Robert Walser and Karl Marx Walk Into a Library

Toward an Ethics of Reading and Reflection

Before we speak, we listen. Or, at least, we should. In a book entitled Difficult Freedom, Emmanuel Levinas writes of how, when we listen to the other in this or that conversation, we experience peace. This may be thought of as ironic since, after all, communication or dialogue is thought by many to be the road to peace. Nonetheless, communication is meaningless if one party isn’t listening to the other. One of the best places to experience or rather practice listening is by way of reading. To be a good reader, one must listen for nuance in the text and be able to hear and distinguish one kind of voice from another.

One must be attentive.

And it’s wonderful when this kind of attention links us to other texts and people. For instance, the poet, Paul Celan quoted these lines from Walter Benjamin’s essay on Kafka: “attention is the natural prayer of the soul.” But Walter Benjamin didn’t find them in Kafka; he found them in Malbranche. Nonetheless, he found that these words speak well to Kafka’s fiction.

These words are nuanced since they suggest that we need to pay heed to our attentiveness. We must be, in a sense, vigilant. But, strangely enough, it isn’t the adult who we can best learn vigilance from – it’s the distracted child and the adult who hasn’t quite grown up or fit into a society.  It is from them that one can learn an ethics of reading and reflection.

Walter Benjamin and Franz Kafka drew a lot from the work of Robert Walser who, to be sure, was very interested in how children think. Many of Walser’s narrator’s are either children themselves or adults who think like children.

In a short story entitled “Reading,” the narrator tells us about the relationship between reading and ethics:

When I read, I am a harmless, nice and quiet person and I don’t do anything stupid. Ardent readers are a breed of people with great inner peace as it were. The reader has his noble, deep, and long-lasting pleasure without being in anyone else’s way or bothering anyone….Anyone who reads is far from hatching evil schemes. An appealing and entertaining thing to read has the good quality of making us forget for a time the nasty, quarrelsome people who cannot leave each other in peace.

Like Maurice Blanchot, who, in The Writing of the Disaster, reads distraction – rather than vigilance – as ethical the narrator tells us that “books often sidetrack us from useful and productive actions.”   Nonethelesss, readings keeps us from “our violent craving for belongings” and our “reckless thirst for action.”

The book binds us and “holds us spellbound.” It “exerts power over us.” And we are “happy to let such a tyranny occur, for it is a blessing.” It keeps us from “gossip about his dear fellow man.” Even reading a newspaper is a way to peace:

A newspaper reader is not cursing, swearing, and blustering, and for that reason alone reading newspapers is a true benediction.

Nonetheless, the narrator tells us that “we need to know how to clearly separate reading from life.” But after saying this he, like so many Walser narrators, gets distracted, loses his thread, and goes on to tell a story. But this story about a writer called “Gottfried Keller,” shows another side of the relationship between reading and life that the narrator, apparently, didn’t even know.

He points out how the reader of Keller’s books “felt like hanging her little head in a disappointed sulk. She was almost angry at and resentful of human life, because it was not like the life in Keller’s works.”

But she too made a separation and decided that it’s not “worth bearing a grudge against everyday reality.”   Rather, shrug your shoulders and walk away, humbled. She, the reader, should “laugh at herself.”

Reading is peaceful but Walser’s narrator tells the reader that it shouldn’t prompt her to change reality for that would imply that reading leads to agitation and perhaps even violence against everyday reality.

Many of today’s readers might differ with Walser and argue that the right path would be to go from the novel to reality and to change it. One can hear Karl Marx grumbling: the point is not to read about reality but to change it:

The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it.

But what about the writers? Are they no different from the philosophers or are they political? As we can see from Walser, he wasn’t interested in politics so much as peace. But, as with all great modernist fiction, one need not agree with the narrator. What we need to do is ask ourselves whether the humility he speaks of, which comes from reading, has a place in our political world which is vigilant over this or that political issue. What is the ethics of reading? Should we, rather, cultivate peace through reading more and talking less? Shouldn’t we practice listening? Or is the time for listening over and the time for projection upon us?

To be sure, Karl Marx’s favorite author was Charles Dickens. In his fiction we see social problems that need to be addressed. Its purpose is to go from the book to reality….so as to change it. That is the ethical nature of the novel or short story. Walser, in contrast, had a different idea as to what makes literature ethical. It keeps us from the vita activa (the life of action) which, he believed, does more.

Piece crossposted with Schlemiel Theory.

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