A Reader Improvises

John Clarke improvised his presentations like the amateur jazz musician he was. In his talk at the New College of California, he invents his talk in the moment out of the tools he has available, namely, what he has read. While on stage or at the podium, he searches his memory for relevant ideas. He hasn’t systematically researched the topic ahead of time to prepare for this specific lecture. He hasn’t defined a narrow thesis, read books that pertain to it, and brought only that work into the lecture. He hasn’t written a script, crafted an outline, or even jotted notes on the back of an envelope. He hasn’t choreographed any moves.

It’s a true oral performance. Spur of the moment. Where he is and who he’s with determine the performance. He allows circumstances to shape the lecture—for instance, the work that Arakawa and Gins are doing and Arakawa’s request for a “Model of Mind.” Moreover, the direction changes based on what happens during the talk. A question from the audience diverts Clarke from what he was going to say about Costa de Beauregard. He jumps to poets, the Dead, and the law of conservation. Clarke’s words exhibit the roughness or incompletion you would expect from spontaneous talk (for instance, the obscure reference to “comprehend/comprehension” in the last paragraph).

The improvisation requires both Clarke and his audience to be fully present in that time and place. Their minds must engage the conversation because nothing is given, every insight must be invented on the spot. The audience plays an essential role, even if Clarke does most of the talking. He approaches the talk, not as an authority set above the audience, but as first among equals. He comes from outside the New College to share what he has learned much as a relative who comes for a visit might relate the family news to us. Clarke doesn’t set the ideas he gleaned from books above the ephemeral circumstances of the lecture. The here-and-now is just as important, holds as much potential for meaning as does reading literature in the privacy of one’s study. In fact, the literature exists only in the present, too, in what Clarke recollects of it at the moment of the talk.


The Soul Walks Its Own Path

John Clarke brought a much wider array of references to his class than other professors, and he had the focus and self-control to carry off the spontaneity. I can give you a sample of his performance. Shortly after I graduated, Clarke published a volume of transcribed lectures, From Feathers to Iron, delivered at the Poetics Program at the New College of California. These lectures unfolded like his classes. This lengthy passage will give you the flavor of Clarke’s winding discourse:


From feathers to iron comes from a letter of John Keats’ to Benjamin Bailey, March 13, 1818, in which he wrote:

Every point of thought is the centre of an intellectual world—the two uppermost thoughts in a Man’s mind are the two poles of his World. He revolves on them and everything is southward or northward to him through their mean—We take but three steps from feathers to iron.

The artist Shusaku Arakawa asked if I might “turn up with something to feed a Model of Mind,” a project he and Madeline Gins are working on. These lectures attempt to complete the intellectual world implicit in Keats’ “point of thought” prompted by Arakawa’s proposal.

The first topic—“The Disappearance of Ordering Intervention”—is from a book by Marie-Louise von Franz, a protégé of Jung’s, in fact the one who substituted for Jung at Black Mountain College in the “New Sciences of Man Lectures” instituted by Charles Olson in 1953. She wrote an interesting book called Number and Time in which she quotes a French cyberneticist, Olivier Costa de Beauregard, who says that when the ordering intervention in a system disappears…

Aud: What is ordering intervention supposed to mean?

If a poet comprehends his work, brings that comprehension to his work, and adds that comprehension to his work, that’s an ordering intervention. Both the course of the work and the world are changed by that. Someone asked last night, where do the Dead go? The question is: when ordering intervention disappeared from the cosmos, where did it go? In a world abiding by some law of conservation, “negentropy” can’t simply be lost. It has to go somewhere.[i]


The passage sounds slapdash to those of us used to writerly prose. Clarke doesn’t have a point to prove. He doesn’t craft a disciplined argument in a step-by-step chain of logic of the kind we find in academic lectures turned into books. Clarke name-checks eight people in half a page. He veers off his first topic, the Keats quote, after 71 words and leaps to a third topic, the disappearance of ordering intervention, after just 45 more words. He then manages to utter 76 words before someone interrupts him with a question. By the end, he’s talking about the dead and the obscure “negentropy.”

