On Reading as Performance

(I should add ‘provisionally’ to the title for a reason I shall be sure to expound upon soon)

Amidst our course’s considerations of H.G. Gadamer’s “Truth and Method” (Philosophical Hermeneutics with Merold Westphal to provide greater context) we have seriously looked at seeing texts. I only plan to draw one thought, one possibility, therefrom; the manner by which reading parallels performance.

Mortimer Adler and Charles van Doren’s ‘How to Read a Book’ offers the reader an introduction to methods by which to actively encounter the text (assuming such is a worthwhile venture) – essentially by means of questions. Clearly they want to get away from the notion that the reader’s goal is to passively receive the (static) message of the author [Gadamer makes the point that transmitting an inner understanding is not always the author’s purpose, nor does the author have ultimate control over the life of the text]. The active reader better experiences the text – but are two readings ever the same (and is it problematic if they are n’t)?

Considering reading as it parallels the interpretation of a play (or the performance of a musical piece) may allow us to think differently of this activity. I return to certain works of imaginative literature in hopes of recovering some experience in reading, but my reading is never the same. Each time new items come to the front of the scene (illumined by other readings or better background understandings of the author or even current events in my life – all of these may affect the created scenes in more or less pleasing manners) and other items are neglected that may have been special in a prior reading.

For example, each reading of Lewis’ ‘Till We Have Faces’ has been different for me: I recall Orual’s case against the gods and answer as thoroughly gripping when first I stumbled across it — more recently considering Psyche as the human soul as opposed to Orual’s jealousy of her was particularly illuminating. I can never recover fully the first reading, though I treasure the memory of ‘performing’ the interpretation of the words in my mind (yes, that qualifies me as a nerd or a subset thereof).

It should not require much comment, but there are certainly better and worse performances (of interpretations) as there are tremendous and dubious performances on the stage. What I suppose is interesting about this consideration is that we are tempted to think of the author as the puppet-master of the text…but there is far more at play. Rather the reader is the director interpreting the screen-play (hopefully without gross distortions of the screen-play, but the screen-play may be gross in its own right and the performance could be better than the author’s intention). I should again mention (as Adler & van Doren did) that not every screenplay is worth a good performance – but some certainly are. Further, those directors who choose to interpret challenging works are more likely to better perform another work – while interpretation of such sort is unlikely to ever be the ‘perfect’ performance, this need not be the cause of any despair.

What performances haunt you with their beauty and demand another reading?


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