The bad object of this essay is reading. It assembles fragments of an abandoned project that would have posed the delirious thesis of universal reading disorder. There are four fragments, which analyze scenes of the other reading from Augustine, Rousseau, Flaubert, and Blanchot. They argue against at least two fundamental assumptions in the reading sciences: that anyone ever knows how to read and that the other’s reading can be seen other than in fiction.

The invitation to write for this issue inspired by Naomi Schor and her fierce defense of what she called “bad objects” held me at bay for a long time.1 Even though she would not read it, I felt I should try to respond with something Naomi might receive with approval or even pleasure. For part of her so sadly shortened life, we shared a lot, mostly at a distance, through writing and reading but also by situation as women of the same generation of U.S. feminist literary scholars working in university French departments (a very small world). As a result, the dynamics she analyzed in Bad Objects in 1995 were very familiar to me then. It is a book of melancholy, which I cannot not share especially now, when more than twenty years have passed, for only a few of which Naomi was alive to continue chronicling the disappearance of her bad objects.

Whether or not melancholy played a part (no doubt it did), these thoughts led me to unearth, from the hard drive, texts that had lain dormant there for the greater part of those twenty-plus years. They are shards of an aborted project that never really got very far. It was on the subject (so to speak) of reading, which is probably why the association with Naomi took me back to them. Au fond, the good bad object she wants to preserve is first and last of all reading, reading that takes time and attention. Her defense of narrative, for example, defends reading in the figure of what Peter Brooks had called “reading for the plot.” This comes near the end of the book when, after posing that “current work on gender has contributed little to our understanding of narrative” and that the performativity that has displaced narrativity in queer and gender theory treats literary fiction as just another discourse and “in the process fiction loses its distinctive formal properties and is reduced to a series of scenes,” Naomi concludes her paragraph with the image of a “chop shop” of literary fiction: “At a time when the grand narratives have been pronounced dead, it is in fact the narratives of fiction which have vanished in the chop shop, where people go to furnish themselves with spare narrative parts” (Bad 160).

Let this image be an excuse for bringing together here this assortment of spare parts.

I would say just a little more about the abandoned project. Over several years, I sank test holes around the subject of reading, that is, I dug into research on its identified pathology, dyslexia, and I also probed the recent field that had spun off from history of the book, which called itself history of reading. For a while all this activity was sustained by a rather delirious vision of intervening into these discourses from the side of what deconstruction has understood about reading, unreadability, writing, the unsaturability of context, the divisibility of the letter, and so forth. I call the vision or idea “delirious” for a couple of reasons: First, because it had a “mad” thesis, to wit, that reading disorder was a general condition because no one ever really knows how to read. This preposterous-sounding proposition was aimed at the reductive object that science recognizes as reading, which it defines and measures as information extraction. Second, because delirious evokes the French word délire, from which Hélène Cixous forges the homonym and synonym, dé-lire: to un-read, dis- or dys-read. Lire/délire: reading is mis- or dis-reading, madness.

Before abandoning this delirium, I was led to try to reread famous scenes in a familiar literature of reading and learning to read. These I thought to counterpose against various assumptions I saw shaping the scientific study of reading. One of the most prevalent and determining of these (determining, for example, where the largest portion of research funding in these disciplines goes) was the assumption that the interiority of reading could be mapped, explained, imaged; therewith, its pathologies could be diagnosed and maybe corrected. As if, then, the other reading, the other’s reading were no longer irreducibly strange, having become a matter for knowledge equipped with the technology of fmri. To this I wanted to respond by reading from Augustine’s Confessions a passage about the other reading or at least seeming to read. (This is spare part number one.)

In the passage, Augustine describes how he reacted when he first observed someone, it was St. Ambrose, engaged in the practice of silent reading. It occurs toward the beginning of book 6 and records one of the rare experiences prior to his conversion that Augustine seems to relate more because of its curiosity than for its role in that retrospective narrative. And yet, although he does not make it explicit, there is a connection to the event of his own conversion when, some years later, Augustine hears the voice “as of a child” chanting the phrase “Take up and read,” whereupon he opens the epistle of Paul to the Romans lying on a table and reads the verses that await him there. And he reads them, he notes, “in silence” (167), recording perhaps with these two words his conversion to the practice that, when he first observed it, had struck him enough to warrant the following description:

