Notes on Iser’s “Grasping a Text” from (The Act of Reading), with notes on Nabokov’s Pale Fire.
It may be that one of the reasons I find reader response theory so appealing or empowering is because of my interest in Nabokov – it gives you a way of reading creatively within a set of strictures, so that you are sort of freed from being enslaved to the author’s “intentions,” which can be an overwhelming burden with someone like Nabokov who so obsessively controlled the production and interpretation of his texts.
Iser holds that in the flow of protension (which is expectation) and retension (which is the memory you hold of what you’ve read as you read), one moves through the text in a linear, moving experience of art that is unique to literature. This movement is also expanded into the realm of the spatial by the interconnectivity of various textual perspectives, especially in the modern novel (and he cites Woolf, Conrad, Beckett, Joyce…) For Iser, a text, unlike a painting, requires a process of constantly revising memory and expectation as the reader connects and creatively creates connections between sentence correlatives. For Iser, this means that it is impossible to hold all of the text in the mind at once.
In his essay “Good Readers and Good Writers,” written, incidentally, before Iser’s text, Nabokov acknowledges this very fact, saying that “we have no physical organ (as we have the eye in regard to a painting) that takes in the whole picture.” However, Nabokov insists, as rereaders, we can “behave towards a book as we do towards a painting,” and Nabokov thus asks his readers to attempt to attempt this act which is, for Iser, “impossible” in the initial linear act of reading through the act of rereading.
What’s interesting to me, then, is the way that Pale Fire seems to solve some issues of reader response theory and of the postmodern novel before the words reception theory and postmodern had even entered the literary vocabulary, and he does this by playing with form and by asking us to be rereaders. On page 113 of the Iser, he claims that the aesthetic object does not in fact exist on its own, but rather must be created by moments of focusing, refocusing, adjusting and readjusting – thus the object is actually predicated on the surpassing of the very frustrations and obstacles that he says Ingarden condemns. What is Pale Fire on the first read but a series of seemingly insurmountable moments of what Iser would call hiatus leading to vexation left unresolved for long sections?
The seeming irrelevancy of Kinbote’s prolix notes inhibit textual connectivity, and their maddening cross-referencing of other notes and other Shadean lines seems to play out a parody of the idea of retension as Iser figures it. 116) In experimenting with the form of the novel, Nabokov also screws with the idea of depth that Iser proposes – by having all perspectives radiate in a linear way from one madman whose ‘real world’ is not real at all, Nabokov enables us to feel very real emotion for living breathing characters while simultaneously exposing the guise of fiction itself. 116 – furthermore, the productive moment seems to hinge on a good reader of Nabokov’s dreams. Stanly Fish has criticized Iser’s piece on the phenomenology of reader response theory for claiming to offer a transformation, but requiring so much of his reader that the only reader who could undergo this transformation would be one already transformed, already trained, no longer in need of that transformation. Indeed, even in this piece, we can see a hint of how the order for the textual sign to engage in productivity with the reader’s conscious mind, is predicated on the reader’s ability to exercise it in the right way. 121 – If, as readers on the first read at least, we build equivalence of a consistent gestalt, which resolves complexes of signs as emergent from textual and readerly perspectives – this can take the form of irony, where what is meant is the opposite of what is said.
In Pale Fire, this is further estranged by the fact that we get the sense of this ironic meaning really only at the end of the first read, and therefore only holistically on the second read, what we take as Kinbote’s facts are a mix of a madman’s rants and the author’s tricky correlatives, now clear, now unclear. Again, a further irony is the way in which Kinbote’s literal cross-referencing of references within the poem and his notes is a kind of indexing that dramatizes what Iser calls retention, of holding each single unit in all its referential contexts.
Further, if the reader must concretize the connections between signs that are not explicitly manifested by the signs themselves, we begin to see the problem that plagued Pale Fire in its early reception history and in turn long affected its interpretation: if we are not good enough readers or rereaders, we fall for traps and false connections, we don’t see irony for what it is, we are made fools. 131- Kinbote is disentangling experience of reading Shade as we are disentangling reading Shade and a reading of Kinbote reading Shade, which accomplishes Iser’s hope of literature as something that heightens our awareness of ourselves as readers. 132, interestingly, Iser also suggests that we are formed in our readings, so we are what we read – thus our individual tendency to correlate is also predicated on previous readings and the formations and dynamism of those moments. 133 if aesthetic experience makes us conscious of the acquisition of experience even as we gain insight into the conditions that lead to it, once again Pale Fire anticipates and heightens this – we are aware of Kinbote experiencing the poem this way even as we ourselves experience the poem and Kinbote’s commentary, pasted together and labeled a “novel” in this very way.
On 134, Iser says reading places the reader in a halfway position – he is involved as he watches himself being involved, or in the case of Pale Fire, especially when we are rereaders, we are involved as we watch ourselves being involved in someone who is also watching himself be involved in something that someone else has written as a result of his involvement with that very observer. In this way, Pale Fire seems fascinatingly to anticipate some of the central issues of reception theory and to also prefigure postmodern ideas of narrative by reinventing and revitalizing the very thread of narrative history that Iser traces progressively through Conrad, Woolf, Joyce, and Beckett, but does not know who will come next. If readerly self-awareness replaces codes, this is great – but in Nabokov this doesn’t come easy – the codes themselves are coded, and sometimes falsely connected. This hard work is what made early reception of Pale Fire mixed between feeling that it was a hollow virtuoso work and an actual piece of genius.