Text and Context


George Steiner

If there is currently a debate on ‘culture’ - as distinct from a merely formal academic-journalistic rhetoric or rhetorical gossip - it involves, it must, where it is honestly pursued, involve the nature of ‘texts.’ It must bear, at crucial points of definition and dissent, on the question of the status of the ‘text’ and of our relations to it. One of the obvious difficulties is that this question entails the sort of understanding of the underlying realities of culture, of the conditions of co-existence between ‘culture’ and other, competing models of social cohesion or ideals, which an analysis of our relations to ‘texts’ is meant to elucidate. In other words: the argument runs a constant risk of circularity. Determine your ‘reading’ of culture in order to locate, to ascertain in what measure there persists, a ‘culture of reading.’ But hermeneutics - the disciplined understanding of understanding - instructs us that such circularity, albeit by no means comfortable or immune from logical attack, is an inevitable, perhaps necessary attribute of any discourse, of any articulate commentary whose object is itself ‘textual.’

The problem is not only one of circularity. To ‘think through’ the question, the situation (penser la situation) of ‘the text’ in our contemporary culture, is to engage in a whole number of theoretic and pragmatic fields whose own limits or methodological integrity, whose own implication of textual authority or repudiation of the canonic, are unclear. A consideration of the convention of reading in this or that locale and section of the community, of the techniques of conservation, reproduction, diffusion, deletion or, indeed, suppression which determine the literal availability of texts - these topics are, broadly speaking, sociological. That the process of comprehension, the act of understanding and response - which crude formula presumably covers an immensely complex dynamic or dialectic of impulse and ordering - is also social, that there is a social-economic-political matrix of reading as there is of the book as a material fact, is a recognition which emerges with Dilthey and is then refined by Walter Benjamin. If there is a sociology of the text and of our relations to the text, there is also, of course, a psychology. The structures of attention, of memoration, of verbalization in and through which the act of reading takes place, are neither uniform nor stable. Modern art-historians have taught us a good deal about the developing history of visual, tactile perception, about the essential ‘historicity’ of the eye in regard to perspective, volume, distortion and codes of chromatic or gestural meaning. The psychological configurations of reading, the reflexes of awareness which organize our ‘ingestion’ (Ben Jonson’s term) of the text are, certainly, no less temporal, no less the product of the intricate congruence of innate and environmental options. Here, as in the history of art or of musical form, the ‘simplest’ cognitive moment involves processes, interactive and in constant motion, which extend from the neuro-physiological at one end to the most unstable, difficult to document elements of fashion, social contingence, local accident at the other. St. Augustine’s often- cited observation that his teacher was the first man he knew capable of reading without moving his lips, Erasmus’ occasional testimony as to the effect of print on the very immediacies of thought, the work of Robert l'Escarpit in France on the current conditions of reading at different points and age-levels in a mass-consumer society, are among the few markers we have. The sociology, the psychology (or, at a fundamental remove, neuro-physiology), the social-psychology - the awkwardness, the overlap in our rubrics being themselves symptomatic - of reading, of our relations to texts, remain rudimentary. Thus we have histories of books, of paper, of inks and typography, but none of reading.

I have been using the words ‘reading’ and ‘text’ as if the concordance between them were almost tautological. We know that it is nothing of the kind. The overwhelming proportion of reading - statistically, demographically, over any given stretch of time - has little to do with ‘texts’ as the argument I am pursuing defines them, a definition present to, functional in our sensibility (given an academic locale) even before it is formally phrased. Most acts of reading, shall we say ninety-five percent simply to exemplify the grossness of evidence, occur in a context (note the opaque yet vital contiguities of ‘text’ and ‘context’), are objectivized with regard to ends, which can only be called ephemeral, utilitarian, mechanical, nearly somnambular. Forests pass into pulp in an enactment, at once palpable and allegoric, of programmatic oblivion. Millions of tons of paper, print, ink pass through a daily cycle of instant obsolescence. This construct of insignificance, with its paradoxically contrastive technical virtuosity and economic-political consequence, reaches far or, to allow the vertical presumption, ‘high’ into the enterprise of letters. Many books which had aspired to the ‘textual’ are, in fact, pulp, the categorization being either immediate (twenty-five out of thirty novels published weekly remaindered inside a month) or following on a certain lapse of time and revaluation. The serious newspaper or magazine article knows a problematic ‘half-life.’ Like ‘happenings’ of which it is often a generative element, it carries within it mechanisms of auto-destruction whose force is often proportionate to the urgency, to the honesty of the statement. And the article, editorial, reportage may become ‘textual,’ via a subtle modulation of setting, when the historian returns to it as a primary source.

