A Phenomenological Approach

The Reading Process : A Phenomenological Approach

Wolfgang Iser

T HE PHENOMENOLOGICAL THEORY of art lays full stress on the idea that, in considering a literary work, one must take into account not only the actual text but also, and in equal measure, the actions involved in responding to that text. Thus Roman Ingarden confronts the structure of the literary text with the ways in which it can be konkretisiert (realized) .’ The text as such offers different “schema- tised views” through which the subject matter of the work can come to light, but the actual bringing to light is an action of Konkretisation. If this is so, then the literary work has two poles, which we might call the artistic and the aesthetic: the artistic refers to the text created by the author, and the aesthetic to the realization accomplished by the reader. From this polarity it follows that the literary work cannot be completely identical with the text, or with the realization of the text, but in fact must lie halfway between the two. The work is more than the text, for the text only takes on life when it is realized, and further- more the realization is by no means independent of the individual disposition of the reader-though this in turn is acted upon by the dif- ferent patterns of the text. The convergence of text and reader brings the literary work into existence, and this convergence can never be precisely pinpointed, but must always remain virtual, as it is not to be identified either with the reality of the text or with the individual disposition of the reader.

I Cf. Roman Ingarden, Vom Erkennen des literarisehen Kunstwerks (Tubingen, 19681, PP. 49 ff. 2 For a detailed discussion of this term see Roman Ingarden, Das literarische Kunstwerk (Tubingen, rg60), pp. 270 ff.


I t is the virtuality of the work that gives rise to its dynamic nature, and this in turn is the precondition for the effects that the work calls forth. As the reader uses the various perspectives offered him by the text in order to relate the patterns and the “schematised views” to one another, he sets the work in motion, and this very process results ultimately in the awakening of responses within himself. Thus, reading causes the literary work to unfold its inherently dynamic character. That this is no new discovery is apparent from references made even in the early days of the novel. Laurence Sterne remarks in Tristram Shandy: “. . . no author, who understands the just boundaries of de- corum and good-breeding, would presume to think all: The truest respect which you can pay to the reader’s understanding, is to halve this matter amicably, and leave him something to imagine, in his turn, as well as yourself. For my own part, I am eternally paying him compli- ments of this kind, and do all that lies in my power to keep his imagina- tion as busy as my own.”3 Sterne’s conception of a literary text is that it is something like an arena in which reader and author participate in a game of the imagination. If the reader were given the whole story, and there were nothing left for him to do, then his imagination would never enter the field, the result would be the boredom which inevitably arises when everything is laid out cut and dried before us. A literary text must therefore be conceived in such a way that it will engage the reader’s imagination in the task of working things out for himself, for reading is only a pleasure when it is active and creative. In this process of creativity, the text may either not go far enough, or may go too far, so we may say that boredom and overstrain form the boundaries beyond which the reader will leave the field of play.

The extent to which the “unwritten” part of a text stimulates the reader’s creative participation is brought out by an observation of Virginia Woolf’s in her study of Jane Austen : “Jane Austen is thus a mistress of much deeper emotion than appears upon the surface. She stimulates us to supply what is not there. What she offers is, apparently, a trifle, yet is composed of something that expands in the reader’s mind and endows with the most enduring form of life scenes which are out- wardly trivial. Always the stress is laid upon character. . . . The turns and twists of the dialogue keep us on the tenterhooks of suspense. Our attention is half upon the present moment, half upon the fu- ture. . . . Here, indeed, in this unfinished and in the main inferior story, are all the elements of Jane Austen’s greatnessm4 The un- written aspects of apparently trivial scenes, and the unspoken dialogue

3 Laurence Sterne, Tristram Shandy (London, 1956), 11, chap. I I, 79. 4 Virginia Woolf, The Common Reader, First Series (London, rg57), p. 174.


within the “turns and twists,” not only draw the reader into the action, but also lead him to shade in the many outlines suggested by the given situations, so that these take on a reality of their own. But as the reader’s imagination animates these “outlines,” they in turn will influence the effect of the written part of the text. Thus begins a whole dynamic process: the written text imposes certain limits on its unwritten impli- cations in order to prevent these from becoming too blurred and hazy, but at the same time these implications, worked out by the reader’s imagination, set the given situation against a background which endows it with far greater significance than it might have seemed to possess on its own. In this way, trivial scenes suddenly take on the shape of an “enduring form of life.” What constitutes this form is never named, let alone explained, in the text, although in fact it is the end product of the interaction between text and reader.

The question now arises as to how far such a process can be adequately described. For this purpose a phenomenological analysis recommends itself, especially since the somewhat sparse observations hitherto made of the psychology of reading tend mainly to be psychoanalytical, and so are restricted to the illustration of predetermined ideas concerning the unconscious. We shall, however, take a closer look later at some worthwhile psychological observations.

As a starting point for a phenomenological analysis we might examine the way in which sequent sentences act upon one another. This is of especial importance in literary texts in view of the fact that they do not correspond to any objective reality outside themselves. The world presented by literary texts is constructed out of what Ingarden has called intentionale Satzkorrelate (intentional sentence correlatives) :

Sentences link up in different ways to form more complex units of mean- ing that reveal a very varied structure giving rise to such entities as a short story, a novel, a dialogue, a drama, a scientific theory. . . . In the final analysis, there arises a particular world, with component parts deter- mined in this way or that, and with all the variations that may occur with- in these parts-all this as a purely intentional correlative of a complex of sentences. If this complex finally forms a literary work, I call the whole sum of sequent intentional sentence correlatives the ‘world presented’ in the work.5

5 Ingarden, Vom Erkennen des literarisehen Kunstwerks, p. 29 .


This world, however, does not pass before the reader’s eyes like a film. The sentences are “component parts” insofar as they make statements, claims, or observations, or convey information, and so establish various perspectives in the text. But they remain only “component partsv– they are not the sum total of the text itself. For the intentional correla- tives disclose subtle connections which individually are less concrete than the statements, claims, and observations, even though these only take on their real meaningfulness through the interaction of their cor- relatives.

