With the new year, I’ve been going through drafts and notes for AMV posts, and decided to begin by finishing this one which I started back in October 2007:
I recently read Umberto Eco’s Six Walks in the Fictional Woods, the text of the Charles Eliot Norton Lectures he presented at Harvard. There’s a lot that could be said about the lectures, which focus on questions of reading, fiction, truth and narrative. But what delighted me most about the book is that it confirmed (for me) something that I have long thought and experienced: criticism doesn’t kill the reading/viewing experience.
In 1984, at Columbia University, I devoted a graduate course to Sylvie, and some very interesting term papers were written about it. By now I know every comma and every secret mechanism of that novella. This experience of re-reading a text over the course of forty years has shown me how silly those people are who say that dissecting a text and engaging in meticulous close reading is the death of its magic. Every time I pick up Sylvie, even though I know it in such an anatomical way — perhaps because I know it so well — I fall in love with it, as if I were reading it for the first time. (p. 12) *
Later he writes:
Yet as I said in my previous lecture, although I have treated Sylvie with almost clinical rigor for years and years, the book has never lost its charm for me. Every time I reread it, it is as if my love affair with Sylvie (I’m not sure whether I mean the book or the character) were beginning for the first time. How can this be possible, since I know the grid, the secret of the strategy? Because the grid can be designed from outside the text, but when you read again, you return inside the text, and — once within it — you cannot read it in haste … as you slow down, as you accept its pace, then you forget any grid or Ariadne’s thread, and you get lost again in the woods of Loisy. (p. 43) *
Of course, the excerpts show the danger of all literary criticism — the experience/analysis is often very dependent on the text(s) in question and often isn’t extensible to other works, forms and genres. However, in my reading experience with a variety of works across many genres and centuries, I have found his basic premise to true: once within the text you get lost in the story. What’s more, I find this especially to be true of Mormon literature because of the added sympathies. I not only get lost in the story but I am actively rooting for it and actively plumbing it for moments that will speak to my Mormonism.
This doesn’t mean that I want to re-read every single work. But for those who dismiss criticism because they just want to enjoy the text: hey, I enjoy the text too and often my critical work deepens that enjoyment even if the work is not intended to provide many layers of meaning. And to critics: how about expressing the joys of reading and specific works in particular more often?
* Six Walks in the Fictional Woods. Umberto Eco. Harvard University Press, 1994.