Even explicit trivia, moreover, presses powerfully on the general and complex shapes of reading, in one’s personal inventory of time and feeling and in that of the society as a whole. The temptation of universality, of echo prolonged to the outmost reaches of ‘the public,’ exercise all but the most arcane, the most deliberately minoritaires among writers. The examples or exemplary myths of writers at once ‘great’ by any criteria of seriousness, of imaginative nerve, of stylistic autonomy and immensely popular - a Dickens, a Balzac, a Tolstoy - haunt literature and the critical argument on the status of literature. We apprehend vaguely, there having been so little substantive work in the field since Q. D. Leavis’s pioneering Fiction and the Reading Public, that the history of the ephemeral, that the question of reading as mass-entertainment, cannot be divorced from that of ‘texts,’ that the ‘lower,’ being statistically and in terms of social attitudes so much the more ubiquitous, presses on, penetrates into the ‘higher’ and is, in turn, influenced by it. Trash will often mirror excellence, setting up ‘resonance’ effects, reciprocal redefinitions which are genuinely dialectical, and in certain genres - narrative verse, melodrama, the Gothic novel, prose fiction almost in its entirety - the line between the two is always unstable. Our definition of the class of texts and of the location of this class in the overall structure of literacy will, therefore, be in some degree an abstraction, a hypostatization inherently suspect and defensible only if it is, at every point, kept vulnerable to the inroads of altering fact.

And yet, at some level of provisional trust, we do know, we must know what we mean by discriminating between ‘print’ and ‘text,’ between ‘books’ as a pragmatic counter and ‘the book’ as the executive medium of ‘the textual.’ Such knowledge, such rational intuition, draws on key correlatives of disinterestedness, of semantic level, of the contract of expectation and response as negotiated, usually unconsciously, between writer and reader (or reader yet to be because the writing is there). The precise determination of these correlatives would be both a history of culture and of serious reading. It might lead to a short-hand recognition or working hypothesis: a ‘text’ is generated where the reader is one who rationally conceives of himself as writing a ‘text’ comparable in stature, in degree of demand, to that which he is reading. To read essentially is to entertain with the writer’s text a relationship at once recreative and rival. It is a supremely active, collaborative yet also agonistic affinity whose logical, if not actual, fulfillment is an ‘answering text.’

Does such reading have any natural place in our present psychological and social modes? How does it relate to the notion of culture (where is ‘text’ in context?)?

