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Old 10-15-2014, 06:15 PM   #168
Pile O'Bones
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Join Date: Jul 2009
Location: Denmark
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First of all, thank you to Bęthberry for alerting me to this interesting thread!

There are two issues in this thread that I should like to react to and reflect upon.

First, as to the experience of reading. I am, by education, a physicist, and I have worked in the world of the natural sciences all my adult life. This is my starting point for my interest in both the history of science and the philosophy of science. Our sciences, both the natural sciences, but also the humanist and sociological sciences, have evolved by the exchange of the written word, and I dare say that these sciences have evolved quite far based on this, and the written word has thus been able to establish a very large degree of common and shared understanding of not only the natural world (the topic of my own subject), but also of the world of the human mind.

With this in mind, I have to insist that any theory or model for the reading experience must account for the ability of the text to establish such a very high degree of shared understanding – something I often find that the more subjective models, insisting that all meaning is created in the mind of the reader and is completely subjective and non-communicable, fail to explain in a satisfying way.

It is, I trust, obvious that there are differences between different kinds of text. At one end we may have some of the more experimental forms of poetry, and at the other end a scientific article detailing some advance in our mathematical formulation of a problem in physics (and I suspect that such a one-dimensional model is woefully inadequate, but please bear with me for moment).

But even the most experimental form of poetry relies on shared conventions of interpreting the marks on the page (or screen) into sounds, of stringing them into words, for the individual words to obtain meaning, and for word-meanings to string together. Even when the Art deviates from these shared conventions, it still relies on them for its effect.

My point here is that any model for the reading experience must be able to account for the very high degree of communicability of meaning in a written form (I am here completely ignoring the issue of a common language – I assume that we are speaking of competent language-users in all cases).

The other, and related, topic that I would wish to reflect upon, is the enchantment of the sub-creator. This is what I touch upon in the statement that Bęthberry has already quoted.

For me, Tolkien's description of Literary Belief in his essay ‘On Fairy-stories’ has always described very acutely my own experience when reading Tolkien. But it goes further than that. The essay is also a sub-creation, and, like the game of cricket that Tolkien mentions, it can, for the enthusiast, produce the same kind of enchanted state, and it does so for me. So do the texts by Tom Shippey and Verlyn Flieger, and a number of other analytical and / or critical texts.

What is more, I have found that, for me, the reading of these have the effect of enhancing both the effect of Literary Belief and the feeling of joy when I sit down to read Tolkien's works again. Having this deeper understanding of Tolkien's text – and being conscious of it while reading, for me, actually increases its power of enchantment.

I do realise that this is not the case for everyone. For many the conscious realisation that Gandalf's choice at the Council of Elrond is an excellent example of trusting in providence (making the policy of the Council an exemplar of the claim that ‘in God we trust’) will only serve to break the enchantment, and I would never dream of forcing this conscious realisation upon them when they read, but I would, on the other hand, ask them to accept that their experience is not universal either, and that it has, for me (and doubtlessly for many others – I am not conceited enough to believe I am unique), the opposite effect: that of enhancing the enchantment and the joy in the story – in effect increasing the beauty I find in the story.

Looking this through, it seems to me that I am suggesting that we look at this at least as a two-dimensional thing (and probably there is still more to it than this).

One dimension is the extraction of meaning from a text. Here our subjective experiences seem to play a smaller part than it is often claimed, though this obviously varies depending on how abstruse the meaning is – if the text is composed with some care and the intention of communicating meaning, the transmission can be near-perfect, but if the text is composed in order to create sensations (or is composed carelessly), the transmission of meaning can be very poor.

The other dimension, then, is the engaging with the text. This seems to be far more subjective, though the author can certainly do something to control this as well (using mathematical symbolism is a good example). It does seem to me that subjectiveness here plays a larger part for texts written as art – whether fiction or poetry or something else I cannot name, so that our manner of engaging with a poem can vary far more than our manner of engaging with a mathematical proof.

Or perhaps not ... at least I know that I can find much beauty in an elegant mathematical proof and in such a case, I can be enthusiastically anticipating the next line with much the same kind of enchantment as the music-lover anticipating the next bar in a nocturne by Chopin.

And this brings me back to what Bęthberry has already quoted:
I will not say that my way of appreciating Tolkien is better than anyone else's, but neither will I accept any claim that it is in some way lesser. It is, however, my way, and the best one for me. Therefore, as long as it increases my joy in Tolkien's writings, I shall continue doing this way
Troels Forchhammer,
‘I wish you would not always speak so confidently without knowledge’ (Gandalf to Thorin, The Quest of Erebor)
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