But when [Ambrose] was reading, his eye glided over the pages, and his heart searched out the sense, but his voice and tongue were at rest. Ofttimes when we had come (for no man was forbidden to enter, nor was it his wont that any who came should be announced to him), we saw him thus reading to himself, and never otherwise; and having long sat silent (for who durst intrude on one so intent), we were fain to depart, conjecturing that in the small interval which he obtained, free from the din of others’ business, for the recruiting of his mind, he was loth to be taken off; and perchance he dreaded lest if the author he read should deliver any thing obscurely, some attentive or perplexed hearer should desire him to expound it, or to discuss some of the harder questions; so that his time being thus spent, he could not turn over so many volumes as he desired; although the preserving of his voice (which a very little speaking would weaken) might be the truer reason for his reading to himself. But with what intent soever he did it, certainly in such a man it was good [quolibet tamen animo id ageret, bono utique ille vir agebat]. (Augustine 98–99)

Augustine recalls that he and his companions hesitated as to how to explain Ambrose’s behavior. Without resolving which of the possible reasons he might have had for reading in silence rather than aloud as was customary even when alone, Augustine nevertheless concludes that in such a man as the saintly Ambrose, it was for a good purpose and with good intentions. It is, however, as if assurance were needed here to dispel a contrary thought, perhaps even the first one to occur to this witness when he initially came upon the strange behavior: might not that silenced tongue be keeping to itself some secret guilt, an evil and not a good purpose? This conclusion ends up lending a note of excuse to the possible reasons Augustine offers to explain Ambrose’s reading habits, as if he had to forestall the idea of the fault there was in keeping to oneself what was meant to be proffered openly and viva voce.

What makes this text so extraordinary is not just its historical value as a document, one that suggests how such an important transformation in reading practices might have been experienced by those who underwent it, those who like Augustine began one day to silence their own voices as they read.2 At the same time as it records the advent of this novel experience, the text also uncovers and brings clearly into focus a condition of the reading experience that is not first of all or above all historical. For Augustine’s account reveals nothing less than the ground or rather the gulf of unfathomable, irreducible alterity across which and on the condition of which reading can take place. In effect, we see, we read Augustine, who believes that he is seeing reading happen because Ambrose’s “eye glided over the pages,” even though he cannot see to the heart of the other’s reading, to what precisely he locates here in Ambrose’s heart, which “searched out the sense.” Thus he neither sees nor hears the other’s reading taking place; he can only believe that it takes place nowhere that he can hear or see, cut off, therefore, from his own understanding. So long as reading manifests itself in the openly spoken voice, then its conditioning ground of alterity can appear to disappear into that powerful figure of sameness Jacques Derrida has called s’entendre-parler, hearing/understanding-oneself-speak.3 Augustine’s experience is one in which that precise figure is thrown out of alignment with the figure of reading and with a reading figure who silences the voice without thereby suspending the reading that is apparently taking place. For Augustine sees or at least believes he can see that Ambrose is reading, there before him, openly and yet not so openly—reading also in secret because “to himself.” What has been made manifest, therefore, is reading as phenomenon of alterity, that is, as the appearance and disappearance of some otherness, alterity no sooner showing itself as phenomenon then it disappears into the belief in the reliability of appearances. It is as if Augustine’s startled and startling account had recorded a moment when alterity obtruded itself into his world as phenomenalized by the voice and hearing-oneself-speak, and to do so it had to appear as the other reading, the other’s reading. In that moment, the reading that appears to be taking place appears also suspended from its condition, which is unfathomably secret and irreducible alterity.

Some years later I came to connect Augustine’s phenomenology of the-other-reading with a scene his great emulator, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, staged in book 2 of his Émile, or On Education. (This is spare part number two. My translation of the passage is overly literal and thus rather clunky.)4

I see a man: blooming, gay, vigorous, in good health; his presence inspires joy, his gaze announces contentment, well-being; he carries with him the image of happiness. Comes a letter in the mail; the happy man looks at it; it is to his address; he opens it, he reads. Instantly his appearance changes; he turns pale; he falls into a faint. Returning to his senses, he weeps, he rushes about, he moans, he tears his hair out, he fills the air with his cries, he seems to be having an attack of dreadful convulsions. Mad man, what harm has this paper then done you? Which of your limbs has it removed? What crime did it make you commit? Finally, what did it change in yourself to put you into the state in which I see you? (307–8)

