Saturday, December 02, 2006

Josh on Pleasure

A few days ago, Josh Corey posted some thoughts on poetry and pleasure to his blog. It's been a long time since I've thought about such matters, hip-deep as I've been in other projects, so let me tangle with these for a while, and see what emerges.

Josh starts by musing on the difference between pleasures offered by fiction and poetry: or, more specifically, the pleasures he finds (takes?) in certain kinds of fiction and certain kinds of poetry. As someone who spends a lot of time working with fiction these days, I take his observations awfully seriously, but I can't bring myself to agree with all of them.
World-immersion is for me the most primordial pleasure of reading fiction—I think of the "vivid, continuous dream" that John Gardner called for—and it's a pleasure diametrically opposed to the Barthesian bliss of language: an imagistic dream virtually requires the disappearance of the language, sheer transparency.
Is this true for me in reading fiction? Yes and no: the fiction I read most, which is genre fiction, offers me "world-immersion," but I don't know that I'm ever entirely unaware of the language as such. I know, feel, taste an author's style at all times, even when lost in a book; I'd know a paragraph of Andre Norton from a paragraph of Asimov, and either from Ellison (Harlan or Ralph) in an instant, which suggests to me that this "disappearance of the language" is a critical fiction, at least for me. The same, by the way, is true for romance fiction: I know, reading Pam Rosenthal, that I'm not reading Eloisa James, although I'm not sure (yet) whether I know Eloisa James from Julia Quinn by sentence-to-sentence features of style rather than the differences found in larger units: the paragraph, the chapter, the plot device.

Back to Josh, on that pleasure of the "imagistic dream":
But it's also a distinctly bodily pleasure, if only in the negative sense: one morning, groggy from my own dreams, I picked up Empire Falls and immediately fell into the story, my eyes moving rapidly back and forth as though I were still in REM sleep, ignoring my system's cries for the usual morning dose of coffee. If dreams are, as many believe, a means of absorbing stimuli so as to keep you from waking up, then reading immersive fiction works similarly on me, so that I forget to eat or go to the bathroom or even to move my limbs. That's why such fiction is the best tonic for flying on airplanes: for several years I flew without discomfort by reading and rereading the Aubrey-Maturin novels. When I do notice the language in a book like Russo's, it's generally an infelicity, a speed bump: an ambiguous pronoun, a clumsy simile, which I'm sure the author would revise if he could so as to go back into the dream.
Now, I don't pretend to know anything about dreams, let alone to believe anything about them. I'll leave that to the scientists of sleep, who may or may not know anything these days either. (I heard something on the radio recently about dreams as test-patterns, in a sense: the brain checking to see whether all systems were ready to return to active duty. Interesting, but probably irrelevant.) What strikes me here is Josh's final point, about noticing language, because I've hit a few of those speed bumps recently. To his list, I'd add typos: to wit, a wonderful faux pas in Eloisa James's Pleasure for Pleasure, which I hit yesterday afternoon. Speaking of a horse, the narrator remarks that the animal had "won her heart." Clearly, from context, this was meant to say the horse had "won her heat" (in the race), but the power of context is such that the proofreader missed it. ("Won her heart" makes such perfect sense as a phrase in a romance novel, who would spot it?)

Such anti-absorptive moments, to use Charles Bernstein's terms, can be annoying, as they are in student papers, but they can also be charming, as in that case, adding a little extra soupcon of
pleasure all their own. One wants to call them "accidentals," as in music, somehow.

Back to Josh, who's about to draw some distinctions:
All this is antithetical to the pleasures I seek from poetry, or from fiction that foregrounds the language through the beauty or ugliness of its sentences. Most readers (on airplanes or elsewhere) are after the infantilizing dream-state, and yet I can't blame others or myself for wanting to be nurtured by certain reading experiences rather than pricked into greater consciousness. A healthy diet, so to speak, probably requires both.
Excuse me? Josh? Where did that "infantilizing" bit come from? I know you're borrowing "dream-state" from your earlier comparison, but what makes dreams infantile? What makes being lost in a book "nurturing"? There's a strange anxiety at work here--and dude, I don't know you well enough to get into that bit about being "pricked." No...that's a cheap shot... but I am struck by how rapidly Josh falls into a set of worries at least as old as Sir Philip Sidney's "Apology for Poetry," in which Sir P objects to the notion that poesy leaves us "lulled to sleep in shady idleness."

To Josh, then, certain pleasures are infantalizing because they nurture us, while others goad us into consciousness. By extension, those in the second set are not nurturing, but what? Provocative? Abusive? Strenuous? Challenging? (But sometimes to nurture you have to challenge, no?) In any case, they are what spur us into adulthood, evidently: into the world of breeches and thrashings and consciousness.

Josh, of course, is smart enough to hear his own rhetoric:
But isn't the moral content that creeps into my language here interesting? Immersive fiction as trans-fats, innovative writing as leafy greens.
Well, they do say that we learn to appreciate bitter tastes later than sweet ones. Immersive fiction is a chocolate milk-shake; innovative writing is Campari? But let's push that a little, sir: we love sweets and fats because we've evolved to crave them. Is part of the moral resistance here the shame of our own biological inclination--older, deeper than our conscious selves--to love narrative? Is the "infantalizing" part of it the way it reminds us of our childhood itch for someone to tell me a story?
I am loath to become a scold, urging children to read Language poetry because it's good for you. Is the pleasure of anti-absorptive writing simply the masochistic pleasure of self-denial, of anorexia? Is it a "higher" pleasure because further from the pleasures of the flesh? And yet the anti-absorptive is closer to the body of language than immersive fiction is: we savor the materiality of phonemes and syntax and sentences, provoked into the kind of apperception that requires us to look up from the book now and then and figure. One type of reading is active and closer to writing; the other is passive and demands our submission—there's a masochism for you.
Block those psycho-sexual metaphors, Josh! They're getting in your way. Don't confuse self-denial (asceticism) with anorexia (a disease); they're no more similar than tipsiness is to alcoholism. Don't think that reading immersive fiction is "passive"; it only feels that way because the skills it takes come so easily to you, have been so naturalized, that you no longer notice you're deploying them! (If you think I'm wrong, try reading an immersive novel in a foreign language, or watch a barely literate reader struggle through one.) While you're at it, stop mixing up passivity with submission (readers can top from the bottom and bottom from the top as well as anyone), and don't lump either of them together with masochism. (Do you really think it's masochistic to lie back and let yourself be pleased by a text?)

It's ever so tempting, ever since Freud, to reduce all pleasures to the sexual, if only in our metaphors. I suspect we need to resist that temptation in order to draw the sort of precise, useful distinctions Josh (and I) are looking for. Any other vocabularies out there for us to draw on?

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