Opinion | Can we read historical texts meaningfully?

Opinion by Kamil Aftyka
April 5, 2021, 7:18 p.m.

I think that once one starts studying the humanities in today’s universities, one will see two main approaches to reading historical texts. I especially mean here what is broadly called “texts of culture”: historical texts of philosophy, literature, mysticism but also some particularly classical legal acts.

One approach is not to read them at all — to think that they are historical for a reason, that they belong to the past, and not to the present, and so, that it is not essential to read them. Sometimes we might choose to get acquainted with their contents, but only to see who we are not — or to mock the past superstition, or just out of curiosity about what is no longer the case.

The bottom line is that there is no attempt, in such reading of the historical texts, to treat them as truthful. If we view them as truthful, we admit they also apply to us, that they are also true in our times. But this requires us to read them with seriousness, for they are saying something about our contemporary predicament. 

This approach is common to those who think that reaching truth can happen in an ahistorical fashion. For instance, knowledge of the historical work of our thought is usually considered unnecessary to succeed in science or most of Anglo-American philosophy, where it is common to think that contemporary concepts and problems have no relation to the past, and it is crucial only to engage with the most recent debates.

Another approach is to read texts of the past in a manner almost religious. An epitome of such an approach is the practice of close reading. Paragraph-by-paragraph, word-by-word, we treat what we are reading as a thing in itself, as a finished masterpiece, perhaps a product of revelation or unmet natural gift, talent. Even “human errors” that crop up in the course of the text are telling, take us to where the truth is.

We lose ourselves in such reading. We forget our presence, our convictions, and we submit to the inner life of the author of the “masterpiece.” We put faith in it. We want to observe it — observe the exact structure and movements and revolutions that occurred inside the author’s mind. Because we give away our subjecthood in such reading, we are eager to claim that we approach the text with objectivity. This practice seems to be popular among many historians of philosophy, those pursuing intellectual history, literary scholars, some theologians and some philosophers.

I take the latter approach to be better insofar as it is better to have a sacred approach to reality, to the work of others or simply to others rather than to be profane on principle. But a certain excess associated with close reading understood as the main way of approaching texts of the past repels me. I will expound this excess momentarily, but first I will say more about the positive elements of close reading.

The most obvious advantage is that close reading enables us to learn what others had to say. But there are also less obvious advantages.

One is practicing, learning interpretive generosity. Once we assume that something we are to read is right, or at least when we award the benefit of the doubt to it, we are more likely to find actual truth there. Disregarding the historical marks a lack of such generosity, and the lack of such generosity has another name: chauvinism.

I would not be surprised if those at ease with light treatment of the creations of the past just because they belong to the past are also more prone to disregarding other views uttered in the present times: non-mainstream views in science, other schools of thought or ways of thinking of other people, of minorities, of other cultures. In the times of post-relativism (post-postmodernism) — our times — where although we are no longer afraid to narrativize, enchant reality and posit grand narratives, we must always remember that no one has privileged access to understanding reality.

There is something else worth noticing in the practice of close reading. Uttering some small fragments with great attention is an experience worth having at least a few times in life, like attending some religious ceremonies. If one takes words in a text to be an expression of something deeply truthful and utters them, one pays attention to how they were chosen, to their shape and order as if they were appearances of nature, facts of nature, governed by something more than just subjective fancy.

In the same way in which we can become, if well-attuned, astonished by a tumultuous ocean or a smell of chaparral at sunset, we become amazed by the materiality of sounds and forceful images brought by them, when listening to the text we decided to “observe” in close reading.

Consider the scene in Godard’s “La Chinoise,” where two characters decide to speak to each other by paying attention only to the sound of whatever leaves their larynxes. “Talk as if words were sounds and matter,” says Véronique to Guillaume at the end of the twenty-seventh minute of the movie. This is the kind of entertainment we bohemians, avant-garde, futurists love to have from time to time during our secret gatherings! But “from time to time” is key here.

Losing oneself in particular objects, even if they are great texts of culture, and focusing primarily on them and not our own inner selves is a form of fixation. And the other side of fixation is impotence.

Take reading and re-reading the same thing over and over again, or letting the quotations of great texts of culture outnumber one’s own words in an argumentative piece. Such activities take so much time that had they been pursued by the revered thinkers one is reading, they would have effectively been unable to discover new things.

In fact, such manners of inquiry can also turn into a chauvinistic enterprise. For the overuse of references to others, over-erudition, can be read as the statement from the author that they want to present themselves as supreme in their knowledge of big-c Culture. Accordingly, excessive erudition of Derrida, a postmodernist philosopher, veils truth in a similar way as anti-historic philosophies full of contemporary jargon and formalism.

The things that interest our modern minds have historical grounding, and so it is key to realize what this history is. Moreover, some historical texts have become wrongly forgotten; we should revive them. But I like to think that this revival must be done always with the focus on our present concerns. We need to find in ourselves enough desire and love for wisdom to let the course of history serve our present state.

Desire and love are quite primordial, but I speak about them deliberately, as functions of our instinct. And I think attention to one’s instinct is necessary for rigorous inquiry, including fruitful assimilation of historical texts (more on this next week!).

For now, I leave us with the following thesis: We must read texts of culture not just closely, but also: holistically, quickly, broadly or in a patchwork fashion. A multitude of methods is needed if we want to read dynamically, and we want to read dynamically because the present times are always dynamic and alive.

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