He doesn’t go into anything systematically. He throws out tantalizing fragments of ideas without exploring any of them deeply. This rhetorical practice must leave critical readers feeling dissatisfied, robbed of understanding. But we can see something different and valuable going on if we examine the passage on its own terms.

Clarke has proposed a topic for the evening, the disappearance of ordering intervention. He aims to invent something useful for himself and his audience by talking about this abstract phrase. The awkwardness of its wording pushes the audience off balance. It’s not sure exactly what Clarke is talking about. It can’t peg the subject rationally and thereby shut down its imagination. The value comes from the talk, not from an analysis of the topic itself. The topic serves as an occasion—almost an excuse—for talk. Clarke hasn’t arrived with a ready-made answer; the answer still needs to be discovered.

As we can with any topic, Clarke approaches this one from many angles and thinks many different thoughts about it, some disjointed. He doesn’t pre-select from this mass of ideas to fashion a coherent argument. Instead, he allows all the ideas, unformed as they are, into the room with the audience, which will also generate its own ideas about “the disappearance of ordering intervention.”

This technique introduces uncertainty into the talk—no one knows where it’s going to go—though it also creates the possibility of unlooked-for insight. Talk remains linear, so Clarke has to start talking about his topic at a particular place. He might have started at any number of places. None is the “right” place to begin or better than any other place. He happened to choose the Keats quote. He then winds through ideas about the disappearance of ordering intervention in no predetermined order. This kind of open-ended inquiry comes upon insights circuitously and needs to avoid addressing its topic too directly the way a preacher announces his theme at the start of his sermon. “The disappearance of ordering intervention” happens to pop up in third place during the natural flow of Clarke’s talk. On another occasion, it might not have appeared till much later as with egoism and The Scarlet Letter in our classes.

[i] John Clarke, From Feathers to Iron (Bolinas, CA: Tombouctou Books, 1987), p. 25.

The Birth of a Reader

The first English course I took in college, at the State University of New York at Buffalo, influenced me more than any other class I ever took as an undergraduate or graduate student. The professor, John Clarke, taught in a way I never encountered again.

You wouldn’t have expected much from the looks of him. He was 46 but looked older, with a fleshy, lined face. He had thin brown hair and a paunch. He walked with a limp from a bout of childhood polio. He sat behind a desk in the front of the room, on an angle and with a stiff posture as though uncomfortable in his chair.

He didn’t have a syllabus or lesson plans. When the hour for class arrived, he would simply start talking without ceremony. Clarke spoke in a quiet, conversational tone. He didn’t lecture. He didn’t start with the assigned text. At times it seemed he had forgotten all about it. Of course, he would have told us what book to read in a previous class — say, Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter — though he didn’t assign specific pages for specific class days. He never hectored us about reading; he assumed we would read (or not) as our own needs dictated. He might discuss current events, what was going on at the university, other books, things he’d heard people say, historical examples… He would slide from topic to topic. Each topic would be suggestive. Each segue between topics would make sense by itself, but the flow of the talk and unexpected changes in direction would make it hard for us to tell whether it all added up to something coherent.

Occasionally, we would venture a remark or a question of our own just to see what would happen. He accepted them as a natural development of the conversation we were having and wove them into the fabric of the day’s class.

Eventually we would discover that all of his discussion revolved around a topic, for example, “egotism.” Sooner or later, Clarke would weave in a reference or two to Hawthorne. But he didn’t have a particular point he wanted to make about the book. He never engaged us in Socratic dialogue, the way other professors did, to pull interpretations of the text out of us. He never went into the author’s biography or the cultural and historic background of the book, except for passing reference to this or that fact which happened to illustrate a point he was making.

