Amorous reading and the amorous life

Amorous reading seeks out texts that will teach one how to read. When we imagine a person who reads in this way, perhaps we think of the aspiring preliterate child, hunched over and relishing their primer. If we do, it’s probably because learning how to read is something we usually think we did as children, and have been finished doing for a very long time. If someone were to ask us “Do you know how to read?” we’d raise our chins, insulted, and bark in anger “Of course!”

The kind of reading I have in mind, though, reads as if it’s not so sure. What prompts it are moments of elevating ignorance. You pick up a text, secure in your literacy, but as you begin reading are bewildered. Most of us would put it aside more times than not, never to return. However, for some reason you don’t. Perhaps you’ve done so many times with other such texts. Or perhaps there have been times when you persisted, but only to find assurance of your own cleverness, or simply to discharge some obligation. This time, though, amidst the confusion, and any other motives you might have, there’s something about the text itself that solicits you. It’s like encountering a language you’ve never heard before, and yet discovering to your shock that it’s your native tongue. It had never occurred to you that language could do quite this—whatever this is—and you set yourself the task of learning how to read anew, and thus learn the language that in a trivial sense you already speak. You plunge further into the text, striving to let it transform your practice of reading—or even that of using language at all.

Why call this amorous reading? What does reading have to do with love? Interpersonal love is one of the areas of human life in which we aspire to rush headlong into that which otherwise inspires terror: namely, our dependence and vulnerability. Such love is made possible by a kind of generosity: one in which we give ourselves. This commonplace idiom might seem like a mere metaphor, but it can be given a literal sense. In particular, when we come to love someone, we make their well-being criterial for our own, such that part of what it is for us to flourish is now for the beloved to as well. We so to speak extend our boundaries by expanding those of our own self-interest. In this way, we make ourselves dependent. How our lives go now depends on something it didn’t before: the fortunes of the beloved. Insofar as it does, we’ve thereby made ourselves vulnerable as well: to the forces that impact on them, and thus that now impact on us.

What amorous reading shares with interpersonal love lies in its embrace of precariousness. Language is so fundamental to our ways of making sense of things that this form of precariousness runs deep. We encounter some language feeling like seasoned veterans, but the language stops us in our tracks. A sense of uncertainty hits us, but not about the truth of its claims, or how to respond to its message. Perhaps we know all the words, and can parse all the sentences. Nevertheless, we feel lost as to what it’s really saying, what it’s really doing, what kind of sense it’s even trying to make. Language in that moment becomes uncanny—familiar as the air we breathe, yet alien to our methods of mastery. And yet, rather than turning away from the overwhelming, we ready ourselves to let it transform us.

Now, all of this might sound like the self-congratulation of an academic in an ivory tower who romanticizes some of the business that puts bread on his table. Actually, though, academic practice is, as any academic will say if they’re being honest, not very amenable to amorous reading. We pay our bills by trying to seem like experts—and in particular, for many in the humanities, like expert understanders of various texts. We do so to convince others of our expertise: students, of course, but also (and often more importantly) committees of other academics. More often than not, though, this is anathema to amorous reading. Self-styled expertise doesn’t sit at ease with joyous ignorance and clumsiness.

More importantly, though, such amorousness isn’t the province of reading, but rather belongs to apprenticeship as such. An apprentice who’s at work is also at sea. They’re in the football field, the carpentry workshop, or the restaurant kitchen, and find that they can’t quite get their bearings. Anyone who’d never even tried playing a game, building a chair, or cooking a meal would share in the apprentice’s ignorance, of course. But the peculiar quality of the apprentice’s disorientation is made possible by the fact that they, unlike the rest of us, are hard at work. They run deeper and deeper into certain obscure vistas despite feeling more lost the further they go. Like the acrobat who leaps toward the ring of fire, they play the game, saw the wood, or prepare the dish even though they’re stumbling and ridiculous. Their doing so embodies the sense in which they’ve apprenticed themselves.