One answer, at least, is obvious, though the political climate in which we have conducted our lives over the past thirty years has obscured it. Marxism-Leninism and the ideological idiom professed in communist societies are ‘bookish’ to the root. The scheme of origins, authority and continuum in force in the Marxist world derives its sense of identity and its daily practises of validation or exclusion from a canon of texts. It is the reading of these texts - exegetic, Talmudic, disputative to an almost pathological degree of semantic scruple and interpretative nicety - which constitutes the presiding dynamic in Marxist education and in the attempts, inherently ambiguous as are all attempts to ‘move forward’ from sacred texts, to make of Marxism an unfolding, predictive reality- principle. The critique, ‘textual’ in the deepest sense, of the ancient empiricists, of Hegel and of Feuerbach, impels Marx’s own writings. The critique of alternative texts - Proudhon, Diihring, Ernst Mach, Bogdanov - is the fundamental occasion and performative genre of the great body of theoretical writing from Marx and Engels down to Lenin’s Empirio-Criticism and Philosophical Notebooks. The primary reflex in Marxist feeling and political-social application is that of citation, of re- reading. The ideology is made on-going and applicable to novel circumstance by virtue of textual re-interpretation, a process which, itself, engenders a new corpus of texts (‘new’ yet teleologically latent in the canon). It is incumbent in the function of supreme power, or was until very lately, that the holder contribute substantial theoretic work. Stalin’s writings, on party principles or during the polemics on linguistics in the 1950’s are, in this respect, less contemptible than one’s knowledge of the man would have led one to hope. He also was a collator, close reader and ‘textualist’ whose odium philologicum inspired a massive body of written work.

As Loren R. Graham has shown in his seminal study of Science and Philosophy in the Soviet Union, the result is a subtlety and self- sustaining intensity of debate which permeates Soviet intellectual life and which, to an extent largely unregistered in the west, has survived the recurrent terrors. But this essential bookishness goes much beyond ideology and schooling. If it is the medium of power and official discourse, it is, no less, that of opposition. The antecedents here are plainly pre-Bolshevik; they lie in the very fabric of suppression which defines Russian history as a whole. But whatever the source, the effect is clear: the subversive poem, novel, satirical comedy, underground ballad has always been, is, will continue to be the primary act of insurgence. Even where it has reached the public surface, through the censor’s oversight, from abroad, or in brief spells of bureaucratic condescension, Russian literature, from Pushkin and Turgenev to Pasternak and Solzhenitsyn, has always been samizdat. The cost in personal suffering, in the eradication of personal talent, has been vast; nothing can make up for the psychological hounding to destruction of a Gogol, for the liquidation of a Mandelstam. But the paradoxical gain has also been eminent. No society reads more vehemently, to none is the writer a more indispensable presence. No oppression has ever felt more threatened by the poet’s image, none has ever paid to the written word, to the text, the tribute of a more savage vigilance. Czarism and Stalinism are incommensurable structures of obscurantism and chastisement, yet structures proportionately vulnerable to, shaken by, the adverse text. The cases of Tolstoy, of Pasternak, of Solzhenitsyn show that the balance of power between the state and the writer’s single voice (between context and text) is, at some level, very nearly equal. What western regime flinches at a poem?

Below the plane of political terror and challenge, Russian existence, together with that of much of eastern Europe, is ‘bookish,’ is penetrated by literate values. The classics are printed in mountainous editions, snapped up and read. A very considerable body of poetry, and of new poetry, is known by heart, is passed from mouth to mouth (oral traditions mesh at this point with political necessity). Arguments on literature, on the condition of the novel, on drama, are not academic or at the specialized margin of the life of feeling. They are conducted and felt to be at the core. The consequences are far too pervasive and ambiguous to be summed up readily. But in respect of humane necessity, of philosophic stature, of sheer dimension, the comparison between western literatures after, say Thomas Mann, with that produced in, underneath the Soviet Union from Blok and Mandelstam to the present is, to say the least, unsettling.

The resort to the ‘canonic’ via quotation, commentary, knowledge by heart and mimesis, was, of course, the backbone of western literacy, of the cultures of civility which were in effective control in the west from, say, the late middle ages until the recent crises of the old order. The Scriptural-Patristic canon on the one hand, the Greek-Latin on the other, and the perpetual interplay, critical and conjunctive, between the Hebraic and the Hellenic lineage of texts, very largely generated and organized the shapes of western public speech and personal identity among the educated. Ovid’s or Horace’s tags on the immortality of the major text, tags themselves reproductive of high commonplaces in Homer and Pindar, became the talismanic cliché of Christian-classical education and self-fulfillment. They culminate, with perfect logic, in Napoleon’s claim that he would rather have written Werther than won his battles and in Mallarmé’ s proposition that the aim of the universe is the creation of le Livre (the ‘text of texts’ so integral, so comprehensive of truth and ontological form, that it subsumes, negates all ‘context’).

