Read, Memory, Ecstasy, Read

Words and photographs by Kevin Rabalais

Leonard Michaels’s 1990 autobiographical novel, Sylvia, begins with a description of the main character, Leonard, returning to New York City after five years of graduate school at two universities and still without a Ph.D. For what, he wonders, has all of his time reading literature prepared him? Leonard, whose only desire is to write stories, describes himself as “an overspecialised man, twenty-seven years old, who smoked cigarettes and could give no better account of himself than to say ‘I love to read.’”

“But why do I read?” asks the Polish poet and essayist Adam Zagajewski in A Defense of Ardor. “Do I really need to answer this question?”

Encouraging young poets to “please read everything,” Zagajewski writes about the various roles literature plays in our lives:

…our reading takes place chiefly between two signs: the sign of memory and the sign of ecstasy. We read for memory (for knowledge, education) because we are curious about what our many precursors produced before our own minds were opened. This is what we call tradition—or history.

We also read for ecstasy. Why? Just because. Because books contain not only well-ordered information but also a  kind of energy that comes close to dance and shamanistic drunkenness.

It’s rare to encounter a reader who chooses to live inside only one book at a time. Zagajewski, recipient of the 2004 Neustadt International Prize for Literature, ponders the reason we find ourselves persistently crossing the borders of genre and time, slipping in and out of several books during a day or week, often with little thought, only an innate need.

The books I read—if such a confession is required or desired—fall into two categories, books of memory and of ecstasy. You can’t read an ecstatic book late at night: insomnia ensues. You read history before falling asleep, and save Rimbaud for noon.
— Adam Zagajewski

Zagajewski admits that his own reading is chaotic. He’s suspicious of specialized reading, the kind, say, in which biologists read only biology or poets read only poetry:

Reading “only” poetry suggests that there’s something rigid and isolated about the nature of contemporary poetic practice, that poetry had become separated from philosophy’s central questions, from the historian’s anxieties, the painter’s quandaries, the qualms of an honest politician, e.g., from the deep common source of culture.

And perhaps this is precisely why we cross those borders, moving through time and place in search of “the deep common source of culture.” Even if it means that some of us can offer no better account of ourselves (though what better account of our lives might we hope to offer?) than “I love to read,” Zagajewski encourages us to persevere, in this endeavor, “chaotically":

Read for yourselves, read for the sake of your inspiration, for the sweet turmoil in your lovely head. But also read against yourselves, read for questioning and impotence, for despair and erudition, read the dry, sardonic remarks of cynical philosophers like Cioran or even Carl Schmitt, read newspapers, read those who despise, dismiss, or simply ignore poetry and try to understand why they do it. Read your enemies and your friends, read those who reinforce your sense of what’s evolving in poetry, and also read those whose darkness or malice or madness or greatness you can’t yet understand because only in this way will you grow, outlive yourself, and become what you are.



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