Apprenticeship in this sense—as amorous work—doesn’t entail being an amateur. The greatest masters at any skill, in fact, usually remain apprentices in this sense. Those who turn away from the work, or reach a point when they rest on their laurels rarely get as far as the master. And this is because at any given point, the master hasn’t gotten very far in their own mind. Undeterred, though, they abide in their failure, continuing to hurtle themselves further into it. This is why, for the master, it’s often the next work that’s the thing.

Why have I chosen amorous reading as my example, then? Because it provides for me something from my own experience that can serve as a case study for the Spinozian love of God, which is something to which I’ve tried to apprentice myself, despite struggling to understand what this would mean. I’ve certainly turned to difficult texts—both literary and philosophical—for a host of non-amorous reasons. Like many who’ve had too much education for their own good, I’ve turned to them to feel smart, and to find materials for convincing others of the same. I’ve turned to them to avoid failure at what I’ve taken up as a central life task: that of finding a home in the academy. However, one of the things that drew me to such a lifestyle to begin with was experiences of amorous reading. In my youth, I underwent various episodes of reading that felt as if they were re-wiring my mind, and I found myself craving getting ever more lost—yes, in hopes of finding my bearings, but also because of the lostness itself: the sense of being changed into I knew not what.

As I’ve grown older, the aspiration to amorous reading has stayed with me, despite going through phases when it seemed to fade into an ember right on the edge of going out; and despite only achieving it at rare moments when I could put my anxieties and ambitions aside. However, in recent years, it’s come to have a different significance—as some glimmer of a possibility with much wider scope.

For all of his deep disagreements with the Abrahamic religions that shaped him, Spinoza retains one of their key ideas. Namely, he holds that the best kind of life is one grounded in the love of God. However, at the same time he rejects a personal, supernatural God in favor of the view that God is Nature—the world around us. And so, the obvious question to ask here is this: how are we to understand the love of God in light of Spinoza’s radically transformed conception of its object?

The idea that I believe is driving Spinoza is that of amorousness as a way of living one’s life as a whole. The reader is at work in the activity of reading, the player in that of the game; the carpenter in the activity of carpentry, and the chef in the activity of cooking. But all of us are at work in the activity of living: of figuring out what to do and who to be. In doing so, though, we’re like everything else, going about its business being the thing that it is—striving, as Spinoza likes to put it using his own peculiar sense of the term. And, as again for everything in the world around us, our doing so is made possible by an inescapable condition, which Spinoza calls finitude. To be finite is to be a dependent and vulnerable being, and to be so in every respect.

Our usual response, when faced with our finitude, is to paper it over with imaginative tales. This is what Spinoza calls superstition. Many of his examples are ones we’d recognize as such—the trappings of so-called primitive religion. He talks, for example, about trying to read the future in the entrails of animals, or in natural events we take as omens delivered by any number of gods. More disturbing, though, to many of the traditional religionists and philosophers around Spinoza, who’d have laughed in derision at such practices; he talks about tales of a single supernatural God who offers us grace to escape from a fallen world, or of being immaterial minds distinct from our bodies and granted incompatibilist free will.

Yet, even these examples don’t exhaust superstition’s bag of tricks. Superstitious tales, that is, are tales of mastery. Through them, we fancy ourselves capable of escaping our finitude, or tell ourselves we already have. Superstition’s motto is “I’ve got this!”—where this is the work of living itself.

The alternative to superstition that Spinoza offers is that of apprenticing ourselves to living in general—keeping amorously at work in facing the world. Such a person lives neither in agony nor in dreams of escape, but hurls themselves joyfully toward a world that will inevitably transform them in ways they can’t foresee or control. In Spinozian terms, they have humility before God. However, this isn’t a matter of obedience, obeisance, or worship. Rather, it’s the humility of the master whose mastery is a matter of taking themselves to master nothing at all.

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