Tuesday, June 10, 2008

"creator and receiver both"

In The Prelude, William Wordsworth refers to a child as

"creator and receiver both,
Working but in alliance with the works
Which it beholds."

This passage works as a summary for my conception of reading. When I read, I am receiving something that is created by the writer. But if I am fully engaged with the text, then I am also creating something. As a reader, I create (or, if you prefer, re-create) characters, scenes, settings, events, images, meaning, ideas. I am working in alliance with the work itself to create meaning.

Is there a distinction between creation and simply perception? Perhaps, as in a different context of The Prelude, Wordsworth does distinguish between the two (in a passage that seems aware of Kant):

"Deem that our puny boundaries are things
That we perceive, and not that we have made."

In perception, we merely bring out what is already there, while in creation, we make something, "working but in alliance" with what is already there to create ourselves. I do think reading is creation. The work itself doesn't exist outside the mind of the reader: only when the reader engages in the text (in any way: reading it, discussing it, writing about it, remembering it) does the text have any power at all.


  1. I absolutely agree with you that reading is a creative act.

    In the end, a book's value isn't in the ideas that it has captured for posterity but in the new ideas it will generate in the future.

    For instance, The Iliad is a very interesting poem, and I'm glad we can learn so much about ancient Greek values from it. But what makes it THE ILIAD is the influence it had long after its day--even today people read into it comments applicable to the Iraq War.

    If reading wasn't a creative act, then all need for reading the classics would be over--someone would have figure out "what it meant" absolutely, and that would be that.

  2. does iliad create new ideas or are the old ideas applied to new situations? new situations are just variations on the old. do we learn new things, new ways to see iliad or does iliad constantly reteach us how to perceive the world?

    i read iliad for ulysses and for hector. there may be lessons we take from that story but i think the story itself, images like ulysses dragging hector's corpse is why, for me, the book will always charm new readers.


  3. not ulysses, obviously. achilles.


  4. rk -- You make a really solid point, and I think you're right. The new situations are variants of the old. But they are, nonetheless, new. The age we are in presents contexts that weren't even fathomable in the time of the Iliad. Combine those new contexts with the old ideas and you come up with a new idea--rooted, of course, in the old, which is why I say the Iliad "created" it.

    As for the literary merit, I'll give a relevant example since this is where I am in my reading right now: If we read and reread only for story, then Thomas Kyd's "The Spanish Tragedy" would be as well known as "Hamlet." "The Spanish Tragedy" has an interesting plot and some memorable images, some of which are similar to those in "Hamlet."

    So why don't we read "The Spanish Tragedy" as we do "Hamlet?" Because we keep reading something again and again for the inventiveness, the heft in the utterance, the truth a work contains, and these are not the same thing as "lessons"--which carries a moralizing connotation.

    Perhaps the new readers will be attracted to the action of the Iliad, but the readers who will become the champions of the poem and keep it alive for further generations love those things listed above.

  5. Anonymous10:21 AM

    well, j.d. i certainly agree how something is written elevates a work. and it always helps to have some depth.

    i will admit, i'm becoming more and more a superficial reader. i'd rather watch orson welles' version of shakespeare than read shakespeare. and i have a hard time getting through a work of philosophy anymore. so maybe my views have become superficial too.

    if a reader lives in some outpost beyond society and hears nothing about what goes on outside, those powerful, unique moments and images will still provoke some emotion in the reader. even if the events are not applicable to their world. maybe it still needs to be translated well, but after the language has been forgotten by the reader the image will long after remain, and it will continue to provoke those old emotions.

    i suppose it comes down to what incites the imagination. for me, i carry those old images, emotions, events. i reshape them, reimagine them, i'm certain, so they no longer resemble homer or melville or shakespeare. half the images of shakespeare i have are supplied by olivier, kurosawa, welles, anyhow. but for another reader the imagination is maybe incited by ideas. but i always take analysis and the application of ideas and scholarship as something other than creativity. i probably shouldn't.