The passage occurs in a section of Émile where Rousseau is arguing that the true source of all our misery is la prévoyance, foresight, looking ahead, neglecting the present “of which one is sure” for a future “that so rarely comes” (307). The present is not just a temporal category, however, for the same prévoyance also displaces man in space to the point that “[e]veryone spreads himself, so to speak, over the whole earth and is sensitive over this whole great surface. Is it surprising,” he then asks, “that our ills proliferate in all the points where we can be wounded?” (307). To illustrate this operation of suffering at a distance from where one is presently, Rousseau, as we’ve just read, calls up the figure of a healthy, contented man who receives a letter one day; upon reading it, he falls down in a fit of moaning and despair. The letter itself, a piece of paper with traces of writing, has done nothing to harm him and yet he is now utterly miserable.

To say that the passage is about reading (or writing) may seem to be forcing things. Surely the effects of temporal and spatial dislocation, of transgression of the enclosure that is anyone’s present existence, are only incidentally produced by reading. In other words, it is not reading or writing as such that are being identified as the source of misery. This point is made, moreover, quite clearly by Rousseau himself. The page of writing or the paper the man reads is explicitly declared innocent of any violence or crime. And yet we can also recognize all the links in this passage to Rousseau’s overarching accusation against writing, reading, or, let us say in general, the letter, the accusation that led Derrida, some time ago, to reserve an important place for Rousseau’s thought in the history of the West’s metaphysics of presence.5 In Derrida’s account, Rousseau would have taken over this history, inherited it more or less straight from Plato, but with the difference of a certain inward turn, a turning toward the idea of sameness, as in Plato, but now the idea is placed within; it is the idea of the self-sameness within the self, that the self simply is (the same as itself).

But we are drawing things too broadly and going too quickly. Let us slow down and actually try to read this passage, presuming that we can and that it is readable.

Rousseau begins by posing that he sees a man, a happy man: “I see a man: blooming, gay, vigorous, in good health; his presence inspires joy, his gaze announces contentment, well-being; he carries with him the image of happiness.” It is to this man whom Rousseau pretends or imagines he sees—“I see a man”—to this happy self of a man that the letter arrives as a catastrophe. He will not have seen it coming, he had no prévoyance of this event that will reduce him to trembling, even to “dreadful convulsions.” Remember the argument and the implied lesson here: it is precisely because he did not see it coming, because he had forgotten or never learned to be prévoyant, that he was happy. If prévoyance is the source of all misery, then a man who would be happy must have no foresight. His contentment, his joy is in the present, his present, his present presence. He is happy there where he is, present to himself.

But of course he is not present to himself alone; he is present with others and in the presence of others, standing before them: “I see a man [. . .] his presence inspires joy, his gaze announces contentent, well-being; he carries with him the image of happiness.” This man is not alone; he appears to and before others, if only in someone’s imagination, Rousseau’s for instance. But as here imagined, he is really happy, or at least one must say that so he appears. He figures present happiness, but not present only to itself. It is in a world with others, others who may see him and say something like, “[H]e is the very image of happiness.” Rousseau puts it somewhat differently: “[H]e carries with him the image of happiness.” This “with him” marks the image as not the same as him. The image is set a little bit aside, separated, something to be carried or borne. This separation between self and image, the gap that opens up in that space where one is seen, heard, or imagined with others, the gap in presence and the present, the gap of difference between this present and that, this place and that, this time and that, this opening into and from the world with others is there from the instant Rousseau imagines to write, “I see a man.” So in this sense, the happy man had to have already begun to exist not simply where he was, and in his own body, but already also where he was not, in others and with others. That’s what it means to be in the world with others, with others as one is with the image of happiness one carries as one’s own. But there you go, that’s the problem, which Rousseau will end up calling a “strange problem” (308). The image of one’s own happiness has never been simply one’s own to bear and keep safe, if possible and for as long as possible. The passage we are trying to read will turn around this strange problem of not-being where one is as soon as one is more than one, and that is as soon as anyone can imagine, say, and write: I see a man.

But in the parable—for it, indeed, has the structure of parable, fable, or allegory—this misfortune of being in more places than one and at more times than one’s own present, this misfortune apparently arrives only when “[c]omes a letter in the mail.” Rousseau’s elliptical and inverted phrasing permits one, I believe, to read this coming of the letter as a kind of exemplary allegory of the general event being figured here: the arrival of the “letter” or the trace of absence that knocks happy self-presence for a loop so that, as we read on, it ends up existing where it is not, no longer present to itself where it is. Rousseau is very precise, I would say, in the way he stages this event of the letter. The inversion in the phrase “[c]omes a letter in the mail [(v)ient une lettre de la poste]” delays the arrival from arriving anywhere yet. Arrival at address happens only in the next moment, but it happens as or in an ellipsis: “[T]he happy man looks at it; it is to his address.”

