Wednesday, July 29, 2009
Yet a more important reason for me to group them is that in both books I found myself reading something very significant into the book that was, I acknowledge, not very well supported by the text, but from which I drew a great deal more enjoyment than a "straight" reading would, I think, have afforded me. These revisionary readings drew me much deeper into the book and made these novels significantly more meaningful to me as reading experiences. Still, there is a trace of doubt that the revisionary manner in which I read them doesn't in some way prevent me from reading them as the texts they "are," that heavily revising them according to my caprices makes available to me not the text, but my own interests.
My question here and my qualms are less about the intellectual validity of reading things into the text that aren't manifestly there than it is about the communicative value of doing so. Am I, in other words, talking to you about the texts, or about myself?
Let me be more concrete. Death Comes for the Archbishop, to me, was an achingly beautiful love story about two men, Bishop LaTour and his vicar Father Vaillant. Yes, I know I'm not the first person to read it this way, and yes, I could cite many passages that don't really require much strain to read them as evidence of this love, and yes, I know that Cather is often assumed to have been queer herself. I think it's completely, 100% intellectually valid to read the novel as a very queer love story. But I also know that the novel doesn't make this reading necessary, and that arguing someone into a queer reading might be a self-defeating proposition: you haven't given them the experience of reading the novel this way, just the idea that it can be read this way. And I think being able to share the experience of reading a novel is sometimes much more important than being able to convince someone that your idea of a novel is possible or valid.
The Color Purple doesn't have that kind of ambiguity about sexuality; the attraction of Celie to Shug is something you'd have to read around, rather than read into. The revision that I made in reading it, however, was more about a persistent intertextual link that I can't really argue is definitely, obviously there, but that I thought made the novel much more interesting.
Doing a little searching for "Samuel Richardson Pamela The Color Purple," there are a handful of other people who have seen this link too, but I read it as being much stronger than I think they allow. I thought about writing a blog post about how The Color Purple is, effectively, a revision of Pamela (Walker's novel could also be subtitled "Or Virtue Rewarded;" like Squire Mr. B, Mr. _____'s surname is emended out of the text; there is at times a comical and unlikely immediateness to the epistolary format of the book, as the need to give the events dramatic weight runs up against the relative cool of the letter form; &c.), but in a sense the post would just be a "hmm… interesting," an intellectual ship passing in the Internet night. What I really want to share was what it was like to read The Color Purple in this manner, and I guess I have some doubts that the specificity of that experience doesn't preempt or preclude such an attempt from being completed satisfactorily. That is, I'm not sure how I can share my experience without it turning into an attempt to convince you that the idea behind the experience is possible or valid.
A novel is a system of signs which can be read in specific (and non-exclusive) ways, but it is also an experience, and while I think that some experiences have better ideas behind them than others, I also think that we often mistake arguing about our ideas for sharing our experiences. And while I'm leery of treating experiences of novels as a realm that doesn't require justification or argument—just sharing!—I also think that we are sorely under-equipped in terms of talking about novels in ways that do not reduce to arguments about the ideas which make our experiences possible.
Basically, it feels kind of weird and a little facile just to say, "reading Death Comes for the Archbishop as a gay love story enriched my experience of the book" or "The Color Purple came alive for me once I started reading it as a revision of Pamela," but that's because I'm so used to going immediately into page-and-paragraph citations of why these readings might be intellectually permissible. Sharing in this manner feels a little shallow, and I wish it didn't.
Posted by Andrew Seal at 8:29 AM