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RE(AD) ME; RE(AD) MYSELF by Justin Leiber The motto forthis essay is from that old inversionizer, Oscar Wilde: "Nature imitates Art." I write, as Robert Graves put it in his Oxford poetry lectures, both as matador andjudge, both as a novelist and as philosopher and literary theorist.1 Considering the present aggressive stance ofliterary theorists, detonating, denuding, and deconstructing the humble scrivener's offerings as if works of fiction were the shoulders of midgets on which the giants of critical theory may grind their jackboots, you will think me rash to confess to the jejune offense of novel writing, but I mean not only to confess but also to explain and justify—even, indeed, to revel—in the inversion of fiction and life that is our lot, revel, that is, in an inversion both more enduring and more significant than that between fiction and literary theory. The famUiar analogy, "I can read him like a book" (along with its pedestrian communication's miniature, "Do you read me?") suggests not only a paradoxical paradigm of intelligibUity but also an intriguing conception of what it is to understand a human being, what it is to find out what it's like to be a particular human being, what it's like to have consciousness and a subjective existence. If you are particularly transparent —your real motives and your inner life unusually, even naively and vulnerably, open to view—then you meet the standard of accessibility established by written narratives, whose leaves of consciousness may be turned by any eager reader. More deeply, what goes on in reading a narrative is structurally analogous, or even identical, to what 134 Justin Leiber135 goes on in understanding, in grasping, what it is like to be a particular human being, whether a stranger, a friend, or most intriguingly, oneself. My use of the phrase, "what it is like to be" as an evocative criterion for the nature of subjective experience, for being a person, for having consciousness, thought, and feeling, I owe to the phüosopher Thomas Nagel, and particularly to his essay, "What Is It Like to Be a Bat?"2 Professor Nagel is not in the least interested in bats, nor in what it's actually like to be one; rather, like Montaigne in his "Apology for Raymond Sebond," he is interested in mocking the human pretension, particularly of scientists championing mechanistic and physicalist expectations , to hope to understand our universe. So Nagel wants to insist that (1) bats have a lively inner life, that there definitely is something that it is like, being a bat, but that (2) we have not the slightest hope, no matter what research we do, of ever knowing what being a bat is like. Though Nagel suggests that flounders and wasps may not have a similarly intense, conscious inner life, in his more recent book, The View from Nowhere, Nagel outdoes Montaigne's championing of ant consciousness by writing, "We will not know exactly how scrambled eggs taste to a cockroach even if we develop a detailed objective phenomenology of the cockroach's sense of taste."3 Since Nagel has nothing to say in defense of his blithe assumption that there is not nothing at all but some exact way, among many possible ways, that scrambled eggs taste to cockroaches, one wonders whether he is equally committed to thinking that there is a way that green algae tastes to paramecia or a way that sandy soil feels to oak tree roots or a way—why not?—that sharp rocks feel to Niagara Falls. Nagel's slightly more prolix attempt to make it out that bats have a lively but inexplicably alien inner life is through insisting that bats navigate by listening to high-pitched echoes of their own shrieks: it is this perceptual experience that Nagel finds incomprehensible. Either the bat's experience is that, like the blind human's, of perceiving spatial distributions (while indeed unconsciously hearing sounds), or the bat's experience is that of hearing high-pitched echoes, and, from these echoes, quickly deducing the location ofvarious objects. In other words, the distinction between conscious cognitive processes and unconscious cognitive processes is absolutely...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1086-329X
Print ISSN
0190-0013
Pages
pp. 134-139
Launched on MUSE
2011-10-05
Open Access
No
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