That this hierarchy of values is now eroded, that the shared habits of Biblical-Classical reference, of articulate formality, of ‘order and degree’ both emblematic and expressly rhetorical on which the intellectual- social-political architecture of the renaissance, the Enlightenment and the XlXth century were built, is now largely in ruins, that the very invocation of such values is a piece of elitist nostalgia - these are banalities of current debate. Knowledge by heart of the ‘texts’ has been done away with by the organised amnesia which now pervades schooling. The familiarity with Scripture, the Book of Common Prayer, with the great current of liturgical allusion and ritual routine, which is presumptive in the speech and inference of English literature from Chaucer to Auden, is largely dissipated. Like the fabric of classical reference, citation, pastiche, parody, imitation, within which English poetry developed from Caxton’s Ovid to T. S. Eliot’s Sweeney Among the Nightingales, Biblical literacy is passing quickly into the deep-freeze of academicism. The ‘text’ is receding from immediacy, from vital personal recognition on stilts of foot-notes, ever more rudimentary, ever more unashamed in their conveyance of information which was once the alphabet of reading. Greek and Latin are, finally, becoming ‘dead tongues.’ Less visible but equally significant is the death within our language, within our ready apprehension of the language, of that central historicity, density of cross-reference, felt syntactic and semantic elaboration which were, to be sure, related to Atticism and Latinity, but which also had their own prodigal life. The archival energies of Joyce, of Eliot, of Pound, the many-layered structures of allusion which characterize their work, are a ceremony of mourning for resources once naturally accessible to writer and reader in the contract of culture.

The causes of this change have been canvassed interminably. They are too manifold, we are too nearly implicated in them, to allow of any single, confident diagnosis. The break-down of the old frameworks of ‘high culture’ or ‘high literacy’ is quite obviously inseparable from the partial collapse of those hierarchies of aristocratic, mandarin or bourgeois power-principles which a high culture embodies, articulates and transmits. The partial destruction of the old order through world wars and inflation, the transfer of material energies to various modes of populism and ‘mass culture’ (a term which may be inherently self-contradictory) were attended by a concomitant decay in both the systematic and external presence of the ‘transcendent’ - whether theological or aesthetic-philosophical. There are sovereign literacies in the sciences; indeed, these engage the most scrupulous, adventurous of our mental means and have done so, very likely, for at least a century. But such literacies are not language-centred, they are not oriented towards the ‘text.’ There are other causes or symptoms of the crisis of ‘textuality’ or ‘logocentrism’ (to use a peculiarly rebarbative but illuminating word) which belong, distinctly, to the sociological and psychological domain. The economics, the physical environment of daily existence, particularly in the most technologically-advanced communities in the west, does not make for the personal acquisition of libraries in the old manner. The pace of being, the surrounding noise- levels, the competitive stimulus of alternative media of information and entertainment (a plurality notably lacking in the Soviet Union), militate against the compacted privacy, the investments of silence, required by serious reading. Self-bestowal on a text, the vertigo of attention which bends the scholar’s back and blears the eye, is a posture simultaneously sacrificial and stringently selfish. It feeds on a stillness, on a sanctuary of egotistical space, which exclude even those closest to one. Today’s ideals of familial co-existence, of generational amity, of neighbourliness are participatory, collective, non-dismissive. Music, performed or listened to, meets these social-emotive needs and aims as reading does not. The new humanistic literacies, where we can fairly make them out, are musical, not textual. Eloquence is suspect, formal speech is palsied with the lies, political, theological, moral, which it articulated and adorned. The honest man sings or mumbles.

