Sunday, January 8, 2017

Cassandra Falke's "The Phenomenology of Love and Reading"

Cassandra Falke is Professor of English Literature and Culture at the University of Tromsø, Norway. Her books include Literature by the Working Class: English Autobiography, 1820-1848 (2013) and, as editor, Intersections in Christianity and Critical Theory (2010). She has also published articles about English Romanticism, literary theory, and liberal arts education.

Falke applied the “Page 99 Test” to her latest book, The Phenomenology of Love and Reading, and reported the following:
From Page 99:
Describing the adonné, the receiver of gifts that we all are, Thomas Carlson writes:
If everything is given and the given is without limit or reserve, every moment gives something utterly new—unforeseen and unforeseeable—and thus always still to be seen, and the obligation of the adonné in every moment is to decide, without ground, to receive and to see what gives itself by responding to it and so making it phenomenal.
According to this formulation, our greatest responsibility is to pay attention. The phenomenological reduction places this responsibility upon us because it is only through our attention that events (including events of reading) can be phenomenalized. The erotic reduction enforces the responsibility to pay attention even further. It is through the attentions of others that we are formed in love, so conversely it is through attending to another person in love that we help him or her come forth as a person.

The attention that the lover gives another person is not the attention that she gives an object because her beloved is not phenomenologically separable from her.
Page 99 of The Phenomenology of Love and Reading begins a chapter on attention – the self-forgetting attention we employ in an act of pursuit and the alert attention to detail called forth by stillness. Both of these forms of attention, elaborated by Heidegger and Husserl respectively, are evoked by reading and by love. The book as a whole takes seriously a proposition put forth by contemporary phenomenologist Jean-Luc Marion that he calls “the erotic reduction.” According to Marion, we are all lovers even more fundamentally than we are thinkers or even independent beings. Love includes romance, but also the unique love we have for each friend, each child, each parent, each unknown but briefly beloved face of a person we help or wholeheartedly admire. If Marion is right, I ask, then what does that imply for readers of literature? Can reading literature be an act that contributes to our becoming through love, and if so, how? The chapter on attention is part of my answer to that question. Because reading literature demands strong, self-forgetting attention, it changes the kind of attention that we then give to other people and to all the unforeseeable gifts Carlson mentions. Reading literature strengthens us in several of love´s habits, and the habit of attention is one of these.

The book is a sincere attempt to think about why reading literature matters, and page 99 manifests the earnestness of the book as a whole. Being earnest in public is always a risk, but the book had to be written that way. Otherwise it would not enact the openness to being changed that a commitment to love demands we cultivate. Works of literature, like other people, can shock and change us or they can work on us through a slow unfolding, but only if we are open to becoming what the voice of the other evokes in us. As the last sentence quoted above suggests, the attention we pay during an act of reading is not the same as the attention we pay to another embodied person because the love we are already in makes us responsible for other people in a way that we are never responsible or other things or events. Nevertheless, the ability of a work of literature to expand us in ways we cannot foresee or control makes it valuable to us as lovers. It is a gift we should welcome.
Read an excerpt from The Phenomenology of Love and Reading, and learn more about the book at the Bloomsbury website.

--Marshal Zeringue