How is one to conceive the connection between the correlatives? I t marks those points at which the reader is able to “climb aboard” the text. He has to accept certain given perspectives, but in doing so he inevitably causes them to interact. When Ingarden speaks of inten- tional sentence correlatives in literature, the statements made, or in- formation conveyed in the sentence are already in a certain sense qualified : the sentence does not consist solely of a statement-which, after all, would be absurd, as one can only make statements about things that exist-but aims at something beyond what it actually says. This is true of all sentences in literary works, and it is through the interaction of these sentences that their common aim is fulfilled. This is what gives them their own special quality in literary texts. In their capacity as statements, observations, purveyors of information, etc., they are always indications of something that is to come, the structure of which is foreshadowed by their specific content.

They set in motion a process out of which emerges the actual con- tent of the text itself. In describing man’s inner consciousness of time, Husserl once remarked: “Every originally constructive process is inspired by pre-intentions, which construct and collect the seed of what is to come, as such, and bring it to f ru i t i~n.”~ For this bringing to fruition, the literary text needs the reader’s imagination, which gives shape to the interaction of correlatives foreshadowed in structure by the sequence of the sentences. Husserl’s observation draws our attention to a point that plays a not insignificant part in the process of reading. The individual sentences not only work together to shade in what is to come; they also form an expectation in this regard. Hus- serl calls this expectation “pre-intentions.” As this structure is char- acteristic of all sentence correlatives, the interaction of these cor- relatives will not be a fulfilment of the expectation so much as a con- tinual modification of it.

6 Edmund Husserl, Zur Phiinomenologie des inneren Zeitbewusstseins, Gesam- melte Werke lo (Haag, 1966), 52.


For this reason, expectations are scarcely ever fulfilled in truly literary texts. If they were, then such texts would be confined to the indi- vidualization of a given expectation, and one would inevitably ask what such an intention was supposed to achieve. Strangely enough, we feel that any confirmative effect-such as we implicitly demand of expository texts, as we refer to the objects they are meant to present- is a defect in a literary text. For the more a text individualizes or con- firms an expectation it has initially aroused, the more aware we become of its didactic purpose, so that at best we can only accept or reject the thesis forced upon us. More often than not, the very clarity of such texts will make us want to free ourselves from their clutches. But generally the sentence correlatives of literary texts do not develop in this rigid way, for the expectations they evoke tend to encroach on one another in such a manner that they are continually modified as one reads. One might simplify by saying that each intentional sentence correlative opens up a i articular horizon, which is modified, if not completely changed, by succeeding sentences. While these expecta- tions arouse interest in what is to come, the subsequent modification of them will also have a retrospective effect on what has already been read. This may now take on a different significance from that which it had at the moment of reading.

Whatever we have read sinks into our memory and is foreshortened. I t may later be evoked again and set against a different background with the result that the reader is enabled to develop hitherto un- foreseeable connections. The memory evoked, however, can never reassume its original shape, for this would mean that memory and perception were identical, which is manifestly not so. The new back- ground brinp to light new aspects of what we had committed to memory; conversely these, in turn, shed their light on the new back- ground, thus arousing more complex anticipations. Thus, the reader, in establishing these interrelations between past, present and future, actually causes the text to reveal its potential multiplicity of connec- tions. These connections are the product of the reader’s mind working on the raw material of the text, though they are not the text itself-for this consists just of sentences, statements, information, etc.

This is why the reader often feels involved in events which, at the time of reading, seem real to him, even though in fact they are very far from his own reality. The fact that completely different readers can be differently affected by the “reality” of a particular text is ample evidence of the degree to which literary texts transform reading into a creative process that is far above mere perception of what is written.


The literary text activates our own faculties, enabling us to recreate the world it presents. The product of this creative activity is what we might call the virtual dimension of the text, which endows it with its reality. This virtual dimension is not the text itself, nor is it the imagi- nation of the reader: it is the coming together of text and imagination.

As we have seen, the activity of reading can be characterized as a sort of kaleidoscope of perspectives, preintentions, recollections. Every sentence contains a preview of the next and forms a kind of view- finder for what is to come; and this in turn changes the “preview” and so becomes a “viewfinder” for what has been read. This whole process represents the fulfilment of the potential, unexpressed reality of the text, but it is to be seen only as a framework for a great variety of means by which the virtual dimension may be brought into being. The process of anticipation and retrospection itself does not by any means develop in a smooth flow. Ingarden has already drawn attention to this fact, and ascribes a quite remarkable significance to it:

Once we are immersed in the flow of Satzdenken (sentence-thought), we are ready, after completing the thought of one sentence, to think out the ‘continuation,’ also in the form of a sentence-and that is, in the form of a sentence that connects up with the sentence we have just thought through. In this way the process of reading goes effortlessly forward. But if by chance the following sentence has no tangible connection whatever with the sentence we have just thought through, there then comes a blockage in the stream of thought. This hiatus is linked with a more or less active surprise, or with indignation. This blockage must be overcome if the reading is to flow once more.7