Reactions to this metamorphosis of values differ as widely as do the analyses of cause. At one end of the spectrum there is celebration. Away with the malodorous dead. Make all things new. Books have too long done our thinking, our seeing, our very living for us, interposing a secondhand authority between ourselves and the innocence of immediate being. Down with museums, those mortuaries of imposed glory. Let art flower in the street and vanish at the next rain, only to be renewed in a constant simulacrum of Eden. Away with the proscenium arch; let the audience be part of, be inwoven in the play. To the wall with conductors and the tyranny of scores; a man must do, must play his own thing. (That all these slogans and gestures of millenarian bliss begin with Dada, at the exact moment of the most lunatic slaughter on the western front, is, of course, no accident. The sleep of reason does not only release nightmares; it animates the ancient dreams of total renewal, of prelapsarian spontaneity.) At the opposite pole there is desolation, more or less stoic.

Saying this, I have in mind a group of arguments on the instrumentality of reading, on the relations of the act of reading to the possibilities of culture and society, in short: a set of ‘texts on texts.’ Though written from differing perspectives and, partly at least, in mutual unawareness, these writings will, with time, be seen to form a significant cluster and will, I believe, assume growing importance. They include the early sections of Charles Péguy’s Dialogue de l'histoire et de l'âme païenne of 1909; Heidegger’s articles on Hölderlin composed, mainly, during the 1940’s and the two essays on Nietzsche’s “Death of God” and on a saying by Anaximander, published in Holzwege in 1950; Philip Rieffs Fellow Teachers, which first appeared here in 1972; and the consideration on the role of the classics in American education and society which Donald Carne Ross enunciated in Arion in 1973. The discriminations to be made between these texts, and the definition of their profound, underlying concordance would need careful study. But central to each is a conception of literacy, of literacy enacted in regard to a canonic ‘textuality’ of the kind expressed by Péguy (quotation from whom is, given the seamless, pulsing mechanics of his prose, always arbitrary and unsatisfactory):

il ne faudrait jamais cesser d'être des lecteurs; des lecteurs purs, qui lisent pour lire, non pour s'instruire, non pour travailler … qui d'une part sachent lire et d'autre part qui veuillent lire, qui enfin tout uniment lisent; des hommes qui regardent une oeuvre tout uniment pour la voir et la recevoir, qui lisent une oeuvre tout uniment pour la lire et la recevoir, pour s'en alimenter, pour s'en nourrir, comme d'un aliment précieux, pour s'en faire croitre, pour s'en faire valoir, intérieurement, organiquement, nullement pour travailler avec, pour s'en faire valoir, socialement, dans le siècle; des hommes aussi, des hommes enfin qui sachent lire, et ce que c'est que lire, c'est à dire que c'est entrer dans.

Each of these diagnosticians of our estate shares Péguy’ s definition of what a full act of reading signifies:

Une lecture bien faite, une lecture honnête, une lecture simple, enfin, une lecture bien lue est comme une fleur, comme un fruit venu d'une fleur… la représentation que nous nous donnons d'un texte est comme la représentation que l'on nous donne d'une oeuvre dramatique (et aussi que nous nous donnons) … elle n'est pas moins que le vrai, que le véritable et même et surtout que le réel achèvement du texte, que le réel achèvement de l'oeuvre; comme un couronnement; comme une grâce particulière et coronale … comme une atteinte; comme une nourriture et un complément et un complément de nourriture; comme une sorte de complètement de nourriture; comme une sorte de complètement d'alimentation et ensemble d'opération. La simple lecture est l'acte commun, l'opération commune du lisant et du lu, de l'auteur et du lecteur, de l'oeuvre et du lecteur, du texte et du lecteur.

