- Topographies of Reading:Agnon through Benjamin
But just as the sleeper—in this respect like the madman—sets out on the macrocosmic journey through his body, and the noises and feelings of his insides, such as blood pressure, intestinal churn, heartbeat, and muscle sensation (which for the waking and salubrious individual converge in a steady surge of health) generate, in the extravagantly heightened inner awareness of the sleeper, illusion or dream imagery which translates and accounts for them, so likewise for the dreaming collective, which, through the arcades, communes with its own insides. We must follow in its wake so as to expound the nineteenth century— in fashion and advertising, in buildings and politics—as the outcome of its dream visions.— WALTER BENJAMIN, The Arcades Project1
The dreaming collective finds in urban spectacles the distorted reflection of its own inwardness. Elsewhere, reflecting on his own urban childhood, Benjamin suggests that the objects and settings he recalls have preserved within them the capacity to recognize him.2 The Berlin of his childhood contains within it the disguised record of experiences that continue to work their effects in him, unrecognized by consciousness except for chance encounters in which they may find brief exposure. It is in this light, Benjamin tells us, that he'd like to map his life onto the city, producing an urban topography whose contours reflect the encounters that are his life story. [End Page 71]
Taking Benjamin's urban map into the domain of reading, I suggest we think of our encounters with texts as topographies of reading. The text is a terrain that is there to be mapped by (and in) the reader. If one were to map one's reading onto the text, one would find the contours of the map to be shaped by the particular emphases of one's reading. High points and low points, hidden spaces: the tactile record of an encounter with the text. The text comes alive in that interaction and so do we. Idiosyncratic as one's individual map might be, the general terrain of the text remains visible and recognizable in it. I propose to revisit several novels of S. Y. Agnon through an encounter with Walter Benjamin, giving space along the way to some reflections on reading. Benjamin's wish to map a life onto the urban terrain of Berlin or Paris allows for recognition of the particular city, while highlighting the distinctive markers of an individual life journey. So, too, might we trace the markers of an individual reading, holding on, all the while, to a more general sense of the text.
How do we read? What purposes does reading serve? Running into difficulty with reading may cause one to consider the conditions that define an activity one might otherwise take for granted. For me, this happened a few years ago after an experience of abdominal surgery. Only gradually did I realize the connection between experience of the text and of my body, between reading and inhabiting myself. Finding myself in a tense exile from my own body, I realized gradually that this relegation to the outside had affected my capacity to read as well. I could not reenter the text, try as I might. Reflection, associative play, hard work, all have gone into an as yet uncompleted effort to regain entry. The present essay forms part of that effort.
Images of text and body, a central topic in my 1991 book on Agnon, have long engaged my interest.3 I am motivated by curiosity about structures in the text, spaces one enters and explores in reading, spaces that are both foreign and familiar. In his essay "Unpacking My Library," Walter Benjamin describes the collector as a "physiognomist of the world of objects."4 So, too, the reader or critic figures as a physiognomist of texts, one who acquires, possesses, and comes to know a text from the inside, as well as from the outside. The record of that encounter can be found in the act of criticism. Consider literary criticism, then, as a physiognomy of the text, carried out from the perspective of the reader's engagement with it. The...