Inhabiting, not reading

I still have my Dell paperback copy of Susan Sontag’s Against Interpretation (95 cents, cover price). I think I read it in 1969 and didn’t understand much. When she gets to her big finale of the title essay–“In place of a hermeneutics we need an erotics of art”–I had the scarcest idea what hermeneutics was. But as Bob Dylan sang, there was revolution in the air, and replacing something as multi-syllabic and teutonic as hermeneutics with erotics sounded good. Replacing anything with erotics sounded good in 1969.

Forty years later, and ten years ago, I wrote about hermeneutics in Letting Stories Breathe. I was struggling with the necessity of interpretation, our human inability to hear without interpreting, versus the problem of interpreting. Interpretation presupposes a stance outside what becomes the object of interpretation: the text, whether that’s words, pictures, or sounds, becomes an occasion for the knowing subject to exercise her knowledge upon it, and perhaps add to that knowledge, notching up another text on the reading list. The worst of Shakespeare criticism treats his writing as occasions for displaying knowledge, albeit very impressive displays of considerable knowledge. Then to remind myself why Shakespeare matters–why I and others show up at the theatre–I go back to writing by actors and directors. For them, interpretation is merely instrumental to what counts, which is inhabiting the character and the story: being part of it, and letting it become part of you. Which is why Macbeth is regarded with suspicion. Some stories you have to be careful about inhabiting.

What instigated these thoughts was reading two books that make me question how to read. Today I finished another cycle of reading the Tao Te Ching, which I keep reading through, without any beginning or end to the reading, which seems to be the point of what the Tao is, learning to think without beginnings or endings. No primal cause or act of creation, and no telos, transcendence, or Last Judgment. The point seems not to read the book, first page to last with whatever level of attention. Rather, the point is to inhabit the book as an embodiment of the mind of the Sage, although that statement is nothing but metaphors. What we call reading is an active surrender, a forceful giving-up-to. As one example, take the last line: “the way of a sage is to act without contending.” Scholars lapse into contending; establishing one’s difference from others’ work is often contention. The hermeneutics of suspicion–Marx, Freud, Derrida, Foucault–is contentious, except in those rare moments when each gets beyond that. Scholarship is a perpetual struggle to rise above contention. How do I inhabit the Tao, while writing about the issues of bioethics and healthcare? How do I retell testimonies of violences against the ill, without contending? As we live in a moment when the politics of contention threatens us, it requires discipline to hold to a rejection of contention.

The other book is Pat Barker’s novel The Silence of the Girls. I waited for the right moment to read this, anticipating that it would preoccupy me, as it has. If you’ve missed it, Barker retells the story of Homer’s Iliad from the perspective of Briseis (Breye-see’-is, I believe). Briseis is a young queen in one of the towns near Troy, raided by the Greeks. She is taken as a war trophy, awarded to Achilles, then stolen by Agamemnon. Here the pawn speaks. Briseis’s story opens up the women’s world that is the silent background in Homer: all these women, taken as slaves, who served the Greeks doing the cooking, laundry, nursing, and being “bed girls”. Homer has recently reappeared in two translations by women: Caroline Alexander’s Iliad and Emily Wilson’s Odyssey. Barker, when read with Alexander and Wilson, gives us the same turning of Homer that the Globe theatre effects when it plays Shakespeare with gender-blind casting. But no, Barker effects a far more extensive shift of perspective; while sticking to Homer’s plot, she rewrites the story. She gets into my dreams. Putting me into the Greek camp, seeing it as a slave inhabits it, she creates an encounter more than a reading. It’s not a question of interpreting her book. What seems required is allowing the book to have its most extensive effect on how to live, which begins with seeing the world around me. Or better yet, seeing me in the world I participate in recreating.

Is some of that what Susan Sontag meant by an erotics of literature? What is the shift of responsibility as we move from hermeneutics to such an erotics, as a duality of inhabiting and being inhabited?

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