They would, finally, concur in Péguy’s conviction that such reading comprises a fierce responsibility, that the unfolding existence of the work depends on it:

Elle est ainsi littéralement une coopération, une collaboration intime, intérieure; singulière, suprême; une responsabilité ainsi engagée aussi, une haute, une suprême et singulière, une déconcertante responsabilité. C'est une destinée merveilleuse, et presque effrayante, que tant de grandes oeuvres, tant d'oeuvres de grands hommes et de si grands hommes puissent recevoir encore un accomplissement, un achèvement, un couronnement de nous…de notre lecture. Quelle effrayante responsabilité, pour nous.

It is the responsibility which validates the hyperbole of Heidegger’s statement (a statement explicitly endorsed by Carne-Ross) that

Wir könnten mit Uebertreibung, aber mit ebensoviel Gewicht an Wahrheit, behaupten: das Geshick des Abend-Lanes hängt an der Uebersetzung des Wortes vorausgesetzt, dass die Ueberosetzung in der Uebersetzung zur Wahrheit dessen beruht was in ¿go^zur Sprache gekommen.

Reflecting on the situation which I have just outlined and on the polemic between the stoic admonitors or mourners whom I have just cited and those who might be called the ‘radical pastoralists,’ one or two very tentative conclusions might be worth putting forward.

The ‘text’ flourishes in a context of authority. Such authority can be of diverse sources. There is the metaphysical authority of a dogma or transcendent value-system. There is the pedagogic authority of an educational framework and consciously shared heuristic idiom. There can be political authority of every colour. These rubrics are, of course, interrelated. We have seen that ‘textuality’ and something of the quality and centrality of lecture, as Péguy formulates it, do exist in the authoritarian fabric of the Marxist and Soviet community. There is here no paradox; Marxism being, in respect of its ideals of literacy and schooling, profoundly ‘reactionary’. This is the crucial point. The insights of Péguy, like those of Heidegger, of Rieff and of Carne-Ross stem from a sharply conservative matrix. They derive directly from a tradition of élitist austerity and melancholy which dates, in its modern vein, from such ripostes to the Enlightenment and to the French Revolution as those of de Maistre and Julien Benda. Rieff follows immediately on Benda when he sees in the betrayal of the ‘texts’ in our academic-journalistic ambience the pre-eminent ‘treason of the clerics.’ There is in Carne-Ross’s scruples, in the disenchanted exigencies of his model of education more than a hint of Newman’s ‘grammar of assent.’ Heidegger’s involvement with the totalitarian fantasies of German politics, both ‘mystical-primal’ and National Socialist, is notorious (though, in fact, too problematic and at some points, self-contradictory, to be dealt with summarily).

Even to face the issue of the correlations between genuine literacy and an authoritarian value-structure, is to repudiate out of hand the cant, the narcotic illusions, the cheery vulgarity of populist accent which characterize the current climate of cultural-educational argument in the west. We have to start by recognizing that there is no guaranteed congruence between the continued agency of classic or ‘difficult’ texts - such as have constituted our articulate culture and shared code of designation - and the pursuit of egalitarian or economically and socially redistributive ideals. It is not only that there is no guarantee of such congruence: the fact is that there is no eminent likelihood The relations of the ‘cultural’ and of the ‘democratic,’ of the ‘classic’ and of the ‘socially just’ are, at best, uneasy. They have, now and again, coexisted within a field of compromise and of consoling rhetoric underwritten by economic elbow-room, by the fact that there was no absolute need of a choice of priorities. Now times are harder and the inherent contradictions are made stark. ‘Texts’ are indeed inexhaustible to our needs, to that constant questioning and disinterested ‘irresponsibility’ of fundamental provocation which engenders original thought. But ‘texts’ are also initially and, sometimes, over a long period, ‘closed.’ Access to them is a matter of innate capacity and privileged environment, of costly training and socially-insured leisure. How is the ‘closed’ text to prosper in the ‘open’ university? What concordance is realistically to be hoped for between the minority disinterests of the true reader and the demands for egalitarian satisfaction?

In short: any model of true reading (une lecture bien lue) is, fundamentally, a political model. And the politics of the ‘text’ are not, except in moments of great good luck and centrifugal largesse, libertarian.