The indirection puzzled us at first. It disoriented and turned off some students. Later, it excited me and a few others because we intuited that Clarke was interested in something far more important than the book. He was interested in how to feed the soul.

“Hard” Books

I finished writing a book recently, and before starting the next project, I needed some refreshment. I wanted to read something different to revitalize my linguistic imagination. So I decided to order some experimental novels, including William S. Burroughs’s The Soft Machine. It’s one of his cut-ups. He typed out a story, cut up the pages into quarters and rearranged the pieces into new pages. It yields a strange experience for the reader as sentences break off in the middle and different sentences pick up in midstream. The story does not unfold in a smooth line but jumps back and forth in fragments.

One of product reviews struck me when I went online to buy a copy. The reviewer awarded The Soft Machine one star out of five. He issued a curt dismissal: “self indulgent experimentation,” “unreadable.” In other words, the reviewer didn’t like the book because it made him work too hard.

This is a legitimate complaint if you think of the reader as passive. The author entertains, informs, enlightens the reader by means of the text. The reader naturally seeks the easiest way to receive what authors can give.

But the complaint makes no sense if the reader is active and reading is a work of art.  Then the quality of the experience counts … along with the ideas that the reader’s mind generates from the friction of reading a text. The reader’s soul determines what kind of text he or she needs. If a reader feeds his soul with the right text, “easy” or “hard” doesn’t come into it. With the right text, the reader will find the energy and patience to read a “difficult” text because it will pay big rewards of creativity.

With the wrong text, even a quick, easy read feels like a waste of time. I felt that way about Sinclair Lewis’s Babbitt. I chose it largely based on its reputation of illustrating the habits of middle America. Lewis tells a simple story in straightforward prose, but it didn’t inspire me at all. I slogged through to the end somehow and vowed never to read another book by Sinclair Lewis. Babbitt was as unreadable for me as The Soft Machine was to that reviewer. For me, The Soft Machine won’t be nearly as much of a trial to read despite the cut-ups.

How to Use the Archetypes of Meaning

The eight archetypes of meaning describe emotional contours although we have been trained to look past them and to see only the idea at the center, not the feelings that surround it. We value the pearl for the sand grain instead of the layers of nacre coating it. From the time we start reading in school, we learn to think of meaning as existing within the text. We employ various interpretive methods to bring the meaning out. The text remains the object of inquiry.

Such critical investigations of the text disrespect the reader. We insist that reading is important, that it matters in the world. The only way it can be important is through the reader; it must affect the reader’s life fundamentally. If we expect serious readers to hang their lives on a book, the drama must occur inside them, not on the page. Some mechanism of the soul converts the words into thoughts that readers believe in enough to test themselves, often at some risk. None of these things happens unless readers put emotional force behind them. We need a language to articulate the various transformations that occur within readers, one that doesn’t attribute everything to the text. The previous posts that illustrate the eight archetypes point to the fulfillment of readers’ common emotional needs. Sometimes we need a revelation to turn a gray world into exciting colors. Or we look for order when the world threatens chaos. Or we thirst for beauty, and so on. In this way, the eight archetypes of meaning help us to explore readers’ experiences without plunging back into the text.

The archetypes start to demarcate the large, hitherto empty region between the extremes where we conventionally allow the text to function for readers. On the one hand, we make the humanistic assumption that the text appeals to readers universally. “I am a human,” said the Roman playwright Terence. “Nothing human is foreign to me.” The New Critics in the middle of the 20th century believed each text contained a single line of meaning that the author expected every reader to follow. People would inevitably grasp this meaning if they read acutely enough. On the other hand, we acknowledge that readers can relate to books subjectively. A particular reader has lived in a way that other readers have not, and he or she relates the text to that experience. Life as a woman or an African-American permits us to see meanings in a text that escape people with other social profiles. Or we accept as legitimate any interpretation of a poem simply because someone read it that way.

