the margin. But how few of us write marginalia in Erasmus's or Coleridge's sense, how few of us annotate with copious rigour. Today it is only the trained epigrapher or bibliographer or textual scholar who emends, this is to say: who encounters the text as a living presence whose continued vitality, whose quick and radiance of being, depend on collaborative engagement with the reader. How many of us are equipped to correct even the crassest blunder in a classical quotation, to spot and emend even the most puerile error in accent or measure, though such blunders and errata abound in even the most reputed of modern editions? And who among us bothers to transcribe, to set down for personal content and commission to memory, the pages that have spoken to him most directly, that have `read him' most searchingly?

Memory is, of course, the pivot. `Answerability to' the text, the understanding and critical response to auctoritas, as they inform the classic act of reading and the depiction of this act by Chardin, depend strictly on the `arts of memory'. Le Philosophe lisant, like the cultured men around him in a tradition which runs from classical antiquity to, roughly, the First World War, will know texts by heart (an idiom worth thinking about closely). They will know by heart considerable segments of Scripture, of the liturgy, of epic and lyric verse. Macaulay's formidable accomplishments in this respect - even as a schoolboy he had committed to memory a fair measure of Latin and English poetry - were only a heightened instance of a general practice. The ability to cite Scripture, to recite from memory large stretches of Homer, Virgil, Horace or Ovid, to cap on the instant a quotation from Shakespeare, Milton or Pope, generated the shared texture of echoes, of intellectual and emotive recognition and reciprocity, on which the language of British politics, law and letters was founded. Knowledge by heart of the Latin sources, of La Fontaine, of Racine, of the trumpet-calls in Victor Hugo, has given to the entire fabric of French public life its rhetorical stress. The classic reader, Chardin's lisant, locates the text he is reading inside a resonant manifold. Echo answers echo, analogy is precise and contiguous, correction and emendation carry the justification of accurately remembered precedent. The reader replies to the text out of the articulate density of his own store of reference and remembrance. It is an ancient, formidable suggestion that the Muses of memory and of invention are one.

The atrophy of memory is the commanding trait in mid and later twentieth-century education and culture. The great majority of us can no longer identify, let alone quote, even the central biblical or classical passages which not only are the underlying script of western literature (from Caxton to Robert Lowell, poetry in English has carried inside it the implicit echo of previous poetry), but have been the alphabet of our laws and public institutions. The most elementary allusions to Greek mythology, to the Old and the New Testament, to the classics, to ancient and to European history, have become hermetic. Short bits of text now lead precarious lives on great stilts of footnotes. The identification of fauna and flora, of the principal constellations, of the liturgical hours and seasons on which, as C. S. Lewis showed, the barest understanding of western poetry, drama and romance from Boccaccio to Tennyson intimately depends, is now specialized knowledge. We no longer learn by heart. The inner spaces are mute or jammed with raucous trivia. (Do not ask even a relatively well-prepared student to respond to the title of `Lycidas', to tell you what an eclogue is, to recognize even one of the Horatian allusions and echoes from Virgil and Spenser which give to the four opening lines of the poem their meaning, their meaning of meaning. Schooling today, notably in the United States, is planned amnesia.)

The sinews of memory can only be made taut where there is silence, the silence so explicit in Chardin's portrait. To learn by heart, to transcribe faithfully, to read fully is to be silent and within silence. This order of silence is, at this point in western society, tending to become a luxury. It will require future historians of consciousness (historians des mentalites) to gauge the abridgements in our attention span, the dilutions of concentration, brought on by the simple fact that we may be interrupted by the ring of the telephone, by the ancillary fact that most of us will, except under constraints of stoic resolve, answer the telephone, whatever else we may be doing. We need a history of noise-levels, of the diminution in those natural masses of silence, not only nocturnal, which still enfolded the daily lives of Chardin and his reader. Recent studies suggest that some seventy-five per cent of adolescents in the United States 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 more young people and adults confess to being unable to read a serious text without a background of organized sound. We know too little about the ways in which the brain processes and integrates competing simultaneous stimuli to be able to say just what this electronic input does to the centres of attention and conceptualization involved in reading. But it is, at the least, plausible to suppose that the capacities for exact comprehension, for retention and for energetic response which knit our being to that of the book are drastically eroded. We tend to be, as Chardin's philosophe lisant was not, part-time readers, readers by half.

It would be fatuous to hope for the restoration of the complex of attitudes and disciplines instrumental in what I have called `the classic act of reading'. The power relations (auctoritas), the economics of leisure and domestic service, the architectonics of private space and guarded silence which sustain and surround this act are largely unacceptable to the egalitarian-populist aims of western consumer societies. This, in point of fact, leads to a troubling anomaly. There is a society or social order in which many of the values and habits of sensibility implicit in Chardin's canvas are still operative; in which the classics are read with passionate attention; in which there are few mass media to compete with the primacy of literature; in which secondary education and the blackmail of censorship induce constant memorization and the transmission of texts from remembrance to remembrance. There is a society which is bookish in the root sense, which argues its destiny by perpetual reference to canonic texts, and whose sense of historical record is at once so compulsive and so vulnerable that it employs a veritable industry of exegetic falsification. I am, of course, alluding to the Soviet Union. And this example alone would suffice to keep before our minds perplexities as old as Plato's dialogues about 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 classical tongues, the arts of memory, will belong, increasingly, to the specialized few. The price of silence and of solitude will rise. (Part of the ubiquity and prestige of music derives precisely from the fact that one can listen to it while being with others. Serious reading excludes even one's intimates.) Already, the dispositions and techniques symbolized by Le Philosophe lisant are, in the proper sense of the term, academic. They occur in university libraries, in archives, in professors, studies.