Certain pragmatic conclusions do seem to follow. The attempt to impose ‘textual’ habits or a transcendental convention of the ‘classical’ on a mass public, as it is now being made in many of our universities, is a self-defeating hypocrisy. It must lead (it already has) to a rather tawdry opportunism or self-betrayal on the part of the teacher, and to indifference or extremism - which is the violent mask of boredom - on the part of the student. It is not only, as Rieff puts it, that “behind the hippies come the thugs,” a sequence to which the recent history of German universities has borne grim witness. It is that they come through doors flung open for them by gurus, trend-masters, arcadian didacts dizzy with the promise of a lasting, shared youth. It is the professors in their forties, perhaps overweight and in search of personal erotic renascence, who have howled with the wolves and loudest.

Sadly, one cannot have it both ways. The fundamental correlations between ‘text’ and ‘social context’ are non-, perhaps anti-democratic. This has been the case in the high cultures of the past, and it is the case in Soviet existence today. Péguy argues from a ground of Catholic reaction; Rieff s and Carne-Ross’s programmes or critiques are rooted in the ideals of Hellenism and Latinity as practised by an élite; Heidegger’s intimations of the politics of deep literacy are blacker yet. I have tried to show in my own work that the ‘humanities,’ in the sense in which the term inheres in ‘classic humanism,’ do not entail any ready equivalence, any unforced co-existence with ‘humanism’ in a mass- liberal or socialist scheme of values. Creative literacy was always the disciplined, authoritatively transmitted possession of the few. The general gloss which it gave to society, between the Enlightenment and the crises of the mid-twentieth century, sprang from power-relations, from pretenses, from silences by the majority which our present world is no longer prepared to put up with.

One must, therefore, take the risk of positive contrivancies (it is the signal weakness of Rieff s polemic that he disdains to do so). If we want to preserve ‘readers’ in the old sense, des lecteurs qui sachent lire, - this very wish being one that political and fiscal counteractions may render illusory - we shall have to train them, explicitly, laboriously, in a setting inevitably besieged and, consequently, somewhat artificial. The problem is not one of ivory towers, but of the strength and cost of the material (elephants too are dying). We shall have to become at once exceedingly modest and exceedingly arrogant in our profession, in the syllabus of our calling, and restore to these terms something of their theological validation. The job to be done is not one of ‘critical theory,’ of the ‘sociology of literature’, of, mirabile dictu, ‘creative writing.’ If we are serious about our business, we shall have to teach reading. We shall have to teach it from the humblest level of rectitude, the parsing of a sentence, the grammatical diagnosis of a proposition, the scanning of a line of verse, through its many layers of performative means and referential assumption, all the way to that ideal of complete collaboration between writer and reader as set out by Péguy. We shall have to learn to proceed, step by step, from the near-dyslexia of current student reading-habits to that enigmatic act of penetrative elicitation, the sense of the passage being perceived and in fact ‘realised between the lines’ as Heidegger instances it in his readings of Hölderlin. We will, simply, have to create universities or schools for reading.

He who teaches in such an institution has a job for life, but without tenure. His vocation must at all times be open to disproof, to the challenge (we must listen to it scrupulously though without fear) of those who regard the thing as not worth doing or, more cogently, as being intolerably costly in terms of social-political resources and goals. The real students in such ‘houses of reading’ - a phrase with Biblical precedent and promise - will be few, fewer perhaps than even the more sombre of our stoic seers would admit. The ironies, isolations, even falsities of the ‘literate condition’ will deepen. But if it is allowed to be done at all, the teaching, the transmission of tensed delight before the word, must be done proudly, con amore, or in that equally forceful if eroded idiom, ‘by heart.’ If it is not done, if it lapses by cheapness or default, the ‘text’ will cease to be what, for some of us, it must be: the vital circumstance, the informing ‘context’ of our being.