The happy man looks at it. He looks at it, it says; it does not say he reads it. He looks at it; “it is to his address.” Rousseau inserts an ellipsis here between looking and reading, a kind of prereading that has to take place in order to “read” one’s own address. We’ll come back to this suggestion of prereading.

Notice that Rousseau does not let us read whatever message the letter contains. Perhaps because he would not want to arouse our pity for this poor man by revealing any details of the terrible thing that has been announced to him, that happens to him at some remote distance from himself but happens and arrives at his address. Rousseau needs his reader to remain lucid so that she can see what he is about to show her. Because, of course, the point is that nothing has happened to the man, to him himself, in the present, in his body or the soul of his conscience. The letter, itself, its paper and its traces, its material thing, is innocent. We might not be able to see this innocent thing so well if we had been told the terrible news the man just received. Rousseau’s is a description of the phenomenon of misery; we are to continue to see the man solely from the outside, as appearance, and for the moment we must not try to identify or identify with his interior state. Yet, by appearing to keep us from seeing into the man’s affective interior, Rousseau’s rhetorical finesse has also, and by the same token, conjured up the figure of something to be seen, an image in space: but it is the figure of interiority, which precisely as interiority is nothing to be seen. Rousseau’s rhetorical technique here is such that we are almost induced to forget the invisibility of what is being conjured up as “in yourself.”

Almost, but not quite. We’ve already remarked the phrasing that distinguishes between looking (at the address) and reading (the letter as message to his address). This difference between looking/seeing and reading is one of the central pivots around which turns the conjured figure of interiority, a fact that might go unremarked if we weren’t reading Rousseau’s text in a certain way. We have to read it not just for what it says or describes but also for what it does. To keep us from seeing that a text, a letter, can also do something, although not necessarily something harmful, this is the condition on which this passage produces its figure of interiority that cannot be harmed by a letter, that cannot be harmed in itself, by the letter itself. But while we may suspect that, on some level, Rousseau’s text seeks to keep one from seeing something about its own production, it cannot prevent anyone from reading whatever it is trying not to show. No, it cannot prevent this, but neither can it prevent the figure of its own unreadability from precipitating out when the other figure it has conjured up, the figure of interiority, deconstructs, that is, when it undoes the figuration and displaces all the oppositions that held it in place. It does this on the condition of reading. Unreadability may be the figure or the symptom of our deconstructed interiority, but it still needs to be read.

Thus, for example, one must try to read the mode of the final question asked of the poor, miserable man: “Finally, what did it change in yourself to put you into the state in which I see you?” Given that the passage has blocked any view of the message just read, this question hovers between the mode of a rhetorical question—it says in effect that the paper changed nothing “in yourself [dans toi-même]”—and the mode of a true inquiry. In the latter case, it asks, What is no longer the same in your interior landscape, in your affective world? What new grief has befallen you? The greatest equivocation here, however, is in the figure of interiority that the series of questions builds up to and that this final question—“Finally”—renders explicit or names. Of the possible harms that the letter didn’t commit, it did not sever a limb (membre, which could include the sexual member), that is, it did you no bodily harm, and it did not cause you to commit a crime. This second remark disculpates the letter not for physical harm but for some internal damage, damage to one’s conscience or to what Rousseau might have assimilated to one’s basic amour de soi, love of self. In any case, it is a matter of self-relation, and thus of what Derrida has called auto-affection, of which hearing-oneself-speak is an example. By suggesting this particular figure of interiority, distinct not just from the “exterior” body whose members can be severed but also perhaps from other representations of “interiority,” Rousseau contrives, once again, to keep out of sight another view of this internal space, an affective interiority that is a shared space, an affective world within. It is this internal world, with its multiplicity of affective ties, that Rousseau hides until he can point to it and ask how it has changed. As if to imply that this “in yourself” were bounded solely between one’s body and one’s relation to self, yourself, as if “in yourself” meant yourself only within yourself, without others.

