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9 To Read The Dispossessed In order to possess what you do not possess You must go by the way of dispossession. This paradox and the several surrounding it that close the third movement of Eliot’s second quartet, East Coker, give us the theme of Ursula K. Le Guin’s sixth science fiction novel, The Dispossessed. They give it so exactly we are tempted to suspect an influence, an inspiration, or at least working material. But such suspicions are, even when the author shares them, at best interesting conjecture. What we can assert is that, for us as reader, they express so accurately the psychological and metaphysical axes along which and toward which the novel’s major characters move that we need not say too much more about the book at this particular resolution—at least for a while. They free us to position ourselves at a whole set of different distances from the text, each of which is illuminated by its own incident refraction. They free us from having to summarize the book thematically, once it and they are read. They free us into reading.§1 There is an ideal model of reading which holds that to appreciate a serious book, especially a book of serious fiction, we must give ourselves over to it completely, must question nothing until the whole of it has sunk into our being; we must balk at no twist or eccentricity an author sets us until the entire pattern that informs each microtrope has been apprehended. What marks this model as something of an illusion (if not a downright mystification) is the nature of reading itself. An author presents us with a series of written signs to which we have affixed, both out of and by (i.e., both as referents and operators) our own experiences, various volatile and fluid images that, called up in order by the order of the signs on the page, interact in a strange and incalculably rapid alchemy to present us, at each sentence, with that sentence’s meaning, at each scene with the vision of that scene, and, by the close of the novel, with the experience that is the novel itself. If some of these alchemical interactions falter or will not coalesce for us, if what occurs in our own mind presents us with signs we take for failures on the part of the text, flaws in the vast recipe from which the experience of the novel is concocted , who is to say in which mechanism the fault really lies—the reader’s or the writer’s? As Quine has observed, “No two of us learn our language alike[.]” Perhaps the signs we take as flaws signify merely discrepancies in the reader’s and the writer’s learning. Yet there is overwhelming evidence (so overwhelming that the critic must approach it with the greatest caution) that language exhibits structural stability—that structural state (to borrow some terms from René Thom’s catastrophe theory) where small perturbations during its formation (say in the given individual’s language acquisition vis-a-vis another ’s) do not noticeably affect its final form. If this is so, it is this structural stability that gives possessors of language their incredible sensitivity to the single sentences that make up the text. The major manifestation of this stability is the extent to which a number of different readers will recognize a single interpretation of a sentence or a set of sentences as valid, to the seventh and eighth refinement. The model of total readerly acquiescence tries to prevent our bringing our own experiences to a novel and judging only by gross congruence . It hopes to obstruct the philistine response: “This never happened to me. Therefore it couldn’t happen to anybody.” But what it also obstructs is the frequently valid reaction: “This did happen to me. And it doesn’t happen that way.” On a more complex level, when we view a work of art that incorporates into its pattern clear appeals to ideas of society, politics, social organization and reorganization, as well as various syndromes of human behavior, have we any standards to criticize by other than our own experiences of the world and of people’s behavior in it? Is the critic who says of a character in a novel, “This carpenter’s attitude toward her work was unconvincing,” any more objective than the critic who says, “In working for three years in a firm of carpenters...


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