The word “read” has diverse, and even unlikely, etymological roots; according to the OED in Old and Middle English the word was used in a wide range of senses, such as ‘to advise’ or ‘to deliberate;’ furthermore, its original variant, the archaic verb rede meant ‘to rule, direct, or guard.’ So what does this tell us about the exercise of reading? to keep it overly simple, it may very well tell us that reading goes beyond occupying oneself with perusing a written text. Reading is an exchange taking place between the text and the reader, interactive as it is unstable. The text is rendered vulnerable to the readers’ will: we are able to challenge, debate and reinvent a it, as well as its author. This presentation will focus on A.S. Byatt’s reinvention of the past in Possession and how evidence from the text can nurture a discussion on how interpretative writing and reading are exercises of our intellectual and creative sovereignty over a text. This discussion, it must be noted, stems from my (problematic) assumption that Byatt’s writing of Possession and its imaginative restoration of the Victorian era is, in itself, an act of authoritative reading. We should not, however, forget Possession is a self-conscious exercise of a reader’s AUTHORity, as it satirizes the intellectual communities that seek to accurately break down and portray the reality of the past it studies.
Byatt’s extensive knowledge on Victorian and Romantic literature allows her to invent Randolph Henry Ash and Christabel LaMotte and situate them perfectly into a historical context. Byatt does not speak as LaMotte or Ash, but rather for them, through their poems, critical works and epistolary evidence which, as the author, Byatt obviously controls. LaMotte and Ash are linked to the present through Maud Bailey and Roland Mitchell, scholars consumed by their research interests. We might assume that Byatt offers us a well-rounded window into the minds and hearts of famous poets and the scholars who trail after them. However, the subtitle’s telling us that Possession is to be a romance commands authority, as “it demands we inhabit a world it offers” (Fletcher 141). The subtitle, along with Nathaniel Hawthorne’s preface act as a disclaimer of sorts: we have agreed to enter a world which, in the words of Hawthorne, “has fairly a right to present that truth under circumstances, to a great extent, of the writer’s own choosing or creation” (Byatt 1).Possession’s allure undoubtedly lies within Byatt’s interpretative power as a reader, as well as her ability to cater to our assumptions and desires as readers. Through the construction of Possession’s main characters, Byatt addresses our anxiety as readers based on the assumption that we cannot understand text if we do not fully “possess” its surroundings— the author’s dreams and thoughts, where they spent the night and what they had for breakfast—. By carefully building this intellectual universe uncannily like our own and creating a link between its past and present Possession tells us more about our power as readers than the text itself.
This exercise is not, however, without caution. Possession does not read anything assumingly, and even this subtly acknowledged power of the reader is satirized. I get this (unsettling) feeling that the different viewpoints in Possession are only able to happen because Byatt is the “ventriloquist” behind them all. Is Byatt trying to convey this feeling to us? If so, what can we learn from it? For Wednesday’s discussion, I would like to pay close attention to the correspondence between Ash and LaMotte. Firstly, the letters show Byatt’s control over the imagination and hearts of the central literary figures of the text and fulfills our desire to possess as readers. Yet secondly, and most importantly, the authority that Byatt imposes on the subject-matter is exquisitely self-aware. Byatt seems to assert that the only truthful reality we can ever know is that which we simulate; as her Ash writes to LaMotte “the only life I am sure of is the life of the Imagination…Poetry can make man live for the length of the faith you or any other choose to give to him…Do you touch at my meaning? When I write I know.” (Byatt 185). By having Ash pose the same thought that inhabits our reading conscience, Byatt makes us aware that we often find in the text what we initially set out to look for, and not necessarily what the text contains.
1) Do you agree or disagree with my thesis that the reader imposes his/her authority over a text when he/she reads it? Why/ why not?
2) Though my presentation dealt chiefly with our individual, personal engagement with the text, can we extend the idea of a reader’s power to critical theories that A.S. Byatt eludes and resists in her text? Think specifically about the “death of the author,” feminism, reader response theory and new historicism.