Rousseau’s passage continues and so did my attempt to read it, to read it reading reading. But this will suffice. I want to leave room for at least one more spare part, which was originally written for the Nineteenth-Century French Studies conference in 2010. Because Naomi was first of all a dix-neuviémiste, because her books on Émile Zola and George Sand, her studies of Madame de Staël, Honoré de Balzac, Stendhal, and Gustave Flaubert—the pantheon of nineteenth-century French narrative fiction—remain mandatory reading for whoever approaches these writers from our shores today, especially if they are asking questions of sexual difference, well then, the musings I ventured on that occasion on some reading issues in Flaubert might well have been addressed to Naomi’s ghost at the conference. As it happens, I was enjoined with others to respond to the then-recent manifesto in an issue of the journal Representations titled The Way We Read Now. Cosigned by Stephen Best and Sharon Marcus, this manifesto bore its own title: “Surface Reading.” I venture to believe that as the author of Reading in Detail (1987), Naomi would have had much to say in my place about this so-called surface reading, whereby its inventors (of the phrase, if not the thing) sought to displace what they called “symptomatic” reading as modeled by the interpretive practices of the likes of Sigmund Freud, Fredric Jameson, Louis Althusser, Umberto Eco, Paul Ricoeur, and so on (the implication being that there had been a general contagion of “symptomatic reading” of which it was time to cure ourselves).

I deposit here, then, as on a compost heap, the text I wrote in these circumstances. It was called “Reading ‘Surfaces.’”

“You are attacking details, and it’s the whole you should be taking on. The brutality is in the depths and not on the surface” (Flaubert, Correspondance 2: 650). This is Gustave Flaubert in December 1856 writing to Léon Laurent-Pichat, one of the editors of La Revue de Paris, which was about to deliver its next installment of Madame Bovary minus the notorious “coach episode.” What Flaubert calls “details” and “surface,” as distinct from the “whole” and the “depths” referred thus to the wickedly hilarious sequence that, in the unbowdlerized novel, follows the very pregnant one-sentence paragraph: “And the heavy machine got underway [Et la lourde machine se mit en route]” (Oeuvres 1: 514). (On its surface, this would be an unexceptional assertion, were it not for the adjective “heavy [lourde]” weighing it down, pulling at that surface and signaling toward the allegorical machine that language just is—always saying more or less, more and less than it can appear to say, “appearance” being perhaps precisely the wrong way to think about surfaces when they are made up of written traces.) So Flaubert’s remark to Laurent-Pichat about “depths” and “surface” is occasioned by what may well be the most notorious scene in all of French letters to confound that very distinction, at least to the extent that it is taken to be a matter of seeing what is on a surface as distinct from what is hidden, concealed, veiled, unrevealed, and so forth. Flaubert, obviously (but how so “obviously”?), counted on readers to read the sequence not for what can be seen there but for what cannot be seen, unlike the poor driver of the coach who—but it’s hard to believe anyone could be so bête—“didn’t understand what furious mania for locomotion compelled these individuals not to want to stop ever” and unlike the bourgeois in the streets of Rouen “whose astonished eyes opened wide in the face of this thing that was so extraordinary in the provinces, a coach with blinds drawn, and that kept appearing over and over” (Oeuvres 1: 515) (a remark that recalls both the second title of the novel, Provincial Customs [Moeurs de Province], and the “irresistible argument” that Léon had used to get Emma into the coach: “‘Ah! Léon! . . . Really . . . I don’t know . . . if I should,’ she simpered. Then, with a serious tone: ‘It’s very improper, you know?’ ‘How so?’ the clerk replied. ‘It’s done in Paris!’ And this remark, like an irresistible argument, made up her mind” [513]).

Just to take one last measure of the stupor or hébétement into which this “heavy machine” throws whoever confuses visibility with readability or whoever invokes a self-evident distinction of manifest surface from hidden depths, one could cite the plodding insights of Maître Ernest Pinard, who was the prosecutor at the trial that began about a month later of Madame Bovary’s author and publisher. Pinard knew about the deletion of the coach episode from the serial publication, but he was still made indignant by what remained of it, which he duly cited into the court transcript as quite enough evidence to suggest la suite in all of its hidden obviousness. The comments he went on to make, however, show just how far he had lost his bearings among all these treacherous appearances and disappearances: “We know now, gentlemen, that the fall does not take place in the coach. With a scruple that does him honor, the editor of the Revue de Paris deleted the passage of the fall in the coach. But if the Revue de Paris lowers the blinds of the coach, it allows us to penetrate into the bedroom where the meetings are held” (Flaubert, Oeuvres 1: 626). And, alas, we penetrate this intimate interior, laments the prosecutor, “without the considerations of art. With [Flaubert], no gauze, no veils, it is nature in all its nudity, in all its coarseness!” (627). Notice how what is so biblically referred to here as “the fall” is both thought not to take place when and where it nevertheless is also thought to take place behind the blinds of censorship lowered on the already lowered blinds of the coach. One has to feel a little sorry for poor Pinard, tangled up in all these veils of “nature in all its nudity.”