The hiatus that blocks the flow of sentences is, in Ingarden’s eyes, the product of chance, and is to be regarded as a flaw; this is typical of his adherence to the classical idea of art. If one regards the sentence sequence as a continual flow, this implies that the anticipation aroused by one sentence will generally be realized by the next, and the frustra- tion of one’s expectations will arouse feelings of exasperation. And yet literary texts are full of unexpected twists and turns, and frustration of expectations. Even in the simplest story there is bound to be some kind of blockage, if only for the fact that no tale can ever be told in its entirety. Indeed, it is only through inevitable omissions that a story will gain its dynamism. Thus whenever the flow is interrupted and we are led off in unexpected directions, the opportunity is given to us to

7 Ingarden, Vom Erkennen des literarischen Kunstwerks, p . 3 2 .


bring into play our own faculty for establishing connections-for filling in the gaps left by the text i t~e l f .~

These gaps have a different effect on the process of anticipation and retrospection, and thus on the “gestalt” of the virtual dimension, for they may be filled in different ways. For this reason, one text is potentially capable of several different realizations, and no reading can ever exhaust the full potential, for each individual reader will fill in the gaps in his own way, thereby excluding the various other possibilities; as he reads, he will make his own decision as to how the gap is to be filled. I n this very act the dynamics of reading are revealed. By making his decision he implicitly acknowledges the inexhaustibility of the text; at the same time it is this very inexhaustibility that forces him to make his decision. With “traditional” texts this process was more or less unconscious, but modern texts frequently exploit it quite deliberately. They are often so fragmentary that one’s attention is almost exclusively occupied with the search for connections between the fragments; the object of this is not to complicate the “spectrum” of connections, so much as to make us aware of the nature of our own capacity for providing links. In such cases, the text refers back directly to our own preconceptions-which are revealed by the act of interpretation that is a basic element of the reading process. With all literary texts, then, we may say that the reading process is selective, and the potential text is infinitely richer than any of its individual realizations. This is borne out by the fact that a second reading of a piece of literature often produces a different impression from the first. The reasons for this may !ie in the reader’s own change of circum- stances, still, the text must be such as to allow this variation. On a sec- ond reading familiar occurrences now tend to appear in a new light and seem to be at times corrected, at times enriched.

In every text there is a potential time-sequence which the reader must inevitably realize, as it is impossible to absorb even a short text in a single moment. Thus the reading process always involves viewing the text through a perspective that is continually on the move, linking up the different phases, and so constructing what we have called the virtual dimension. This dimension, of course, varies all the time we are reading. However, when we have finished the text, and read it again, clearly our extra knowledge will result in a different time-

8 For a more detailed discussion of the function of “gaps” in literary texts see Wolfgang Iser, “Indeterminacy and the Reader’s Response in Prose Fiction,” Aspects of Narrative, English Institute Essays, ed. by J. Hillis Miller (New York, ‘971 1, PP. 1-45.


sequence; we shall tend to establish connections by referring to our awareness of what is to come, and so certain aspects of the text will assume a significance we did not attach to them on a first reading, while others will recede into the background. I t is a common enough experience for a person to say that on a second reading he noticed things he had missed when he read the book for the first time, but this is scarcely surprising in view of the fact that the second time he is look- ing at the text through a different perspective. The time-sequence that he realized on his first reading cannot possibly be repeated on a second reading and this unrepeatability is bound to result in modifica- tions of his reading experience. This is not to say that the second read- ing is “truer” than the first-they are, quite simply, different: the reader establishes the virtual dimension of the text by realizing a new time-sequence. Thus even on repeated viewings a text allows and, indeed, induces innovative reading.

In whatever way, and under whatever circumstances, the reader may link the different phases of the text together, it will always be the process of anticipation and retrospection that leads to the formation of the virtual dimension, which in turn transforms the text into an experience for the reader. The way in which this experience comes about through a process of continual modification is closely akin to the way in which we gather experience in life. And thus the “reality” of the reading experience can illuminate basic patterns of real experi- ence :

We have the experience of a world, not understood as a system of rela- tions which wholly determine each event, but as an open totality the synthesis of which is inexhaustible. . . . From the moment that ex- perience-that is, the opening on to our de facto world-is recognized as the beginning of knowledge, there is no longer any way of distinguishing a level of a priori truths and one of factual ones, what the world must necessarily be and what it actually is?

The manner in which the reader experiences the text will reflect his own disposition, and in this respect the literary text acts as a kind of mirror; but at the same time, the reality which this process helps to create is one that will be different from his own (since, normally, we tend to be bored by texts that present us with things we already know perfectly well ourselves). Thus we have the apparently paradoxical situation in which the reader is forced to reveal aspects of himself in

g M. Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology o f Perception, trans. Colin Smith (New York, 1g62), pp. 2 19, 22 I.


order to experience a reality which is different from his own. The impact this reality makes on him will depend largely on the extent to which he himself actively provides the unwritten part of the text, and yet in supplying all the missing links, he must think in terms of experiences different from his own; indeed, it is only by leaving behind the familiar world of his own experience that the reader can truly par- ticipate in the adventure the literary text offers him.

We have seen that, during the process of reading, there is an active interweaving of anticipation and retrospection, which on a second read- ing may turn into a kind of advance retrospection. The impressions that arise as a result of this process will vary from individual to individual, but only within the limits imposed by the written as opposed to the unwritten text. In the same way, two people gazing at the night sky may both be looking at the same collection of stars, but one will see the image of a plough, and the other will make out a dipper. The “stars” in a literary text are fixed; the lines that join them are variable. The author of the text may, of course, exert plenty of influence on the reader’s imagination-he has the whole panoply of narrative techniques at his disposal-but no author worth his salt will ever attempt to set the whole picture before his reader’s eyes. If he does, he will very quickly lose his reader, for it is only by activating the reader’s imagi- nation that the author can hope to involve him and so realize the intentions of his text.