The dangers are obvious. Not only much of Greek and Latin literature, but substantial portions of European letters, from the Commedia to Sweeney Agonistes (a poem which, like so many of T. S. Eliot's, is a palimpsest of echoes), have passed out of natural reach. Subject to the scholar's conservation and to occasional, fragmentary visitation by university students, works which were once immediate to literate recall now lead the dreary half-life of those Stradivari fiddles mute behind glass in the Coolidge collection in Washington. Large tracts of once fertile ground are already beyond reclaim. Who but the specialist reads Boiardo, Tasso and Ariosto, that meshed lineage of the Italian epic without which neither the notion of Renaissance nor that of romanticism makes much sense? Is Spenser still a cardinal presence in our repertoire of feeling, as he was to Milton, to Keats, to Tennyson? Voltaire's tragedies are, literally, a closed book; only the scholar may remember that these plays dominated European taste and styles of public utterance for nearly a century, that it is Voltaire, not Shakespeare or Racine, who holds the serious stage from Madrid to 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 of the text. The text, however inspired, cannot have significant being if it is unread (what quick of life is there in an unplayed Stradivarius?). The relation of the true reader to the book is creative. The book has need of him as he has need of it - a parity of trust exactly rendered in the composition of Chardin's painting. It is in this perfectly concrete sense that every genuine act of reading, that every lecture bien faite, is collaborative with the text. Lecture bien faite is a term defined by Charles Peguy in his incomparable analysis of true literacy (in the Dialogue 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 et meme et surtout que le reel achevement du texte, que le reel achevement de I'oeuvre; comme un couronnement, comme une grace particuliere et coronale . . . Wile est ainsi litteralement une cooperation, une collaboration intime, interieure . . . aussi, une haute, une supreme et singuliere, une deconcertante responsabilite. C'est une destinee merveilleuse, et presqu'effrayante, que tent de grandes oeuvres, tent d'oeuvres de grands hommes et de si grands hommes puissent recevoir encore un accomplissement, un achevement, un couronnement de nous . . . de notre lecture. Quelle effrayante responsabilite, pour nous.

As Peguy says: `what a terrifying responsibility', but also what a measureless privilege; to know that the survival of even the greatest literature depends on une lecture bien faite, une lecture honnete. And to know that this act of reading cannot be left in the sole custody of mandarin specialists.

But where are we to find true readers, des lecteurs qui sachent fire? We shall, I expect, have to train them.

I carry with me a vision of 'schools of creative reading, ('schools, is far too pretentious a word; a quiet room and table will do). We shall have to begin at the simplest, and therefore most exacting level of material integrity. We must learn to parse sentences and to analyse the grammar of our text, for, as Roman Jakobson has taught us, there is no access to the grammar of poetry, to the nerve and sinew of the poem, if one is blind to the poetry of grammar. We shall have to relearn metrics and those rules of scansion familiar to every literate schoolboy in the Victorian age. We shall have to do so not out of pedantry, but because of the overwhelming fact that in all poetry, and m a fair proportion of prose, metre is the controlling music of thought and of feeling. We shall have to wake the numbed muscles of memory, to rediscover in our quite ordinary selves the enormous resources of precise recollection, and the delight that comes of the texts which have secure lodging within us. We would seek to acquire those rudiments of mythological and scriptural recognition, of shared historical remembrance, without which it is hardly possible, except by constant resort to more and more laboured footnotes, to read adequately a line of Chaucer, of Milton, of Goethe, or, to give a deliberately modernist instance, of Mandelstam (who turns out to be one of the masters of echo).

A class in `creative reading' would proceed step by step. It would begin with the near-dyslexia of current reading habits. It would hope to attain the level of informed competence prevalent among the well-educated in Europe and the United States at, say, the end of the nineteenth century. It would aspire, ideally, to that achevement, to that fulfilling and crowning involvement in the text of which Peguy speaks and of which such complete acts of reading as Mandelstam on Dante or Heidegger on Sophocles are exemplary.

The alternatives are not reassuring: vulgarization and loud vacancies of intellect on the one hand, and the retreat of literature into museum cabinets on the other. The tawdry `plot outline' or predigested and trivialized version of the classic on the one hand, and the illegible variorum on the other. Literacy must strive to regain the middle ground. If it fails to do so, if une lecture bien faite becomes a dated artifice, a great emptiness will enter our lives, and we shall experience no more the quiet and the light in Chardin's painting.

© 1996 The Washington Post Company

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