All of this seems embarrassingly obvious, even if one would be hard put to say exactly where it is showing up, on what surface other than the depthless surface of readability. If I’ve ventured even a very little way onto this too obvious terrain, it is as a result of reading “Surface Reading: An Introduction.” I admit that I’ve given in too easily to the too obvious, but would allege the excuse of that essay’s insistent invocation, I quote ad seriatim, of the “immediately apprehensible” (Best and Marcus 4), “what is evident, perceptible, apprehensible” (9), “what insists on being looked at rather than what we must train ourselves to see through” (9), “‘pure, untranslatable, sensuous immediacy’” (10), “presented meaning” (11), “what is present” (11), “face value” (12), “what lies in plain sight” (18)—and here the essay’s authors do not fail to allude to the much-sought-after purloined letter in Poe’s tale (which you may recall prompted a much earlier debate, unmentioned by Best and Marcus, that in important ways was also about the dizzying pitfalls of a certain kind of symptomatic reading, mais passons)6—all of this so that we may “see a text more clearly” (18).

What has to fall away in this incessant predication of reading by evidence, apprehension, presence, perception, looking, sight, or vision is the experience of reading as a nothing-to-see, as what no more engages with visible surfaces per se than with invisible depths. These are but figurative stopgaps for what has no other dimension than the movement of a gap, from gap to gap, across intervallic differences, for instance, the difference between surface and depth, the one gapping into the other as the possibility of meaning either the one or the other, but always therefore both the one and the other. When it comes to reading, surface or depth is the same difference.

This could take us back to Flaubert’s complaint: “The brutality is in the depths and not on the surface.” None could know better than Flaubert that he calls upon here an illusion of verticality or depth put in place by his own doggedly or let us say, rather, froggedly horizontal practice. In December 1853, he writes to Louise Colet:

Continuity constitutes style, just as constancy makes for virtue. To swim against the currents, to be a good swimmer, your body must be stretched out along a same line, from the back of your head to your heel. You draw yourself in like a frog and you spread yourself across the whole surface, rhythmically, with all your limbs, head low and gritting your teeth. The idea must do the same thing across words and not paddle while striking out right and left. (Correspondance 2: 481)

The previous year, writing to the same, he employs a similar image of movement across a surface of water:

And yet I have a conception of one, of a style: a style that would be beautiful, that someone will do one day, in ten years or ten centuries, and that would be rhythmical like verse, precise like the language of the sciences, and have waves, the throbbing of the cello, plumes of flame; a style that would enter into your ideas like the blow of a stiletto, and where your thoughts would finally float on smooth surfaces, the way you do on a boat with a good wind behind you. (Correspondance 2: 79)

What is also repeated on the surface of these passages is the conjunction of style with idea, two terms that are not deployed according to any distinction of form from content, or surface from depth, but rather as a continuity across or within a difference. There is idea and there is style, but the idea of style—dreamed of, conceived of—is of “a style that would enter into your ideas like the blow of a stiletto.”7

Because I have begun to suggest a pattern across Flaubert’s watery surfaces, I can’t resist quoting another passage from the correspondence, where he compares himself to an alpine lake: “I am like those Alpine lakes that become agitated under valley breezes (what blows up from below along the ground); but the great winds from the summits pass over them without wrinkling their surface and just serve to blow away the fog” (Correspondance 2: 491).

If, as Buffon’s aphorism would have it and as Flaubert was wont to recall, “style is the man,” then the man-style Gustave Flaubert bids, perhaps, to be received according to some novel idea of “writ in water” that would undo the Keatsian conceit. Casting his thoughts ahead, in 1876, to the writing of “Hérodias,” he claims to see “(clearly, as I see the Seine) the surface of the Dead Sea shimmering in the sun” (Correspondance 5: 143).