Gilbert Ryle, in his analysis of imagination, asks: “How can a person fancy that he sees something, without realizing that he is not seeing i t ? ‘ H e answers as follows:

Seeing Helvellyn (the name of a mountain) in one’s mind’s eye does not entail, what seeing Helvellyn and seeing snapshots of Helvellyn entail, the having of visual sensations. I t does involve the thought of having a view of Helvellyn and it is therefore a more sophisticated operation than that of having a view of Helvellyn. I t is one utilization among others of the knowledge of how Helvellyn should look, or, in one sense of the verb, it is thinking how it should look. The expectations which are fulfilled in the recognition at sight of Helvellyn are not indeed fulfilled in picturing it, but the picturing of it is something like a rehearsal of getting them ful- filled. So far from picturing involving the having of faint sensations, or


wraiths of sensations, it involves missing just what one would be due to get, if one were seeing the mountain.10

If one sees the mountain, then of course one can no longer imagine it, and so the act of picturing the mountain presupposes its absence. Similarly, with a literary text we can only picture things which are not there; the written part of the text gives us the knowledge, but it is the unwritten part that gives us the opportunity to picture things; indeed without the elements of indeterminacy, the gaps in the text, we should not be able to use our imagination.”

The truth of this observation is borne out by the experience many people have on seeing, for instance, the film of a novel. While reading Tom Jones, they may never have had a clear conception of what the hero actually looks like, but on seeing the film, some may say, “That’s not how I imagined him.” The point here is that the reader of Tom Jones is able to visualize the hero virtually for himself, and so his imagination senses the vast number of possibilities; the moment these possibilities are narrowed down to one complete and immutable picture, the imagination is put out of action, and we feel we have some- how been cheated. This may perhaps be an oversimplification of the process, but it does illustrate plainly the vital richness of potential that arises out of the fact that the hero in the novel must be pictured and cannot be seen. With the novel the reader must use his imagination to synthesize the information given him, and so his perception is simul- taneously richer and more private; with the film he is confined merely to physical perception, and so whatever he remembers of the world he had pictured is brutally cancelled out.

The “picturing” that is done by our imagination is only one of the activities through which we form the “gestalt” of a literary text. We have already discussed the process of anticipation and retrospection, and to this we must add the process of grouping together all the dif- ferent aspects of a text to form the consistency that the reader will always be in search of. While expectations may be continually modi- fied, and images continually expanded, the reader will still strive, even if unconsciously, to fit everything together in a consistent pattern. “In

lo Gilbert Ryle, T h e Concept of Mind (Harmondsworth, 1968), p. 255. I I Cf. Iser, pp. I xff., 42ff.


the reading of images, as in the hearing of speech, it is always hard to distinguish what is given to us from what we supplement in the process of projection which is triggered off by recognition . . . it is the guess of the beholder that tests the medley of forms and colours for coherent meaning, crystallizing it into shape when a consistent interpretation has been found.”‘* By grouping together the written parts of the text, we enable them to interact, we observe the direction in which they are leading us, and we project onto them the consistency which we, as readers, require. This “gestalt” must inevitably be colored by our own characteristic selection process. For it is not given by the text itself; it arises from the meeting between the written text and the individual mind of the reader with its own particular history of experience, its own consciousness, its own outlook. The “gestalt” is not the true meaning of the text; at best it is a configurative meaning; “. . . comprehension is an individual act of seeing-things-together, and only that.”13 With a literary text such comprehension is inseparable from the reader’s expectations, and where we have expectations, there too we have one of the most potent weapons in the writer’s armory-illusion.

Whenever “consistent reading suggests itself . . . illusion takes over.”14 Illusion, says Northrop Frye, is “fixed or definable, and reality is at best understood as its negation.”15 The ccgestalt” of a text normally takes on (or, rather, is given) this fixed or definable outline, as this is essential to our own understanding, but on the other hand, if reading were to consist of nothing but an uninterrupted building up of illusions, it would be a suspect, if not downright dangerous, process: instead of bringing us into contact with reality, it would wean us away from realities. Of course, there is an element of “escapism” in all literature, resulting from this very creation of illusion, but there are some texts which offer nothing but a harmonious world, purified of all contradic- tion and deliberately excluding anything that might disturb the illusion once established, and these are the texts that we generally do not like to classify as literary. Women’s magazines and the brasher forms of detective story might be cited as examples.

However, even if an overdose of illusion may lead to triviality, this does not mean that the process of illusion-building should ideally be dispensed with altogether. On the contrary, even in texts that appear to resist the formation of illusion, thus drawing our attention to the

12 E. H. Gombrich, Art and Illusion (London, 1962), p. 204.

I? Louis 0. Mink, “History and Fiction as Modes of Comprehension,” New

Lzterary History, I ( I 970), 553. 14 Gombrich, p. 278.

15 Northrop Frye, Anatomy o f Criticism (New York, 1967), pp. 169 f.


cause of this resistance, we still need the abiding illusion that the resistance itself is the consistent pattern underlying the text. This is especially true of modern texts, in which it is the very precision of the written details which increases the proportion of indeterminacy; one detail appears to contradict another, and so simultaneously stimulates and frustrates our desire to “picture,” thus continually causing our imposed “gestalt” of the text to disintegrate. Without the formation of illusions, the unfamiliar world of the text would remain unfamiliar; through the illusions, the experience offered by the text becomes accessible to us, for it is only the illusion, on its different levels of con- sistency, that makes the experience “readable.” If we cannot find (or impose) this consistency, sooner or later we will put the text down. The process is virtually hermeneutic. The text provokes certain expec- tations which in turn we project onto the text in such a way that we reduce the polysemantic possibilities to a single interpretation in keep- ing with the expectations aroused, thus extracting an individual, configurative meaning. The polysemantic nature of the text and the illusion-making of the reader are opposed factors. If the illusion were complete, the polysemantic nature would vanish; if the poly- semantic nature were all-powerful, the illusion would be totally destroyed. Both extremes are conceivable, but in the individual literary text we always find some form of balance between the two conflicting tendencies. The formation of illusions, therefore, can never be total, but it is this very incompleteness that in fact gives it its productive value.

