- The Pleasure of the Process:Same Place but Different
Our ideas about childhood tend always, it seems, to express otherness and difference and separation and the need to bridge the gulf. . . .
There is really no move forward or backward, no final wisdom to be achieved—no purpose in the game but the pleasure of the never-ending process.—Perry Nodelman
I take my epigraphs from Nodelman's "Pleasure and Genre: Speculations on the Characteristics of Children's Fiction" (see the preceding essay). This essay provides the occasion for my own, which is not so much a response to Perry's as a continuation of an ongoing conversation. And let me say at the outset that I shall drop the scholarly convention of citation by surname and refer to my partner in conversation as Perry. I take it that much of the pleasure that reading books of any kind gives is the pleasure of conversation. It takes at least two to converse, and to converse implies not only more than one voice but also more than one point of view. To adapt a saying from an old friend, I note that without points of view there is no learning. And so I can begin by asserting that I learn from Perry and that my understanding of children's literature and its pleasures differs somewhat from his. Somewhat. I think we set out, however, with a similar sense of this literature's potential appeal to all readers.
Perry would, I suspect, sympathize with U. C. Knoepflmacher's assessment of the "subversive touches" in Thackery's The Rose and the Ring: "they kindle a pleasurable alertness that makes the reader—and especially the juvenile reader who enjoys detecting sham and trickery—an eager accomplice of a winking author" (107-8). I'd like to think that "pleasurable alertness" could aptly describe any reader's response to any literature, but the pleasure that Wordsworth describes as a "grand elementary principle" (140) is necessarily different from alert pleasure in that the latter results from attention and learning, whereas the former derives from immediacy and self-satisfaction. Pleasure, like [End Page 15] anything else, is something we learn, and we can learn to enjoy it as an immediate sensation and also as a cerebral exercise. I'll invent a distinction to help me along here: elemental pleasure and alert pleasure. One we experience from infancy whenever anything satisfies our desire (especially for bodily pleasure), the other we have once we learn that our pleasure necessarily depends on something outside ourselves, something other than ourselves.
If we turn to the process of reading and the pleasures of the text, we can conclude that reading delivers or at least has the potential to deliver both elemental pleasure and alert pleasure. The first of these pleasures may result when we assume that reading has no other purpose than to keep us perennially playing the same game, never moving forward or backward, never achieving any "final wisdom." The pleasure is in the play, not necessarily a thoughtless play, but one that takes the game as important in and of itself and not what the game might indicate about the politics of interaction and not where the game comes from, who invented it, who sets the rules, and so on. The second of these pleasures results from the consciousness that the game pits the self against an other, whoever or whatever that other may be. Just as the first pleasure implies a reader and a text, two players in a game that may privilege one over the other depending on the attitude of the players, the second implies a plurality of readers and a text that speaks with many voices.
But let me be more concrete than I am above. The very notion of pleasure at the millennium's end is troubling. We remember Wilde's "new hedonism" from the last fin de siècle and we might equate this with an elemental pleasure, reading for the pleasure of the game, satisfying our needs and desires. On the other hand, the millennium seems to ask for serious thinking beyond the self. Thoughts of the future inevitably have a...