The question I am turning around, then, concerns a literary “surface” that cannot be opposed to some depth, but neither does it appeal to visibility, appearance, or perception, and that has as its only dimension or effect a possibility of writing/reading. Or rather, that just is that possibility. Not, then, a surface at all, which is but a metaphor for an unfigurable interface that is no less temporal than spatial. Instead of a name or a noun, however, be it surface or any other, perhaps it is only the verbal register that can hold off the familiar—tired and tiresome—metaphors.

Maurice Blanchot opens a chapter of Thomas the Obscure, which many consider his most important fictional work, with a scene of Thomas reading as seen from within, as it were (this “as it were” is, of course, the mark of fiction). When the scene begins, one is reminded of Augustine’s description of coming upon St. Ambrose reading in his room: “Thomas remained reading in his room. He was seated, his hands joined above his forehead, his thumbs leaning against the root of his hairline, so absorbed that he did not move when the door was opened. Those who entered, seeing his book always open to the same pages, thought that he was pretending to read.” But at this point Blanchot’s language passes beyond appearance or pretense and affirms simply: “He was reading.” If it seemed that he was not, if unlike the saintly St. Ambrose his eyes did not glide “over the pages” but remained fixed on “the same pages,” that is because, the text goes on, “[h]e was reading with an unsurpassable minuteness and attention [(i)l lisait avec une minutie et attention insurpassables].” At this point, the text fashions an image—a simile or an analogy—that is but the first of many in this long description that breaks off only at the end of the paragraph two pages later. It is, you could say, a striking image, this first stab at saying what it was like when Thomas read in this way: “In relation to each sign, he was in the situation in which the male finds itself when the female praying mantis is going to devour him. Each of them looked at the other.” This uncanny relation is then unfolded in a detail of “unsurpassable minuteness” as Thomas comes to realize “all the strangeness [étrangeté] there was in being observed by a word as by a living being.” And these livings beings, these words, these praying mantises already “were grabbing hold of him and beginning to read him. He was caught up, kneaded by intelligible hands, bitten by a tooth full of sap; he entered with his living body into the anonymous forms of the words, giving them their substance, forming their relations, offering to the word being its/his being [offrant au mot être son être].” While reading, he is read, the words drawing their substance from his living body, to the point that he “recognized himself with disgust in the form of the text he was reading.” This disgust with reading’s solipsism, when he recognizes himself not just in but as the text in his hands, does not, however, have the last word. There is an after-image, so to speak, a ghostly image left by this passage itself whose descriptions and images have unfolded as if from within Thomas’s experience. For even after he breaks off reading, “he kept the thought that in his person [. . .] there abided obscure sayings [paroles], disincarnated souls, and angels of words that were exploring him profoundly” (Blanchot 27–29).

But who, him? Who is reading? And who is reading whom? Or what? Thomas is a fictional character, the name given by Blanchot to this invisible site of reading as interior experience of the other. But can this site be figured or configured without the fiction of some “as if”? That is doubtless one of the questions this passage presses on us as one tries to read it. The fiction puts reading en abyme, and as a consequence Thomas’s experience is the reader’s, but also it is as if Blanchot’s text were the one Thomas stared at. This reversibility or repetition of the reader in the read and the read in the reading figures, moreover, in the passage when (as we read), as Thomas was reading, or believed he was reading (“believing he was a profound reader”), the words already “were grabbing hold of him and beginning to read him.” What does it mean for words to read, active transitive, instead of being read, passive? What is called reading if the words to be read are already living beings that (who?) read, which is to say also, bite, knead, grab?

But that, of course, is a fiction.

Notes

1

I am thinking in particular of the chapter in Bad Objects “The Righting of French Studies: Homosociality and the Killing of ‘La pensée 68,’” a title that announces clearly enough the counterattack mounted there against the male coterie of academics who led the backlash against “French theory” and especially feminism in U.S. university French departments.

2

According to historians of reading, silent reading was known among the ancient Greeks even if, as Jesper Svenbro writes, it “was probably practised by only a limited number of readers and was unfamiliar to a good many Greeks, especially to illiterates who knew about writing only ‘from the outside’” (51).

3

See, for example, Derrida, Voice and Phenomenon, ch. 6, “The Voice That Keeps Silent.”

4

All translations from the French that follow are my own.

7

On this idea of Flaubert’s style, see Derrida, “An Idea of Flaubert: ‘Plato’s Letter.’” 

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