With regard to the experience of reading, Walter Pater once ob- served: “For to the grave reader words too are grave; and the orna- mental word, the figure, the accessory form or colour or reference, is rarely content to die to thought precisely at the right moment, but will inevitably linger awhile, stirring a long ‘brainwave’ behind it of perhaps quite alien ass~ciations.’~’~ Even while the reader is seeking a con- sistent pattern in the text, he is also uncovering other impulses which cannot be immediately integrated or will even resist final integration. Thus the semantic possibilities of the text will always remain far richer than any configurative meaning formed while reading. But this im- pression is, of course, only to be gained through reading the text. Thus the configurative meaning can be nothing but a pars pro toto fulfilment of the text, and yet this fulfilment gives rise to the very richness which it seeks to restrict, and indeed in some modern texts, our

I 6 Waiter Pater, Appreciations (London, 1920), p. 18.


awareness of this richness takes precedence over any configurative meaning.

This fact has several consequences which, for the purpose of analysis, may be dealt with separately, though in the reading process they will all be working together. As we have seen, a consistent, configurative meaning is essential for the apprehension of an unfamiliar experience, which through the process of illusion-building we can incorporate in our own imaginative world. At the same time, this consistency con- flicts with the many other possibilities of fulfillment it seeks to exclude, with the result that the configurative meaning is always accompanied by “alien associations” that do not fit in with the illusions formed. The first consequence, then, is the fact that in forming our illusions, we also produce at the same time a latent disturbance of these illusions. Strangely enough, this also applies to texts in which our expectations are actually fulfilled-though one would have thought that the ful- filment of expectations would help to complete the illusion. “Illusion wears off once the expectation is stepped up; we take it for granted and want more.” l7

The experiments in “gestalt” psychology referred to by Gombrich in Art and Illusion make one thing clear: “. . . though we may be intel- lectually aware of the fact that any given experience must be an illusion, we cannot, strictly speaking, watch ourselves having an illusion.” l8 Now, if illusion were not a transitory state, this would mean that we could be, as it were, permanently caught up in it. And if reading were exclusively a matter of producing illusion-necessary though this is for the understanding of an unfamiliar experience-we should run the risk of falling victim to a gross deception. But it is precisely during our reading that the transitory nature of the illusion is revealed to the full.

As the formation of illusions is constantly accompanied by “alien associations” which cannot be made consistent with the illusions, the reader constantly has to lift the restrictions he places on the “mean- ing” of the text. Since it is he who builds the illusions, he oscillates between involvement in and observation of those illusions; he opens himself to the unfamiliar world without being imprisoned in it. Through this process the reader moves into the presence of the fictional world and so experiences the realities of the text as they happen.

I n the oscillation between consistency and “alien associations,” be- tween involvement in and observation of the illusion, the reader is bound to conduct his own balancing operation, and it is this that forms the aesthetic experience offered by the literary text. However,

r 7 Gombrich, p. 54. 18 Ibid., p. 5.


if the reader were to achieve a balance, obviously he would then no longer be engaged in the process of establishing and disrupting con- sistency. And since it is this very process that gives rise to the balancing operation, we may say that the inherent non-achievement of balance is a prerequisite for the very dynamism of the operation. In seeking the balance we inevitably have to start out with certain expectations, the shattering of which is integral to the aesthetic experience.

Furthermore, to say merely that “our expectations are satisfied” is to be guilty of another serious ambiguity. At first sight such a statement seems to deny the obvious fact that much of our enjoyment is derived from sur- prises, from betrayals of our expectations. The solution of this paradox is to find some ground for a distinction between “surprise” and “frustration.” Roughly, the distinction can be made in terms of the effects which the two kinds of experiences have upon us. Frustration blocks or checks activity. I t necessitates new orientation for our activity, if we are to escape the cul de sac. Consequently, we abandon the frustrating object and return to blind impulsive activity. On the other hand, surprise merely causes a temporary cessation of the exploratory phase of the experience, and a recourse to intense contemplation and scrutiny. In the latter phase the surprising elements are seen in their connection with what has gone before, with the whole drift of the experience, and the enjoyment of these values is then extremely intense. Finally, it appears that there must always be some degree of novelty or surprise in all these values if there is a progressive specification of the direction of the total act . . . and any aesthetic experience tends to exhibit a continuous interplay between “deductive” and “inductive” operation.lg

I t is this interplay between “deduction” and “induction” that gives rise to the configurative meaning of the text, and not the individual expectations, surprises, or frustrations arising from the different perspec- tives. Since this interplay obviously does not take place in the text itself, but can only come into being through the process of reading, we may conclude that this process formulates something that is unformu- lated in the text, and yet represents its “intention.” Thus, by reading, we uncover the unformulated part of the text, and this very inde- terminacy is the force that drives us to work out a configurative mean- ing while at the same time giving us the necessary degree of freedom to do so.

As we work out a consistent pattern in the text, we will find our

xg B. Ritchie, “The Formal Structure of the Aesthetic Object,” The Problems of Aesthetics, ed. b y Eliseo Vivas and Murray Krieger (New York, 1965), pp. 230.


