Reading Amidst the Fray

It's a luxury to read great books, films, works of art. You get to jump in, kick around, then stand back and think while the thing stands still. I say "for the most part" because the thing you're reading — a book, film, painting — does change as you change. But that change is relatively slow. So if you're reading, say, Cassavetes' careening film, Faces, over a few weeks the film won't change all that much. When you read it again years later, it will most likely have changed quite a bit and you'll wonder: Is it me? Or the film? The answer is both.

But there is great pleasure and a certain security in reading things. I, for one, like to spend my time coming at the thing from different angles, in different states of mind, at different times of the day, in different moods with different needs and different energies. A beautiful repartee takes place between the thing and me as I wrestle its moves and mechanics.

Mostly, I'm looking for that instance in which I get it, I see with what Bergson calls intuition: I grasp what is at stake for this thing. I see, in a flash, the terms of its world, the universe it sees and creates. This is especially true of an oeuvre: you suddenly see what they see, the world Descartes imagines, the cosmos in which Cassavetes operates, the terms of Nabokov. But that flash, while immediate, often takes time to come and then, once seen, needs to rest and take root. (For instance, I see Deleuze's world but it continues to take root in odd parts of my body and I am still surprised by it.)

Things get much more complicated when you're reading the social — all those glances, desires, needs, assaults, seductions coming at you all while you try to make your way through the endless nonsense in your own head (I suppose I should shift to the first person here). For much of my life, perhaps the present included, I am thoroughly confounded by when a girl likes me likes me, as the kids say. I can readily see when a boy or girl are interested in each other. It's so damn obvious. Just look at how she's talking to him! Duh!

But when she talks like that to me, well, I assume something's wrong. I rarely assume she likes me. How could she? I'm an idiot, a nose on a stick, an endless mouth. This neurosis prohibits my seeing what's actually happening; I see my self-loathing, not the event of desire that's transpiring directly in front of me.

Which is all to say, reading the social amidst the relentless teem of the social is tricky, to say the least. It all moves so fast! Movies move fast, too. But it's easy to pause, rewind, rewatch. I've watched movies dozens of times before writing about them. You don't have this luxury in the social. Glances and moods move fast and you are responding, always, whether you like it or not. Sitting there with a blank face is a communication with meaning; it is a reading of the situation, perhaps despite yourself.

Of course, in addition to the speed, what makes this so tricky is that your every action inflects the whole. If you smile, it shifts the mood and the play of meaning. If you turn your back, make a stuttering joke, spill your drink the very terms of exchange shift differently.

What's perhaps surprising is that this is true of reading a film, too. Your every move inflects the whole. If you read Cassavetes as dripping human affect the way Pollock drips paint, this sends ripples through Cassavetes' oeuvre and, like any grammatical instance, nudges your reading into a certain configuration — and, by extension, nudges you into a certain configuration.

Reading in the social and reading a film are not categorically different performances. As Bergson might say, they are different in degree — of speed and intensity, not different in kind. When we read books or movies or art, we are implicated. We may try to distance ourselves from this by writing arid academic prose or by deploying someone else's theory. This isn't my reading of Hitchcock! It's Lacan's! As if this got us off the hook. As if writing poorly and quoting someone else somehow spared us the insecurity, the uncertainty, the risk of being this person seeing these things.

When I read a thing, I want to throw myself into the mix. I want to celebrate the fact that I'm of the very stuff I'm reading — like Faces, I am affect and light and word and image. This is the key insight to New Journalism: we can write from the middle of the crowd, not just from the balcony. I want to feel the film all around me; I want my very flesh to shudder, my thinking to vibrate, my every twitch to be implicated. This is why I am not an academic: I want to be enmeshed in my thinking rather than wielding my ideas from afar.

There is no outside the fray, no matter how turgid your prose. This is not a bad thing. In fact, Merleau-Ponty says this is the only way we can know anything — precisely because we are of the same stuff, precisely because we are something that can be touched, seen, read. This reality can be disconcerting, especially when surrounded on all sides by glances, desires, and moods. The thing to do, I believe, is to learn from how we read things — let yourself be inundated, look for that flash of intuition, and then at once read and create that new cosmos.

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