Thursday, April 24, 2008

Reading and Pleasure

We read for pleasure. If we turn to books during those parts of the day that require nothing of us, it is because those books give us pleasure. We choose to read, and thus I agree with Harold Bloom when he writes that "It matters, if individuals are to retain any capacity to form their own judgments and opinions, that they continue to read for themselves. [...] why they read must be for and in their own interest." We read for ourselves, and we ought to read what we want and how we want.

I reject any theorist which requires me to read in a certain way. If a Marxist tells me I must read to examine political ideology and material conditions, I would decline, while not denying his/her right to read for those reasons. I embrace feminism and see purpose in Feminist criticism, but I would reject a Feminist critic that tells me the only reason I ought to read is to examine and reveal patriarchy.

Such approaches limit the reader's pleasure: they deny the reader the ability to read for his or her own reasons, in his or her own interests. They apply a rigid code to literature, not allowing readers to read as themselves or for their own reasons. Again, I don't reject Marxist or Feminist approaches to literature; I just deny that they are primary ways of reading that must be inflicted on everybody.

And so I come to Aestheticism.

It strikes me how moralistic Aestheticism is. Aestheticism, like other theories, seems to assert that there is a proper, correct, right reason to read and way to read, and anybody who doesn’t read the same way is wrong. This appears as a universalization of individual experience: because a particular reason for reading doesn't work for the Aestheticist, it ought not work as a reason to read for anybody. Thus Aestheticism is another approach that attempts to deny the reader his or her individual pleasure in reading; it asserts that the individual reader ought to be reading differently than he or she is. I ask if reading literature for ideas, for education, or for moral edification, gives a reader pleasure, why precisely shouldn't a reader read for these reasons?


Harold Bloom doesn't read as a moralist, but he does recognize the individual's pleasure--and purpose--in reading:

"Ultimately we read — as Bacon, Johnson, and Emerson agree — in order to strengthen the self, and to learn its authentic interests. We experience such augmentations as pleasure, which may be why aesthetic values have always been deprecated by social moralists, from Plato through our current campus Puritans."

And oddly, in my assertion that one can read for education or edification, I agree with Bloom when he says "Self-improvement is a large enough project for your mind and spirit: there are no ethics of reading." Aestheticism, in a sense, applies an "ethics of reading": it asserts a there is a proper way we ought to read, rejecting other purposes (actually in other places Bloom pretty much does the same thing).

I read as myself, and for my own reasons. Reading offers me the most pleasure when I am able to read for myself and for my own reasons. I can only suggest the same to others.

(This post is something like a response to Daniel Green's response to an earlier post of my own, but it seems better as a stand alone post than as a comment there).

3 comments:

  1. "Thus Aestheticism is another approach that attempts to deny the reader his or her individual pleasure in reading; it asserts that the individual reader ought to be reading differently than he or she is. I ask if reading literature for ideas, for education, or for moral edification, gives a reader pleasure, why precisely shouldn't a reader read for these reasons?"

    But haven't you now converted moral criticism into a form of aestheticism? Aestheticism is all about pleasure, and if reading for "edification" gives you pleasure, you're allowing the aesthetic response to supercede the moral response. Aren't you?

    ReplyDelete
  2. If Aestheticism means "read for your own pleasure, and in whatever ways bring you the most pleasure," I embrace it.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Anonymous8:09 PM

    It a mistake to reduce reading to simply 'pleasure.' This seems some animal reaction on the same level as stubbing a toe.

    since human beings have the illusion of free will of course a person may look at a work of art however they like. but to read purely for ideas or purely for pleasure is to limit the possibilities of art. this seems a foolish thing to do.
    a work of art that contains no beauty of expression and contains only ideas is a limited work, no matter how good the ideas are. it is a terrible mistake to forget artistry. but this failed work may still be valuable to a reader. i have no use for such a thing. even an essay, i think, should contain some artistry of expression. however, the true test i think is if this deathly-lacking work of intellectual literature allows a return for greater enrichment. i think more often than not this 'return' is connected with the aesthetic side of art, because the ideas in say sartre are unbending but perhaps a reader may return to satre's ideas and find a new and developed understanding each time.

    a work that is very beautiful but contains no 'ideas' still teaches the perceiver. Monet, for instance, teaches the perceiver how to regard the sunset upon a lily pond. someone may stop at a purely aesthetic contemplation of Monet and still have a valuable experience. a greater understanding of the world is reached, then, even if the mind does not articulate, necessarily, that greater understanding.

    in the old days this experience was connected with the sublime and both the spirit and the mind were touched. most people do not believe in these things anymore. a marxist may say 'what do i care about looking at a lily pond? what do i care with how something is expressed? only ideas and action matter!' but then a marxist should not be in the literature business, if you ask me. very rarely does a poorly written book filled with very fine ideas help the oppressed in any meaningful way. but a book filled with great beauty and human significance can.

    now all this talk of pleasure indicates readers are fine with bypassing the both and going for a connection on animal levels. but i think it a mistake to stop at 'this pleases me' and 'this gives me great pleasure' because art is more than hedonism. someone may watch a reality tv show about fixing homes and gain pleasure, but that show is not a work of great artistry. because a make over show delights someone who is bored by Proust does not mean the make over show is greater than Proust. one may contemplate Proust's artistry, just as they may contemplate the ideas in Proust, even while arriving at a deep emotional response.

    RK

    ReplyDelete