“interpretation” threatened, as it were, by the presence of other pos- sibilities of “interpretation,” and so there arise new areas of indeter- minacy (though we may only be dimly aware of them, if at all, as we are continually making “decisions” which will exclude them). I n the course of a novel, for instance, we sometimes find that characters, events, and backgrounds seem to change their significance; what really happens is that the other ccpossibilities” begin to emerge more strongly, so that we become more directly aware of them. Indeed, it is this very shifting of perspectives that makes us feel a novel is that much more “true-to-life.” Since it is we ourselves who establish the levels of interpretation and switch from one to another as we conduct our balancing operation, we ourselves impart to the text the dynamic lifelikeness which, in turn, enables us to absorb an unfamiliar experi- ence into our personal world.

As we read, we oscillate to a greater or lesser degree between the building and the breaking of illusions. In a process of trial and error, we organize and reorganize the various data offered us by the text. These are the given factors, the fixed points on which we base our << interpretation," trying to fit them together in the way we think the author meant them to be fitted. "For to perceive, a beholder must create his own experience. And his creation must include relations comparable to those which the original producer underwent. They are not the same in any literal sense. But with the perceiver, as with the artist, there must be an ordering of the elements of the whole that is in form, although not in details, the same as the process of organization the creator of the work consciously experienced. Without an act of recreation the object is not perceived as a work of art." The act of recreation is not a smooth or continuous process, but one which, in its essence, relies on interruptions of the flow to render it efficacious. We look forward, we look back, we decide, we change our decisions, we form expectations, we are shocked by their non- fulfilment, we question, we muse, we accept, we reject; this is the dynamic process of recreation. This process is steered by two main structural components within the text: first, a repertoire of familiar literary patterns and recurrent literary themes, together with allusions to familiar social and historical contexts; second, techniques or strategies used to set the familiar against the unfamiliar. Elements of the repertoire are continually backgrounded or foregrounded with a re- sultant strategic overmagnification, trivialization, or even annihilation of the allusion. This defamiliarization of what the reader thought he 20 John Dewey, Art Experience (New York, 1958), p. 54. 294 NEW LITERARY HISTORY recognized is bound to create a tension that will intensify his expecta- tions as well as his distrust of those expectations. Similarly, we may be confronted by narrative techniques that establish links between things we find difficult to connect, so that we are forced to reconsider data we at first held to be perfectly straightforward. One need only mention the very simple trick, so often employed by novelists, whereby the author himself takes part in the narrative, thus establishing perspectives which would not have arisen out of the mere narration of the events described. Wayne Booth once called this the technique of the "un- reliable n a r r a t ~ r , " ~ ~ to show the extent to which a literary device can counter expectations arising out of the literary text. The figure of the narrator may act in permanent opposition to the impressions we might otherwise form. The question then arises as to whether this strategy, opposing the formation of illusions, may be integrated into a consistent pattern, lying, as it were, a level deeper than our original impressions. We may find that our narrator, by opposing us, in fact turns us against him and thereby strengthens the illusion he appears to be out to destroy; alternatively, we may be so much in doubt that we begin to question all the processes that lead us to make interpretative decisions. Whatever the cause may be, we will find ourselves subjected to this same interplay of illusion-forming and illusion-breaking that makes reading essentially a recreative process. We might take, as a simple illustration of this complex process, the incident in Joyce's Ulysses in which Bloom's cigar alludes to Ulysses's spear. The context (Bloom's cigar) summons up a particular element of the repertoire (Ulpses's spear) ; the narrative technique relate? them to one another as if they were identical. How are we to "orga- nize" these divergent elements, which, through the very fact that they are put together, separate one element so clearly from the other? What are the prospects here for a consistent pattern? We might say that it is ironic-at least that is how many renowned Joyce readers have understood it.22 In this case, irony would be the form of organiza- tion that integrates the material. But if this is so, what is the object of the irony? Ulysses's spear, or Bloom's cigar? The uncertainty sur- rounding this simple question already puts a strain on the consistency we have established, and indeed begins to puncture it, especially when other problems make themselves felt as regards the remarkable conjunction 21 Cf. Wayne C. Booth, T h e Rhetoric o f Fiction (Chicago, 1963), pp. 21 I ff., 339 ff. 22 Richard Ellmann, "Ulysses. The Divine Nobody," Twelve Original Essays on Great English Novels, ed . by Charles Shapiro (Detroit 1960), p. 247, classified this particular allusion as "mock-heroic." THE READING PROCESS : A PHENOMENOLOGICAL APPROACH '95 of spear and cigar. Various alternatives come to mind, but the variety alone is sufficient to leave one with the impression that the consistent pattern has been shattered. And even if, after all, one can still believe that irony holds the key to the mystery, this irony must be of a very strange nature; for the formulated text does not merely mean the opposite of what has been formulated. It may even mean something that cannot be formulated at all. The moment we try to impose a con- sistent pattern on the text, discrepancies are bound to arise. These are, as it were, the reverse side of the interpretative coin, an involuntary product of the process that creates discrepancies by trying to avoid them. And it is their very presence that draws us into the text, com- pelling us to conduct a creative examination not only of the text, but also of ourselves. This entanglement of the reader is, of course, vital to any kind of text, but in the literary text we have the strange situation that the reader cannot know what his participation actually entails. We know that we share in certain experiences, but we do not know what hap- pens to us in the course of this process. This is why, when we have been particularly impressed by a book, we feel the need to talk about it; we do not want to get away from it by talking about it-we simply want to understand more clearly what it is that we have been entangled in. We have undergone an experience, and now we want to know consciously what we have experienced. Perhaps this is the prime use- fulness of literary criticism-it helps to make conscious those aspects of the text which would otherwise remain concealed in the subconscious; it satisfies (or helps to satisfy) our desire to talk about what we have read. The efficacy of a literary text is brought about by the apparent evoca- tion and subsequent negation of the familiar. What at first seemed to be an affirmation of our assumptions leads to our own rejection of them, thus tending to prepare us for a re-orientation. And it is only when we have outstripped our preconceptions and left the shelter of the familiar that we are in a position to gather new experiences. As the literary text involves the reader in the formation of illusion and the simultaneous formation of the means whereby the illusion is punctured, reading reflects the process by which we gain experience. Once the reader is entangled, his own preconceptions are continually overtaken, so that the text becomes his "present" whilst his own ideas fade into the "past;" as soon as this happens he is open to the immediate experience of the text, which was impossible so long as his precon- ceptions were his "present." 