Afterthought on “Untimely Translations”
In his recent piece “Untimely Translations,” Elan Reisner takes issue with a certain conventional conception of the humanities: the view according to which the Tradition is a wonderful resource we have unfortunately lost or forgotten, and the humanities exist to revive it for our present use and enjoyment. Reisner argues that the tradition is by no means lost or absent; on the contrary, it is all too forcefully present. It has not yet finished with us; it confronts us even when we try to ignore it. Like Polynices’ body, it remains unburied, a standing threat to order in the world of the living. The task of the humanities (of those who read the tradition) is not to revive it but to give it a proper burial. The tradition is not a treasure trove, according to Reisner, but a rotting corpse.
The view which Reisner rejects posits a fundamental identity of interests between the living and the dead. Plato has wonderful things to teach us, and we want to be taught: he can help us out, and we can help him! Reisner suggests a much darker relationship to the tradition: like a restless and angry ghost, the past won’t leave us alone. We owe it something we have not yet paid.
Such an antagonistic relationship to the dead is by no means limited to the tradition-relation: on the contrary, it is the open secret of every process of mourning. Burying the dead—and humans decided to bury their dead a good 50,000 years before they invented agriculture—is supposedly an act of love, indeed of pity; the dead were so dear to us when they were alive, and now they’re so helplessly exposed, so we must protect their bodies from the hunger of beasts, and say sweet things about them while we’re at it. Yet if these supposedly impotent dead are not buried, their helplessness proves quite illusory: they become not merely “restless,” but terrifying. The dead want something from us, and they will find a way to get it.
What do the dead want? They want to be remembered. More than that: they want never to be forgotten. We know this very well, we hear it in our guilt toward the dead: to “move on” is to betray them. The dead envy the living—the Greeks thought so, and unconsciously we still agree. Forever excluded from the sunny world of the living, they cannot stand to see it proceed without them, as though they had never been. Ideally, perhaps, they would like to see the world die with them; this is Lear’s desire, and that of Hamlet’s father. Failing that, they want to leave a mark—to darken the bright world with a remembrance of what comes after.
It is not surprising that the dead want something; it’s a lot stranger that we feel compelled to recognize their claims on us. They’re gone, after all. Freud, one of the sharpest thinkers on the problem of mourning, left this question open: why do we mourn at all? Why not simply forget? Part of the answer, of course, is that we know we’ll share their fate: we “speak kindly of the dead” knowing that we’ll be there too someday. Then, more profoundly, there’s the matter of what we owe them: they made us who we are. Who are we to forget them?
Whatever the reasons, though, we should not forget that mourning is a compromise between parties with basically conflicting interests: the living and the dead. The dead want to be remembered, the living want to (need to) forget. The dead exist in an eternal past and would like to draw us in after them—which they will, eventually, of course. But for the present, we need a future. Hence the ambiguity of burial: it’s important to be nice to the dead, but it’s essential to get them away from us, down there, out of sight. The human dead are never dead enough; we bury them in a more or less unsuccessful effort to make sure they don’t come back.
Mourning which continues indefinitely is debilitating and pathological—it gives the dead too much. If the tradition is indeed, as Reisner suggests, a rotting corpse, might we not be trapped at an endless wake? After all, we’ve been at this—we’ve been reading the Great Books—for a very long time. And one doesn’t read, you know, in order to be a reader; one reads in order to understand what it says. When one understands, one has “finished the book” and can put it aside. It is a poor student who remains ever a student, and it is a poor reader who cannot someday cast aside his books.
"A suspicion against reading is all the more timely and appropriate because the act of reading has been so central to our intellectual life in the past hundred years. Think how many of the best thinkers of the last hundred years have been great readers: Freud, Lacan, Heidegger, Derrida, to name a few. Who before 1900 would have thought to claim, as Heidegger does, that the rereading of tradition is the fundamental philosophical task? (Foucault, the great exception, felt the need to include a polemic against obsessive focus on the Tradition in The Order of Things.) Even some of the great writing of the last century might be thought of as a transformation of reading: Ulysses and The Waste Land come to mind. Nietzsche, that great philologist, warned his century against the seductions of history in On the Use and Abuse of History for Life; the pride the 19th century took in its “historical sense,” he argued, was justified but dangerous. The living risked burying themselves in knowledge of the dead. Might not our own era demand a similar critique of a related but distinct problem, the obsession with reading?
A minimal program here would entail recognizing the basic conflict of interest between past thinkers and modern readers—or to put it another way, between reading and writing. The ambitious student undertakes, before embarking on her own project, to discover what has already been thought and done; she will master the tradition, then she will write. But the moment of completion never comes—the better she learns to read, the more inexhaustible she finds every text. A great book never acknowledges itself finished. It is the reader who finishes the book—who, under the pressure of circumstances and with a sense of guilt at her dilletantism, is driven to move on. But if she merely moves on to another book? The books call out for attention, they never have done with us. There is always a war between ancients and moderns, and it’s a war we may yet lose.
Commentary, Memorization, Interpretation
Still, we can’t merely ignore the dead. What, then, is proper reading? What would give us the right to move on? A brief exploration of wrong readings may suggest an answer to this.
First, then, the most “academic” form of reading—reading as the production of a commentary. The commentator undertakes to rephrase his text, to clarify it for modern readers. It is to be noted immediately that the ideal commentary would replace its text; the best commentary would say precisely what the original says, but more clearly. A commentary on Plato assumes that there is nothing essentially impossible about our restating in our own terms precisely what Plato said. Commentary understands the time which has passed since Plato merely as a source of static, obscuring the exact meaning of the text; that static may be cleared away. For just this reason commentary contains a paradox: if we are capable of this reading, if nothing intervenes to make Plato’s thought impossible for us, why must we refer to Plato at all? The activity of commentary (the reading) and its ideal (to have done with the original text) contradict one another; commentary cannot account for itself. Hence it is never complete.
The proper opposite of commentary is a form of reading I will call “memorization.” The memorizer takes a text literally, to the letter—no detail is too small to be significant, not one can be ignored. Like a religious reader of Scripture, he must assume that even the apparent typos and mere idiosyncrasies of phrasing are part of the text. In ordinary life we never memorize this way—we don’t need to. Once we “get the point” of a text, we don’t need to know how it was phrased; we can forget a great deal. But the memorizer profoundly distrusts his capacity to “get the point”—he acknowledges that the text is beyond him, that he is not qualified to distinguish central issues from insignificant details. So he must take every detail seriously—less because the text is perfect than because its imperfections are not his to judge. Memorization is the most pious way of reading. If commentary assumes a basic symmetry between author and reader, memorization renders their asymmetry radical: he reads with infinite humility.
If the ideal of the commentator is to replace the text, the memorizer can only ever repeat it. Thus the memorizer’s task contradicts itself just as much as the commentator’s: if the commentator assumes perfect comprehensibility (rendering reading unnecessary), the memorizer assumes necessary incomprehensibility (rendering reading impossible). The memorizer’s task, too, is endless; he is never qualified to say when he is done.
What do memorization and commentary share? They must both acknowledge Emerson’s accusation that “our reading is mendicant and sycophantic”—that we skulk among the ruins in order to evade the work of today. Commentary pretends to an eternal present which is never precisely now; memorization conceives the present as a mere debtor to its past. Characteristically, neither way of reading can properly finish a book; that we must forget the dead is one thing the dead can never teach us. The claims of the dead are indefinite, but in reading as in mourning we should recognize that our first duty is to the living.