The archetypes of meaning strike a compromise between the universal and the subjective. We have all encountered depth, recognition, innovation, and the other patterns. We know what they feel like. Nevertheless, we differ in the emphasis we give to them. We need different types of meaning at different times, depending on our circumstances. And our character tends to favor one or a few archetypes over others just as depth mattered most to Dodds and order to Verrall. Unconsciously, we search for meaning in a text based on our predilections.

The meaning of a text arises from the interaction of the words with the needs that the reader brings to them. The eight archetypes give us a way to distinguish between the various demands a reader might make. We do not have to see any single interpretation as unavoidable. Instead, we can view it as a choice determined by the inner necessity of the reader. Again, we experience meaning rather than deduce it or absorb it from somewhere else, and that experience comes in the form of a feeling. We can therefore ascribe to ourselves—to our own perceptions, our own creativity—a significance that we had before projected onto the text or the author. In effect, the archetypes convert what previously seemed to be solid literary structures into suppositions that must prove their utility to us.

For example, some readers talk about tradition as though it were an objective reality. They will describe, say, the “Western literary tradition” by tracing themes, such as individualism and realism, across centuries. These themes supposedly explain who we are today and why we think the way we do. In this way, tradition tells a coherent story about a past that actually consisted of many different kinds of books, written by many different kinds of authors, in many different kinds of circumstances, for many different purposes, at many different times, in many different places. Nothing obligates us to see threads of continuity in these works, but readers choose to impose the framework of tradition on authors and texts because it satisfies their need to have a precedent. It legitimizes today’s ideas.

Any form of meaning, including tradition, does violence to its subject because we cannot help seeing the subject through the filter of our own needs. The invention of a tradition requires readers to pick out a specific set of texts, between which they trace lines of influence that tell a coherent story, and to ignore other texts that don’t fit the narrative. “Western literature” starts with Homer and continues with the great books up to James Joyce’s Ulysses and beyond. Along the way, we omit or ignore hundreds of “lesser” writers—Statius and Samuel Daniel and many more authors once important but now scarcely known. Nevertheless, we would be able to choose another set of texts from the whole universe of Western books and thereby construct quite a different Western tradition. In fact, we could create many different Western literary traditions, depending on the books we select. Each tradition would highlight some authors and ideas at the expense of other authors and ideas. Imagine Shakespeare falling out of our collective memory—it wouldn’t be the first time that had happened. By proposing one particular tradition, we don’t “discover” some objective reality about Western literature that always awaited us on library shelves. Rather, we trick ourselves into making the creative leap of inventing a Western tradition. We wish the comfortable feeling of tradition were real, so we treat it as such.

The emotional allure of any type of meaning captivates us. Once we find a satisfactory interpretation of something we hold it so close that we narrow our field of view and don’t bother to look for other possibilities. If we make the eight archetypes explicit, we can use them to question our own emotional needs, and perhaps gain a little more freedom of thought.

If we trace meanings back to one of the eight archetypes, we can follow out at least seven other routes that will lead us to new meanings beside the one that we are most drawn to. I happened to pick the archetype of depth for my reading of The Bacchae. I didn’t have to. I have had experiences of meaning that fit into each of the eight categories. All eight are emotionally accessible to me. If I see meaning as my own feeling, not something inherent in the text, I gain the freedom to choose the emotional framework within which to read it. What would The Bacchae mean from the point of view of beauty or boundary-crossing? I can play with the archetypes until I find the emotional range that satisfies me best.

Awareness of the emotional underpinning of meaning gives us more control over the feelings we experience when we read so that we can turn in many directions until we earn the biggest profit from the book. If we focus on what we feel, we no longer have to be the recipients or excavators of an external meaning. We can take control of meaning by deciding for ourselves what it will look like. Think of the surprise and pleasure that rush through us when we discover something. It’s different from the surprise and pleasure when we encounter beauty. Although meaning can evoke various feelings, the patterns of meaning fulfill the same general function and are interchangeable in that way. We can try them out one by one, applying them to an object that interests us until we find the pattern that suits our needs of the moment. Once we know the pattern, we can fill in the content of the meaning by rearranging our thoughts about the object.