296 NEW LITERARY HISTORY I n our analysis of the reading process so far, we have observed three important aspects that form the basis of the relationship between reader and text: the process of anticipation and retrospection, the consequent unfolding of the text as a living event, and the resultant impression of lifelikeness. Any "living event" must, to a greater or lesser degree, remain ope<. In reading, this obliges the reader to seek continually for consistency, because only then can he close up situations and comprehend the un- familiar. But consistency-building is itself a living process, in which one is constantly forced to make selective decisions-and these decisions in their turn give a reality to the possibilities which they exclude, insofar as they may take effect as a latent disturbance of the consistency estab- lished. This is what causes the reader to be entangled in the text "gestalt" that he himself has produced. Through this entanglement the reader is bound to open himself up to the workings of the text, and so leave behind his own preconceptions. This gives him the chance to have an experience in the way George Bernard Shaw once described it: "You have learnt something. That always feels at first as if you had lost s~meth ing ."~~ Reading reflects the structure of experience to the extent that we must suspend the ideas and attitudes that shape our own personality before we can experience the unfamiliar world of the literary text. But during this process, something happens to us. This "something" needs to be looked at in detail, especially as the incorporation of the unfamiliar into our own range of experience has been to a certain extent obscured by an idea very common in literary discussion: namely, that the process of absorbing the unfamiliar is labelled as the identification of the reader with what he reads. Often the term "identification" is used as if it were an explanation, whereas in actual fact it is nothing more than a description. What is normally meant by "identification" is the establishment of affinities between one- self and someone outside oneself-a familiar ground on which we are able to experience the unfamiliar. The author's aim, though, is to convey the experience and, above all, an attitude towards that experi- ence. Consequently, "identification" is not an end in itself, but a stratagem by means of which the author stimulates attitudes in the reader. This of course is not to deny that there does arise a form of partici- 23 G. B. Shaw, Major Barbara (London, 1964), p. 3 16. THE READING PROCESS : A PHENOMENOLOGICAL APPROACH *97 pation as one reads; one is certainly drawn into the text in such a way that one has the feeling that there is no distance between oneself and the events described. This involvement is well summed up by the reaction of a critic to reading Charlotte BrontE's Jane Eyre: "We took up Jane Eyre one winter's evening, somewhat piqued at the extravagant commendations we had heard, and sternly resolved to be as critical as Croker. But as we read on we forgot both commendations and criticism, identified ourselves with Jane in all her troubles, and finally married Mr. Rochester about four in the morning." 24 The question is how and why did the critic identify himself with Jane? In order to understand this "experience," it is well worth considering Georges Poulet's observations on the reading process. He says that books only take on their full existence in the reader.25 It is true that they consist of ideas thought out by someone else, but in reading the reader becomes the subject that does the thinking. Thus there dis- appears the subject-object division that otherwise is a prerequisite for all knowledge and all observation, and the removal of this division puts reading in an apparently unique position as regards the possible absorp- tion of new experiences. This may well be the reason why relations with the world of the literary text have so often been misinterpreted as identification. From the idea that in reading we must think the thoughts of someone else, Poulet draws the following conclusion: "Whatever I think is a part of my mental world. And yet here I am thinking a thought which manifestly belongs to another mental world, which is being thought in me just as though I did not exist. Already the notion is inconceivable and seems even more so if I reflect that, since every thought must have a subject to think it, this thought which is alien to me and yet in me, must also have in me a subject which is alien to me. . . . Whenever I read, I mentally pronounce an I, and yet the I which I pronounce is not myself."26 But for Poulet this idea is only part of the story. The strange subject that thinks the strange thought in the reader indicates the potential presence of the author, whose ideas can be "internalized" by the reader: "Such is the characteristic condition of every work which I summon back into existence by placing my consciousness at its disposal. I give it not only existence, but awareness of existence." *' This would 24 William George Clark, Fraser's, December, 1849, 692, quoted by Kathleen Tillotson, Nouels of the Eighteen-Forties (Oxford, 1961) , pp. rg f. 25 Cf. Georges Poulet, "Phenomenology of Reading," New Literary History, r (19691954. 26 Ibid., 56. 27 Ibid., 59. 