Reading and the pleasures of domination.

I was rereading Michiko Kakutani’s basically unremarkable Web 2.0 article that you’ve all read by now, and came across this passage:

Digital insiders like Mr. Lanier and Paulina Borsook, the author of the book Cyberselfish have noted the easily distracted, adolescent quality of much of cyberculture. Ms. Borsook describes tech-heads as having ‘an angry adolescent view of all authority as the Pig Parent,’ writing that even older digerati want to think of themselves as ‘having an Inner Bike Messenger.’”

This paragraph gave me pause that it didn’t the first time I read it because between then and now I’ve read Jonathan Franzen’s essay collection How to Be Alone. I’ve railed as much as anyone against Franzen’s narcissism, pomposity, and short-sightedness (Franzen: “it’s difficult to tell if the Internet is legitimately big news”), and I found most of the pieces in HtBA mediocre (a couple were downright awful).

But one of Franzen’s best essays is called “The Reader in Exile.” He immediately alienated me by boasting about giving away his TV, and then citing some extremely spurious pseudoscience on the effect of TV-watching on childhood oral development, but brought me back into the fold by highlighting an aspect of reading that I value and enjoy deeply. Franzen quotes Sven Birkerts’ The Gutenberg Elegies:

[H]ere is [Birkerts’] neat reply to hypertext’s promise of liberation from the author: ‘This ‘domination by the author’ has been, at least until now, the point of reading and writing. The author masters the resources of language to create a vision that will engage and in some ways overpower the reader; the reader goes to the work to be subjected to the creative will of another.’

The big “YES” I scrawled next to “the point" pretty well encapsulates my response to this section. In order to take a work of fiction seriously—in order really to read it—one must surrender oneself to “the creative will” of its author. This surrender is not passive, for the reader must still digest and contemplate and interpret—but within the world created and ruled by the author. The feeling of being overpowered by the author’s vision is a form of contact with the sublime, which always underscores one’s own smallness. This is why we feel awe at the length and breadth of Infinite Jest. This is also why arrogance in professors can be tolerable, even charming.

Domination is not only pleasurable but also healthy, intellectually and imaginatively speaking. Reading through an entire novel forces you to live for a while in the author’s creative and intellectual domain, which likely surpasses your own. Users of Web 2.0 who disdain all forms of authority, who insist on curating personalized cultural compartments, miss out on this enforced nourishment.

Roland Barthes frames the discussion of language and domination in sexual terms (not much of a stretch, really). As Barthes says in The Pleasure of the Text, there is a wanting-to-be-read inherent in writing, especially in fiction, which seeks to subsume the reader within itself. For proof of this we have its beauty, an overt act of flirtation.

The text you write must prove to me that it desires me. This proof exists: it is writing. Writing is: the science of the various blisses of language, its Kama Sutra (this science has one but one treatise: writing itself)…The text is a fetish object, and this fetish desires me. The text chooses me, by a whole disposition of invisible screens: vocabulary, references, readability, etc.; and, lost in the midst of a text…there is always the other, the author. As institution, the author is dead…but in the text, in a way, I desire the author.

It seems to me that reading nonfiction does not entail this element of surrender. Whereas nonfiction explicitly posits its theses to the reader, thus offering her the option of rejecting them, fiction installs its beliefs and ideas as the foundation of its plot and characters. Therefore, just by reading—by following the story—the reader agrees with the author’s assessment of the world. The primary reaction is not one of acceptance or rejection, but of joy or devastation, suspense or bafflement, aesthetic reverie or irritation. In other words, whereas we can dominate nonfiction, we cannot dominate fiction (though goodness knows we’ve tried, with ugly results)—and that is what makes it transcendent.

I leave you with a quotation from Jeanette Winterson, the (in my mind) uncontested master of exploring the relationship between language, love, and sex in astonishingly beautiful prose poetry:

Her lips form the words. She scalds me with them. The cold, clear mould of her, melts, and gives way, she pours the warm honey of a long night’s work. / The word and the kiss are one. / Is language sex? Say my name and you say sex. / Say my name and you say white sand under a white sky white trammel of my thighs. / My mouth on yours forms words I do not know.