The Coming Together of Text and Imagination

“Whatever we have read sinks into our memory and is foreshortened. It may later be evoked again and set against a different background with the result that the reader is enabled to develop hitherto unforeseeable 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 background brings to light new aspects of what we had committed to memory; conversely these, in turn, shed their light on the new background, 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 connections. 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 imagination of the reader: it is the coming together of text and imagination.”

Wolfgang Iser, The Reading Process: A Phenomenological Approach

I’m setting down this passage as sediment to further thought and a reminder to explore Wolfgang Iser’s work more thoroughly. Please let me know if you know his work and are willing and able to suggest further reading .

This particular rabbit hole began with flowerville’s reference in the comments to my last post to Thomas Bernhard’s Woodcutters, which led inexorably to this essay, which merits a more comprehensive rereading after I’ve read Woodcutters.

2 thoughts on “The Coming Together of Text and Imagination

  1. Anthony, a pedantic point: it’s ‘Woodcutters’ alone. The German title is Holzfällen.

    But now a less pedantic point about Iser. I’m reminded of Large & Haase’s book about Blanchot in which they speculate on what Blanchot would make of his ideas:

    “The literary school known as reader response or reception theory stresses in its label the contribution of the reader to the understanding of the literary text. We could imagine Blanchot’s reply to this theory to be that it fails to pay sufficient attention to the way in which the text, just as much as it invites readers in, also dismisses them. However much the reader draws close to the text, it also remains outside them in its own stubborn isolation. The text’s resistance to appropriation by the reader does not signify that the text is meaningless, but precisely the opposite: this resistance is the significance of the text and it is this resistance that makes the text literary. Another way of putting this would be to say that a text is literary to the extent that it says more than we can comprehend, but this ‘more’ is not experienced merely negatively as an absence of meaning, but as excess of meaning. This is what we mean by the strange particular and individual world or style of a work, one that resists any general categorization or label.”

    Your quotation suggests only Iser’s is an optimistic version of Blanchot’s, in that what remains outside (“the fire’s share” in Blanchot’s words) is only an excess to be recovered at another reading. This might be a symptom of the attempts by literary theorists to seek the authority of science as the loss of confidence with the literary experience makes itself felt in a society in which the ethic of productivity rules. Categorising by genre might be another symptom, as its features provide the means of appropriation.

    • Thanks for the correction-much appreciated-and hardly pedantry.

      I dipped into some Blanchot this year but not in any meaningful way. I find the Large/Haase book useful. It seems to me from what little I’ve read of either writer, their work on reading and writing could be usefully juxtaposed. Perhaps such a comparison exists.

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