The Archetypes of Meaning: Tradition

Meaning is aesthetic. It comes to us as a feeling, and it follows one of eight styles or archetypes. Today I explore the archetype of tradition.

Style #8: Tradition. We experience tradition as a sense of continuity over time. Theocritus inaugurated the pastoral tradition in poetry in the third century B.C. with idylls about the simple lives of shepherds, filled with love affairs and singing contests, as a contrast to the sophisticated urban life he and his fellow poets and readers led in the Hellenistic Mediterranean. Theocritus inspired Vergil, who also wrote about shepherds although he turned his Eclogues into commentaries about contemporary Roman life and politics. Dante revived the pastoral genre at the very end of his life by writing two Vergilian eclogues but made them into allegories with obscure allusions. Boccaccio and Petrarch followed Dante’s lead by writing pastoral verse, in part as satires on modern life, in part as elegies to dead friends and lost simplicity. Giovanni Baptista Spagnuoli developed the genre further by composing eclogues to attack the abuses of the church and to give advice to young people. Spagnuoli’s eclogues gave Shakespeare material for his festive comedies, such as As You Like It, which compare the structured, corrupt life of the court with the freedom and poverty of the country. And so on.

Thus, we understand one work by looking at the work of predecessors which inspired it. In retrospect, we label this chain of influence a “tradition,” which the writers within it grasped with varying degrees of awareness. In a tradition, each person adds something to the legacy of the past. Or we may describe a sequence of writers, works, or actions that have loose connections to one another. These recent titles, The American Tradition in Literature, The American Political Tradition, The American Intellectual Tradition, The American Military Tradition, apply the frame of tradition in retrospect to describe common, often unconscious characteristics that extend across time.

The Archetypes of Meaning: Order

Meaning is aesthetic. It comes to us as a feeling, and it follows one of eight styles or archetypes. Today I explore the archetype of order.

Style #7: Order. We experience order as the logical connection between parts to form a larger, coherent system. The science of geology as practiced today started with the publication in 1830 of Charles Lyell’s Principles of Geology. Before then, geology consisted of isolated observations (for example, the presence of fossils in mountains), unsubstantiated theories (landforms were created by volcanic activity), and little access to what lies beneath the earth’s surface. This state of knowledge left many questions: Are fossils found in mountains because the earth generates animals and plants spontaneously? Why is coal found in some places in the earth but not others?

Lyell proposed a comprehensive set of geologic processes to explain rock formations. For instance, volcanic activity thrusts magma to the surface, which hardens into rocks, and wind and water erode these rocks, which settle into sedimentary layers. By systemizing geology, Lyell enabled scientists to explore the earth by proposing hypotheses and doing field work or experiments to test them. For example, coal is carbonized trees found only in certain layers of rock laid down during a geological epoch when vast forests covered the earth. Geologists can test this theory by determining which rock layers coal deposits appear in.

Judging by how slowly the geologic processes we can observe unfold, Lyell showed that the earth had existed in an exponentially longer time scale than humans had imagined up to this point—millions of years rather than thousands. This framework furnished a critical piece for scientists who came after him, especially Darwin. Evolutionary processes also unfold with imperceivable slowness and therefore become possible only with a geologic time scale.

Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations launched the discipline of economics by sketching the laws underlying hitherto puzzling economic phenomena such as international trade or price movements. Up to that point, people observed economic phenomena (for example, gold draining out of a country) but had no way to analyze why they occurred. Or people proposed systems without any basis in fact. Francois Quesnay proposed that farms would become 10% more productive each year indefinitely if the farmer were unburdened with taxes and could reinvest his profits in the land. Smith showed that the returns from the farmer’s investments would eventually taper off (the law of diminishing returns). Thus, Smith started a systematic investigation that economists have built upon ever since.