Monday, February 2, 2015

The Books that Choose Us

On this 133rd anniversary of the birth of James Joyce, I'm thinking about my conviction that I didn't choose to read Ulysses. It chose me.


The line has been repeated so many times it's almost a cliché: We don't choose the books that are important to us; they choose us. I've experienced this phenomenon at several moments in my life, when Ulysses or Austerlitz or Sentimental Education seemed to choose me as their reader, seemed to solicit my interest and compel me to read them. But this solicitation in the library stacks or bookstore aisle, like the outward signs of Hamlet's grief, merely seems, and it is important that we not let be be the finale of its seeming. For we, of course, are the ones who choose. We choose to read certain books for reasons we do not understand. We choose them for unconscious reasons. And into the oblivion of our motivation, to fill the gap our repressions create, we pour the illusion of an inanimate object choosing a subject. We spontaneously grant the book an illusionary agency because the roots of our actual agency must be prophylactically disavowed.


But this can't be the whole story. The idea that books choose us is a retrospective construction. It occurs to us only after we have read and been deeply impressed by a given book, after we have been emotionally affected by its power. And works of art possess powers we do not grant to them. Something in their representations solicits us also, captures us in its sticky web. And we respond, for reasons often disavowed, in an interaction much like erotic attraction. We say we "love" this book, we speak of "falling in love" with it, and part of our classic overestimation of this particular desired object is the harmless delusion that it chose us, not the factually accurate vice versa.


All of which brings me back to my old intuition that art and love run off the same circuit. The aesthetic and the erotic are profoundly interrelated, intricately knotted, inextricable. As Proust's Swann knew (and little good the knowledge did him), we can love a woman because we love a work of art, and anyone with the least amount of aesthetic sensitivity has experienced the opposite effect (attraction to an art object that reminds us of a loved one). Maybe this erotic motivation is exactly what we are repressing about the books that (seem to) choose us. Does something in these books provoke or solicit a desire that we must disavow? Think about this, and think about the deeper, potentially embarrassing reasons why you chose the books that 'chose you.' We may be trespassing onto dangerously private property here. I hope so.

2 comments:

tj said...

Which translation of Flaubert did you read (or did you just read the original)?

BRIAN OARD said...

@tj:

I read the Penguin Classics edition of Sentimental Education, translated by Robert Baldick. I own a French edition, but I haven't attempted it yet.