298 NEW LITERARY HISTORY mean that consciousness forms the point at which author and reader converge, and at the same time it would result in the cessation of the temporary self-alienation that occurs to the reader when his conscious- ness brings to life the ideas formulated by the author. This process gives rise to a form of communication which, however, according to Poulet, is dependent on two conditions: the life-story of the author must be shut out of the work, and the individual disposition of the reader must be shut out of the act of reading. Only then can the thoughts of the author take place subjectively in the reader, who thinks what he is not. I t follows that the work itself must be thought of as a consciousness, because only in this way is there an adequate basis for the author-reader relationship-a relationship that can only come about through the negation of the author's own life-story and the reader's own disposition. This conclusion is actually drawn by Poulet when he describes the work as the self-presentation or materialization of con- sciousness: "And so I ought not to hesitate to recognize that so long as it is animated by this vital inbreathing inspired by the act of reading, a work of literature becomes (at the expense of the reader whose own life it suspends) a sort of human being, that it is a mind conscious of itself and constituting itself in me as the subject of its own objects."28 Even though it is difficult to follow such a substantialist conception of the consciousness that constitutes itself in the literary work, there are, nevertheless, certain points in Poulet's argument that are worth holding onto. But they should be developed along somewhat different lines. If reading removes the subject-object division that constitutes all perception, it follows that the reader will be "occupied" by the thoughts of the author, and these in their t u n will cause the drawing of new "boundaries." Text and reader no longer confront each other as object and subject, but instead the "division" takes place within the reader himself. In thinking the thoughts of another, his own individuality temporarily recedes into the background since it is supplanted by these alien thoughts, which now become the theme on which his attention is focussed. As we read, there occurs an artificial division of our per- sonality because we take as a theme for ourselves something that we are not. Consequently when reading we operate on different levels. For although we may be thinking the thoughts of someone else, what we are will not disappear completely-it will merely remain a more or less powerful virtual force. Thus, in reading there are these two levels- the alien "me" and the real, virtual "mey'-which are never completely cut off from each other. Indeed, we can only make someone else's 28 Zbid., p. 59. THE READING PROCESS : A PHENOMENOLOGICAL APPROACH 299 thoughts into an absorbing theme for ourselves, provided the virtual background of our own personality can adapt to it. Every text we read draws a different boundary within our personality, so that the virtual background (the real "me") will take on a different form, according to the theme of the text concerned. This is inevitable, if only for the fact that the relationship between alien theme and virtual background is what makes it possible for the unfamiliar to be under- stood. In this context there is a revealing remark made by D. W. Harding, arguing against the idea of identification with what is read: "What is sometimes called wish-fulfilment in novels and plays can . . . more plausibly be described as wish-formulation or the definition of desires. The cultural levels at which it works may vary widely; the process is the same. . . . It seems nearer the truth . . . to say that fictions con- tribute to defining the reader's or spectator's values, and perhaps stimu- lating his desires, rather than to suppose that they gratify desire by some mechanism of vicarious e~per ience ."~~ I n the act of reading, having to think something that we have not yet experienced does not mean only being in a position to conceive or even understand it; it also means that such acts of conception are possible and successful to the degree that they lead to something being formulated in us. For some- one else's thoughts can only take a form in our consciousness if, in the process, our unformulated faculty for deciphering those thoughts is brought into play-a faculty which, in the act of deciphering, also formulates itself. Now since this formulation is carried out on terms set by someone else, whose thoughts are the theme of our reading, it follows that the formulation of our faculty for deciphering cannot be along our own lines of orientation. Herein lies the dialectical structure of reading. The need to decipher gives us the chance to formulate our own deciphering capacity-i.e., we bring to the fore an element of our being of which we are not directly conscious. The production of the meaning of literary texts- which we discussed in connection with forming the "gestalt" of the text-does not merely entail the discovery of the unformulated, which can then be taken over by the active imagination of the reader; it also entails the possibility that we may formulate ourselves and so discover what had previously seemed to elude our consciousness. These are the ways in which reading literature gives us the chance to formu- late the unformulated. U N N E R S ~ ~ Y OF KONSTANZ 29 D. W. Harding, "Psychological Processes in the Reading of Fiction," Aesthetics in the Modern World, ed by Harold Osborne (London, 1968), pp. 3 1 3 ff. Instructions ***thanks to Katherine Arens for this model!*** A precis (pronounced “PREE-say”) is a model for understanding the internal structure of a text. It begins with a GOAL statement, which is a one-sentence explanation of what the text under consideration is trying to do. It next has a statement about the text's STRATEGY for achieving that goal, or how it tries to get us to believe what it wants us to believe. Under the strategy statement, it has TWO COLUMN HEADINGS, which are titles for the types of information the text correlates together to make its argument. Several (at least 3) examples follow, with the item in the 1st column correlating to the item in the 2nd column. Finally, it has a section about the IMPLICATIONS of the text under consideration. Up to this point, you have been trying to faithfully recreate what the text itself is trying to do. Now is your chance to say what you think about all this – literally, what does it all imply? The format should be 1 full page long and look something like the following: Precis for World Health Organization Article #2127 GOAL: To convince people not to eat old shoes. STRATEGY: Show how specific parts of old shoes give you specific diseases. IMPLICATIONS: [a substantial paragraph discussing the implications of this text] Part of Old Shoe Disease 1) Laces 1) Dutch Elm Disease 2) Soles 2) Mad Cow Disease 3) Heels 3) Leprosy Precis Scoring Rubric Each precis can earn between 0 and 8 points, as explained in the following table: 2 Points - Excellent 1 Point - Satisfactory 0 Points - Needs Improvement Goal Clear, concise statement of goal Clear attempt to articulate a goal Confusing statement of goal Strategy Clear and concise statement of strategy; stated strategy is readily apparent in text Clear attempt to articulate a strategy; stated strategy is not foreign to text itself Confusing attempt to articulate a strategy; strategy is foreign to text Table of Information Clear and concise table of information; insightful comments about specific entries; all entries clearly correlate; all entries clearly evident in text Clear attempt to articulate a table of information; some insightful comments about specific entries; most entries clearly correlate; most entries clearly evident in text Confusing attempt to articulate a table of information; few insightful comments about specific entires; few entries correlate; few entries clearly evident in text Implications Clear and concise statement of implications; numerous insightful comments about specific points; no extraneous discussion Clear attempt to state implications; some insightful comments about specific points; some extraneous discussion Confusing attempt to state implications; few insightful comments about specific points; extraneous discussion

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