The age of stamp collectors


So the conference is over. First half of today was pretty heavy on literary theory. Apart from presentations on Flann O’Brien’s Third Policeman (a book I confess being awfully partial to) and another one on Roland Barthes’ Camera Lucida and post-mortem photography, the rest of the lectures were somewhat tedious to sit through. It’s not that they weren’t clever and filled with “wonderful insights” and “interesting observations” – as they were invariably praised by other participants prior to asking similarly insightful and clever questions – they were probably a bit too clever for their own good. This reminded me of a scene in Fight Club where Jack makes a remark on single-serving friends:

TYLER: Oh, I get it. It’s very clever.
JACK: Thank you.
TYLER: How’s that working out for you?
JACK: What?
TYLER: Being clever.
JACK (thrown): Great.
TYLER: Keep it up then. Right up.

I also found myself thinking of an essay by George Steiner that I read yesterday in order to survive one particularly painful and obscure presentation that simply went on and on with no end in sight. In the essay, Steiner lamented that although literacy rates are at the highest levels they have ever been everywhere one looks in the world, our ability to actually READ is on the wane. “Short bits of text”, he remarks “now lead precarious lives on great stilts of footnotes”. We have became unable to read anything but the most trivial things without the support of commentaries, foot- and endnotes.  Now, literary theory puts forth an implicit claim to deal with texts in an informed, disciplined and thorough manner. It is much preoccupied with extending the texts it deals with, trying to dissect and categorise them in ever more inventive ways, analyse in minute details how they stick together and how their meaning eludes any precise definition or fixing. 

It appears to me that what Steiner has in mind when he says that we have to “learn to read again” is something quite different. It is of course all fine to learn about deconstruction and postcolonialism, new historicism or marxist criticism, but this really only deals with the tekhnê of how the meaning is created and extracted – and it is of very little use if we do not recognise the building blocks that it consists of. This technical craftmanship does not, indeed, cannot replace direct contact with the origins, sources of inspiration and layers of meaning that have accumulated over almost three millennia. In that sense, Steiner wants us to go back rather than forward. He wants us to go and read the Bible, Homer, Aesychlos, Dante and Goethe, Milton and Molière, and not only to read them but also to engrave them into our memories.

This all may sound an awful lot of work and beg the obvious question: what for? And this is where Steiner quotes Kafka:

If the book we are reading does not wake us, as with a fist hammering on our skulls, then why do we read it? Good God, we also would be happy if we had no books and such books that make us happy we could, if need be, write ourselves. What we must have are those books that come on us like ill fortune, like the death of one we love better than ourselves, like suicide. A book must be an ice axe to break the sea frozen inside us.

Not surprisingly, Steiner has not been very popular in the circles of literary theory. “Among stamp collectors,” he wrote in 1992, “letter-writers are not always welcome.” And indeed, it seems that we could do with a few more letter-writers in this age of stamp collectors.


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